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Opinion: And So It Begins, For Cuba's Civil Society

/ Source: NBC News
Since the US policy change towards Cuba was announced, I’ve been anxiously looking forward to the Summit of the Americas that took place in Panama this week. I knew Cuba’s independent civil society had been promised a seat at the table but was concerned that the Summit would give the Castro regime unmerited legitimacy. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel seeing Raul Castro, a dictator, shake hands with President Obama, whom I was able to vote for twice under my free will. But ultimately I was hopeful. By opening up to the government of Cuba, it would have to open itself up to the world. It would be the first big test of this policy change.
While everybody was waiting for the Obama/Castro handshake/meeting, I was watching videos of pro-Castro supporters systematically attacking dissidents as well as exile opposition groups. The first of which was the most shocking.
A pro-democracy group was ceremoniously laying a wreath at the base of a statue of Jose Marti, a Cuban patriot. A medium-sized mob swarmed around them like hornets. Armed with Cuban flags, photocopies of dollar bills and half century old insults, they surrounded the group which tried to peacefully walk away and file into waiting vans. Punches were thrown and eventually a couple of the men fought back defensively. The Panamanian police seemed shocked, not understanding why a peaceful gathering would incur such wrath. But for Cubans this “acto de repudio” (act of repudiation) was all too familiar. These coordinated demonstrations by Castro’s surrogates have been used to humiliate and shut down any dissent since 1959. Seeing many of these over the years, all I could think was ‘Here we go again.’
The regime likes to claim these people work on their own impulses. But this event was galling as one of the men leading this particular acto seen on video was identified as Alexis Frutos Weeden, Minister of Intelligence of the Cuban embassy in Venezuela. As more videos were posted, it became clear Weeden wasn’t the only Cuban official on hand for these spectacles. Abel Prieto, Raul Castro’s cultural advisor was there with a mob blocking the entrance at a panel called ‘Prosperity with Equity’. Miguel Barnet, president of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) and Axia Hevia, its vice president, were also present at different actos.
The pro-Castro instigators disrupted meetings, panels and discussions, desperately trying to de-legitimize Cuban dissidents, intellectuals and exiles. Even when they were officially invited to participate in a discussion, they walked out of forums in protest. They went so far as to block the exits of hotels where pro-democracy activists were staying, trapping them inside and as well as blocking their entry into satellite panels.
I had worried that Cuba would gloss over their crimes and work their way through the Summit riding the same wave of anti-US sentiment that carried them through so many years. But they didn’t even try to reform their image. They operated with the same impunity as they always had. If it works for them, why should they bother fixing it? That’s when I realized I was looking for change in all the wrong places.
Yes, President Obama met with Raul Castro. But before he did, the President met with independent Cuban civil society members and applauded their work, legitimizing the imperative nature of their role in no uncertain terms. Meanwhile, friends at the summit posted that Panamanians and journalists who last week may have been sympathetic to the Revulotion were disgusted by the displays of thuggery and supportive of the restraint those being attacked exhibited. Henry Constantine, a young student, posted the video of his pro-Democracy group silently holding up signs that simply stated ‘DEMOCRACY IS RESPECT’. The message was lost on the screeching mob blocking their way, but it wasn’t lost on the rest of us.
The Summit of the Americas was in fact a litmus test, but not one that would determine the sincerity of Castro’s regime. Nobody really expected them to change. It wouldn’t determine what changes the US could or could not affect in Cuba. Many countries have invested billions in Cuba in the last half decade and lost every dime. The result of this week would determine whether Cuban citizenry was ready for change. If they were ready to insist on a new beggining. If this change would give them the space necesary to liberate themselves.
Cuba's best known independent journalist and dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez tweeted, “A taxi driver in Panama asked me ‘Are you a Castro Cuban or a Free Cuban?’ I responded ‘I’m a journalist.’ he responded ‘Then you are a free Cuban.” Cheekily, she added “Sentenced.”
This week's events taught me that all Cubans are getting a little closer to being able to say this without pause or violent disruption, because no matter how much they taunt, scream at or insult us, they no longer scare us. Cuban independent civil society and its supporters were as embattled in Panama as on the island, but it was there. It was present and it was inspiring. All free Cubans passed the Summit test with flying colors. And I for one, can’t wait to see what’s next.