Commentary: Egypt's unrest could resonate in Cuba

The Miami HeraldFebruary 2, 2011 

Many things are difficult to find in Cuba.

Rice. Sugar. Laundry detergent. Cooking oil. Rebels.

The first four items you'll likely find in many food markets throughout the world. The last you'll see by the thousands in the streets of Egypt, spilling from blogs in Tunisia, teeming on campuses in Yemen.

But not in Cuba.

Not that it's impossible to find a rebel in Cuba. There are a handful of prisoners who try to bring about change through hunger strikes, a few bloggers who dare criticize the Castro regime, several dozen moms and wives of political prisoners who periodically spill onto the streets in protest.

More often, however, you find the remnants of a rebel. I've met my share during my visits there -- old men and women who dedicated their lives to creating a system they now despise. They sit silent now, unable to defend their life's work.

They stood tall and proud once. Some were soldiers. Others were educators or civic leaders. Many wielded substantial influence until they made the mistake of disagreeing with this or that policy.

They dreamt of building a great society, of being part of a revolution that would bring a better future for their children. Instead, they now watch hopelessly as their children flee to Miami or Spain, taking their grandchildren with them.

And what do their children see? They see old, broken-down revolutionaries who wasted their lives. They see the futility of revolution, idealism shattered and scattered like crumbs to be pecked by passing pigeons.

``Me fight?'' one middle-aged Cuban told me recently. His father had been a rebel fighter and leader who died several years ago, already an old man out of favor with the Castro regime and disillusioned with what his revolution wrought.

``I saw my father spend his life giving and giving to a revolution. And for what? For nothing. And now I'm supposed to be a rebel. I'm supposed to risk my life and child's future on a new revolution. For what?''

No, Cuba isn't like Egypt, where the wider availability of Internet access has enabled a virtual freedom of assembly.

It isn't like the old East Germany, where many critics had little choice but to stay put rather than flee to nearby freedom.

It isn't like Soviet-controlled Poland, where revolution and rebellion were romanticized notions that held the promise of a better future.

Cuba is its own unique concoction of circumstances, events and experiences that have turned it into a living dichotomy: It promotes communism, yet raw, uncontrolled capitalism festers in its streets. Its leaders preach equality, yet they are immune to the hardships endured by the average citizen. It shuns material possessions, yet its people spend almost every waking moment in search of basic goods.

To this list of ironies, add one more: Cuba's revolution is a failure, and that failure allows the revolution to endure.

So as the world watches hundreds of thousands of people in Egypt rebel and demand change, the results will matter beyond the Middle East. It will resonate in every place where people no longer believe they can make a difference, where they've forgotten that the will of the people can be something of a force rather than something to be forced.

And in some places, such as Cuba, it could hold the promise that some revolutions do indeed live up to their ideals.

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