Nineteen eighty-nine was a good year for freedom. Only in China did the Communist Party crush the protesters who slowly took possession of Tiananmen Square from April 14 on. When the tanks and soldiers rolled in on June 3-4, there was hardly any concrete to be seen on the square. Up to 1,500 people were massacred.
Even so, Tiananmen left us an image of hope: the man who repeatedly blocked a tank while the soldier driving it never ran him over. Internet searches for “tank man” in China come up empty. One here will get you nearly nine million results. The man’s defiance and the soldier’s refusal to kill him still threaten the Chinese leadership.
In Eastern Europe, communist regimes fell like dominoes. Mikhail Gorbachev’s “Sinatra Doctrine” — Moscow would no longer intervene to prop them up — left the region’s communist leaders to fend for themselves. When citizens took to the streets, all but Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu blinked rather than give the order to fire.
Cuba had its own 1989. In June, a group of military and state-security officers were arrested and tried for drug trafficking. Four were brought before firing squads. Perhaps these men were also involved in reform efforts. No matter, it is still crystal clear that the scandal bared a regime predicament.
Fidel Castro’s demand for unconditional elite loyalty required a high degree of tolerance for wide-ranging elite behavior. Whether or not he knew about the officers’ activities, full responsibility fell on his governance style. Havana, however, blamed a few bad apples even if two of the men executed — Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa and Colonel Antonio de la Guardia — had long been close to Castro.
Today we are witnessing young people in the Middle East march for freedom. Unlike Eastern Europe, however, Middle Eastern regimes sprung from within and, in that sense, are more akin to China. Autocracies in Egypt and Tunisia withered away with little bloodshed. Not so in Libya where Moammar Gadhafi has unleashed loyal troops, foreign mercenaries and air strikes against the people. Hundreds have already died and the regime no longer controls eastern Libya.
After 1989, Cuba was thought to be next. Bumper stickers proclaiming En el noventa, Fidel revienta! (In 1990, Fidel will burst!) were widely seen in Miami. George H.W. Bush thought freedom would come to Cuba under his watch. Castro, however, stood fast and survived to transfer power to Raúl in 2006.
Be that as it may, the elder Castro’s leadership style is still the heart of the matter. Fidel always preferred governing on his own than through even undemocratic institutions. It took Raúl Castro a while to put the house in order. Now he and his elderly cohorts are trapped.
On the one hand, the thought that they would be the ones to lose power keeps them awake at night. On the other, they are committed to saving Fidel’s legacy which is also their own. Still, Castro’s unwillingness to put the interests of ordinary Cubans at the center of his rule has made Raúl’s task all the harder. Too much time has been lost and the costs now are even steeper.
Cubans are facing layoffs to the tune of 1.8 million over four years. Though there are conflicting reports on whether the first round of 500,000 has even started in earnest, the mere announcement of layoffs suggests a new social contract. “You’re on your own,” the leadership is, in effect, saying.
What’s happening in Libya might be especially troubling for the Cuban leadership. Fidel Castro and Gadhafi once had close relations. We don’t know how much Cubans know about Libyan developments. Elites in the military, the state and the party, however, are well aware of the defections among their Libyan counterparts.
Would young Cubans be willing to risk the regime’s wrath by taking to the streets? Would the regime give the order to fire on them? Would the officers and soldiers pull the trigger? These aren’t idle questions. Incipient reforms are already shaking up Cuban society, and that’s the place to look for change.