Opinion: On brawling in Panama and polling in Cuba

The mood among Cubans isn’t as giddy as some claim, and it won’t get much better until many other things change. None of them is more important than ‘freeing Cuba’ — but from U.S. politics first and foremost, says columnist José Manuel Pallí

Palli column headBy José Manuel Pallì

An article in The Economist magazine about the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations points out that “although the mood is giddy, the obstacles to trade and investment remain formidable.”

That’s not just to trade and investment, as several videos of the shamefully uncivil encounter on the sidelines of the Americas’ Summit in Panama between two different sides of Cuba’s civil society clearly show. The knack for beating up and shouting down those who oppose the (single) party line is still pervasive in a Cuba that is otherwise changing in many important aspects. The delusion of those who claim — ­without any evidence, other than a money trail — to represent not only the Cuban diaspora but also a majority of the Cuban people was on full display in an independent poll ­of Cubans on the island sponsored by the Washington Post and the Univision and Fusion TV networks.

This poll shows that 80% of Cubans approve of President Barack Obama (twice as much as the Castro brothers), whereas most of those seen brawling on the Miami side of Cuba’s “civil” society in one of the Panama videos hate Obama’s guts. Over 90% of the people polled inside Cuba want the U.S. blockbargo — ­you choose whether it is a blockade or an embargo — gone, while the Miamians in that particular video are invariably for keeping it in place. And the same 90%-plus Cubans in the island are hopefully expectant about the opportunities opened by the round of talks between the two governments, whereas these “representatives” of the Cuban exile community seen in the brawl video work incessantly to derail those same talks.

The large guy you see kick-boxing the little fat guy — ­the short one is a colonel at Cuba’s Interior Ministry or State Security, according to some credible sources — proudly and publicly claimed on Miami TV that they, the Miami side, had achieved their goal in Panama (???!!!). Meanwhile, Cuba’s official stance at the Panama Summit to refuse to sit in the same room and pursue a dialogue with those who identify themselves as dissidents or opponents from within Cuba reeks of the same intolerance and intransigence that characterized the historical position of the Cuban exile community to forego any dialogue with communists in Cuba. It is a position based in the no less delusional perception that Cuba’s rulers “represent” the hopes and aspirations of all Cubans in the island ­— an odd argument to make when the same poll shows 80% of Cuba¹s youth wants to leave the island.

The polarization such intolerance and intransigence breed is deep-set in the hearts and souls of many Cubans from both sides of the ideological divide. It is particularly scary to see how unaware both sides seem to be of the sentiments ­— resentments, in many instances — of the other side, especially when you see the images of young Cubans furiously refusing any contact or interaction with those they see as little more than an artificially created opposition bankrolled by Cuban-Americans abroad. And these feelings can only be a surprise to those whose “expertise” on Cuba is exercised from a distance, without setting foot in the island.

It is one thing for any given Cuban to assert his or her right to express opposition and rejection towards the Cuban government ­— a right each Cuban citizen unquestionably has, and should de able to exercise — and quite another one to pretend that in so doing, he or she is speaking on behalf of the Cuban people. Rosa Maria Payá, the daughter of the late Cuban dissident Osvaldo Payá, brightly and bravely made this very same point on the last day of the Panama Summit. And, prior to the Summit, another bright and bold Cuban dissident, Yoani Sánchez, also showed the wisdom the hotheads seldom show when she wrote that to try to exclude or disqualify the members of officially recognized organizations such as the Federation of Cuban Women, students or peasants from what we call “Cuba’s Civil Society” would be tantamount to “amputating a part of our (Cuban) reality.” Once again, it is Cuba’s women who contribute the most to keep their Society civil.

Instead of using the sad images of discord among Cubans at the Panama Summit to score political points, each side should use the thaw in U.S.-­Cuba relations to fearlessly and relentlessly pursue more open and public contacts between their respective institutions ­— academic, professional and even governmental institutions — in search of a better understanding of what ails Cuban society, refuting those who opt for an uncivil return to the days of reciprocal ostracism and insolation that can only increase the levels of polarization and ignorance among Cubans.

So, is the mood really as giddy as The Economist claims? I am afraid it is not, at least not yet. And it will stay this way until many other things change, none of them more important than “freeing Cuba”, but from U.S. politics first and foremost.

José Manuel Pallí is president of Miami-based World Wide Title. He can be reached a jpalli@wwti.net.

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