WikiLeaked

State Dept. on Cuban dissidents: Don’t hold your breath

An April 2009 cable from the State Department’s U.S. interests section in Havana, acquired by WikiLeaks and published yesterday by El Pais, offers an unsparing assessment of the state of the dissident community in Raúl Castro’s Cuba, concluding that the U.S. government “will need to look elsewhere, including within the government itself, to spot the ...

ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images
ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

An April 2009 cable from the State Department’s U.S. interests section in Havana, acquired by WikiLeaks and published yesterday by El Pais, offers an unsparing assessment of the state of the dissident community in Raúl Castro’s Cuba, concluding that the U.S. government “will need to look elsewhere, including within the government itself, to spot the most likely successors to the Castro regime.”

The portrait that the cable, signed by top mission official Jonathan Farrar, paints of the old guard of Cuban dissidents would likely seem familiar to a student of failed opposition movements anywhere in the world: organizations fragmented by the competing egos of their leaders, absorbed in campaigns of decreasing relevance to a population mostly resigned to the status quo. Farrar is not unsympathetic to the dissidents, who are up against formidable odds. “[B]eing an anti-[government] activist in Cuba is enormously difficult, and … any effort to move beyond small meetings in private homes would almost certainly be quickly and firmly repressed by the security services,” he writes.

Still, the activists do themselves no favors. Farrar notes that the leaders of groups such as Agenda para la Transición, which was formed by prominent dissidents in 2008 in the hopes of influencing the immediately post-Fidel era, are in their 50s and 60s: “They have little contact with younger Cubans and, to the extent they have a message that is getting out, it does not appeal to that segment of society.” Faced with a limited pool of funding, the various groups have also dedicated much of their efforts to undercutting each other rather than the Castro government:

When we question opposition leaders about their programs, we do not see platforms designed to appeal to a broad cross section of Cuban society. Rather, the greatest effort is directed at obtaining enough resources to keep the principal organizers and their key supporters living from day to day. One political party organization told the [chief of mission] quite openly and frankly that it needed resources to pay salaries and presented him with a budget in the hope that [the U.S. interests section] would be able to cover it. With seeking resources as a primary concern, the next most important pursuit seems to be to limit or marginalize the activities of erstwhile allies, thus preserving power and access to scarce resources. 

Cuba has a younger cohort of dissidents — such as the well-known blogger Yoani Sánchez — who, Farrar writes, “are much better at taking ‘rebellious’ stands with popular appeal.” But these individuals are less likely to cohere into organized groups, and have little to do with the old-line dissidents, who Farrar says are jealous of them in any case. Dissident groups also suffer from the influence of Cuban exiles in the United States; exile groups fund the dissidents still on the island, but “opposition members of all stripes complain that the intention of the exiles is to undercut local opposition groups so that they can move into power when the Castros leave.”

The saddest character in Farrar’s cable is Oswaldo Paya, the veteran democracy activist and frequent Nobel Peace Prize nominee who ran the Varela Project in the 1990s and is still, in Farrar’s estimation, “a very sober and serious force.” But he remains traumatized by the Black Spring of 2003, the sweeping crackdown in which the Cuban government arrested, tried, and imprisoned 75 dissidents. The Black Spring trials revealed the extent to which the Cuban government had infiltrated the country’s political opposition and civil society — a surveillance that stunned even the few American journalists in Havana in its scope — and left a cloud of mutual suspicion over the dissident community that has never quite dispersed.

“The fact that 41 of the 54 prisoners of conscience arrested in the Black Spring of 2003 and still being held,” Farrar writes, “are Varela Project volunteers clearly weighs heavily on Paya. Therefore, much of his focus has been on defense of human rights and demands for the release of political prisoners. While these are laudable goals that must be pressed forward…they have little resonance within Cuban society and do not offer a political alternative to the government of Cuba.”

Farrar concludes that Cuba’s future likely lies in younger dissidents like Sánchez, and “within the middle ranks of the government itself” — the regime insiders poised to succeed Castro. Beyond that, he writes, “[w]e also must continue to open up Cuba to the information age…to facilitate and encourage the younger generations of Cubans seeking greater freedoms and opportunity.”

An April 2009 cable from the State Department’s U.S. interests section in Havana, acquired by WikiLeaks and published yesterday by El Pais, offers an unsparing assessment of the state of the dissident community in Raúl Castro’s Cuba, concluding that the U.S. government “will need to look elsewhere, including within the government itself, to spot the most likely successors to the Castro regime.”

The portrait that the cable, signed by top mission official Jonathan Farrar, paints of the old guard of Cuban dissidents would likely seem familiar to a student of failed opposition movements anywhere in the world: organizations fragmented by the competing egos of their leaders, absorbed in campaigns of decreasing relevance to a population mostly resigned to the status quo. Farrar is not unsympathetic to the dissidents, who are up against formidable odds. “[B]eing an anti-[government] activist in Cuba is enormously difficult, and … any effort to move beyond small meetings in private homes would almost certainly be quickly and firmly repressed by the security services,” he writes.

Still, the activists do themselves no favors. Farrar notes that the leaders of groups such as Agenda para la Transición, which was formed by prominent dissidents in 2008 in the hopes of influencing the immediately post-Fidel era, are in their 50s and 60s: “They have little contact with younger Cubans and, to the extent they have a message that is getting out, it does not appeal to that segment of society.” Faced with a limited pool of funding, the various groups have also dedicated much of their efforts to undercutting each other rather than the Castro government:

When we question opposition leaders about their programs, we do not see platforms designed to appeal to a broad cross section of Cuban society. Rather, the greatest effort is directed at obtaining enough resources to keep the principal organizers and their key supporters living from day to day. One political party organization told the [chief of mission] quite openly and frankly that it needed resources to pay salaries and presented him with a budget in the hope that [the U.S. interests section] would be able to cover it. With seeking resources as a primary concern, the next most important pursuit seems to be to limit or marginalize the activities of erstwhile allies, thus preserving power and access to scarce resources. 

Cuba has a younger cohort of dissidents — such as the well-known blogger Yoani Sánchez — who, Farrar writes, “are much better at taking ‘rebellious’ stands with popular appeal.” But these individuals are less likely to cohere into organized groups, and have little to do with the old-line dissidents, who Farrar says are jealous of them in any case. Dissident groups also suffer from the influence of Cuban exiles in the United States; exile groups fund the dissidents still on the island, but “opposition members of all stripes complain that the intention of the exiles is to undercut local opposition groups so that they can move into power when the Castros leave.”

The saddest character in Farrar’s cable is Oswaldo Paya, the veteran democracy activist and frequent Nobel Peace Prize nominee who ran the Varela Project in the 1990s and is still, in Farrar’s estimation, “a very sober and serious force.” But he remains traumatized by the Black Spring of 2003, the sweeping crackdown in which the Cuban government arrested, tried, and imprisoned 75 dissidents. The Black Spring trials revealed the extent to which the Cuban government had infiltrated the country’s political opposition and civil society — a surveillance that stunned even the few American journalists in Havana in its scope — and left a cloud of mutual suspicion over the dissident community that has never quite dispersed.

“The fact that 41 of the 54 prisoners of conscience arrested in the Black Spring of 2003 and still being held,” Farrar writes, “are Varela Project volunteers clearly weighs heavily on Paya. Therefore, much of his focus has been on defense of human rights and demands for the release of political prisoners. While these are laudable goals that must be pressed forward…they have little resonance within Cuban society and do not offer a political alternative to the government of Cuba.”

Farrar concludes that Cuba’s future likely lies in younger dissidents like Sánchez, and “within the middle ranks of the government itself” — the regime insiders poised to succeed Castro. Beyond that, he writes, “[w]e also must continue to open up Cuba to the information age…to facilitate and encourage the younger generations of Cubans seeking greater freedoms and opportunity.”

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.

More from Foreign Policy

An aerial display of J-10 fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation.

The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets

Snazzy weapons mean a lot less if you don’t have friends.

German infantrymen folllow a tank toward Moscow in the snow in, 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The image was published in. Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Panzers, Beans, and Bullets

This wargame explains how Russia really stopped Hitler.

19th-century Chinese rebel Hong Xiuquan and social media influencer Addison Rae.

America’s Collapsing Meritocracy Is a Recipe for Revolt

Chinese history shows what happens when an old system loses its force.

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces.

‘It Will Not Be Just a Civil War’

Afghanistan’s foreign minister on what may await his country after the U.S. withdrawal.