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Forum regarding Future of Cuba Held in Vilnius

2007-10-25 / Scott Hudson

Vilnius, October 25, 2007- On the 18th and 19th of October the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius hosted The Baltic Forum on Work regarding Cuba. The event was co-sponsored by the International Republican Institute, the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Vilnius and the Institute for Democratic Politics. Policy analysts, parliamentarians and academics from various countries that included Lithuania, Estonia, Belarus, Spain, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and the United States came together to discuss what work needed to be done to further the cause of democratization in Cuba.

The major themes that were explored over the course of the forum were: the realities of day to day life in Cuba; what role European democratic states and their civil societies can play in supporting Cuba’s pro-democracy movement; and an evaluation of the Baltic countries’ policies towards Cuba. The event provided a forum for these topics through two days of panel discussion and various exhibitions that depicted the realities of Cuba today. The varied experiences of the former Soviet Bloc republics that have made the transition to democracy provided the backdrop for the conference. The purpose of this gathering was to explore the possibilities of Baltic countries’ engagement in supporting democratic change in Cuba.

Cuban exiles and members of the Cuba’s internal opposition led the panel discussions on what day to day life is like on the island. Manuel Vázquez Portal and Osvaldo Alfonso Valdes, former Cuban prisoners of conscience, Joel Brito from the International Group for Corporate Social Responsibility in Cuba, and Carlos Saladrigas from the Group of Cuban Studies shared their experiences directly with the forum’s participants. Independent Cuban economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe and independent journalist Mariam Levia presented their thoughts and opinions by means of a videoconference from Havana. In general, the stark assessment of life in Cuba since Raul Castro assumed power from his brother last June focused on the lack of prosperity, fear and isolation that are widespread and fuel the opposition movements.

The results of the Baltic Organization of Gallup Polls presented by Rasa Alisauskiene demonstrated how much work needs to be done in Cuba before a democratic government could be established. The polls were conducted through personal interviews in 14 out of Cuba’s 15 provinces between September 5 and October 4, 2007 with 584 adults and are considered to have a margin of error of plus or minus 4%. In general, the poll showed that Cuban overwhelmingly believed that the current government will be unable to solve the country’s problems (78.6%), and that they should be allowed to vote on who succeeds Fidel Castro (73.9%). However, when asked about what kind of government would be best able to solve Cuba’s problems only 32.1% responded with a democratic one, while 42.7% had no answer. The figures pointed towards a desire for change, but a greater uncertainty about what that will look life.

Academics and parliamentarians from the former Soviet Bloc and State Republics discussed at length the relevance of their experiences in transitioning from Communism to democracy following the fall of the former Soviet Union. One panel discussion was held specifically on “Belarus and Cuba: Challenges and Common Strategies,” which was lead by opposition leaders from both countries before an open forum of over 100 participants. For many of the groups presenting it was one of the first times that they began to see the potential utility of their countries experiences over the last 20 years towards a country like Cuba. The mere fact that the forum was able to bring such a disparate group together showed the potential for expanding the network of countries that are pushing for democratization in Cuba.

The panel discussion that focused on the need for greater support from individual countries and the EU for the democratization of Cuba were led by politicians and representatives from various NGOs. Mart Laar, former prime minister of Estonia and current member of the Estonian Parliament; Laima Andrikiene, a Lithuanian MEP; Jaroslav Romanchuk, a deputy from the Belarus Civic Party discussed what steps could be taken directly through political action, while the representatives from the Czech NGO People in Need, the Slovak Pontis Foundation explained what they have done to foster the creation of a civic culture necessary for a democracy to flourish. In each case, they analyzed how the policies of their respective countries and the European Union and the work of NGOs could help transfer the know-how and experiences of how one group of countries has successfully made the transition from single-party Communist state to multi-party democracies.

The Baltic Forum on Cuba should be considered important for several reasons. It has helped to expand communication between various individuals and groups that have been trying to help prepare Cuba for life after Fidel. The comparing and contrasting of experiences from the former Soviet Bloc and State Republics can help clarify what worked and what has not since they transitioned to democracy and lead to understandings as to why. Perhaps more than anything else it demonstrated that the members of the Cuban opposition are not alone and that they can count upon support the members of our growing network.

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This project is supported by funds from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic through the Transition Promotion Program.