Cuba’s oldest leaders – the ones who actually rule the communist island – would take great offense at ever being called frightened. They’re the revolutionaries who 60 years ago fought alongside Fidel Castro and took down the brutal Batista dictatorship. Militarily, they’re as gutsy as they come.
But politically? They’re frightened.
They have been ever since their first economic patron, the Soviet Union, collapsed 30 years ago; and they’re even more scared now that their latest kindred sponsor, Venezuela, has imploded. After watching their Marxist dreams crumble like a decrepit Havana apartment building, they’re haunted by the humiliating prospect of regime change happening in Cuba while they and their medals are still above ground.
But the U.S. too often forgets there are two kinds of “frightened” inside the Cuban command. One is soft-frightened – more irked than spooked. The other is hard-frightened – as in, air-raid sirens. And paradoxically, it’s when Cuba’s comandantes are soft-frightened – as they are now – that they’re usually hardest on Cubans.
It’s true the island’s economy is in the toilet again. But Cuban leaders are only soft-frightened at the moment because they’re feeling a political advantage thanks to President Trump’s policy of renewed U.S. confrontation toward Cuba. The Cuban regime can and always has used the yanqui threat as an excuse for Cuba’s woes – and as a justification for cracking down on domestic dissent.
The case of dissident leader José Daniel Ferrer is the most recent and glaring exhibit.
Ferrer was thrown behind bars three months ago on questionable charges of assault. He accuses Cuban authorities of beatings and other inhumane treatment, which prompted him to go on a 25-day hunger strike. The regime, which calls Ferrer a U.S. agent, denies the charges and released a video last week purportedly showing an erratic Ferrer injuring himself in detention.
Whether or not the video is authentic, it’s worth remembering Ferrer was the victim of another soft-frightened moment 16 years ago. He and fellow dissidents had garnered enough petition signatures for a constitutional referendum on democratic change in Cuba. Castro of course wigged out – and jailed 75 of the movement’s members, including Ferrer. Back then, in 2003, Castro actually felt more emboldened to do that because the George W. Bush Administration was itself ramping up confrontation with Cuba.
So what constitutes hard-frightened for the Cuban leadership? Ironically – or logically, in Cuba’s case – it’s usually when the U.S. is engaging the island instead of cracking down on it. That’s when Cuba’s hoary honchos – los históricos, as Cubans call them – panic most. But it’s also when they tend to swing their dictatorial cudgel more softly.
After former President Obama began normalizing relations with Cuba in 2014 – and the world watched to see how los históricos would respond when they could no longer scapegoat gringo hostility – political detentions didn’t magically end on the island. But they did drop – by 52 percent in the first half of 2015, according to the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. What’s more, the length and severity of the detentions dropped too.
Meanwhile, dissidents felt more free to speak out and even protest. The increased U.S. engagement, especially U.S. travel to Cuba, benefited Cubans like private entrepreneurs – a cohort whose independence from the regime should be a linchpin of Washington’s Cuba reform agenda. During Obama’s historic visit to Havana in 2016, with ordinary Cubans listening in, he challenged los históricos to stop “[fearing] the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak, and assemble, and vote for their leaders.”
That was one of the most hard-frightened moments Cuba’s leadership ever experienced, according to Cuba analysts. But it didn’t result in a backlash as brutal as what Cubans saw in 2003.
Granted, los históricos encouraged Trump’s hard line on Cuba by producing little if any reform in response to Obama’s outreach. Conservative Cuban exiles like Irina Vilariño, a Republican congressional candidate in Miami, make a fair point when they argue that under Obama the U.S. was “giving everything and the Cuban regime gave nothing in return.”
But Ric Herrero, a Miami Cuban-American who heads the pro-engagement Cuba Study Group in Washington D.C., makes an equally fair point: “Cuba’s hardline leaders are in their comfort zone with Trump. His policy emboldens bad actors in Cuba and weakens good actors” like the entrepreneurs and reform-minded officials and activists.
And there’s the really frightening part. When both those points are valid, it’s daunting to find a hard – or even soft – solution to the Cuba conundrum.