Wednesday, October 26, 2011

When Your Neighbor's Fence Is on Fire: Gaddafi's Lessons for Castro

Yoani Sanchez - Award-Winning Cuban Blogger

When Your Neighbor's Fence Is on Fire: Gaddafi's Lessons for Castro
Posted: 10/25/11 04:26 PM ET

Muammar Gaddafi suffers his death throes in front of a tiny cell phone
camera. Seeing him helpless, babbling, moves us to pity. Later we are
told he died from bullets shot at the convoy in which he was escaping,
and from the uncontrolled rage of his captors. In Libya, the chapter of
a 42-year personal mandate seems to be coming to an end, but despots
have the ability to extend their presence far beyond their own
lifespans. When an autocrat has been in power for such a long time, it
is inevitable that in his absence we're overcome by a mix of relief and

One of the most widespread practices of those addicted to power it so
try to link their own name to the idea of homeland, their ideology to
the culture of their country, their ruling party to the idea of national
identity itself. As a result, those of us who live under one of these
prolonged and authoritarian regimes come to believe that there will be
no life for us, no future after the messianic leader closes his eyes.
Dictators infect us with a pessimism towards the future, they tie us to
the ancestry of an oppressive father, so much so that on his death we
feel orphaned.

Not only Libyans have watched, over and over, that short video of
Gaddafi's last moments. On this side of the Atlantic, millions of
curious eyes have also stared at the scene. In several Latin American
presidential palaces it is likely that the death throes of this autocrat
have been observed with special attention. We can't forget that we live
in countries repeatedly fascinated, and cheated, by caudillos.

In Havana's Plaza of the Revolution, for example, the fall of this
important ally in North Africa has no doubt generated worry and
uncertainty, but also great fear. Lately, all across the country, one of
the most popular refrains warns, "When you see your neighbor's fence on
fire, turn the hose on your own." Many, riveted by this phrase, toss it
out to others like an easy-to-crack puzzle, because we all understand
exactly what is implied. Watching the fall of dictators, one after
another, thousands of miles away, we can only reflect on the sequel such
a process could generate on our own island. People want to believe that
this "domino effect" will lead to the end of all autocracies, and that
our own island will not be left at the margins of this anti-totalitarian

But it is not only ordinary citizens who are analyzing what happened in
Surt, our rulers are also drawing their own lessons. From the beginning
of the uprisings in Tunisia, with their subsequent spread to Egypt and
Libya, police actions in Cuba have increased. Raul Castro's government
knows very well that it cannot allow demonstrations by thousands of
people in the streets, demonstrations that would have to be met by
anti-riot police. So he has chosen to respond with "prophylactic"
repression, which barely leaves visible traces, much less legal ones.

Among the most-used methods is to prevent activists from leaving their
homes on significant dates, and so to avoid their taking part in
opposition events. State Security operates in plain clothes from cars
with civilian plates so that no camera or foreign correspondent will
film uniformed police restricting the freedom of an individual.

The financial costs of increased wiretapping, monitoring dissident
leaders, surrounding their houses with operatives, must be rising to
numbers that haunt the budgets of certain ministries. The priority now
is to avoid allowing the counter-hegemonic winds of contagion to blow
from North Africa over the largest island of the Antilles. In the
bloodied face of Muammar Gaddafi our authorities have seen a prophetic
sign of their possible fate, and now they are trying to shield
themselves to ward off a similar outcome.

In a calculated strategy they mix greater vigilance over the citizenry
with promises of reforms and openings. Cubans must be made to believe
that changes are just around the corner, in the hopes they will abandon
any thoughts of revolt, any possible ideas of turning to street
protests. It's the old and hackneyed political ploy of the carrot and
the stick, only here, every time our mouths begin to close on the
desired vegetable it is pulled away while the stick sinks more deeply
into our ribs, hidden under the cloak of supposed popular acceptance.

Notwithstanding the enormous social and geographic differences between
Libya and Cuba, Qaddafi's violent death has undoubtedly focused Raul
Castro's fears. The General knows that a cheering crowd in a square can
quickly become a mob, ready to lynch the leaders they obeyed only the
day before. Just as he knows what desires for revenge are provoked by
years and years of dissatisfaction, of the suffocation of free expression.

So now, even the slightest detail that led to the fall of the Libyan
despot, to his death at the hands of his domestic opponents, must be
analyzed. To avoid this end, the regime is capable of increasing
repression to unimaginable levels, and spending everything it has, and
more, on control. But the big question that we ask, is whether, to avoid
ending up like Gaddafi, it is willing to undertake a genuine transition,
a change that could save them and save us.

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