Apr 16

Past Event

Toward a Cohesive Cuban Civil Society


In conjunction with the University of Miami, the Brookings Institution’s project on “U.S. Policy toward a Cuba in Transition” held its third simulation exercise on April 16, 2008, focusing on the dynamics, motivations, and decision-making processes of Cuban civil society groups. As Cuba moves toward an uncertain future, participants aimed to examine and better understand the interests, capabilities, and weaknesses of four key but overlapping sectors of Cuban civil society: religious groups, focusing primarily on the Catholic Church, youth, the Afro-Cuban community, youth, and organized opposition/pro-democracy movements on the island. Recognizing that the viability and sustainability of a successful transition in Cuba will depend on internal actors seeking change, in order to develop more effective policy, U.S. policymakers must understand the nature of Cuban movements for change: their strengths and weaknesses, the risks they face, their ability to act “for” something and not merely stand in unified opposition.

The exercise was divided into two parts. First, before beginning the simulation exercise itself, Brookings advisers and special guests assessed the motivations, visions for change, and obstacles confronting the four sectors of Cuban civil society in question. Second, organizers asked participants to put themselves in the shoes of a fictional list of civil society activists – representing a variety of actors and strategies – to discuss possible means for collaboration in order to mobilize membership, build horizontal and vertical linkages, and formulate a common agenda for change with mass appeal. Finally, a teleconference with Cuban activist Oswaldo Payá, widely considered to be among the most successful opposition actors within Cuba for his well-known Varela Project and associated initiatives, concluded the day’s proceedings.

This summary endeavors to capture the critical issues and dynamics of the day’s discussions, including participants’ views of the capacity of civil society groups to mobilize, their rationales for action, and their converging/diverging interests. As our previous simulation exercises have explored, the Raul Castro regime has raised the bar of expectations for reform and has taken symbolic actions such as lifting restrictions on access to cell-phones, personal computers, and admission to tourist hotels. Importantly, he has also discussed measures to address productivity, slowly removing wage caps on certain state salaries and allowing for productivity bonuses, effectively refining Cuban Socialism as one of equality of rights and opportunities, not egalitarianism.

Raul’s rationale in undertaking such reforms is most likely to release tension in Cuban society and to consolidate control by improving basic productivity and elevating living standards, rather than to grant space for the emergence of civic organizations. A key question for these civic groups is whether such incremental reforms will give space and impetus for political mobilization, or whether they will diminish incentives for civic engagement. In the short term, despite some increased space for criticism resulting from the national debate authorized by Raul Castro, dissidents and human rights activists and others who may think outside of a socialist framework continue to be marginalized.

The simulation thus sought to test whether Cuban civic organizations would unite in pursuit of common objectives, and examine potential points of divisions and motivating factors to establish a common reform agenda. Such analyses of the potential for action will be essential to crafting more effective U.S. strategies to support a peaceful transition in Cuba, with Cubans at the helm, defining the island’s future.

This overview does not represent the views of the Brookings Institution or a consensus view of those individuals who participated in the exercise. Text in italics highlights key conclusions or fulcrum points of discussion.

Key Fulcrum Questions:

  • If Cuban democracy must emerge on the backs of Cuban actors, to what extent can Cuban opposition groups and civic organizations unite to create a positive movement for change?
  • If the Cuban state accelerates its own reform process, will Cuban civic organizations use this space to coalesce and promote change, or will such incremental reforms dampen the impetus for deeper democratic change?
  • To what extent can the Cuban Catholic Church infuse legitimacy into a broad-based civil society movement for change in Cuba? Conversely, to what extent would a civil society with strong strains of secularism be willing to grant religion, and the Catholic Church in particular, a substantial leadership role?
  • How can nascent civil society networks constructively engage disaffected youth and mobilize their frustration into a push for reform rather than apathy?
  • Do Afro-Cubans remain the loyal “foot soldiers” of the Revolution, as commonly described? Does the continued exclusion they face motivate a desire to push for greater reforms, or reinforce a fear of economic and political uncertainty in an environment of transition?
  • Can emerging civil society actors in Cuba create a broad-based umbrella movement for change? What cultural strategies can be used to increase the mass appeal of concrete economic and political demands?
  • What are the pros and cons for civil society actors to accept foreign support and what forms should such support take?

Prelimiary Assessment:

The four sectors of Cuban civil society under examination were: religious groups, youth, the Afro-Cuban community, and opposition/pro-democracy movements. While these certainly do not represent all relevant actors or groupings within Cuban civil society, they were identified by project organizers as sectors that deserved particularly close attention and study. Before assessing in the simulation exercise how representatives of each sector might attempt (or struggle) to collaborate with each other, it was important to first discuss each group’s own position and generalized point of view. Participants also interrogated the extent to which each of these four “groups” could be thought of as separate and distinct. Overlap clearly exists and perhaps presents conceptual difficulties, but does not prevent making broader evaluations of each group’s interests. Having a clear understanding of these overriding motivations would help participants more thoroughly analyze the constraints to transforming fractured desires for change into unified civic participation.

Religious Groups (esp. Catholic Church)

There was wide agreement among participants that the Catholic Church – based on its extensive, semi-formalized national network; its provision of relatively safe, protected spaces of expression; and its human and material resources to train young activists and leaders –could play a major role among civil society groups to infuse broad-based legitimacy into a future transition process. Indeed, today the Catholic Church represents the largest single civil society network on the island with connections to youth, Afro-Cubans, women, and human rights groups, as well as the international community. In recent years, as the state has found it increasingly difficult to provide basic services, grassroots, operationally independent sectors of the Cuban Catholic community – often with help from foreign donors - have stepped in to provide humanitarian relief. Cuba’s branch of Caritas, with 12,000 volunteers, can be considered one of the first national non-government institutions of sorts. Likewise, lower-level clergy have on a more limited but still significant basis helped to organize youth, cultural, and educational activities (Father Dagoberto Valdés well known Center for Religious and Civil Formation in Pinar del Río is one example, along with his publication of the magazine Vitral and the online forum Convivencia).

Questions, however, arose about the Church’s non-monolithic structure and its lack of a cohesive vision for change. Participants cited internal divisions between the Church’s organized hierarchy and some portions of the lower-clergy. For its part, the hierarchy remains hesitant or simply does not consider it in its best interest to express open sympathy for the organized opposition or dramatic political reforms, lest such a position provoke the state and threaten the Church’s hard-earned organizational independence. Participants noted that the Church’s low key strategy of co-existence with the regime resulted in the restoration of its position in Cuban society following decades of persecution that closed churches and expelled priests in the 1960s and ‘70s. Today, churches have been reopened and the state does not interfere in dogma or religious practice. For the leadership, the priority therefore appears to be not to reach an accommodation with the state per se, but to protect the Church’s ability to fulfill its fundamental mission: sharing the gospel in a safe, protected space of expression.

Some lower-level clergy are more inclined to stake out activist postures, while still for the most part remaining somewhat wary of openly affiliating themselves with the established opposition. Given the broad spectrum of opinions within the religious sector over the nature of the transition and the extent of the restructuring to be undertaken, participants wondered whether there could be a consensus inside the Church’s hierarchy to recognize and advocate for some greater political/economic reform process.

Similar questions informed the group’s analysis of Protestant and other faith groups on the island, including practitioners of Santería. Participants considered whether religious groups could facilitate the development of a common vision of change based on broader horizontal links and interaction among citizens and associations. Some efforts by various religions to provide humanitarian services and train community leaders, professionals, and youths to take a more active role in civil society are occurring, but there has been no coalescing of such individuals around a consensual agenda. With such forums still limited in size and scope, the potential for Cubans to acquire leadership skills within a religiously-oriented civil society framework remains weak in comparison to the strong influence of government-affiliated mass organizations.

Finally, while the number of those searching for a moral compass in faith has increased, participants highlighted the need to distinguish between nominal institutional religious adherence and the lack of traditional loyalty to organized faith groups. For example, while 60% of the population is baptized, only 1–3% of Cubans are practicing Roman Catholics, in contrast to 75-85% believing in the “divine”.

Looking forward, questions about the ability of religious groups to provide an impetus for change revolved around the following key issues: their relevance in light of low religious adherence and the prospect of improved living-conditions; and the willingness of the Church hierarchy and other religious leaders to step up to support a political reform agenda and lead cooperation between religious groups. Will a strongly secular (in practice) civil society look to religious groups, and the Catholic Church in particular, to play a leadership role in political transitions? Will the Church take such a role, or will the Church hierarchy block the Church’s formal engagement in political reform? Is there sufficient understanding and cooperation among religious groups to bring cohesion to a process of political transition? As Cuba’s macroeconomic situation improves (a possibility examined in the second simulation) are religious groups likely to retain their social relevance and influence?


Of a total population of 11.4 million, approximately 8 million Cubans were born after the 1959 Revolution. Of this group, the 2.2 million born after 1992 have only experienced Cuban “communism” under the austere conditions of the ‘Special Period’. As such, youth may be far less likely to harbor much enduring loyalty to Cuba’s revolutionary heyday and may be more prone to disillusionment and/or a willingness to push for greater openness.

Participants highlighted the crucial divide between youth not associated with government organizations and those working for or within the government or government-affiliated institutions. On the one hand, youth within the government or government-affiliated institutions may uphold basic principles of revolutionary ideology but, with little nostalgia for the past, may also be the single most important force for change in the future. On the other hand, the majority of youth on the island today are disconnected and disenchanted, posing a significant challenge for the government’s efforts to inject hope and revolutionary pride into a younger generation. Yet at the same time, nascent civil society networks also face significant difficulties in finding ways to constructively engage youth and mobilize their frustration into a push for political as well as economic change.

In contrast to older generations, for whom “change” may be more precarious and associated with a loss of stability, disconnected youth are less predisposed to behaving “inside the box,” focusing instead on immediate gratification in the informal sector and tourist economy to generate greater material well-being. Participants agreed that students in particular are more prone to disillusionment and restlessness, as the incentive for education is falling. Youth see no connection between their educational opportunities and career prospects. With high salaries promised by work in the informal or tourist sectors, university enrollment has declined 30% since 2005 across the island. Likewise, migratory outflows, perhaps the clearest indicator of youth disillusionment, are growing.

Participants considered the problematic nature of Cuban youth in light of the group’s discussions during previous simulations (simulation 2) of the effects of Raul Castro’s recent and future reform efforts on rising expectations. All agreed that recent changes may have elicited some hope among disaffected youth. But again, with generalized frustration among youth well entrenched and skepticism high, the costs of failing to meet expectations could even be broader among youth than within the wider population. The margin of error could be low, and a “tipping point” could be reached, pushing youth frustration into bold mobilization.

Whether that mobilization leads to destructive behavior or whether it can be channeled into peaceful movements for change will likely depend on the readiness of existing civil society networks to tap into the youth market, as it were. On the other hand, participants considered the possibility that not only disaffection but apathy are both widespread, which may lead youth to simply stand aside, expecting the state or other actors to fulfill their needs without seeking their own participatory role in a reform process. Or, given the chance, many may simply opt to vote with their feet and take to the seas in search of better opportunities elsewhere, as happens today.


Afro-Cubans, defined as those of black (11%) or mulatto (51%) ancestry, make up 62% of the Cuban population today. Cuba is an extensively integrated society and due to equitable access to housing, health care, and education, it would be erroneous to speak of a single Afro-Cuban “perspective” as such. Still, several important general trends, motivations, and dynamics can be observed. First, all participants agreed that racial discrimination has limited Afro-Cubans’ (mostly those of black, not mulatto ancestry) access to employment compensated in convertible currency. Second, because most of those who have left the country are Caucasian, far fewer Afro-Cubans enjoy access to foreign remittances. Thus, the economic hardship of the Special Period has been disproportionately borne by the Afro-Cuban population.

Afro-Cubans have been traditionally thought of as stalwart supporters of the Revolution for the concrete benefits it had previously bestowed in terms of access to education, healthcare, material goods, and training. Yet the resurgence of racism in the Special Period and beyond, coupled with the degree to which Afro-Cubans have faced economic difficulties, may have undermined this linkage, increasing popular disaffection. Nevertheless, as key historic beneficiaries of the Revolution’s social welfare policies, participants felt many Afro-Cubans might understandably fear the consequences of rapid change and the strengthening of economic inequalities under a capitalist transition. Participants also highlighted the important regional dimensions that impact Cuba’s racial politics, with higher portions of Afro-Cuban citizens residing in Cuba’s eastern provinces. There, material difficulties over the past fifteen years have been particularly acute, and the government has stringently clamped down on any form of dissent emerging from these sectors.

In light of these dynamics, participants concluded that Afro-Cuban disaffection may perhaps represent as great a political challenge to the regime as that of the previously discussed estrangement of youth, requiring deep structural and institutional changes. Interlinked causes of disaffection are manifest in the intersection of racism with inequality, youth, and crime. Government-affiliated institutions seem to have recognized this problem and are granting the Afro-Cuban issue greater public attention. One participant noted that in April of this year, for example, a discussion of race was featured on the annual UNEAC (National Union of Cuban Artists and Writers) Congress’ agenda, and the new Academy of Sciences is incorporating the subject into its focus on youth, social disaffection, and crime. However, as low living-standards form the crux of Afro-Cuban disaffection, the regime may focus on short-term solutions to address immediate needs and concerns, delaying deeper structural and institutional reforms, asserting political control, and thereby rendering pressures from external civil groups representing this community obsolete. [Raul’s speech at the 55th Anniversary of the Attack on the Moncada and Manuel de Céspedes barracks in Santiago on July 26, 2008, emphasizing the renovation of aqueducts to provide daily supply of water by 2010 across the mostly Afro-Cuban Eastern Provinces in Santiago, Holguín, Baracoa, Las Tunas and Camagüey, may serve this purpose well].

Examining the long tradition of horizontal civil society linkages between Afro-Cubans, combining religious identities with ties of community, culture, and common experience, participants concurred that such linkages are not heavily formalized, and remain encapsulated in loose organizations such as the Santería tradition. Participants agreed on the limitations inherent to these networks, which lack organization and structure. Vertical linkages are a work in progress, and the recent appointment of high-level Afro-Cubans to the National Assembly and Politburo, including three women, may assist in promoting affirmative social policies (access to welfare and economic opportunities) and anti-discrimination measures. Yet to date, few Afro-Cuban civil society organizations possess the adequate organizational capacity to make demands on and communicate with the state. While some Afro-Cuban voices have permeated the leadership ranks of the opposition movement, including the prominent imprisoned Oscar Elias Biscet, the activist Antúnez family, Félix Bonne Carcassés, and Vladimiro Roca, their reach to Afro-Cuban communities remain limited. Overall, whether in the government sphere, religious groups, or the opposition movement, few Afro-Cubans have obtained positions of leadership with sufficient organizational capacity and a clear alternate political trajectory. This reality, participants concluded, reflects the diffusion of the Afro-Cuban population across a wide range of competing occupations, positions, interests, and points of view.

It remains to be seen whether the Afro-Cuban community as such will cross a threshold and begin to operate as a distinct civil society actor in the public sphere. Some Afro-Cuban musicians and artists since the 1990s have more forcefully articulated a sense of “black” identity, but such expressions, despite their political overtones, remain in the cultural realm; while they may give voice to frustration, including to youth of all races, they do not seem to have inspired a strong desire for collective political action. Still, participants debated which, if any, “signs” might signal whether Afro-Cubans will remain resistant to broad change (fearing, for example, a loss of privileges under a transition scenario that sees the largely Caucasian Cuban American community exerting significant influence) or whether they too can find common ground with other sectors of civil society to push for sweeping reforms.

Organized Opposition

Participants considered the wide-range of actors that constitute the “established opposition” or dissident movement within Cuba today, debating whether these diverse groups could coalesce around a common denominator or vision. Despite the signing of several declarations of unity among leading opposition activists, for the most part, the three traditional political fronts - Liberals, Social Democrats and Christian Democrats - being shaped by the most prominent dissident groups continue to pursue their own uncoordinated and often conflicting visions of change. The question of leadership remains a problem, with most opposition groups known for their individual leaders rather than the movements they represent as such. Such personality-driven activism has had the tendency, many believed, to keep the opposition fractured.

Significant efforts have been undertaken to mobilize political opinion, the most well-known being Oswaldo Payá’s national dialogue Varela Project and its extension, the Todos Cubanos program. The Varela Project draws upon Article 88 of the Cuban Constitution of 1976, a provision that enables citizens to introduce legislation when accompanied by 10,000 signatures. The principles of the petition, demanding the rights to free expression and association, amnesty for non-violent political prisoners, free enterprise, and electoral reforms, were seen as the first steps to create the necessary space for all Cubans to freely participate in economic and political life on the island. The petition achieved unprecedented success in political organizing and was presented to the National Assembly with a total of 25,404 signatures in 2002 and 2003. The Cuban legislature rejected the project, and the Assembly's Constitution and Legal Affairs Committee responded with its own counter initiative, providing that the Cuban Constitution be amended to make permanent the socialist nature of the Cuban state – the government claimed that it was met with 99% voter approval. To further crush the organized opposition, beginning on March 18, 2003 the Cuban government arrested, summarily tried and jailed 75 civil society leaders in Cuba, including independent journalists, librarians and trade unionists.

In spite of the continued existence of such mobilizations, participants disagreed in their assessment of the dissident movement’s level of impact within Cuba today. Most agreed that because of the opposition’s lack of access to the mass media and their constant vilification in the state press, few Cubans are likely to recognize the dissident movement as a true symbolic or practical alternative at this point in time. For some in the group, international support may be the only thread propping the movement up. Others saw the opposition as a weak but nonetheless substantive movement with significant roots.

The key issue confronting participants was whether a dissident-based opposition culture could provide the foundations for an opposition movement, or whether dissident groups in their current form would become less relevant in light of changing political and economic dynamics. In the end, participants’ remarks coalesced around a common concern: namely, that despite the long struggles and obstacles faced by opposition activists, with greater economic openings, more is now at stake for the dissident movement than at perhaps any other moment in its history.

For a “movement” to emerge, participants debated whether sufficient political space for engagement and dialogue among opposition leaders would be able to arise, and whether leaders would be able to refocus their attention from “opposing” to creating a positive message to unite together. To counter fading into irrelevance, groups would have to move out of their comfort zone and speed up their processes of mobilization.

Simulation Exercise: Meeting of Grassroots Activists, July 26, 2010

Concluding this broad discussion, participants moved on to the simulation exercise itself. As stated earlier, organizers asked participants to put themselves in the shoes of a fictional list of civil society activists as they meet to discuss common objectives and possible means for collaboration. Individuals representing the religious community, youth, Afro–Cubans, and dissidents had been called together by a Methodist Minister in Santiago de Cuba. It was assumed that the meeting takes place in 2010 within Cuba, in an environment characterized by significantly greater openness and potential for reform. Fidel and Machado Ventura had passed away, and Carlos Lage had ascended to the First Vice Presidency, raising hopes that further economic reforms would help open greater political space. Travel and remittance revenues are up after a new U.S. President has removed some restrictions. Uncertainty prevails, and while an increasingly wide array of civil society actors believe greater change is necessary, they are divided between those preferring to adopt a wait-and-see approach and those who believe that the time to push aggressively for reform is now. The group meets to discuss the viability of formulating a declaration of unity and begin exploring means to collaborate and mobilize peaceful civic action. They hope that the diversity within their own ranks will allow their movement to transcend the framework of established opposition groups, allowing them to appeal to a broader segment of the population.

As this suggests, rather than simulate a meeting of established members of the democratic opposition, the exercise sought to gather together fictional personalities who, for a variety of reasons, have come to the conclusion that greater changes in Cuban society are needed, but do not necessarily affiliate themselves with the existing dissident movement. Although it is possible that members of the existing dissident movement would participate in such a meeting, no individual or group was identified as such. More fundamentally, the exercise sought to address how civil society would contend with the Cuban government’s incremental reforms. Would civil society press for more political as well as economic openings, and if so, what might be the tools to do so successfully, or might such reforms diminish the impetus for deeper political openings and democratization?

Declaration of Principles

In their respective roles as members of diverse Church-affiliated, Afro-Cuban, youth, and other civil society groups, simulation participants immediately set out to establish consensus around a clear set of basic principles. Yet as discussions began, significant differences in perspective emerged. Some participants stressed the need to keep any consensual agenda strictly tied to political reforms and political themes: democracy, rule of law, freedom for political prisoners. Others were more wary of such a focus, as it would seem to ally their actions with the same basic tenets of the established dissident movement, thereby threatening their legitimacy as a supposedly “new voice.” Some lobbied for a strong focus on economic themes, connecting the idea of economic difficulties to the need for greater economic freedoms, which are in many ways inherently political. Once again, differences emerged, with those representing the perspective of Afro-Cuban activists expressing significant concern for any kind of economic platform that would threaten access to state-provided welfare services.

To the extent that any consensus did emerge, it was around general principles of patriotism, family, and justice, which would resonate even with the Raul Castro regime. Such principles included declarations on equal rights, a call on the regime to be held accountable to the people, the furthering of the cause of the “family”, and acting within the law. The purpose of such principles would be to reflect that there is a widening base of Cubans who seek change, and the first steps toward change would be to press the regime for accountability, and to make “advancing the family” a goal comparable to advancing the interests of the state.

Strategies for Civic Action

Simulation participants then began to explore how civic action could demonstrate or advance such basic principles, to begin to create confidence for public discourse and engagement. Participants considered a wide range of possibilities, from a proactive political campaign to popular public events around music or cultural themes. As participants tested the alternatives, they found consensus only around the latter.

Some participants emphasized that the time to act is now, as civil society had been unwittingly granted some space that should be seized to press concrete demands on the regime. One participant proposed finding ways to bring greater pressure to bear on government channels in order to push concrete political or economic demands (freedom for political prisoners, for example). Another strongly suggested convening a national non-violent strike of civil disobedience to symbolically commemorate the “Cry of Yara.” Yet in addition to the fear that such an action would provoke wide reprisals and sacrifice the space that civil society had already earned, serious questions about capacity emerged. Representatives at the table were forced to confront the fact that the organizations they represented did not have either the resources or the networking capability to pull off such a feat in the near future.

Broader, more sweeping proposals emerged, including building a wide national coalition of civil society groups to call for a constitutional assembly or a transitional government within one year. Alternatively, one participant suggested replicating Oswaldo Payá’s petition strategy, but depoliticizing its content to garner broader appeal. Basic demands could be as simple as: non-violence, respect for human rights, respect for free enterprise, and the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission. Issues of sequencing arose among the group, with some arguing that before calling for any such measures, key members of the National Assembly or Central Committee should be approached, perhaps with an open letter, to start a dialogue about representative government and thus lay out a course for a peaceful transition.

After extensive debate, the one course where consensus emerged was to host a series of events focused on music and culture. A celebration would draw a wide turnout, and could be focused on a positive message about what Cubans seek – the benign, but uniting principles the group formulated at the outset of the simulation. For example, a national day of prayer to honor the upcoming beatification of Brother José López Piteira, the first native Cuban to receive this honor, would be a powerful and “Cuban” means to demonstrate public awareness. Celebratory cultural events conducted in different parts of the country could become their own mobilizing force and this mobilization would in effect become the political message – perhaps as much to the Cuban people as to the government. For the Cuban people, the purpose would be to show that many are united in a common and positive pro-Cuban agenda that calls for more opportunity for the family, and greater respect for the law, including accountability for politicians. For the Cuban regime, the message would be the breadth of desire for change, where the same calls would demonstrate that reforms cannot stop at cosmetic change. Stifling the emergence of such a wide-based movement founded on “Cuban values” would be highly problematic for a regime redefining its Socialist base and support among the populace.

A Cultural Umbrella Movement

After assessing their own limited capacities as representatives of small movements and reviewing the plausibility of several strategies of civic action, participants gradually converged around two more fundamental conclusions: 1) Cuba requires a larger umbrella movement to unite forces for change, and 2) that movement will only succeed if it can promote cultural strategies that cut across societal cleavages.

Participants discussed the challenges and practicality of creating, leading, directing, and managing an umbrella movement. Great concern emerged about the inherent challenge of creating a truly social movement not centered necessarily around one individual leader (replicating the caudillismo in Cuba’s past), but with nonetheless a clear leadership structure and organizing capacity. Could Cuban civil society seek to build a series of interlocking networks, coming together around a broader agenda?

In particular, participants discussed how to engage youth. On the one hand, the disaffection felt by youth offers a vast store of potential to be harvested as a resource for change. Yet due to the general lack of a defined, nuanced long-term vision among youth for political reform and, more importantly, a general rejection by disaffected youth of any campaign that seems overtly “political,” participants again highlighted the need to articulate a platform of political and economic change through culturally appealing slogans and strategies. To this end, participants drew attention to the need to find means to bring together youth who may be too frustrated and apolitical and are therefore difficult to turn into agents of change with those who hold high demands for change but may be difficult to govern.

To successfully engage the Afro-Cuban community and address their potential anxieties regarding change, participants recommended that an umbrella civil society movement strongly emphasize an integrated approach, perhaps drawing on the nationalist legacy of the Revolution itself in order to avoid any racial tensions. Fears of change could also be averted by emphasizing a politically savvy and bridge-building social justice discourse that sits alongside calls for political liberties. Thus, an umbrella movement might pledge its commitment to guaranteeing a safety net and welfare measures (pensions) during a transition while also prioritizing the improvement of standards of living (including by way of access to convertible currency) and access to education.

Building off this discussion, some participants highlighted the importance of not defining a broad umbrella movement as diametrically “opposed” to the Revolution per se, as among Afro-Cubans and many other sectors of the population the nationalist symbolism and concrete benefits bestowed under the Revolution at varying points in its history remain important. Rather, an umbrella movement might position itself as a natural evolution, combining the rhetoric of the Revolution’s commitment to equality and social justice with a more realistic economic framework and political liberties. Of course, for some participants, such a strategy was problematic as it might isolate some more traditional dissident activists hoping for a cleaner break with the symbols and legacy of the communist system.

To assuage fears of simply being labeled “agents” of outside actors, a number of participants stressed the importance of maintaining a certain degree of distance from the rhetoric and activities of established dissident movements, emphasizing the desire to move beyond a framework of politicized “dissidence” as conceived today, and the difficulty of collaboration given the existing opposition movements’ own inherent fragmentation. Nevertheless, participants recognized the potential benefits of incorporating these actors and their traditional focus on human rights into a broader consensual agenda, as a cultural movement could draw on the demonstrated potential of dissident groups to organize networks, project coherent political messages, and mobilize citizens. Participants reiterated that dissident leaders will, however, first need the discipline to develop their currently competing platforms into unified proposals for a program of governance in conjunction with a broader set of civil society actors. A broader umbrella movement could then offer the potential for providing a bridge between dissident leadership.

Foreign Support

Another key point of discussion involved the willingness of activists in any future umbrella group to receive foreign support – especially U.S. financial support – if it were to become available. Though conclusions about direct funding ranged in this regard, all participants agreed that overt U.S. support risks any movement’s perceived legitimacy in a Cuban context where nationalism remains a prominent and vigorously-defended principle. Under such circumstances, multilateral aid would be more constructive and less threatening.

Stepping out of role to begin to frame U.S. policy, while direct financial support for opposition groups was deemed a problem, participants agreed that funding for humanitarian aid, and in support of families for human rights activists should be continued. Such funding should be accompanied by new non-governmental efforts to increase person-to-person contacts. To this end, the U.S. might support exchange programs bringing Cubans to the U.S. and vice-versa, and encourage the opening of U.S. civil society to the island, enabling civic groups to engage their Cuban counterparts, and effectively move away from current U.S. micromanagement of dissident actors on the island.

In the short- and medium-terms, a regional civil society fund managed by the Organization of American States (OAS) was suggested, whereby the U.S. could channel funds to support existing regional or international non-governmental organizations that provide technical training, grass-roots media and education projects, and public goods and services. Greater civil society involvement may also be directed through the activities of international networks with already significant presences in Cuba, such as the Free-Masons. Finally, relations with international organizations (the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, the Council of Europe Venice Commission, for example) to assist Cuban civil society actors with consultative opinions should also be developed through such multilateral efforts.

Of course, the possibility of such initiatives is largely conditional upon the Cuban government’s openness to their existence, surely not an easy prospect. Nonetheless, in the medium-term, financial assistance for such schemes would perhaps be better managed via regional or multilateral cooperation, whether through the OAS or unique partnerships with other regional institutions and allies.

Conclusion: Stepping Out of Role

The underlying premise of this simulation exercise was that successful democratic change in Cuba must rest on the backs of Cuban actors. This analysis and the dynamics of the discussions demonstrated the complexity of that proposition, and hence the complications for U.S. policy. U.S. policymakers might choose to simultaneously address three avenues in the push for the opening of increased political and economic spaces on the island: civil society actors, the Cuban regime, and the momentum created by economic reforms.

Civil Society Actors

U.S. policymakers should recognize that principles which foster cohesion are general Cuban values, not a specific economic agenda – policy should consequently encourage the same principles to be strengthened in engaging civil society actors. Having examined the strengths as well as the limitations inherent to religious groups, the Catholic Church, youth, Afro-Cubans, and dissident groups, the U.S. will need to maximize the number of civil society actors and the base of society it engages in order to assist them to diffuse those principles, develop cohesive messages for change, and build capacity and networks.

To date, U.S. engagement of Cuban civil society hinges on USAID-supported programs that directly benefit key dissident leaders. Such a narrow focus jeopardizes the perceived legitimacy of these individuals and provides cannon fodder to the Cuban government’s nationalist reflex. But even more important, as the simulation exercise highlighted, financial support single-handedly directed toward the organized opposition can be perceived as a liability by other civil society groups who may otherwise collaborate with dissident leaders and offer more broad-based support and access to networks. By ensuring that U.S. support is more widely disseminated, it will avoid the risks of targeted support proving counterproductive.

Reflective of the group’s struggle in the simulation to develop consensus around what kinds of concrete strategies and actions with true practical possibilities might be taken by an emerging umbrella group, coupled with the importance that all participants gave to building movements of mass appeal, reinforce a point stressed in the group’s first simulation exercise in February. Clearly, civil society groups and networks must grow first and develop the skills and capacities to engage with each other. To better advance the prospects of political opening and democratic transition, the United States should avoid micromanaging civil society actors and pursue means to support and engage all potential actors involved in reform – both outside and within the Cuban government.

The Cuban Hierarchy

As the Cuban government can cut off the space for political movements to emerge, multilateral strategies will be necessary to maximize both access and political reach to press the regime to allow spaces for civic engagement. With limited U.S. leverage, the U.S. government should engage other actors – the OAS, Latin American governments, the EU, and the Vatican – who can exert such diplomatic pressure. Once again, participants emphasized the importance of the United States working constructively to engage the Cuban government on issues of bilateral interest (drug trafficking, migration, public health, disaster management, to name a few). Such relations, as well as contacts with government affiliated civil society organizations, would aim to generate information flows about the decision-making mechanisms of the regime, helping to develop trust and relationships that could provide a bridge in the future.

Economic Openings

Finally, the U.S. should consider how it could best address opening civic spaces in an economically increasingly viable Cuba. Should the Cuban hierarchy consolidate revenue growth from off-shore oil and ethanol in 3-5 years, state power will be reinforced through top-down revenue distribution mechanisms, bolstering the state’s ability to maintain political control. The U.S. might exploit the dichotomy between such discernible growth in revenue for the regime, and the lack of revenue diversification reaching the wider population. Policymakers should take creative steps to encourage the wider dissemination of wealth across the island, whether by lifting U.S. caps on remittances, supporting micro-finance institutions through regional or multilateral collaboration, or engaging multilateral actors to form micro enterprise development funds. Such measures should provide increased independence from the state for the Cuban people and prevent the possibility that incremental reforms diminish incentives for civic engagement.


April 16, 2008

8:30 AM - 5:00 PM EDT

University of Miami


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