Human Rights and Reconciliation

Forging the Cuban Path

by | Dec 28, 2003

Miami is just ninety miles away, but a middle ground that bridges the ocean is hard to find.

I feel the strongest of bonds with Cuba. I was born there and left as an 11-year old with my family for the United States shortly after the revolution came to power. We thought our stay here would be brief. Though a proud U.S. citizen, I’m a Cuban at heart.

On the island and in the diaspora, Cubans—myself included—are well familiar with situations of polarization, of being either for or against. As a young adult, I became drawn to the Cuban Revolution for its ideals of sovereignty and justice. That made me a pariah among other Cuban exiles. During the 1980s, I gradually came to terms with the fact that Cuba wasn’t working. I became increasingly and openly critical. In 1992, I signed an open letter (initiated by dissidents in Cuba) to the U.S. and Cuban governments, opposing the Cuban Democracy Act and calling for reforms on the island. Havana branded me persona non grata and now won’t let me back to visit my homeland. There is no middle ground.

But finding middle ground is what politics is all about. As an academic thinking about new democracies, I studied the ways in which these fledgling regimes dealt with a past of systematic, often horrendous violations of human rights. I started looking at the prospect of a democratic Cuba and the troubled past it will inherit. I concluded that engaging all Cubans in dialogue—about the coexistence of divergent memories, ways to establish truths about what happened, and seeking some justice—was the most constructive step for the time being. With Harvard University’s Jorge I. Domínguez and Miami attorney Pedro A. Freyre, I set up the Task Force on Memory, Truth, and Justice. Financed by the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute, the task force—26 individuals of Cuban and other national origins—recently released Cuban National Reconciliation. Here is an extract from the report:

Reconciliation cannot be dictated nor decreed. It is, on the contrary, a long, multi-faceted process that can only be duly consolidated under the rule of law. We strive for a necessary and sufficient level of reconciliation so that all Cubans—on the island and abroad—may live in peace, that is to say, in a democracy with strong institutions supportive of peaceful resolutions to political differences. A platform of reconciliation recognizes the pluralism of Cuba as nation, and that such diversity nourishes its patrimony. So that all voices may be heard in the arena of public discourse, Cubans must cling to a civic ethics that compels them to listen and to dialogue; no group, sector, or person has a monopoly on truth, and dialogue often changes people’s minds. Librado Linares García, coordinator of the Cuban Reflection Movement and in April 2003 condemned to a 20-year sentence, said as much in a letter to the Task Force from Camajuaní, Villa Clara:

Only a reasoned reconciliation, not vindictive…would ensure the creation and consolidation of a new national project, as well as the proper development of a pro-democracy movement that becomes a true counter-power, could ensure that the actual regime does not survive in the future. My position is clearly on behalf of reconciliation. However, the way such reconciliation is implemented will be determined by debate in the public arena, and all actors should be there. (Letter to the Task Force on Memory, Truth, and Justice)

Signs of a reinvigorated civic ethics can already be seen in Cuba: in independent civil society, in the flourishing of faith-based communities, in independent intellectual expression, in the courage shown by those imprisoned for reasons of conscience, in the integrity of those who have raised human rights as the unquestionable bastion of their civic and political life, imagining a democratic Cuba where the opposition would never be harassed as it is today.

Reconciliation requires an understanding of the polarization that tore Cuba apart, as well as a recognition and a commitment by the great majority of Cubans that it should never happen again. Upon reaching such understanding, recognition, and commitment, Cubans will have overcome the warrior mentality–a reflection of polarization—that still marks their political rhetoric. There are, however, indications of change. Unusual but notable was the use of the term “invaders” (instead of the established “mercenaries”) by the Cuban media to refer to the five Brigade 2506 veterans who attended a conference on the Bay of Pigs’ 40th anniversary. There are myriad signs of openness in Miami from the Cuban-community support of the Varela Project (even though its starting point is the 1976 Constitution) to the scholarship established at Miami-Dade Community College in honor of singer Elena Burke, who lived and died in Cuba. Public opinion polls indicate more open and inclusive attitudes among South Florida Cubans; two Cuban-American candidates for a 2002 congressional seat, Mario Díaz-Balart (R) and Annie Betancourt (D), even managed to hold civil debates on the usually heated subject of the embargo. Manuel Cuesta Morúa and Fernando Sánchez López, promoters of the Reflection Roundtable of the Moderate Opposition (MROM), observe similar changes in Cuba:

Behind their harsh and absolute discourse, Cubans find reconciliation within their families, in religion, in culture, in a healthy attempt to reach minorities, and in their informal, but powerful claim to be recognized as individuals. Before these facts, intolerance evaporates: and intolerance is the cultural fuel of our historical machinery of violence…

To counter the negative consequences of violence–psychological, physical, or verbal—reconciliation should start with an ethical vindication and a practical moralization of the main instruments of politics: dialogue, negotiation, transactions, and pacts…Dialogue at the social and political level and forgiveness at the moral level constitute possibilities for a successful reconciliation. ( Letter from the Reflection Roundtable of the Moderate Opposition to the Task Force on Memory, Truth, and Justice)

In December 2002, Oswaldo Payá’s message upon receiving the European Parliament’s Sakharov Award for Human Rights in Strasbourg, France is clear and conclusive:

Cuba’s civic combatant heroes–the ordinary people who have signed the Varela Project—carry no weapons. Not a single hand is armed. We walk with both arms outstretched, offering our hands to all Cubans as brothers and sisters, and to all peoples of the world. The first victory we can claim is that our hearts are free of hatred. Hence we say to those who persecute us and who try to dominate us: “You are my brother. I do not hate you, but you are not going to dominate me by fear. I do not wish to impose my truth, nor do I wish you to impose yours on me. We are going to seek the truth together.” This is the liberation we are proclaiming.

There are still those who perpetuate the myth that there is conflict between the exercise of political and civil rights and a society’s ability to achieve social justice and development. They are not mutually exclusive. The absence of any civil and political rights in Cuba has had serious consequences, such as inequality, the poverty of the majority and privileges of a minority, and the deterioration of certain services, even though these were conceived as a positive system to benefit the people.

Even though the path imposed by official Cuba is not the way, within its ranks there are a good many people doubly capable—for their talents and because they will use that talent to ease the transition to democracy and national reconciliation. There were, and there are, Cubans of good will, of personal and professional integrity, on both sides. In the November-December 2002 issue of Revista Vitral, Dagoberto Valdés Hernández–a lay Catholic from Pinar del Río and the magazine’s editor—provides a sharp analysis that should be embraced by all honest Cubans, wherever they may physically or politically be, because a future in peace cannot be built on the basis of the present.

Something is moving in Cuba. More and more often, we see political paralysis as the patrimony of the power structure, and we note that initiatives of all types characterize the incipient civil society, and the simple citizens who choose to remain here and to open up different spaces for participation.

We should look beyond our day-to-day-survival and, for a moment, consider how far we have come. Hiding what moves, so that those who have managed to move a bit are discouraged, is the first trick paralysis plays. Franco, the Spanish dictator, used to say: “Whoever moves will not come out in the photograph.” That is to say, whoever moves disappears, does not exist, does not count.

We should look ahead. This is the way I look at things, and I share it with the purpose of contributing an opinion that not only looks ahead, but also and above all, that helps raise the self-esteem of those citizens who seriously assumed their responsibility as protagonists (which means “first in agony”), that is to say, that helps those who have opted for sacrifice, for serving others, giving much of themselves, sacrificing their families and safety for the nation all Cubans constitute. (“Algo se mueve en Cuba: En camino hacia la madurez cívica.” (Revista Vitral. November-December 2002. See

Cuban National Reconciliation considers helpful to delimit four main aspects of a reconciliation process.

• Reconciliation of Every Cuban with Himself or Herself

There are enough reasons—on one side or the other—for the wounds and pain accumulated for all that has happened since 1959. No one has a right to ask victims to forgive and reconcile with oppressors. All Cubans, however, have the right to expect a social context that allows them to leave their children and grandchildren a Cuban homeland that is strongly protected by institutions and rights and, therefore, has banished political violence. Rancor and vengeance cannot set the guidelines for their national reunion. Restoring silenced or absent memories, unveiling truths, and seeking justice may be helpful so that each individual–victims and oppressors, Cubans on one side or the other—may make peace with himself or herself and with the past, so that all can look forward with only one weapon in hand: a civic conscience of citizen rights and responsibilities.

• Family Reconciliation

Within families, reconciliation has advanced the most. It started in the late 1970s with family reunification travel and has continued ever more deeply and irreversibly. During the 1990s, family links increased due to the frequency of travel–the numbers of people who went to Cuba and the numbers of Cubans from the island who visited their relatives in the diaspora—as well as the remittances from the diaspora to their families in Cuba. In spite of the political context, Cuban families have practically left politics behind as a reason of discord and separation.

• Reconciliation in the Diaspora

During the 1970s, the emerging pluralism—regarding the embargo, the use of violence as the principal means of opposition, and the opening towards the Cuban government—shattered the consensus that had characterized the exile community. These issues generated intense polemics that—suffused with a warrior mentality on all sides—did not constitute a dialogue. Though Cuban Miami today has left political violence behind, civic life in the diaspora still requires care and attention. Cubans abroad, especially in Miami, have the responsibility to make their discourse ever more civic, open, tolerant, and inclusive. Reconciliation in the diaspora is within reach and requires all political currents to make an effort to express their differences in such a way as to leave the warrior mentality behind. Only then will a true dialogue begin. If it happens, this reconciliation would demonstrate the ability of Cubans in the diaspora—who are also part of Cuba and have rights and duties regarding democratization and reconciliation—to coexist civilly.

• Political Reconciliation

In the longer run lies a reconciliation based on a new pact agreed upon among political actors and with Cuban society, which will raise an ethics of means–respect for human rights–as the basic, unmovable cornerstone of politics. For this pact to come to life in Cuban society, it will have to be sustained by a civic conscience regarding duties and rights of the citizenry. Then, the public arena will be protected by a state founded upon an ethics that upholds the rights of citizens to dissent, using their own and autonomous means, without fearing reprisals. Only then will there be room for all. When that happens, we will be able to say that Cubans are living in peace.


Because it will be a long process, reconciliation will take place one step at a time. As the poet Antonio Machado said: “Wayfarer, there is no path, you make the path as you go.” However, we end this report with the hope that, some day, a promising and memorable ceremony of national reconciliation will be celebrated. The Escambray Mountains—main site of the armed resistance against the revolutionary government (1960-1966)–would be a good place for a solemn act to honor the memory of all Cubans who have fallen victim to political violence since 1959. There, Cubans could unveil a monument engraved with the names of each and every one of those dead, from one side and the other. Veterans of the civil conflict from both sides would participate in the ceremony, which would truly be a moment of harmony. In Trinidad, at the foot of the Escambray Mountains, the museum that now documents “The Struggle Against Bandits” would be modified: it would integrate memories from all sides so that it would offer an all-encompassing history of what by then may be called a civil war.

Should these things come to pass, Cuba would be on the right path, perhaps once and for all. With that new vision for the Cuban nation in our minds and in our hearts, we offer readers the report, Cuban National Reconciliation.


The full report may be found at: 

Fall 2003Volume III, Number 1

Mariela Pérez-Stable chaired the Task Force on Memory, Truth, and Justice, which issued Cuban National Reconciliation. She is a professor of sociology at Florida International University in Miami.

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