Everything went wrong for the Cuban dictatorship. It thought it was going to win when it militarized the island and blocked the marches and protests scheduled for Nov. 15.
But it only showed the world its repressive and anti-democratic nature. The dictatorship acted like what it is: a brutal system that kills and chokes any dissent.
Something broke in Cuba. The regime no longer has ideological and emotional control of the population. It acts like someone who is forcing a partner to remain in an unhappy marriage. Cubans have lost their fear. When that happens, dictatorships go on the defensive and adopt a survival mode. And they could topple.
“The young people who went out into the streets are those who had nothing to lose because they had lost everything,” journalist Yoani Sánchez wrote about the first protests in July on her 14ymedio digital newspaper. She added this explanation of the change: “The streets of Cuba, so focused on complaints about daily life, have started to talk differently since July, when crowds ran through them as they shouted for freedom.”
Before the protests called for Nov. 15, I spoke with singer Yotuel Romero, one of the performers of the song Patria y Vida, a hymn to freedom that recently won the Latin Grammy for song of the year. He is brimming with optimism. “Nothing can stop the power of destiny and the power of the Cuban youth to seek that freedom,” he told me. “I am very very optimistic. I believe in faith, and that we’re on the right side.”
The right side of history is always the side of democracy and freedom.
We have three dictators in Latin America: Miguel Díaz-Canel in Cuba, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. And by definition, dictators never leave power voluntarily. They must be driven from power. I am not in favor of any U.S. military invasion or domestic violence to achieve that. But I do believe that Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans have a legitimate right to live in democracy and to look for ways to topple their dictators.
It’s never easy, but it can be done.
Chileans toppled brutal Gen. Augusto Pinochet with a 1988 plebiscite where 56 percent of the voters said NO to an extension of his 15 years of death, torture and tyranny. And in 1990 I saw how Nicaraguans forced the Sandinistas to abandon power. Violeta Barrios de Chamorro defeated Daniel Ortega in an election. Her daughter, Cristiana Chamorro, still remembers how Ortega cried publicly after his defeat.
But today Cristiana is under house arrest. With polls showing her as a presidential candidate favored to defeat Ortega, she was barred from running in the Nov. 7 election, which were a farce. Another six candidates are still detained.
“Yes he is a dictator,” Cristiana Chamorro told me in an interview in March, just days before she was detained. “He is a repressive dictator. And he has become a monstrous dictator. We are seeing things here in Nicaragua that we had not seen in decades: repression, torture, prison.”
Venezuela also is going through difficult times. “The illegitimate authoritarian regime of Nicolás Maduro has seized control of the executive, judicial, legislative and electoral branches,” the annual State Department report on human rights violations reported. Despite that, the opposition – sometimes divided, sometimes not so much – is still searching for ways to end a dictatorship that began with Hugo Chávez.
There are no formulas for getting rid of dictators. But some Venezuelan leaders, like former political prisoner Leopoldo López, have conditions for an the electoral path. “There are many conditions for elections to be free, fair and verifiable,” López said in a speech to the Foro Madrid Empresarial in April. He mentioned five: 1. An electoral calendar. 2. An impartial electoral tribunal as referee. 3) Legitimate political parties, not just government creations. 4) Anyone can participate, without ruling out any candidates. 5) The presence of election observers.
It is practically impossible for Maduro and his thugs to accept those conditions. Why? They would immediately lose power, and many could wind up in foreign prisons. And Leopoldo López knows it. “The main reason that Maduro remains in power is that he continues to receive support from powerful countries that are very active in promoting the expansion of authoritarian rule around the world,” he told the Oslo Freedom Forum. Mentioning countries like Iran and Russia, he added that dictatorships “feed each other, help each other, learn from their lessons. And they have learned how to repress street protests.”
And so we see, with worrisome repetition, how the repression of young protesters in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela is very similar. Ortega blocked and jailed presidential candidates just like Maduro did with Leopoldo López and several others. Tyrants copy each other, fawn on each other and believe their own lies.
But we also see how the opposition in some Latin American countries have found the weak points of dictatorships. Despite the official censorship of the news media, nothing can totally block Tweeter and other social media. The Internet can be blocked temporarily. But there are always cracks in the digital wall.
Something that fills me with hope is the totally peaceful nature of the opposition movements in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. They are not looking for weapons, not trying to kill anyone. It’s about ending a tyranny with a push from a song like Patria y Vida or a poem born at dawn out of the San Isidro or Archipiélago movements. Yotuel noted during our interview that the romanticism that originally boosted the Cuban revolution is now on the side of the dissidents and opposition activists.
“It is the end of the utopia,” Cuban author Wendy Guerra told me, “but also the end of a revolution that is more than six decades old. The connection between the state and the people broke.” During our chat in Miami, she added a daring prediction: “I will be back in Cuba very soon, because I believe that in less than two years the people will have taken their place. We will do it.”
Optimism – life – is today on the side of those who fight for freedom and democracy in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Their ideas and proposals for change remind me so much of the “Happiness is coming” campaign that drove Pinochet from power. And it is the fetid smell of death and rot, in their many manifestations, that is wafting out of the club of tyrants like Díaz Canel, Maduro and Ortega. I see them perfectly portrayed, with all their wrinkles and corruptions, in the book The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez.
In the end, there is the marvelous conviction that they will lose. The terror has been broken. There are a thousand ways to topple the dictator. One that works is enough.