Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits are closer than ever but true reconciliation requires justice for past abuses. And while economic engagement is a good way to ease Havana’s fears of change, the benefits should not go only to the island’s ruling elites.
Those were some of the many opinions voiced Friday at a Miami conference on Cuban reconciliation that featured speakers from the island and Miami as well as Germany and its former communist twin, the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
People in the mostly Cuban-American audience of about 150 nodded in agreement or sighed in reproach as the speakers noted the benefits and pitfalls of reconciliation, largely as reflected by the reunification of West Germany and the GDR after the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989.
Cuban families on the island and in South Florida have increasingly overcome their political distance in recent times and now “this is a completely different community” said Marifeli Perez-Stable, a top Cuba analyst at Florida International University.
But reconciliation is not easy, warned both Dieter Dettke, a professor at the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University, and Günter Nooke, a dissident in the GDR and later human rights commissioner in reunified Germany.
True rapprochement requires both forgiveness and justice but not revenge, said Dettke, noting that after the GDR’s collapse, 246 of its top officials were indicted for various abuses. About half of them were found not guilty, he added.
For reconciliation “you need to have a sinner who regrets,” said Nooke, who also noted that the German government had agreed after reunification to pay reparations to the victims of the GDR’s notoriously harsh security apparatus, the STASI.
Economic engagement across the political divide is also needed, Nooke and Dettke argued, because the German case showed it helped to avoid backing the GDR into a corner. Germany even supported the GDR’s entry to the European Union’s non-tariff agreements.
“Isolation and embargo can cement the situation in place,” said Dettke.
But the engagement must benefit ordinary people and not just elites, said Nooke. Much of the pre-1989 trade between East and West Germany was carried out by GDR state enterprises controlled by the communist party, officially called the Socialist Unity Party of Germany.
What’s more, those who favor engagement must never surrender core values, such as democracy, just to maintain good relations with the other side, Dettke added.
Churches have a duty to provide “a roof” for government opponents, Nooke said, adding that in the GDR Lutheran pastors made available spaces where non-government groups he describes as “niche societies” could gather unmolested by the STASI.
Restitution of seized properties is also part of the need for post-communist justice, Dettke added, but humanitarian solutions to the property and other critical issues are more important than legal or political solutions.
Most people in the GDR cared less about politics than about their daily needs, Nooke recalled. But on Oct. 9, 1989 about 70,000 protesters gathered in Leipzig, and exactly one month later the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Germany on Thursday celebrated Unity Day, marking the reunification of the nation in 1990.
Dettke noted, however that the collapse of the GDR was also driven by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev opening of the communist world in the late 1980s and the election of an anti-communist Pole as Pope John Paul II in 1978.
The fall of the GDR, he said, “was a gift from heaven.”
Dagoberto Valdes, a lay Catholic activist and magazine editor from western Pinar del Rio province, said reconciliation among all Cubans on the island and abroad will require truth, justice, forgiveness, inclusion and an education in civic ethics, among several factors.
Asked if he would negotiate with current government officials, Valdes said yes, at the proper time, under the proper legal framework and with all the required pieces on the table.
“Without forgiveness, communism wins,” he added.
The “Second Conference on Reconciliation and Change: The German Experience,” at Miami Dade College was sponsored by MDC; FIU’s Cuban Research Institute; and the Cuba Study Group, a centrist non-government organization headed by businessman Carlos Saladrigas.