The two faces of the Cuban government will be on full display in Havana Tuesday and Wednesday during the summit of a hemispheric body explicitly designed to spite the United States and Canada, which are excluded from membership.
On the surface, the second summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC for its initials in Spanish, will be a grand celebration of unity against hemispheric domination by the despised United States. (Canada’s exclusion is mostly a case of collateral damage.)
The streets are being spruced up, new flower pots are lining the road into the city from the airport and decaying billboards are being replaced. A fresh coat of paint will serve to conceal the dilapidated condition of Havana’s crumbling buildings.
In the shadows, meanwhile, the police-state goons, who represent the real Cuba, will be busy rounding up the usual suspects — those who clamor for genuine freedom and detest the oppression that prevails in the country of Jose Martí’s birth.
This is the customary script for events in Cuba that draw international media attention, as with papal visits. The government is so keen to create the impression that everyone lives happily under a benevolent Castro dictatorship that it takes extra measures to ensure that neither official visitors nor the press witness signs of dissent.
If only the visiting heads of state could peer through the smokescreen, they would see another reality. The prominent blogger Yoani Sánchez has noted that events that bring visiting dignitaries to Cuba are an especially fearful time for dissidents and anyone branded as an “anti-social element” in the communist paradise:
The clandestine and officially “unpresentable” Havana has been warned that it must be quiet, very quiet. The beggars are being held until the Summit is over, the pimps warned to maintain control over their girls and boys, while members of the political police visit the homes of the opposition. The illegal market is also being held in check.
The government routinely cuts phone service to known dissidents, ensures that beggars and undesirables remain out of sight and sees to it that illegal satellite antennas are taken down. Some dissidents are routinely placed under house arrest. Everyone must be on their best behavior lest the visitors get the wrong impression.
The cruel hypocrisy of the Cuban government is ably abetted by the visiting heads of state, some 30 of whom are expected for the summit.
Some, like Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, are slavish followers of the Castro model. After all, CELAC was the brainchild of the late Hugo Chávez, Mr. Maduro’s predecessor and mentor.
But most of the others know that the repressive Cuban model would never work at home, and would never dare try it. Their participation is a knee-jerk response to calls for leftist solidarity, a relic of the Cold War designed to mollify leftists back home and create the appearance of political solidarity with Cuba.
But the truth is that the Cuban model has less credibility than ever. The leading nations of the hemisphere may offer lip service to Cuba’s anti-American views, but they don’t support it in practice.
Instead, they partner with each other and the United States in regional economic alliances and place their faith in open markets, democracy and free enterprise.
That is the path to a more prosperous future. Someday, Cuba itself will take the same path.