Now Is The Time: Reforming Cuba with Manuel Cuesta

Manuel Cuesta, a Cuban historian, political activist and founder of the Progressive Arch, a forum bringing together diverse organisations militating for change in communist Cuba, addresses the 7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.


To Be Confirmed

Full Remarks

[…] I’d like to start with a song. I have to be Swiss, although I’m actually Cuban. The question that has initiated this discussion is, if there is a reform possible in Cuba, and if there is one going on. There’s a diversity of visions, and criteria and opinions, not only in Cuba, but outside of Cuba, about the so-called reform process.

I have three items of news to give you. First, Cuba is very diversified. There’s a broad spectrum of opinion, very rich diversity of vision of how we should improve the country, and a new vision within the country. The references that we make to wealth in the country do not weaken this fact at all and such differences bring along with it a difference in vision, which I think I share with you. 

The first vision is that Cuba is not a paradise. But it’s not hell either. My second vision, so to speak, is that depending on the place we situate ourselves, we can say that communism can be reformed. It’s reformable. And when we ask if we can reform Cuba as a communist country, we should move to the second question. If the answer is positive, then the second question is who will be leading the reforms? 

In Cuba, the reform is being led by civil society. It’s clear that the state has more visibility than the citizens do unfortunately. But it’s clear that if we observe carefully with compassion but with good judgment at the same time – with passion and judgment – what is happening in the country, we will see that the Cuban government did little more than adapt to changes that civil society had been implementing over a 20-year period. 

What was the first change that the Cuban government accepted? The first change was to allow that small and medium size business people, entrepreneurs, could move from illegality to legality. And it was civil society that began this reform, not the government. The government adapted to a trend that civil society had brought into the power structure in my country. And this is the first piece of proof that Cuba can be reformed. 

And what other proof is there? That the civil society in its diversity, and breadth, has three miles of distance from the Cuban state. If we were to look for a formula to understand what Cuba exists today, we could say that it’s a liberal state, which dominates a liberal society. It is a government illiberal, and a liberal society. And this creates tension that Raul Castro has tried to reluctantly accept. 

And the second piece of news is that I haven’t come here to complain. The basic question: How to offer alternatives of change within a process of peace? Dictatorship exists in Cuba, it’s a dictatorship. It has a tropical flavor, but we have to imagine what is going on underneath, beyond what we see. Repression is probably occurring today, the 24th of February, against the Ladies in White, and other activists; imprisonment of those who dare – one way or the other – to push the car of reform forward. But I’d like to repeat, I haven’t come here to voice my grievances. What is important for civil society is to look for alternatives for change that will continue to push forward the coach of reform, keep it on track; reforms that rise from the grassroots.

And so now you’ll ask what’s the third piece of news? And it is: What can the international community do to push and help and show solidarity with those of us in Cuba who are trying to speed up the reform in Cuba? Seems to me there are three things that can be done. 

Firstly, focus on and support the work of civil society. Civil societies are the ones that will guarantee what today is still very uncertain. That is, democracy everywhere in the world. We are used to having a vision and idea that democracy is guaranteed. And we can take it for granted that it will always be in the future. But the best way to make sure that we will have democratic values forever is to have a strong civil society. And I’d like to share this with you and I think we should focus on this reform process, but from the grassroots, from the bottom up.

Another idea is that we should not think that poverty is the only reason that democracies become weakened. We should also realize that weak democracy comes because there’s no sufficiently solid investment in working with civil society and culture. In order to build a strong democracy, it means we have to have a harmony between the diversity differences and different focuses on different issues. And this presupposes that there will be work done alongside civil society. The civil society, considering them a legitimate force, is a way to develop a strong democracy. 

There are many places in the world where people eat well, they dress even better, and they have clean energy. But we couldn’t say the same things of democracies in these parts of the world. So there’s not always a relationship, a direct relationship, between democratic weakness and poverty. There is a strong link between a weak construction of civilized communities in a globalized world, where we share diversity. 

The third point that I would like to share with you: Institutions are the most important way to sustain democracies. Venezuela is my favorite example, not only because it’s close to us geographically, but because of our solidarity with the democrats in Venezuela. It’s a country that has a lot of raw material, a great deal of wealth, natural wealth. There were elections, there were presidents, there was great diversity of political parties, until populism was introduced to destroy the institutions. So building strong institutions is a way to guarantee strong democracies. 

This is the true work that civil society is doing. We have to think that the process of change does not react to the logic of events, to [the] rational of events, but rather to one of processes. There was a democratic process that rose from the bottom. They came from the people and from institutions. And this is the best guarantee if we want to achieve what we want: that is strong democracies. 

And I will wind up by repeating my mantra to you: Citizens have rights, states only have duties. 

Thank you.

7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, February 23, 2015

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