Do You Want to be Free? / 14ymedio, Jose Azel

In memory of Oswaldo Payá

14ymedio, Jose Azel, Miami, 9 March 2017 – We take as a given that all people aspire to be free, but the idea of ​​individual freedoms is not universally accepted.

Defenders of totalitarian and authoritarian regimes argue that a dictatorial approach to government is moral, just, and necessary. Some preach that a developing nation needs a strong man to effectively promote economic growth without the complications of democracy.

Others feel that an authoritarian government is necessary to ensure law and order. Others prefer monarchies and other hereditary forms of government to protect the traditions and customs of their people. Others believe that their church and government are one and the same, and that their religious beliefs are about selfish desires for freedom. Marxists sacrifice individual freedoms on the altar of collectivism.

If that is their decision, those believers in the permanent dominion of a single party should be free not to be free, preferably on another planet. But this implies the question of how a society should decide its form of government. The dictatorial response is to remain in power indefinitely, as we can see in totalitarian states such as North Korea and Cuba. The democratic response is to hold free, fair, competitive, multiparty and frequent elections.

The democratic response is to hold free, fair, competitive, multi-party and frequent elections

That is why the Cuba Decide plebiscite project, headed by Rosa Maria Payá Acevedo, seems to me to be a refreshing proposal after nearly six decades of Castro rule in Cuba. Rosa María is the young and eloquent daughter of the late democratic activist Oswaldo Payá, winner of the prestigious European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for the Freedom of Thought. Rosa María, as president of the Latin American Youth for Democracy Network, continues her father’s work to promote democracy on the tragic island.

The Cuban Decide initiative proposes that voters respond with a simple “Yes” or “No,” to a basic but transcendental question:

Do you agree with free, fair and plural elections, exercising freedom of expression and of the press; and organizing freely in political parties and social organizations with total plurality? Yes or No?

It would be naive to expect the Castro regime to accept such a plebiscite. But, at the very least, promoting the plebiscite provides a strategic tool to stimulate in Cuba and in international forums a solidly focused political debate and public dialogue. The plebiscite focuses attention on the fact that deciding how to be governed is the prerogative of the people, and no one else.

Few would reject the central postulate of the plebiscite that Cubans should be free to decide their future. Even sympathizers of the Castro regime would find it ideologically difficult to refuse to ask such a simple question to the Cuban people.

The only intellectually honest way to oppose a plebiscite that empowers the people in this way would be to argue that the people have nothing to say about their future, and that dictatorships are the preferable forms of government. Not many international leaders would be willing to publicly proclaim that preference.

The idea of ​​the plebiscite offers the leadership of Raúl Castro’s successors an elegant and accepted way of changing course or, alternatively, legitimizing their one-party rule

The Cuba Decide Plebiscite is not a political platform, but rather a tool to begin the change that would be justified if the Cuban people decide, by a “Yes” vote, and that offers the possibility of alternatives. The “No” vote would legitimize the one-party permanent mandate. To some extent the idea of ​​the plebiscite offers the leadership of Raúl Castro’s successors an elegant and accepted way of changing course or, alternatively, legitimizing one-party rule. In post-Castro Cuba, the initiative of the Cuba Decide plebiscite promoted by young people can become a key component of a legitimate transition.

Freedom has consequences, not all of them useful, but it is immoral to deprive the people of their liberties, as dictators do. Our rational approach is our basic way of living. If we cannot act according to our free opinions we can not live fully as human beings. And we need freedom to act according to our reasons.

After decades of living without freedom under a totalitarian government, the Cuba Decide Plebiscite is an initiative promoted by citizens presenting to the Cuban people a question with rational criteria: Do you want to be free? “Yes or No.” Who could oppose such a question? The answer should enlighten us all.


Editor’s Note: José Azel is a senior researcher at the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami and author of the book Mañana in Cuba.