In many ways, Cuba today resembles the Burma (Myanmar) of 10 years ago, argues Casey Cagley, Program Officer of the Latin America and Caribbean Division of the International Republican Institute. Both countries have long histories of military dictatorship, censorship, human rights abuses, failed socialism, embargoes, and economic devastation, among other traumatic experiences. Burma’s transition over the last five years to what its military rulers termed a “disciplined democracy” offers a glimpse of one possible scenario for political and social transition in dictatorships elsewhere in the world, he writes for Open Democracy.
In August 2016, the International Republican Institute (IRI*) convened a group of eminent Cuban civil society leaders and democracy activists in Burma to learn from Burma’s successes, failures, and ongoing struggles. The delegation noted three fascinating lessons gleaned from the experience, Cagley adds:
(i) The delegates found Burma’s experience with an elite-led transition highly relevant to Cuba. Beginning in 2011, Burma’s military-led government began to relax its historically tight control over the social, economic and political lives of its citizens. Yet throughout the process, the military kept a leash on the country’s institutions. It carved out key powers for itself in the constitution it pushed towards passage in 2008…….
(ii) The relationship between democratic and economic progress is fragile and not guaranteed. As in the political sphere, Myanmar’s former military rulers carved out spaces for themselves in an opening economy. Many active members of the military elite simply traded their uniforms for business suites, and took over lucrative businesses in sectors such as mining and construction. A guided tour of downtown Yangon is replete with references to businesses owned by ‘cronies’, a favored term to describe those who won controlling stakes through their connections with the government. In parts of Latin America, this kind of dramatic opening and selective privatisation of the economy is known as a piñata, synonymous with ‘crony capitalism’…..
(iii) Transitional justice is always difficult and almost never satisfying. As in any transition from authoritarian rule, the formerly-oppressed find themselves having to work with their former oppressors. This is certainly the case in Burma, much more so given the country’s vast and brutal system of imprisonment and torture. For many Cubans, this is a scenario they could foresee theoretically, but challenging to contemplate in practice…..
*A core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy