Thursday, April 25, 2013

Cuba's Ladies in White spokeswoman Berta Soler's nonviolent action and its international impact in 2004

Berta Soler's 2004 act of nonviolent defiance in Cuba led to a second act of resistance in Costa Rica
Berta Soler

Berta Soler in Miami! Join her and the exile community in a vigil in honor of the memory of Laura Pollán and other Cuban martyrs on Saturday, April 27 at 5:30pm in Merrick Park located at Le Jeune Rd & Miracle Mile in front of Coral Gables City Hall. Learn how she inspired me.

The Moral High Ground vs. The Violent Mob

 What is the most important weapon in breaking people's wills? This may surprise you, but I am convinced that holding the moral high ground is more important than firepower.” - VADM James B. Stockdale, USN

The inspiration that led to a violent mob being successfully confronted by a minority who held the moral high ground in San Jose, Costa Rica on November 16, 2004 came from inside of Cuba a little over a month earlier. On Tuesday, October 5, Berta Soler Fernandez delivered a letter addressed to Fidel Castro describing her husband’s (Angel Moya's) plight to the government offices behind the Jose Marti monument in Revolution Square. Later that same day, joined by five other wives of Cuban prisoners of conscience, she went again, this time prepared with food, water, and blankets. Berta then declared to international media:  "I am going to wait here until I see my husband with my own eyes or I get arrested." Later, despite a massive paramilitary operation, her primary demand was met. Seven years later, following a sustained nonviolent campaign by the Berta Soler and the Ladies in White, Angel Moya was released.

Angel Moya and Berta Soler
            Non-cooperation is the use of force, albeit non-violent to effect profound change. Gene Sharp’s analysis of Gandhian non-cooperation is that “the primary motive of non-co-operation is self-purification by withdrawing co-operation from an unrighteous and unrepentant Government. Then, the secondary objective is to rid oneself of the feeling of helplessness thus being independent of all Government control.” In her campaign against the Cuban government, Berta had the high moral ground combined with the courage and discipline not to participate in the injustice being done to her husband. 

Berta Soler was willing to take action. This had both important external and internal effects. I believe that the internal effect had a greater impact on the final external impact. Internal effects here are defined as effects upon the soul or spirit of the activist while the external effects are the manner in which her action led other activists to respond in solidarity with her, and the regime to react (either negatively or positively to her demands). 

Self purification is by definition at its essence non-cooperation with evil. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago offers a firsthand experiential account of understanding good and evil:

“It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”

The Christian tradition speaks of original sin and the Roman stoics spoke of the inner conflicts between the moral purpose and the will. In all cases the struggle to resist evil and to do good is constant and throughout a lifetime there are victories and defeats regardless of which one chooses to embrace. No one is purely evil or purely good. Nevertheless, refusing to cooperate with evil -- engaging in non-co-operation -- is a method of self purification that also raises moral forces in the practitioner giving greater reserves to challenge an unjust adversary.
            This provides the context in which the series of events that created a nonviolent confrontation in the Legislative Assembly of San Jose, Costa Rica.  Costa Rican members of the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba led by former president Luis Alberto Monge invited other Latin American and European leaders as well as representatives of civil society to hold an “International Forum for Democracy in Cuba” on the eve of the Ibero-American Summit.  The Legislative Assembly is open to the public to reserve rooms, and organize forums and information sessions. The organizers of the forum followed all the appropriate protocols and filled out the appropriate forms, and were given the space. This was all done openly and without any subterfuge.

The Cuban government learned ahead of time on November 9, 2004 that the event was being planned and attempted through diplomatic channels to have the event suspended, even before it started, accusing the participants of being: CIA agents, terrorists, and servants of the North American government, and requesting that Costa Rican authorities inform them of the steps taken to cancel the event. When Costa Rica, a bastion of democracy and civil liberties in the Americas refused to suspend the event on November 10, 2004 the Costa Rican consul was called to the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations and once again the Cuban government demanded that  the Costa Rican government cancel the event.  Diplomatic notes were sent shortly afterwards on November 11 and November 12 with the aim of canceling the forum.

Having failed to stop the event the Cuban government sought to organize an act of repudiation inside the Legislative Assembly.  Costa Rica being an open and democratic society with a long history of tolerance and pluralism and the ability to engage in civilized debate all of its governing institutions are open to the public. The Cuban counsel, and high ranking intelligence officer, Rafael Dausá Céspedes utilized groups with ideological affinities with the Cuban revolution in Costa Rica to physically storm the event and use physical intimidation and threats of violence to shut it down after it had started. 

Six activists including the vice-president of the Czech Senate, Jan Ruml began a “sit-in” to protest the actions of the mob. They refused to depart the room under a threat of violence. One of the six held up a picture of the “Ladies in White” throughout the sit in. This led to a two and a half hour stand off by six activists against a mob of sixty. Meanwhile in another part of the same building the event went off without a hitch, because the sixty did not want to surrender the room to the six.

How was this possible? What happened? The answers are simple. This is possible because those few who engaged in the sit-in made a specific demand. They refused to leave the room under a threat of violence. They were willing to risk their lives to defend their right not to be threatened or assaulted by a mob. The sit in placed a handful of participants at the mercy of a mob of sixty.   National and international media were present in the room to document the behavior of both sides in the confrontation. 
The sit-in participants were willing to negotiate to achieve their goal and as the minutes stretched out into hours the mob of sixty not as disciplined began to leave forcing the organizers of the mob to negotiate. After more than two and a half hours (at the time the Legislative Assembly was due to close) Costa Rican officials, still fearful of violence from the mob, carried out the non-violent protesters engaged in the sit-in bringing an end to the stand off. 
The Costa Rican public and press criticized the government for not removing the violent mob, and viewed the action of the mob with justly harsh criticism. The six engaged in a non-violent sit-in to protest the violation of their right to free assembly, free speech and freedom from intimidation held the moral high ground and won the day. 
All of this was made possible by Berta Soler, whose example, taking action to save her husband against incredible odds but with great moral courage inspired another act of resistance 918 miles away in the face of another mob organized by agents of the Cuban government.
One of the benefits of a nonviolent moral stand is that it is a positive example that inspires others and leaves a positive impact that often times cannot be measured or predicted.
What: Vigil with Berta Soler to honor memory of Laura Pollan and other Cuban Martyrs

When: Saturday, April 27 at 5:30pm

Where: George Merrick Park at City Hall
400 Biltmore Way, Coral Gables, FL 33134
across the street from Coral Gables City Hall, at the intersection of Le Jeune Road and Coral Way (Miracle Mile).
From 836: exit Le Jeune Road, travel south to Miracle Mile.

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