Somewhere in Havana, Fidel Castro is probably laughing out loud to see Hosni Mubarak lose his grip on power after 30 years of undisputed leadership. In Castro's eyes, no doubt, the octogenarian Mubarak brought a world of trouble on himself by trying to mollify Western critics through the creation of a phony democracy that would give his regime a veneer of respectability.
Mubarak was never a softie. Egypt's intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, is justly feared throughout the Middle East for its inhumane treatment of anyone perceived as an enemy of the state.
But the flip side of this officially sanctioned terror was the attempt to create a kind of fictional democracy to give the state the appearance of legitimacy. Thus, Egypt's citizens had access to the Internet. Opposition (closely watched and within strict limits) was allowed in the media. The antiregime Muslim Brotherhood was officially banned, but its underground survival tolerated. Rival political parties exist, at least on paper. Until now, foreign reporters have operated freely and with little fear of harassment. Uncensored TV news from sources like Al-Jazeera was widely seen.
In Mubarak's Egypt, the illusion of freedom was allowed to flourish. When the upheaval came, the mirage vanished. Internet access was cut off, Al-Jazeera banned, foreign reporters detained and in some cases beaten by mobs, opposition silenced, the regime's thugs given free rein.
Cuba is a different place.
In Cuba, none of the trappings of democracy have existed for half a century. It is not part of the Castro playbook to permit any activity that would nurture the popular aspiration for liberty.
Access to the Internet for everyone — are you kidding? There is no opposition press, real or make-believe, no opposition parties, foreign reporters are closely monitored and the average citizen has practically no access to independent sources of information. Egypt's business class is reported to be in anguish over the turmoil because it's hurting the economy. In Cuba, there is no business class — the military runs the economy.
In Cuba, moreover, the military is an unconditional appendage of the Castro regime. In Egypt, the armed forces are an institution apart. Officers must support the regime, but the institution's ultimate loyalty is tied to the state and to the military's own traditions and customs, not to the political fortunes of one individual.
In Cuba, it's all about loyalty to Fidel and Raul. Officers are closely scrutinized for signs of disloyalty (and publicly disgraced, even executed, if they fall under a cloud of suspicion).
Fidel Castro has no use for the trappings of democracy because he has no interest in democracy. His is a zipped-up, no-nonsense totalitarian regime, designed to perpetuate one-man rule, brooking no opposition and making no concessions to foreign or domestic critics.
In the place of normal civic organizations, there are the notorious Committees for the Defense of the Revolution — neighbors spying on neighbors. Principled and outspoken critics of the regime are thrown in prison and left to rot. Dissidents honored by foreign human rights groups are rarely allowed to go abroad to accept their honors.
Fidel and Raul Castro have had 50 years to hone the apparatus of Cuba's paranoid tyranny. Crushing dissent has been their principal preoccupation.
If the streets of Havana do not burst forth with protest, it is not because Cuba's people are any less thirsty for liberty than the people in Cairo. But, unlike Hosni Mubarak, the Castro brothers have foreclosed every avenue of rebellion and taken every conceivable step to stifle the longing for freedom. Like the Sun King, Louis XIV, Fidel Castro has been able to proudly proclaim that he is the state.
© 2011 Miami Herald