Cuban Lustration?

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The New York Sun

How will we know whether all the news coming out of Cuba is really historic? The question started to present itself, at least this season, with the Atlantic’s interviews with the island’s communist dictator, Fidel Castro, who told the magazine’s reporter, Jeffrey Goldberg, that the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, should stop slandering the Jews and who declared that the Cuban model isn’t even working for Cuba.

Then came the announcement from the state labor union that half a million government employees would be let go as part of the economic reforms Mr. Castro’s brother, Raul, is purportedly putting through. There is talk that the number of state employees let go will eventually reach a million. The clamor is on for America to lift its trade embargo against the Communist regime. So how does one know when it is time to take all this seriously?

One test will be whether there are signs of a Cuban lustration. This would mean the long process of identifying and bringing to justice those who participated in or collaborated with the Communist regime that has oppressed the island for more than half a century. It would mean undertaking efforts like the lustrations in the newly liberated Eastern European countries — among them, Romania, Poland, and Hungary.

Some of these lustrations have had brutal moments, such as when, in Romania, Nicolai Ceaucescu was given a two-hour trial and then, with his wife, taken out and shot to death. Others, like South Africa, say, have been more formal and methodical. In the Czech Republic, according to an account by Kieran Williams in the Central European Review, some 303,504 screenings for collaborators took place between 1991 and 1997, with 15,166 “positive certificates.”

In the Czech instance, the lustration was designed to exclude from the future running of the country various Party functionaries and those who had worked for or collaborated with the secret services operated by the communists. They were excluded from what Williams calls “a range of public offices” such as the upper reaches of the civil service, the judiciary, the secret service and senior field and general grade positions in the Army, as well as the management of the state-owned enterprises, the central bank, the railways and certain top academic positions.

“To avoid charges of revenge-seeking and legal retroactivity,” Williams writes, “lustration was sold to the federal assembly and the people in 1991 as a defence mechanism for the fragile new democracy. It was not meant to serve justice, or help the country come to terms with the past, or criminalize activities that were legal at the time, but to prevent a repetition of the Communist coup of February 1948.”

One can argue about the details of any or all of these lustrations, but it is hard to argue with the success of transitions like that in, say, the Czech republic and most of the other Eastern European countries. These were serious, revolutionary moves away from communism. Individuals were named and felt the consequences of their collaboration, and in many — or one can speculate, most — cases their lives will never be the same.

What a contrast to the way the Castro brothers seem to be hoping things will go in Cuba, with, in Mr. Castro, the architect and leader of the Communist oppression announcing and adjusting the terms of the transition. The press isn’t free. There isn’t a freely elected legislature. There is no multiple party system. And while there may be talk of selling state industries, or setting up partnerships with them, there does not seem to be talk of returning the state property to those from whom it was stolen.

This is a time to maintain a long memory. In the case of the war that was levied against the Jews by Hitler, the process of sorting out the material claims didn’t really begin to get down to business until the 1990s. One of the footnotes to this story is that the reporter who, in the early 1990s, broke for the Jewish Forward the news that a settlement was nearing in talks with Jewish representatives over World War II era claims in Europe is the same Mr. Goldberg who has been interviewing Mr. Castro for the Atlantic.

It is going to be illuminating to see how the United States Congress handles this phase of the struggle for freedom in Cuba. Clearly the Europeans are preparing to rush into Cuba to cut deals with the remnant communist regime or with its approved partners in the “private” sector. But will the Obama administration or the American Congress sanction such a rush from our shores? Or will its cooler heads demand a process of lustration to protect the rights of those who lost their freedom and their property in the communist conquest of the island?

The New York Sun

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