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Poland, marking 30 years of Solidarity, hopes Cuba will defeat communism too
CubaNews / July-August 2010

By Larry Luxner

It’s about the last thing you’d expect to find in Kazimierz, the heart and soul of Krakow’s old Jewish quarter: La Habana Café, complete with mojito-sipping tourists, photographs of old cars and Che Guevara’s iconic image beckoning to backpackers visiting the Tempel Synagogue directly across cobblestoned Miodowa Street.

On the other side of town, in an industrial area near Oskar Schindler’s famous enamel factory, a doctored, sinister rendition of that same Che glares at pedestrians in the form of blood-red wall propaganda posters that read “El Presidente — Che Komorra.”

That would be Stanislaw Komorowski, the free-market president of Poland who was re-elected in a bitter contest last month.

Despite the imagery, the fact is Che barely matters at all in a country where communism is today a fading memory — especially among the younger generation which seems far more interested in learning English and making money.

This August, Poland celebrated the 30th anniversary of the founding of Solidarity, the defiant labor union that — with help from the Polish Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II — defeated communism in 1989 and elected Lech Walesa president a year later, paving the way for democracy’s rise throughout Eastern Europe.

Can the people of Cuba learn anything from this experience?

That was a question this reporter continually asked officials, civil-society activists and others — including Lech Walesa himself — during a week-long press trip to Poland that coincided with both the presidential elections and a high-level summit in Krakow marking the 10th anniversary of the Community of Democracies.

“I’m always thinking about Cuba,” Walesa told CubaNews during a 45-minute interview at the Hotel Pod Roza in historic downtown Krakow. “It’s like a mosquito on America’s nose.”

Walesa, 59, spoke to the visiting group of journalists shortly before appearing at the democracy summit, which was attended by 87 foreign delegations — along with 200 civil-society activists from blatantly unfree countries like Burma, China, Cuba and Zimbabwe.

Hosted by Poland’s current foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, the Jul. 3 event took place at Krakow’s elegant Opera House and the nearby Juliusz Slowacki Theatre. The undisputed star of this event was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke of the role civil society played in defeating communism throughout Eastern Europe a generation ago.

“Poland actually is a case study in how a vibrant civil society can produce progress,” Clinton said. “The heroes of the solidarity movement laid the foundation for the Poland we see today. They knew that the Polish people desired and deserved more from their country. And they transformed that knowledge into one of history’s greatest movements for positive change.”

At the other end of the spectrum are the worst dictatorships on Earth, she said. “North Korea, a country that cannot even feed its own people, has banned all civil society,” the secretary of state noted. “In Cuba and Belarus, civil society operates under extreme pressure. And the government of Iran has turned its back on a rich tradition of civil society, perpetrating human-rights abuses against many activists and ordinary citizens who just wanted the right to be heard.”

To strengthen the role of civil society, Clinton urged the Community of Democracies to establish an objective, independent mechanism for monitoring repressive measures against NGOs.

“Secondly, the UN Human Rights Council needs to do more to protect civil society,” she said. “Freedom of association is the only freedom defined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights that does not enjoy specific attention from the UN human rights machinery. That must change.”

Advancing democracy is in fact more needed than ever “at a time when democracy finds itself under pressure and suffering a crisis of confidence,” said Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who also spoke at the summit.

“After a year of popular protests in Iran, the Green movement has been crudely and brutally put down. Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest in Burma,” he said. “Even the most long-established democracies are facing serious challenges, from popular disenchantment in the political process to the fraying social contracts between citizens and governments in the wake of the global economic crisis.”

Sikorski noted that the Krakow location of the meeting “could hardly be more appropriate,” as Poland looks to “share its experiences and help other countries in implementing democratic reforms.”

And today, that means bolstering traditional democracy promotion programs while harnessing new tools and technologies, such as Facebook, Twitter and other social networking media. It’s no secret that cellphone texting and iPhone applications can empower opposition groups, document government abuse, and even thwart Internet censors.

As far removed as iPhones and Blackberries may seem from the shipyard strikes that defined Poland’s democracy revolution, Walesa said the protest movement he spearheaded 30 years ago relied on the same premise: bringing people together to raise awareness.

“Solidarnosc is when you have to carry something heavy, and you need help carrying the burden,” he told us. “Today, Cuba is a burden, and we need more friends to carry it.”

The Nobel Peace Prize winner credits Solidarity’s “ability to organize the masses” for breaking the Soviet chokehold that had strangled Poland since the end of World War II.

“Once we saw our strength in numbers, we started to really come together,” he recalled, explaining that the Gdansk shipyard protests exposed the fundamental weakness of the communist system, which is when “we really kicked them in the shins.”

Walesa — along with Czech President Vaclav Havel (see related story, page 22 of this issue) — has for years been in the forefront of activities that support Cuba’s dissident movement. He’s also spoken at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, a decidedly anti-Castro NGO.

Yet surprisingly, the former president does not support the continued U.S. travel ban or the embargo, for that matter.

“We should learn to fight not by confrontation but by opening Cuba up,” he said, arguing that an influx of American tourists would likely have more of an impact on Cuba than the failed five-decade-long embargo.

Boguslaw Sonik, another key figure in the Solidarity movement who spoke to reporters during the July press trip, agreed that communism relied on a strategy of intimidation and division.

“We realized that the only way to topple communism was to join forces and stay united,” he said, warning that today Russia often pursues a similar tactic of dividing European nations against one another.

Sonik — who currently serves as a member of the European Parliament — also stressed that Solidarity was a nonviolent movement that avoided “any kind of protest that could have provoked the authorities to use their power against the people.”

Nevertheless, threatened by the increasingly large and coordinated protests (by 1981, Solidarity had more than 10 million members, nearly every worker in Poland), authorities did clamp down on the popular movement, imposing martial law in December 1981 and dissolving the Solidarity trade union less than a year later.

So the movement went underground and pressed on until the beleaguered puppet government finally entered into talks with Walesa and other opposition leaders in 1989, leading to parliamentary elections in which Solidarity trounced almost every single communist candidate and was able to form a coalition government in August 1989.

It was a stunning victory that not only had a domino effect throughout Europe (the Berlin Wall fell six months later), but demonstrated the resolve of Poland’s workers, who began rising up in the late 1970s and endured more than a decade of Soviet repression. “In the end though, the communists realized they were bankrupt and could no longer rule the country,” Sonik said.

Walesa echoed that sentiment.

“Communism collapsed simply because it was a bad system. But the collapse of an idea is one thing,” he said. “The building of something entirely new is completely different.”

Walesa and other Poles caution that their country’s long, arduous path to success can’t easily be replicated in other nations today.

“I need to stress that Poland’s situation was very specific because after [World War II], the regime did not manage to suppress and break the church,” said Sonik, calling the Catholic Church “an enclave of freedom and survival for Polish citizens” that formed one of two pillars of Poland’s struggle for democracy, the other being the country’s workers.

An ex-journalist who organized press coverage of Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Poland in 1979, Sonik said the appointment of a Pole as pope “gave everyone strength and showed us what was possible.”

Although Poland’s unique circumstances can’t necessarily be duplicated, many officials admit that — 30 years after they became a beacon of hope in the Cold War — Poles could be doing a better job inspiring other emerging democracies today.

“This is the greatest failure of Poland, translating the Polish experience into a universal message,” said Janusz Reiter, Poland’s former ambassador in Washington, who now heads the Center for International Relations in Warsaw.

“The 1980s were a sort of Polish decade in Europe. Poland was writing a blueprint for the European revolution, but then suddenly, Poland lost its sense of mission. Today, there’s bit-terness that our contribution is underestima-ted,” he said, lamenting the fact that the collapse of communism today evokes dramatic images of the Berlin Wall being toppled rather than Solidarity’s shipyard strikes in Gdansk.

In fact, a Cuban tourist visiting Gdansk’s “Roads to Freedom” exhibit might be forgiven for thinking he had never left Havana.

Underground, a woman in drab clothing wears a ring of toilet paper rolls around her neck like a trophy, having emerged from a near-empty grocery store with barely any groceries — though absurdly, jars of useless vinegar abound.

The toilet-paper lady is actually a mannequin in the exhibit, which chronicles Solidarity’s rise to fame. That era recreates the de-pressing realities of daily communist life, from non-working pay phones to rancid bathrooms.

Dominik Jankowski isn’t old enough to remember the summer of 1980, but Solidarity’s brave shipyard strikes did have a profound effect on the young activist. Jankowski, 27, works as chief editor at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation — one of many Polish NGOs of the type Clinton praised in her speech.

Named after a famous Polish-American Revolutionary War hero, the Casimir Pulaski Foundation is a Warsaw think tank dealing with world affairs. It was established in 2003, a few months before Poland officially joined the European Union, and Jankowski was brought aboard two years later.

Asked what advice he has for Cuba, Jankowski said: “You have to organize the grass roots. You have to build civil society from the bottom up, not from the top down. Even if the Castro regime disappears, it doesn’t mean Cuba will become a democracy. They’ll have to do it clandestinely, as Poland did.”

Jankowski is optimistic, however.

“Solidarity was an internal movement, supported by forces from outside. You could build Solidarity in Cuba, but this movement in itself cannot bring down the regime. It must have support from outside. But I’m positive. I look not only at Poland, but also Ukraine and the success of the Orange Revolution.”

Added Reiter: “It’s difficult to give advice in a free country to people who live in extremely difficult conditions. I know for sure that the Polish success story would not have been possible without strong support from the United States and Western Europe — even though Western Europe was sometimes more ambiguous in its support for us.”

“Outreach is the best thing you can do if you want to make changes in a closed society,” added the ex-diplomat. “Anything that can help achieve that should be welcomed.”

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