Could opening up Cuba to direct U.S. help drive down Castro’s popularity?

For 50 years, the last remaining vestiges of the United States’ embargo against Cuba have seemingly defied both U.S. presidents and their advisors. Havana has not only relied on dollars that it receives from the U.S. government but has also hosted Cuban exiles and revolutionaries.

An additional layer of this political calculus is that without a mass uprising on the island, President Obama and his senior team will find that they must rely on the communist government to continue to pay the foreign debt they’ve inherited from the last decades.

However, a recent strong showing by the opposition in municipal and provincial elections last weekend represents the widest opposition to the Castro government since 1959.

This has created a major dilemma for the U.S. government. President Obama has insisted that the easing of restrictions would not lead to more regime change.

One of the most vocal voices advocating for change is Maria Fernanda Cardenas, Cuba expert and former CIA officer.

Last week she said in an interview that “It is looking like Fidel and Raul are already choosing their role of democracy… someone will have to lead this process.”

Cardenas is the founder of a forum for “unconventional thinking” in Cuba, Prensa Latina called Tal Espace, and recently founded an alternate political party, Movimiento Libre.

Currently the main opposition party is the Union of Unified Democratic Forces and the National Salvation Movement.

Against this backdrop, Cardenas said that protesters in Havana will likely only do what they’ve done for decades: organizing small protest marches around the city to air their grievances and advocate for freedom and human rights.

“If you call people up to be leaders and you say, ‘Hey, listen, we are raising our voices, the regime is changing and if you want to be part of the change, we need you,’ very often they don’t want to join. They don’t want to be the ones who create the friction. They don’t want to be activists,” she said.

Instead, they turn to other avenues to complain, most notably in the form of workers strike. It’s an issue that has played a central role in Cuba’s politics for more than a decade. Each time, the other side is able to stave off a strike by threatening to limit workers’ freedom of expression, buy off workers, shut down businesses, or arm the security forces.

That said, Cardenas says she will continue marching with protests. She is also speaking out because she knows that the economic problems in Cuba will persist in the coming months and years.

“When they are bickering, when they are killing, when they are bullying, they are always going to lose,” she said.

There is still opportunity. Cardenas says that the international community, in particular the United States, can influence the outcome of the next elections.

“A lot of the time it will be business-related, the people will not rally for change if they get cut-off and they will not mobilize if they don’t have economic sovereignty and the bargaining power that they need,” she said.

“At the same time, what we must see and be clear on and understand is that there is a critical need for the free movement of ideas.”

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