For Cuba, Now Come The Hard Questions

Once the noise dies down over the deal with the U.S., Cuba's educated populace may not take it so well when it realizes the communist regime will budge very little at home.

An anti-American billboard in Havana
An anti-American billboard in Havana
Hugo Martini


BUENOS AIRES — It certainly is big news: the United States and Cuba restoring diplomatic ties after 53 years as enemies. Still, hard questions have been overlooked in all the excitement as we begin to imagine where Cuba is heading now.

Here are three key questions:

No. 1: President Barack Obama has decided to place Cuba on the same chessboard as countries with political systems opposed to American values, but that nonetheless generate no real risks in international affairs. How does this mechanism work? Havana was a danger to stability when, as a Soviet ally, it became a communist base 90 miles from the Florida coast.

The situation has changed, and Obama is now telling them they will have the same status as states like Russia or China. It is a message that refreshes a principle we Argentines might do well to bear in mind: State policies are made by the government in charge. The world will not act if states violate human rights, restrict press liberties, twist legislative and judicial functions to suit a government, imprison opponents without good cause or design legal systems with double standards — one for the government and its friends, and one for the citizenry.

No. 2: The project envisaged for Cuba, namely to make it a "Chinese-style" system of open economy and political dictatorship, could face difficulties. When Deng Xiaoping began China's economic liberalization in 1978, he was working on the basis of a reality: that 60% of the Chinese people were illiterate. In contrast, Cuba is winding down the Castro era with a 98% literacy rate, which is almost the same as in 1959 when it was the second Latin American country in terms of literacy after Argentina (according to UNESCO education quality reports).

In Havana — Photo: Christopher Michel

The question is, how will the highly educated Cuban population tolerate a system with two (capitalist and communist) heads? Teaching is essential to improvement, but you cannot simply have your way with educated people.

No. 3: The importance given to the Cuban culture may not last that long. Cuba has for the last half century been linked to one name, Fidel Castro, who has always been more important than his country. Cuba represents no more than .07% of the world economy, .06% of global trade, and 1.5% of the Latin American economy. Since January 1959, thanks to Fidel's clever strategy, Cuba stopped being a Caribbean island subject to regional power plays, and became a player in the Cold War. Until now it has never been a part of the politics of its own region, notwithstanding the end of that war and dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The end of the crisis prompts a question only the Cubans will be able to answer: Can they become something more than the Caribbean's largest island on its way to being a mega tourist hub?

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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