What the Cuban protesters can learn from Polish protests against the Soviet Union.
The outbreak of political unrest in Cuba is arousing great interest and sympathy in the West, with many eager to see the Cuban people throw off the oppressive communist regime. Many people hope that massive demonstrations will result in the fall of the Cuban communist dictatorship. It seems that the Covid pandemic is serving as a catalyst for a longstanding dissatisfaction with the performance of the communist system. Its failures fall on ordinary citizens, while the communist nomenklatura skims whatever financial surpluses can be found to maintain a luxurious lifestyle, which is regarded as illegitimate by the majority of society.
In view of widespread and explicit calls for freedom, there is a need to devise a more effective strategy that will help to achieve it. Here it is important to look at the experience of the most successful people power revolution: that of the Solidarity trade union in Poland.
The most important issue is the Cuban protest movement itself and this is where the Solidarity experience is most instructive. Many people assume that massive protest crowds will eventually succeed, as they did in Poland, in winning major concessions, institutionalizing reforms, and ending oppression. But as the experience of the last few years demonstrates, while mass protest movements occasionally achieve their aims, often they do not.
Solidarity did not depend on mass demonstrations to press its demands but rather had a sophisticated strategy to counter the communist government’s repressive measures. When, in 1970, Polish shipyard workers came out on the streets of Poland’s Baltic ports to protest food shortages, censorship, repression, and unsafe working conditions, the communist leadership sent out military helicopters to machine gun them down in the streets. Officially 41 were killed, over 1,000 wounded; others were beaten and received draconian prison sentences from the communist-controlled judiciary. But in 1980, when Polish industrial workers went on strike again for largely the same reasons, they demanded an independent trade union, proposed by Krzysztof Wyszkowski, which would permanently look after workers’ interests, not only in moments of crisis.
They did not go out into the streets. Instead, they locked themselves in their large, industrial enterprises, the so-called Polish strike. This had several advantages. It gave the protesters more leverage because the government could not hire strike breakers and carry on as usual. It made them less vulnerable to a physical assault, thanks to the sturdiness of factory buildings as well as the government’s reluctance to damage them. Young men with military training positioned themselves to assume the most dangerous positions.
Workers huddled inside factory fences, awaiting military assault, wondering if they had to sacrifice their lives and spent their time preparing for it with ministry from Catholic priests who gave them emotional and spiritual support. Their wives brought them food, never sure if they will see them again. Gates were covered in flowers in displays of support.
While concessions were won, the geopolitical position of Poland under Soviet control precluded full success. The Soviets lost faith in the backbone of party apparatchiks and transferred their support to the military, which imposed martial law, further compounding Poland’s problems. Only when the standard of living of the military-secret police-judiciary complex started going down both in Poland and the Soviet Union, partly as a result of communism’s failures and partly as a result of President Reagan’s sanctions, was the communist regime prepared to engage in serious negotiations and make compromises with their Solidarity opponents in 1989.
But there are clear principles that contributed to Solidarity’s initial successes, which merit our attention.
First of all, the use of violence was explicitly rejected. The communist government had a monopoly on the use of force, which it unleashed on demonstrators who were not in a position to respond. The renunciation of violence delegitimizes its use by the government and hopefully minimizes the number of victims. Solidarity always emphasized that it is a non-violent social movement and rejected armed resistance.
The second most important ingredient of Polish protestors’ success was, as implied by the name, worker solidarity and common action. Simultaneous strikes closed down all major industrial centers across Poland. The economy was in a spin. When Gdansk won its demands, Lech Walesa wanted to call off the strike but other strikers Anna Walentynowicz and Alina Pienkowska reversed his decision by reminding everyone that if Gdansk went back to work, other strike centers would be easily subdued. By waiting until strike demands were met for nearly one million strikers in Poland, workers held the government hostage.
Third, leadership is always important for success, and its cultivation by Solidarity created a group capable of forceful negotiating. Strike and protest leaders must be independent of the government and trusted by workers through spontaneous elections and rules, or the government will do everything to install their own informants as figureheads whom they can control. That’s why Solidarity decided on a loose federation of strike committees to make communist penetration and control more difficult, and why they produced numerous prominent leaders.
These committees must also communicate with each other and their constituents. In the pre-internet age, this was accomplished face-to-face by personal meetings and sending couriers with paper messages. Large amounts of leaflets were printed for the Solidarity effort. While contemporary political protests are fueled by social media, Solidarity had an effective system of communications before the internet.
All of this took tremendous organization and coordination but resulted in a victory. Solidarity was legally recognized as the first independent trade union in the communist bloc and managed to introduce a number of political and economic reforms, which limited power of the Communist Party.
Outside support did have a significant political role to play in legitimizing the protests. Solidarity was fortunate to receive strong words of encouragement from Pope John Paul II and President Jimmy Carter, as well as his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.
However, this support was greatly expanded and became crucial under conditions of martial law. The U.S. government, AFL-CIO, and other Western labor unions, supplied printers, fax machines, and other equipment to keep communications going and direct support for those who were imprisoned or in hiding. Further, the Reagan Administration imposed an effective sanctions policy on the Jaruzelski regime. There were sanctions imposed for every political prisoner taken, and they were lifted if he or she was released, which was constantly being negotiated by the U.S. embassy in Warsaw. This allowed Solidarity to survive under martial law throughout the 1980s.
Polish Solidarity had a unique strategy suited for its political environment and historical experience and can serve as a model of success for others. The lessons for the democratic opposition in Cuba from the Solidarity experience are clear, with a need to organize, communicate, lead, gain legitimacy, and define clear goals and political strategy against the government. Even if the protest movement is not immediately successful, it should take heart from Solidarity and realize that several attempts to overthrow the Communist Party regime might be necessary. It will need to continually adjust its strategies and guard against government manipulation of its protests.
In addition, outside support also plays a significant role in providing political, diplomatic, and financial assistance to the movement. It should be supplied by émigré groups, churches, and freedom-loving NGOs and governments. Defeating dictators truly requires solidarity on multiple levels.
Lucja Swiatkowski Cannon holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University and is a strategist, expert, and author on Eastern Europe, Russia, and U.S.-East European relations.