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Poland has lessons for Cuba, Dr Chodakiewicz says

A version of this paper was delivered at the Roundtable Discussion on “The Polish Transition: Lessons for Cuba” at the Olga and Carlos Saladrigas Hall at Casa Bacardi, Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami, on February 13, 2006. I devoted my remarks to the struggle of Guillermo Farinas on hunger strike in Cuba for the freedom of the press.

In Cuban émigré and dissident circles there has been much talk about how to achieve freedom. There has been much less pondering of what to do when freedom comes, as it inevitably will. Perhaps the Polish case can help Cubans prepare for that joyous day.
 What occurred in Poland from 1989 was not instantaneous freedom or independence. Instead, a transformation took place. To transform means to take an entity and re-shape it, while retaining its basic qualities. Namely, the Communists transformed themselves to prosper under a system which for all reasons and purposes appears to be a liberal democracy. This was possible mainly because hardly anyone prepared oneself for freedom.

A Legacy of Freedom

 When I was a child, growing up in Poland in the 1960s, I was taught at home that my nation was not free. I was also instructed about the importance of fighting for freedom. The lesson was about faith and not politics. It really did not matter whether one won or lost. It only mattered that one fought.
 And I had faith. I believed that Communism would fall one day. However, having moved to the United States in 1982 and having attended college here, I heard my American professors lecture not only that Marxism was a good thing but that the Soviet Union was here to stay.
Well, I still maintained faith. I continued to believe that Communism would fall but I did not think that I would live to see the day. Consequently, I was utterly unprepared when the Soviet might crumbled and Poland became free. More importantly, the émigré Polish political elite and the dissident elite in Poland were likewise quite unprepared for freedom.
True, in the 1970s and 1980s, a few Polish underground groups declared their loyalty to the Polish government-in-exile in London. At least one clandestine organization rejected the Communist experience in toto and posited legal continuity before the pre-World War II Polish Republic and free-Poland-to come, supporting the constitution of April 23, 1935. To be sure, these independentist stalwarts were viewed as exotics at best.


Not surprisingly, the postulates of such mavericks were completely ignored in 1989 when Poland gradually regained its room of maneuver domestically and internationally. Nonetheless, the nation has made enormous strides since then. Democracy is working both at the national and the grass-roots level. Law has been liberalized and so has law enforcement. The press is free. The elite is energetically pluralistic on the political, social, cultural, and economic fields. Educational opportunities multiplied as private schools mushroomed throughout the land and contacts with the free world continued unimpeded. The economy has been reformed; the stores are full; the inflation is kept at a minimum; foreign investors regard Poland rather favorably. A member of NATO and the EU, Poland’s borders seem secure.
On the face of it, then, there is nothing to complain about. However, there are negative aspects of Poland’s transformation.

Democratic participation

First, democratic participation is on the decline. About half of the electorate votes. This trend can be traced back to the Spring of 1989, when the Communists and their left-wing collaborators in Solidarity concluded a power sharing agreement, the so-called Round Table Deal, which essentially excluded from the legitimate political scene anyone but them. Consequently, in June 1989 the Communists and Solidarity left-wingers duped the people into believing that they were taking part in a free election. In fact, it was an eminently unfree election with only 35% of all parliamentary seats opened to contest. The Round Table Deal virtually assured that those would go to the left wing collaborators. The rest of the seats were guaranteed to the Communists and their puppet proxies in the so-called “United Peasant Party” and “Democratic Party.” Thus “elected,” the parliament promptly voted to appoint Poland’s erstwhile Communist dictator, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, as the nation’s President.
Since the sham election failed to solve Poland’s social, political, and economic problems, and they blurred the line between the victims and the perpetrators, the people have increasingly stayed away from the polls. Consequently, the electorate plays the “throw the rascals out” game with a gusto, returning the ex-Communists to power every four years and throwing them out four years later. Simply, the deal of 1989 created a permanently de-stabilized system, where parliamentary majorities among the anti-Communists are well nigh impossible to achieve. Once again, only a de-Communization would have taken care of this.

Law and law enforcement

Second, the liberalization of law and law enforcement has resulted in a virtual crippling of Poland’s judiciary and police. Communist judges were not purged for the most part. Oftentimes involved in transgressions and even crimes of the former system, they have now scrambled to establish their “liberal” and “democratic” credentials by cuddling criminals, disregarding the rights of the victims, and, occasionally, indulging in gross corruption as well as hobnobbing with the mafia.
Although the hearts of the post-Communist judges bled over many a common criminal, in particular a fellow party kleptocrat, they failed to apply this touching sensitivity to the victims of Communism. For years, secret policemen guilty of murder and torture went unpunished. They mocked publicly their victims and the democratic system of Poland. They even sued scholars for slander.
State TV news was censored, for example to exclude the pictures of weeping widows of the “Wujek” coal mine massacre by the Communist riot police in 1981, when the perpetrators were repeatedly acquitted. There were even problems rehabilitating the heroes of the anti-Nazi underground who also fought against the Communists and were judicially murdered by them. The victims often alleged not only ideological but also family connections between the judges handling the cases in the 1990s and their secret police predecessors who had been responsible for false imprisonment, torture, and killing of the independentists in the 1940s and 1950s.
This partly explains why the police, only partly purged, has shown itself to be odiously open to laxity and corruption. At best, until recently, much of the police force appeared to be on “an Italian strike,” non-interfering with the law-breaking. Some policemen actively joined the criminal underworld, where, reportedly, many former Communist secret policemen hold sway.
Consequently, the popular perception is that the Communists are still in charge in the police and the judiciary. This was greatly reinforced by the fact that the left-Solidarity elite and the Communists simply amend the Stalin constitution of 1952 (modified in 1976) and touted it as fit for free Poland. Thus, they completely ignored legal requirements of a modern nation and the sensibilities of the victims of Communism. This was to be a stop gap measure before a “real” constitution was enacted. It took five years for the post-Communist-dominated parliament to vote in the current Constitution (April 2, 1997). Its chief purpose became to safeguard the uneven system established in 1989. In fact, the Constitution in its original form was so flawed that much of it is incompatible with EU requirements and had to be adjusted accordingly, a process still incomplete.
Of course, a different solution was available. One only had to restore the Constitution of April 1935. That would have been a superbly significant symbol, underscoring the continuity of freedom from pre-war to present day Poland. With its strong presidency, amended to fit a more democratic time, the April Constitution would have helped to usher in an era of stability into a mercurial political system.
It would have also been prudent to restore some of pre-war Poland’s laws, including, for example, the banking law which contained a proviso against check kiting, a loophole conveniently used by the ex-Communist kleptocrats and other nefarious forces to plunder the state treasury. Naturally, even the best laws fail if there are too few in the elite who believe in them. And that would not have changed without a sweeping de-Communization.


Third, Poland’s economic recovery has not been a uniform success story. Initially, the collapse of the state bureaucracy and laxity of tax collection inadvertently created propitious conditions for the growth and flowering of the small and medium private sector, services in particular. Soon, however, government regulations and excessive taxation undercut the organic, grass roots effort for economic self-mobilization. Many enterprises went out of business; many descended into the murky world of grey and black economy.
Further, unemployment has hovered, rather steadily, at 18 percent, for over a decade. Unemployment is also distributed unevenly regionally with some areas reporting over 30% out of work population. Hidden unemployment goes largely unreported. Such incredibly high rate of unemployment strongly suggests that it is a structural, and not a market cycle, problem. This can be largely traced back to the fact that Poland’s economic reforms were devised by ex-Communists, Marxists, and supporters of big government. Instead of the Cato institute team, the gurus arriving in Poland were such foreign experts as Harvard’s Jeffrey Sachs who never hid his love for Sweden’s socialist welfare state. This was hardly a paradigm to apply to Poland in its efforts to extricate itself from the coil of Sweden’s most malevolent cousin — the Stalinist welfare state. In other words, Poland’s free market still suffers of too many Marxist solutions, statism in particular.
Moreover, that the dominant left-Solidarity and ex-Communist leaders agreed to this jarringly unjust and inefficient economic “solution” of structural unemployment strongly suggests that much of Poland’s elite have disregarded the welfare of the people. That is excluding the conservatives and the populists, most of whom are, alas, likewise rather etatist. A de-Communization would have lessened this trend.


Fourth, once again as the result of the Round Table Deal, until quite recently, the media were almost an exclusive domain of the post-Communists, ex-Communists, leftists, and liberals. The monopoly was breached with the emergence of a populist Catholic newspaper, radio station, and cable TV run by the Redemptorist fathers. The new comers are shrill, also because their avowed mission is to destroy the elite consensus of 1989. Independently from that, the internet has created a sphere of freedom unanticipated by the Round Table Deal. Both on the web and in the integrist Catholic media, the free market dealt a blow to ex-Communists and their supporters. Simply, the audiences voted in favor of news pluralism. A de-Communization at the outset would have leveled the media field from the outset and it would have eliminated the need to any populist shrillness.

The Elite

Fifth, as far as the elite is concerned, true, it is pluralistic. However, it is a skewed pluralism engineered from the above in 1989 to benefit the ex-Communists and their leftist allies. Simply, almost anyone opposing their solutions and platitudes is excluded from the mainstream and reduced to penury. There was no level playing field anywhere, least so in finances. The Communists and their collaborators took over banks and industrial enterprises in an orgy of embezzlement probably second only to Russia’s kleptocratic revolution of the 1990s.
Most importantly, there was no property restitution in Poland. Instead, there was “privatization.” The chief beneficiaries of the latter were ex-Communists and their allies. Many of the properties thus privatized had belonged to the old pre-World War II elite, at home and abroad, which tends to be conservative. The old elite was left to litigate its indubitable rights in post-Communist courts, where most of the judges have been less than sympathetic to the idea that the victims of Nazi and Communist expropriations should be justly compensated.
No property restitution spells no wealthy elite inclined towards tradition and conservatism. Also because of this, but not only, until recently, the conservative forces remained sidelined in the media. One reason was the media distribution scheme of 1989 favoring ex-Communists and leftists. Further, shrill populism does not appeal to many conservatives and, thus, some have elected to stick to the magical circle of low circulation and low distribution scholarly periodicals, most of them irregular, if not ephemeral. Lacking access to the media and finances, the conservatives thus often fail to win the minds of the intelligentsia that is prone to liberalism purveyed by ex-Communists, ex-Communist dissidents, and other leftists. Thus, the conservatives cannot seem to be able to enlarge their base much beyond Catholic nationalism, verging between a rather pragmatic version and an integral one.
The conservative appeal is also limited on the free market front. And the West prefers to deal with the power brokers: the ex-Communists and their collaborators. Even when foreign capital moved in, it tended to hire, at the top, people well connected in the system, hence, once again, the post-Communists and their covert and overt allies. Nonetheless, many young, talented, and educated people found much coveted jobs with foreign companies. Because of high unemployment, however, the young tend to conform rather than rebel. Once again, the young were not permitted to set up the system, including the overall job environment but, rather, were coopted to it. Hence, they accommodated, while failing to identify fully with the system. A de-Communization would have included a sense of participation and creation of a new system.


Sixth, the increase in educational opportunities failed to translate into the enhancement of the quality of education. This is reflected in the poor quality of instructions, lax controls over the intellectual output of professors and students, and general corruption. Cheating and plagiarism are rampant. And so are numerous cases of bribe taking in exchange for passing grades and even university diplomas. There is still no full freedom of research. Some archives are still kept off limits to independent researchers; so-called “privacy laws” drafted by the Communists protect all sort of wrong doers, including murderers from the Communist secret police. All this has only recently been revealed. Almost invariably, the old academic guard has been involved in the scandals. After all, there were no purges in Poland’s universities. The old Communist professors now have camouflaged themselves as liberals and sell their Marxist drivel in the liberal garb. Further, the old academic guard has cloned itself and has continued to appoint oftentimes mediocrities. After all, university salaries are relatively low and the most brilliant graduates move into the job market where there is more freedom and more money. This concerns all schools, including the new ones, across the board and each and every single one university department in Poland. Once again, a de-Communization would have addressed a majority of problems on the education field.


Seventh, as far as Poland’s security is concerned, things are not as rosy as they appear to be. Once again, the ex-Communists strenuously opposed Poland’s accession to NATO. Later, they pragmatically surfed with the wave and Poland was admitted. However, until recently, the post-Communists were sleeping soundly because most senior officers were trained by the Soviets and had been Communist party members. Young officers trained in the West, including the US, often saw their careers sidelined, if not outright torpedoed. Similarly, the secret services, both civilian and military, are largely depositories of post-Communist dinosaurs trained by the KGB. Their nefarious and illegal activities, including maintaining contacts with the ex-KGB and their successors, gun-running, and manipulating the economy, have been well documented. In particular, Poland’s energy sector is afflicted by their heavy hand joined in a loving embrace with the post-Communist politicians at home and post-Soviet forces abroad. The proposals to appoint, for symbolic reasons, once again, to denote discontinuity between totalitarian and new Poland, General Stanisław Maczek, the senior-most surviving commander of the Polish-Armed-Forces-in-Exile were dismissed with cynical laughter. (Similarly, the efforts to enlist other experts, including pre-war and war time diplomats, were met with jeering despite their obvious utility for the state). Further, there are countless agents, mostly former agents, of the Communist secret police in the media, Church, academia, parliament, and state institutions. So far they have used their pulpits, often invoking Christian charity and always taking the lofty and impartial tones of sublime morality, to preach against vetting of the agents and de-Communizing the nation. However, only a thorough de-Communization would alleviate the problem of Poland’s lack of security.
Last but not least, what Poland needs is moral rejuvenation. Strangely, in the land of the late Pope, moral relativism is the weapon which worked best to benefit the Communists and their allies. The ambiguity of the deal of spring 1989, the defiled sacredness of the June 1989 parliamentary “election”, and the stupendous financial success of the Communists and their collaborators is a sin crying to heaven for vengeance. God will take of his own business to be sure. However, a thorough de-Communization, within the limits of the law, is long overdue in Poland.

Continuity or Discontinuity?

To summarize, when Poland regained her independence after 1989, the new state was for the most part a legal continuation of the former “people’s republic.” Next, the old Communists solidified their grip on banks, media outlets, and major industrial enterprises, privatizing them in a kleptocratic orgy of acquisition. Moreover, a nefarious nexus was established between the new “capitalist” class and the Communist secret police, some of whom continued to work in the secret services of democratic Poland, while others joined the business world or the mafia. Last but not least, the Communists soon regrouped, repainted themselves as “social democrats,” and became one of the most important political parties in the parliament, electing a majority and a President within four years. Their funding initially came from the KGB but soon the local kleptocrats started chipping in generously to shore up their erstwhile comrades. Thus, although they nominally paid lip service to democracy and freedom, the former beneficiaries of the Communist dictatorship have remained in power in all but name. They are the real winners of the transformation process. As a result of the deal of 1989, the elementary sense of fairness and justice is missing from Poland’s political, social, cultural, and economic system.

Evolution or Counterrevolution?

This sorry state of affairs had much to do with the evolutionary manner of restoring freedom in Poland. In particular, it reflected the power sharing arrangement the Communists concluded with leftist dissidents in the spring of 1989. And it should not have been so. To negotiate with the Communists – yes. To sacrifice the most cherished principle of democracy, a free and unfettered elections, at the altar expediency augured badly for Poland. After all, the tyrants have no right to enjoy the benefits of freedom after terrorizing the nation for half a century. Freedom should not be just camouflage for their continuing ascendancy in the world of politics and economy.
No agreement with the Communists should have been kept as religiously as the Round Table Deal was. First, in Western tradition, no contract concluded under duress is valid, and the Communists were the party with a monopoly on power and terror. Second, the Communist party self-dissolved in winter 1990 and their Soviet overlords in fall 1991. Hence, no contract remains valid if one party to the agreement ceases to exist.
Nonetheless, the leftist collaborators stuck to the letter of the Round Table Deal long after it became a dead letter. Why? Because their democratic declarations notwithstanding, the leftist collaborators found it convenient to maintain the system. That helped them enrich themselves and shore up their own position in the body politics. Further, to prevent the rise of the Right, it was expedient to keep the Communists strong and to embark upon formal and informal coalitions with them.

The West Looks On

This colossal fraud could not have been perpetrated without active Western assistance. In particular, the US Department of State, and US Embassy in Warsaw in particular, played a nefarious role in this arrangement. The Americans robustly encouraged the deal between the Communists and their leftist collaborators and guaranteed its perpetuation. The short term result was an apparent abdication of power by the Kremlin’s proxies in Warsaw. The long term result was the re-entrenchment of the former Communists in political and economic power.
To put it in symbolic terms that an average American would understand: How many would rejoice if General Augusto Pinochet was reappointed as the Head of the Armed Forces of Chile by the leftist government in power? Why stand idly by, nay, applaud, like many a Western intellectual has done, for example Timothy Garton Ash, who has recently praised Poland’s 1989 electoral farce as “semi-free elections”? Would Garton Ash and his ilk condone a similar deal with the Nazis? Or, say, between the Democrats and Republicans in the US? In any event, the Communists can now enjoy equal protection before the law, which is what their victims were deprived of for 50 years.

A Sham Democracy

Yet, the deal came to pass and its specter is still haunting Poland seventeen years later. That is why the nation has expanded so much of its energy to restore its past and penetrate into the Communist archives, secret police depositories in particular.
It is not to say that one should not have negotiated with the Communists. With an eye on Gorbachev’s unintended shenanigans, it was obvious that something was afoot. However, to finalize any deal was to play into the hands of the Communists. And Jaruzelski and his comrades did not have any democractic solutions in mind. Instead, they wanted to play the game the way it was dealt between 1944 and 1947.
At the time, the Communists and their allies co-opted the collaborationist part of the independentist camp, mostly leftist and liberal, to form a sham coalition government. They held fake elections. Next, gradually, having exterminated the freedom fighters in the forests and the political underground, they turned against the non-Communist leftists and liberals, who were crushed soon in what was a classic example of the infamous “salami tactics.” Collectivization, mass arrests, labor camps, jails, and the pacification of the countryside followed. It was coupled with the usual Marxist repression in media and academia. At least until 1949, most Western experts were duped, thinking that Stalin’s “the people’s democracies” were substantially better off in terms of freedom than those nations had been before the Second World War.
That was precisely the paradigm that the Communists attempted to recreate in 1989. They held firm to the secret police and the military as well as the financial and industrial infrastructure of the state. They falsified the elections of June 1989. Only the implosion of the Soviet Union prevented Jaruzelski and his team from reassuming full power without the liberal disguise.

A Lesson for Cuba

How does all this translate into Cuba’s terrible predicament? It is obvious that a negotiated settlement is favorable. However, freedom does not come free. Now that the nuclear threat is out of the picture, a military invasion by the émigrés is feasible, although not probable. Another option is a revolution in Cuba itself. It can be violent and, if successful, there will be precious few Communists left to negotiate with. It can also be non-violent, which is preferable of course.
Any which way it becomes free, Cuba needs the émigré expertise. Having spent their lives in a free country, they are better equipped intellectually to understand certain general processes of development and reconstruction than the Cubans who have had the misfortune to spend their entire lives under totalitarianism. The émigrés will have to help prepare a democratic constitution for the island. They will have to draft laws, including the crucial law on de-Communization, symbolically and practically spelling the end of totalitarian violence. They will have to provide the financial backing and expertise for restarting Cuba’s economy. The businessmen among them will have to control the natural tendency of corporations to hire top people with ties to the past.
The ex-Communists should wield no power whatsover in politics, culture, and economy. Instead, ex-Communists can be utilized as technical experts at most. There should be a strenuous effort to hire true dissidents (who should be vetted to determine whether they had collaborated with the Communist secret police), if only to symbolic posts. The local Cubans should feel that new Cuba is theirs and not a foreign transplant, even if the “foreigners” are Cubans from Miami. Remember, pride is easy to offend.
Further, private and church charities should be supported and encouraged to build civil society. Other beneficial grass-roots initiatives should be supported in education, sports, and social welfare.
Law must be kept. The guilty, Communist secret policemen in particular, should be promptly brought to justice. The universities should be purged and foreign Marxists and leftists discouraged from imposing more totalitarianism on Cuba in a liberal guise.
Cuban émigrés should eschew marshalling the resources of the US federal government for the most part, except as far as the reforms of the military and secret services are concerned. Otherwise, US federal involvement spells the advent of high-jacking Cuba by political correctness, the State Department’s kind in particular. However, federal scholarships and grants should be accepted for Cuban students to study abroad. On the other hand, Cuban émigré foundations and leading families ought to endow scholarships for that purpose and to award the best students in Cuba. Also, private foundations should select scholars with a track record most favorable to Cuba’s fight for freedom and fund their teaching stints at Cuba’s universities.
There is truly much to do. When freedom comes, let the Cubans and their friends be not unprepared. Viva Cuba libre!

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 9 February 2006