By David Roberts
As the Gaddafi regime appears set to crumble in Libya, perhaps now is as good a time as any to reflect on Latin America's last remaining dictatorship - Cuba.
There are more than a few similarities between the two regimes. Both are led by highly charismatic - some may say deluded - personalities in the form of Muammar al Gaddafi in Libya and, in the case of Cuba, Fidel Castro, who has largely given way in his old age to his slightly younger and much duller brother Raúl. Both the Libyan and Cuban systems of government claim to be socialist, in one guise or other, and both have lasted for decades, in part thanks to a brutal security apparatus. Both have also irked and confronted the liberal, democratic and capitalist west, and above all Washington, over the decades, in the case of Libya using terrorist tactics to do so.
In addition - and evidence of this has been seen in the Libyan conflict in recent months - both clearly have a significant degree of support among their respective peoples, although whether it was ever a majority is another matter. There are of course good reasons why the two regimes have enjoyed a degree of support. Gaddafi has used Libya's oil wealth over the years to make the country one of the most developed in the region, and also counted on the backing of his own tribe, while the Castro-led revolution overthrew a despised, pro-US dictator, winning the admiration of leftist ideologues around the world, and the subsequent regime has, despite its faults, made considerable progress in areas such as healthcare and education.
So why has one been brought to its knees while the other appears to be standing firm? There has, of course, been much speculation - often wild and unfounded, disguised as analysis - as to the real causes of the Arab uprisings, including poverty, corruption, cronyism, governments that simply don't care about their people and, at least the western world would like to believe, a genuine desire for democracy, all helped along by the use of social media. But one thing is clear, which is that no one foresaw what was coming and the governments that have been toppled or have come close to being toppled from Tunisia to Bahrain, all looked pretty secure less than a year ago from today. Just like Cuba right now.
So could the same thing happen in Cuba? Yes, of course it could. Many ask why don't the Cuban people rise up against the tyrants and demand their rights? Or how can people be so passive in the face of such tyranny? Yet the same could have been said all across North Africa and much of the Middle East until just a few months ago.
These things may not be predictable, even by the most astute of the so-called experts and analysts, but the important thing - whether we're talking about Libya today or Cuba tomorrow - is to be as best prepared as possible for a change, both the domestic opposition and the international community, to help ensure that mistakes of the past are not repeated and that what replaces the current regime is a big improvement on the old order, preferably with something resembling democracy. In the case of Libya, that includes not destroying the infrastructure developed by the Gaddafi regime, or "punishing" people for having worked for the government - and avoid letting the country fall into chaos like what happened in Iraq - and in the case of Cuba it would mean not reversing the gains made in health and education, among other things.