The Reestablishment of Civil Society: An Unavoidable Necessity / Dimas Castellanos

Dimas Castellanos, 10 April 2015 — If by “civil society” we mean a group of autonomous associations, public spaces, rights, and liberties by which citizens exchange opinions, make decisions and participate in political, economic and social matters that interest them–with no more authorization than what emanates from the laws of the land–then we need to agree that this institution existed in Cuba since colonial times, developed during the Republic, disappeared after 1959, and is now in a process of resurgence.

Early Existence

Starting in the first half of the 19th century, illustrious figures such as Father Félix Varela, who called the constitutional studies program at the San Carlos seminary a “curriculum of liberty and the rights of man” and strove to provide an education in virtues; José Antonio Saco, who from the Revista Bimestre Cubana (Cuban Bimonthly Magazine) generated debates that fostered civic consciousness; Domingo Delmonte who, when this medium and other spaces were closed down, found in conversational gatherings a way of continuing the debates without official authorization; and José de la Luz y Caballero, who devoted himself to civic education as a premise of social change, with their labors forged the field for citizen participation. Continue reading

Computerization The Old-Fashioned Way / Dimas Castellanos

The Information Society (IS) is an effect of a process of convergence among technological advances, the democratization of information, and communications, which erupted in the 1980s with such force that it caused the United Nations to call a world summit on information, which took place in the Swiss city of Geneva in 2003. At this summit, a Declaration of Principles and a Plan of Action were adopted, whose principal beneficiaries are individual persons who have the training for intelligent and creative use of modern technologies, without which social and cultural progress would be impossible.

Among the demands of the new information technologies, arising from their transformative character, is the need for immediacy when introducing them. One peculiarity that distinguished Cuba since the colonial period: the steam engine, patented in 1769, was introduced into Cuban sugar production almost immediately. The railroad, inaugurated in 1825, linked together the towns of Havana and Bejucal in 1837. The telegraph, which sent the first long-distance message in 1844, initiated its first line in Cuba nine years later.

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Elections Highlight Need for Political Change in Cuba / Dimas Castellanos

Dimas Castellanos, 24 April 2015 — Elections for delegates to the Municipal Assemblies of People’s Power were held in Cuba on April 19. In light of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States, they highlight the pressing need to expand the reforms to the political arena.

For the first time close to one million voters, 11.70% of the electorate, did not go to the polls. If we add to this the 700,000 voters who cast invalid ballots, the number of abstentions climbs to 1.7 million Cubans. That amounts to more than 20% of the electorate.

In 2003 the number of abstentions and invalid ballots totaled 6.09%. It 2008 it was 7.73%. In 2013 it reached 14.22%, almost double the 2003 total. This year it topped 20%. Such sustained growth is a clear indication of change in Cuban voting patterns that the authorities cannot afford to ignore. Continue reading

Cuba and the United States, a Return to Politics / Dimas Castellanos

Dimas Castellanos, 16 April 2015 — On December 17, 2014 the presidents of Cuban and the United States announced their decision to reestablish diplomatic relations. It was the single most important political event for Cuba in the last half century.

The Revolutionaries who took power in 1959 replaced the existing constitution with a few statutes. The designated prime minister assumed the office of head-of-government and the Council of Ministers replaced the Cuban congress. The promise to hold elections was never fulfilled, political power was amassed by the supreme leader, private property passed to the state and institutions were dismantled.

In response to Cuba’s nationalization of American property in Cuba, the government of the United States broke off diplomatic relations and initiated a policy of confrontation that has been maintained by every U.S. administration from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama. Continue reading

Rejecting Fidelism and Empowering Citizens / Diario de Cuba, Dimas Castellano

diariodecubalogoLooking back on the history of the conflict, Cuba and the United States tried to impose their political philosophies through confrontation only to have them run aground on the negotiating table. They opted for war as a continuation of politics in order to return to politics as a substitute for war. The presidents of both countries have now announced their willingness to normalize relations, which have been suspended since 1961.

The encouraging news has generated a variety of opinions ranging from those who believe that the problem has been solved to those who believe that nothing in Cuba will change. Some believe that changes are already taking place while others question the intentions of the Cuban government and America’s Republican legislators. Some — I being one of them — think the resumption of relations will be beneficial, albeit difficult Continue reading

The Death of “Fidelism” and the Collapse of the Embargo / Dimas Castellano

The decision of the president of United States to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, the interruption of which was so negative for the Cuban people, such that everything that happened in the last 53 years is related to this event, especially the setbacks suffered in material well-being, freedom and rights, which returned the country to a situation similar to that which existed on the island before 1878.

The antecedents to the rupture date back to 1959, when the revolutionaries replaced in 1940 Constitution with the Fundamental Law of the Cuban State, the prime minister assumed the duties of the head of government, and the Council of Ministers the functions of Congress, together marking the start of the concentration of political and military power in one person, the concentration of property in the hands of the state, and the dismantling of civil society.

The result was a totalitarian system which we call Fidelismo, characterized among other things by volunteerism, economic inefficiency, and hostility toward the United States; a system that began it decline starting in 2006. Continue reading

“I Always Did What My Conscience Dictated” / Dimas Castellano, Oscar Espinosa Chepe

Oscar Espinosa Chepe in his house in Havana

One of the central figures of the Cuban opposition, who participated in the revolution before its ultimate victory but ended up being sentenced to 20 years in Castro’s prisons, was the independent economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who died in Madrid. He recounts his life and ideas in this interview.

Born in Cienfuegos on November 29, 1940, Chepe joined the revolutionary movement while studying at the Instituto de Segunda Enseñanza in that city. After 1959 he held various positions in the Socialist Youth (JS) and in the Association of Young Rebels (AJR), in the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA), in the Central Planning Group (JUCEPLAN) and in the office of Prime Minister Fidel Castro.

He was punished for his opinions by being made to collect bat guano from caves and to work in agriculture. While on the State Committee for Economic Collaboration he was in charge of economic and technical and scientific relations with Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. He served as economic adviser at the Cuban Embassy in Belgrade and as a specialist at the National Bank of Cuba, from which he was fired for his beliefs in 1992.

Thereafter, Chepe worked as an economist and independent journalist, for which he was sentenced to 20 years in prison in March 2003. He was released on parole in November 2004 due to ill health.

The following interview of Chepe was conducted by Dimas Castellanos in Havana in 2009.

DC: You are described as an economist or an independent journalist, but we know little about the other aspects of your life. What were your early years like, your family environment?

OEC: I was born in Cienfuegos. My parents were from humble origins. They had business dealings with a string of pharmacies. My mother was also involved in the real estate business and together with my father came to own a drugstore in partnership with other people. I had a happy childhood but I was always interested in history, politics and social justice. My father encouraged these interests. He was a member of the old Communist Party and participated in the struggle against the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado, a cause for which he spent time in prison. During my undergraduate studies, I established contacts with members of the Socialist Youth (Juventud Socialista, or JS). Continue reading

Wages in Mariel: One Good Thing and a Lot of Bad Things / Dimas Castellanos

From cubacontemporanea.com

In accordance  with the new Foreign Investment Law*, workers will be engaged by an State-run employing organisation. When you factor in the fact that the only union permitted is the one representing the interests of the State, we are looking at a capitalist-style relationship in which the workers have no-one to defend them. Although we already knew about this, the information provided by the Director General of the regulating office of the Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM) is surprising just the same. Let’s see: Continue reading

One Night: A Critical View of Cuban Social Reality / Dimas Castellano


Una Noche
(One Night) is the film which best reflects why it is that young people leave Cuba. That’s how a female friend of mine, who is a lover of the seventh art, laconically replied to my question, after visiting the film exhibition in the 34th Festival of New Latin-American Cinema, which took place in Havana from 4th to 14th December 2012.

Because of the social theme it deals with, because of the magnificent photography of Trevor Forrest and Shlimo Godder, Roland Vajs’ and Alla Zaleski’s sound quality, and also director Lucy Mulloy’s script, the British-Cuban-North American co-production Una Noche constitutes an important cinematographic work, which, with its truthful narrative, gets close to documentary cinema; and, due to the authenticity of the people and social events it focuses on, it gets close to naturalism. Shot in Havana, with local actors, dealing with a national theme, the film can be considered to be part of the filmography of the island.

una-nocheShot between the years 2007 and 2011, the 89 minute film received international resonance with the news that the three principal protagonists, Javier Núñez, Anailín de la Rúa and Daniel Arrechada, deserted the artistic delegation going to the XI Tribeca Film Festival in New York, in the month of April 2012.

The first two did it as soon as they touched down on North American soil in Miami, the third, after receiving the prize in Tribeca. The event, something quite ordinary for Cubans, attracted international attention to the film and served to confirm the film’s story.

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No Rush… and No Results

In 1953, in his self defense statement [as he appeared at his trial for the Moncada Barracks attack] History will absolve me, Fidel Castro addressed some key issues pending in our country: land reform for instance. He announced on that opportunity, as a priority in his program, giving productive land to those in possession of five or less acres; a nationalistic and democratic project that had its first episode in October, 1958, when, in the middle of the guerrilla war a bill of law was issued from La Sierra Maestra. Once he took power, actual laws were passed–on May 1959 and October 1963–in which property titles were issued to 100 thousand farmers, but 70% of productive land remained in government hands.

The new monopoly of the land and the elimination of the institutions of the civil society related to the agricultural (farming) activity generated a progressive decrease of the agricultural efficiency, while about 40% of the productive land of the country became idle; a regression that was continued until Cuba lost the subsidies from the former Soviet Union. Since then, the government had spent millions of dollars to buy food supplies that otherwise could had been produced locally.

With such an obvious deficiency of the agricultural production, just five months after taking over the presidency of the State council and of the Cabinet, General Raúl Castro, conscious of the deplorable condition of economy, expressed emphatically: We have to focus on the land! We have to get it to produce! And he added, that sooner than later laws and regulations will be passed to (once again) lease idle lands to farmers on the condition they make them productive as soon as possible.

One week after his speech, the Official Gazette of Cuba published the Decree Law 259 on that regard. This measure, could not solve such a serious problem on its own, might have been valid if this law had been conceived as the first step in a long way to go, for which a strong political will is need to face the historical problem of private property in Cuba, worsened during the Revolutionary government which promoted large state farms (collectivism). Continue reading

Cuba and the European Union: A Change of Tone and a New Dynamic / Dimas Castellano

cuba eu flagsindexIn a statement issued on Tuesday, February 11th, Rogelio Sierra Diaz, Cuba’s deputy foreign minister, reported that the Council of Foreign Ministers of the European Union (EU) had authorized the European Commission and the EU’s senior representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, to begin negotiations on a political dialogue and cooperation agreement with the Republic of Cuba. He added that “Cuba will consider the invitation from the Europeans in a respectful and constructive way and within the context of Cuba’s sovereignty and national interests.”

This represents the possible start of negotiations on a bilateral agreement, which depends on the Cuban authorities’ willingness to accept the invitation. In this regard Catherine Ashton said, “I hope Cuba will take up this offer and that we can work towards a stronger relationship,” but added “the decision is not a policy change from the past,” which can be interpreted as a change of tone, not of substance. Meanwhile the EU ambassador to Cuba said that the policy is the same but there is “a new dynamic” and called the decision a “big step forward for a possible agreement,” adding that the agreement would “formalize cooperation at all levels on a firmer legal and policy basis.”

Transitions towards democracy are dependent on both internal and external factors, with the latter assuming greater or lesser importance in relation to the strength or weakness of the former. In retrospect we can see that this has been exactly the case with Cuba.

When revolutionary forces came to power in 1959, they became the source of all laws and led the country towards totalitarianism. The constitution of 1940 was replaced with the Fundamental Law of the Cuban State, which allowed the designated prime minister to assume the role of head of government and the recently created Council of Ministers to take over the functions of Congress. Subsequently, power became concentrated in the hands of the strongman and property in the hands of the state. Civil society was dismantled, and civil liberties and human rights were restricted. As a result Cubans were relieved of vital tools and opportunities for civil discourse, which meant losing their status as citizens.

In 1996 the countries of the then European Community, which maintained bilateral relations with Cuba, established the Common Position in order to “encourage a process of transition to pluralist democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as a sustainable recovery and improvement of the living conditions of the Cuban people.” That decision, which provided moral support to the island’s opposition, sharpened differences between the EU and the Cuban government. When the European Commission delegation took up residence in Havana in 2002, it  welcomed Cuba’s request to sign on to the Cotonou Agreement (1), opening a new stage in bilateral relations. However, the imprisonment of 75 peaceful dissidents in 2003 and the execution of three young men who attempted to commandeer a boat to escape the country led the European Union Council (2) to reaffirm that its Common Position remained valid and in force.

In 2008, when hurricanes deepened the country’s internal crisis, the government signed an accord restoring relations with the EU and agreed to restart a political dialogue. The European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cuba issued a statement announcing the decision, with the Spanish government playing a key role, repealing the Common Position. However, just as Spain assumed the EU presidency in 2010, two events dashed the arrangement: Cuba refused entry to Spanish EU deputy Luis Yanez and the Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died the following month of a prolonged hunger strike.

If the Cuban government were now to accept the EU’s offer, it would have to agree to a dialogue on the subject of human rights and proceed to reestablish what it should never have abolished in the first place. Interestingly, we are not operating under the same conditions as in the past, when then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Felipe Pérez Roque, said in reference to the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, “If the EU were to drop its insistence on a sterile and confrontational voting procedure, then Cuba would be inclined to sit down with the EU to work out a plan.” He added that Cuba “would feel a moral responsibility to abide by the European decision and would sign the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights the next day, indicating that we had entered a new stage in our relationship.”

Judging from the words of Catherine Ashton, certain demands would have to be on the table for EU countries to agree to negotiations.

She noted that, first, Cuban statutes would have to be brought into compliance with the United Nations Charter and all its instruments of international law such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 30 of this document states, “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as conferring any rights to a state, group or person to engage in any activity or perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.” It is a provision that for Cuba has special significance, as it was one of the sponsors of and signatories to this important document. Secondly, it would  also have to ratify human rights conventions it signed 2008, which form the legal basis for the principle of personal dignity and guarantee that the planned changes will have a positive effect on Cuban society.

To meet the first requirement, the Cuban government would have to halt political repression and summary imprisonment. EU countries would encourage exchanges with civil society so that Cubans might gradually emerge from the political margins to recover their status as citizens. This would help promote popular sovereignty so that Cubans might become the protagonists of their history and destiny.

In addition to other issues on the table there should be a requirement that the soon-to-be drafted Labor Code once again include the right to form free trade unions and the right to freely hire workers, two things that were part of the Labor Legislation of 1938 and the Constitution of 1940. Similarly, the new Investment Law should allow participation by Cuban nationals since the programs in which foreign investors are being invited to participate will be worthwhile only if Cubans benefit from these changes by having their rights restored. In the case of the Mariel Special Development Zone, the project will be of enormous benefit to the Cuban economy provided it helps lead to the country’s democratization. Otherwise, these steps will only strengthen the current economic and political model and condemn Cubans to continued civic, political and economic poverty.

(1) A comprehensive partnership agreement between the EU and 79 countries from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Article 9, paragraph 2 states: “The Parties undertake to promote and protect all fundamental freedoms and human rights, whether civil and political or economic rights.”

(2) Name for the European Community’s heads-of-state and heads-of-government summit, which takes place regularly, at least every six months.

From Diario de Cuba

14 February 2014

Cuban Baseball: Declining Slowly but Surely / Dimas Castellano

Alfredo Despaigne in the Caribbean Series2014.

Alfredo Despaigne in the Caribbean Series2014.

By Dimas Castellano

As if what happened during the first three days of competition on Margarita Island was an exception and not a manifestation of the stagnation experienced in all spheres of Cuban society, a sports commentator on the television show Morning Journal said that “the team from Villa Clara did not meet expectations.”

In baseball, which is the topic before us, what happened could not be a surprise. The avowed superiority of “free” versus “slave” ball was not confirmed in practice. The challenge launched against professionalism in 1960 did not stand the test of time. But the acceptance of this fact by the Cuban authorities—though without public acknowledgement and coming too late—is still good news, because this decision requires them to banish the ideological slogan and return to the path that they never should have left.

In 1948, at the meeting of the Caribbean Baseball Confederation held in Miami, representatives of the professional leagues of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama and Venezuela formed the Caribbean Series. From the inaugural event in February 1949, when the Almendares team went undefeated to take victory in Havana until the close of participation in 1960 with the victory of Cienfuegos in Panama, Cuban teams won seven out of twelve championships: irrefutable proof of the quality of “slave” ball during those years. Continue reading