The Contradictions of Cuba’s Foreign Minister / Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

Bruno Rodriguez address the UN General Assembly.  Photo:

Bruno Rodriguez address the UN General Assembly. Photo:

The Contradictions of Cuba’s Foreign Minister

By Haroldo Dilla Alfonso. A translation by The Havana Times, of an article originally appearing in Cubaencuentro.

The United Nations has once again gone through the motions of condemning the blockade/embargo imposed on Cuba by the United States.  Though this gesture is very ineffective, I am happy it was repeated, for the blockade/embargo has increasingly become a stumbling block devoid of any evident advantages for anyone.

In addition to being an interventionist measure, the embargo has helped create an exceptional situation which the Cuban government has known how to use to its advantage, polarizing the island’s internal political landscape and manipulating national and international public opinion.

It is the latter I want to focus my analysis on, taking as my point of departure a number of the rhetorical maneuvers from Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez during his publicized speech before the UN General Assembly. I particularly wish to focus on the way in which Rodriguez has relied on euphemisms to give simple economic necessity a humanistic spin.

Ultimately, this leads his arguments to a kind of political dead end, evident in his remarks that describe the blockade as an act of “ignorance”, in a section of his speech which deserves a special place in the history of Cuba’s political schizophrenia.

Rodriguez says: “The blockade is an act of ignorance that prevents the free movement of people, the flow of information, the exchange of ideas and the development of cultural, sport and scientific links between our countries.”

What the stiff Cuban foreign minister means with this, in truth, is that the blockade denies Cuba tourism. Though one can reasonably expect that tourism will lead to the exchange of information and ideas between people, this is precisely the part of the whole affair that terrifies Cuban leaders, for whom the best possible international tourism would be of the kind that takes place at isolated keys, which are as close to paradise as they are distant from the reality of common Cubans.

At most, the Cuban leadership would approve of gringos and Cubans exchanging ideas about the best way to cook fried plantains, the amount of mint one should use to prepare a mojito or the advantages of oyster cocktails over Viagra pills, but not much beyond this.

But, since the blockade/embargo is framed as a humanistic issue, the discourse surrounding it cannot be besmirched with materialistic considerations. This is why Foreign Minister Rodriguez takes globalization at its word and speaks of human rights, the exchange of ideas and the flow of information.

He even bemoans the curtailment of the constitutional rights of US citizens, who are denied the right to travel to Cuba. No matter how hard Rodriguez tries to resemble Thomas Paine, however, we all know he is merely a shopkeeper, and that, behind his spiel hides Cuba’s interest in selling daiquiris, traditional summer shirts and multi-colored maracas to gringos.

Rodriguez’ efforts at sounding convincing stand a chance only within a closed circle of drowsy diplomats. His speech is divested of all sincerity from the start by the very nature of the speaker, the Cuban government, by its authoritarian character and the way in which it manipulates the rights of its quasi-citizens.

His rhetorical euphemisms turn into contradictions as soon as they are voiced, and these contradictions become sheer hypocrisy, for Bruno is one creature on the face of this earth who has no right to invoke the curtailment of rights by others, and this because he represents a State that denies Cubans the possibility of exercising such rights.

First of all, the Cuban government restricts the rights of its citizens to travel freely within Cuba. The internal movements of the population continue to be governed by a medieval decree law.

This government also denies Cuban émigrés the right to freely visit and travel around the country, a right that would be totally in keeping with a society that is already clearly transnational and relies on this condition to a considerable extent.

I believe that a highly significant part of the spiritual and intellectual production of Cubans is kept from society as a result of the repressive policies of the regime, and that this leads to the impoverishment of all, both inside and outside Cuba.

The recent migratory reform did not establish citizen rights. It only made travel legislation more permissive, leaving intact the mechanisms that maintain Cuban émigrés in their condition of exiles who are denied full rights.

Foreign Minister Rodriguez also represents a State that restricts the flow of information by denying the immense majority of its population access to the Internet (to blame this situation on the blockade is a bare-faced lie) and by maintaining strict control over the printed publications to which Cubans have access.

Numerous books, some of them written by Cuban authors whose intellectual merit has earned them international recognition, are kept on inaccessible shelves at Cuba’s National Library, and I know of cases in which whole series of works have been turned into pulp because of their ideological content.

Hundreds of works, containing the very best of intellectual production from around the world, remain out of the reach of Cubans simply because these books are published outside of Cuba, where, by contrast, all of the ideological pamphlets regurgitated by the regime’s followers are enthusiastically published.

Finally, Rodriguez is a member of a political class that curtails and represses all exchanges of ideas which take place outside the government’s restricted premises and the interesting but extremely short-lived spaces for authorized critique.

An intense production of ideas of the most varied nature is taking place within Cuba – the island and the diaspora of our transnational society, that is – and these ideas cannot be circulated or exchanged on the island.

I believe that a highly significant part of the spiritual and intellectual production of Cubans is kept from society as a result of the repressive policies of the regime, and that this leads to the impoverishment of all, both inside and outside Cuba.

To return to my previous comments, before aiming to have US tourists exchange small talk with a local waitress, I believe it would be far more productive to have a world-renown expert on social security issues (such as Carmelo Mesa Lago) converse with Cuban officials and share his ideas about the future of Cuba’s system.

Or to allow Pedro Campos to address the whole of Cuban society, so that he may explain his ideas regarding democratic socialism; or to grant this right to Siro del Castillo, so that he may speak of Christian Democratic values and their significance for Cuban society; or have a sociologist as knowledgeable about the intricacies of Latin American social development as Francisco Leon give a lecture at the university; or allow Yoani Sanchez to do the same in connection with the use of social networks and their importance to democracy, and Cuesta Morua on the many issues which he addresses so positively, among many others. Not because they are the opposition and critical of the government, but because they are Cuban intellectuals.

That this should not happen has evidently nothing to do with the blockade/embargo, but with the existence of the authoritarian and exclusivist political regime that Bruno Rodriguez represents – a government that, day after day, and against the best interests of the nation, conspires, and I quote, “against the free movement of individuals, the flow of information and the exchange of ideas.”

Haroldo Dilla Afonso, 6 November 2013, from Cubaencuentro.

Translated by The Havana Times

Cuba’s Monetary Unification: a Turn for the Better or for the Worse? / Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

Photos: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES —The announcement that the Cuban government plans to eliminate Cuba’s two-currency monetary system has awakened numerous concerns among common citizens and analysts. This was to be expected, for, even if we assume the simplest and most vulgar point of view on Cuban reality, it is clear that this is a serious issue that is going to change many of the rules of the game on the island’s playing field.

We should not imagine that the world is going to change after the two peso currencies are fused into one, but neither should we underestimate the significance of the measure.

I think that one of the most interesting things we find in the First Report of the Cuban Civil Society Consulting Group recently published by Cubaencuentro – I haven’t been able to find out who these people are – is the statement that some believe Cuban society is changing for the better and others for the worse. Ignoring such changes condemns us to idly imagine a society which is disappearing more and more every day.

The two-currency system was an emergency measure implemented by Cuba’s political class during the worst moments of the stifling economic crisis it brought about. It was also a monetary scheme suited to the economic system Fidel Castro then envisaged: a dual economy with a dollarized, dynamic sector, and a weak, Cuban-peso sector sustained by infusions from the first via payment balances.

It was the system that the military conspired against with its company streamlining campaign throughout the 90s and what former vice-president Carlos Lage promoted with unbridled Fidelista fervor until his political decapitation some years back.

The two-currency system has been maintained, and not without reason. Future studies will reveal to what extent the existence of the two currencies and parallel economies, and the diffuse border between the two which always provided those who crossed it with differential profits, has been a key factor in the original accumulation of Cuba’s emerging bourgeoisie, a class which today is nestled in the folds of the country’s political elite, the black market and foreign investment.

Currently, however, the two-currency system proves unworkable in terms of affording Cuba the quota of technical rationality and transparency its system requires.


The Havana Times translation is from the original article in Cubaencuentro.

28 October 2013

Haroldo Dilla Remembers Oscar Espinosa Chepe

indexDespite living for so long on an island so small, I never met Oscar Espinosa Chepe in person. It would have been an honor and an opportunity for me, mostly after discovering him in one of his incisive articles for the late magazine Encuentro during a night of insomnia on a plane in route to Madrid.

Since then, I have read him faithfully. And every time, the acumen of the analyst and the consistency of the democrat, but most of all the integrity of the intellectual, have gratified me. Despite spending several years in prison for doing nothing other than thinking well and differently, Chepe never allowed his emotions to overcome his professionalism.  And, this makes him one of those intellectual figures called to be enduring.  And for that, we will continue reading him for a long time for the good of the prosperous, equitable and democratic that he advocated.

Dr. Haroldo Dilla Alfonso, Sociologist and Historian

Translated by Ernesto Ariel Suarez

From Cubaencuentro

The Privatization of Education in Cuba: Kissing the Right Frog / Haroldo Dilla Alfonso (Posted on Dora Leonor Mesa’s blog)

By Haroldo Dilla Alfonso, Dominican Republic, July 26, 2013, Originally posted on Cubaencuentro. Translation originally on Havana Times.

HAVANA TIMES — An ad for a private day care center in Havana has been posted on the Internet (including Cuba’s classifieds page, Revolico) for some days now. The owner, Zulema Rosales, is reportedly the daughter of General Rosales del Toro.

Since I don’t know this person, or the general’s family, or the general, for that matter, I can’t really confirm this claim. I don’t know whether they are good or bad people, if they are hard-working or lazy, honest or not. As such, none of this stems from a personal judgment of these individuals.

Read the rest of this post in English here, at the Havana Times

16 September 2013

The Executed and The Accomplices in April / Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

FusiladosLorenzoCopelloCastilloBarbaroLeodanSevillaGarciaJorgeLuisMartinezApril 2013 marks a decade since once of the most depressing moments of post-revolutionary history: the so-called Black Spring. It was a time when Fidel Castro, excited about what he assumed was a revolutionary wave in Latin America and the arrival of the first subsidies from Venezuelans, decided to eradicate every sign of discontent and opposition that had accumulated along the road of defeat-after-defeat-until-the-final-victory that he had laid out. The pretext was, as it had been since 1959, shutting the door to the imperialist threat.

Although the Black Spring is remembered above all for the imprisonment of 75 opposition activists without due process, I focus my attention on another event: the shooting of three black youths for the failed hijacking of a passenger ferry that crossed Havana Bay.

As is well-known, a group of eleven young people participated in this criminal act on April 2, 2003, intending to reach the coast of Florida. This involved taking thirty passengers hostage, including two foreign girls who converted to kidnappers and who became, for the police, key pieces in the negotiations. Finally the boat ran out of gas, prompting the hijackers to accept a settlement that only their naivete could support: be towed to the dock at Mariel where they would be refueled so they could resume their journey north. Continue reading

Not All, General, Not All! / Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

Raúl Castro during the 26th of July commemoration

At last week’s celebration of the 26th of July something happened I didn’t quite understand. The program stated that Machado Ventura was going to speak, but then the General/President also spoke. It seems someone asked him to and people went along with it. After a speech by Machado Ventura — his oratory is unmistakeable, saying what everyone expects and in the most boring possible way — anything is welcome. And Raúl, when he improvises, has the virtue of using Cuban slang and relating trifling events, which is relaxing. And after a tirade from Machado one needs to relax.

Raúl dropped some interesting tidbits. One of them referred to the issue of wages. Given a population that spends the month — as my friend Henry says — “smoking under water” (that is making silk purses out of sows’ ears), the General/President declared that there will be no increases in salaries until there is an increase in production, especially in food. Which is very confusing in so many ways, but particularly in the fact that the reforms come to a halt right at the heart of things: the immense and dilapidated State economy. And in the lack of effective policies to jump start the agricultural economy.

And the responsibility for all this is primarily the orator’s, who has spent his six years in power playing around the edges, rummaging through other people’s pockets, with an economy that grows only in the government statistics. That is, inevitably, the General/President has to say as Sor Juana Inés said to the men of her day: you pay for the sins you condemn.

He then noted that doctors earn very little, but so, he said “do we all.” Another vulgarity because as it happens, and the whole world knows it, everyone, as he said everyone, obviously, does not have to count pennies. The overwhelming majority do, yes, but not all. And what puts some on one side of the line where very little is earned, and others on the side where a great deal is earned, is not a gamble or bad luck, but the result of the very politics and practices that animate the system commanded by the General.

And this is interesting for the following reason. The functionaries, intellectuals and academics faithful to the system, including the half-asleep journalists and badly-paid official bloggers frequently mention “the losers,” that is the people who will inevitably lose with an economic adjustment, needed, they say, for the economy to take off. There are a lot of dark corners here, because they are the same people who have been the preferred victims of belt-tightening: teachers, State employees, retirees, slum dwellers, women, young people entering the labor market, etc. etc.

Only our economists — who celebrate the Chinese model while condemning the Chilean — never clarify that these people are sacrificed, helpless to defend themselves or negotiate, because in an authoritarian regime like Cuba’s — as happened in Chile and is happening in China — there are no independent labor unions or social associations who represent the interest of the helpless “losers.”

But nobody — certainly not the anguished General/President — speaks about the winners. That is the tiny minority of people who better their economic and social situations and eventually become the dominant class in the emerging capitalism. This elite is already visible, and there are places in the principal Cuban cites, and especially in Havana, that serve as the seat for a kind of consumption and behavior that has nothing to do with the discourse of Machado Ventura. But everything to do with the descendants of people like Machado Ventura.

So while it is true that in this group of elite consumers there are many people who have arrived through a combination of talent and market opportunities — artists, writers, small entrepreneurs — these reasons have very little to do with the recruitment of the other chosen ones of the new Cuban capitalism. The most important group of the new elite are made up of those who appropriated the best houses in the best places to rent rooms (or even to run small hotels with very sophisticated services) or to open restaurants; or those who have the best higher-up contacts for joint-ventures, or those who run the best businesses to partner with foreign capital.

In short, those who had relations, political protections, information, and the cunning and astuteness to slide through the intricacies of an infernally corrupt system, all the while swearing allegiance to socialism.

These people, needless to say, do not have the low incomes that, according the General/President, are suffered by all Cubans. They are the winners of a divvying up of the spoils from the work of others, the frustrated expectations, and the dangerous resentments of millions of people of several generations.

People whom our economists call — simply — the losers.

From Cubaencuentro

30 July 2012

The Costly Frivolities of Percy Alvarado / Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

Eliécer Ávila and Yoani Sánchez at the CLICK Festival

I’ve been reading the whole imbroglio generated by Cuban State security agent Percy Alvarado with his article about Obama’s imperialist interference in Cuba. First he accuses everyone in sight of being pro-Yankee puppets, and later apologizes for having shoveling shit with such energy over those he wasn’t authorized to.

None of which is new to Percy, whose favorite hobby has been shoveling mud, as well as being mistaken in his unwholesome profession, because not too long ago the same thing happened with some Venezuelan Chavez supporters, to whom he gifted some shovels of shit and then later swore he didn’t mean to. It’s that there are people who, no matter the context they find themselves in, keep doing the same thing.

And now, reading about Percy Alvarado’s immature entanglements, I thought back to find the boy I met nearly forty years ago at Lenin High School. My first workplace.

At that time Percy Alvarado (PA) was a Guatemalan boy who taught high school literature classes and fantasized about his epic/guerrilla past and his decision to reunite the disbanded movements of Turcios Lima and Yon Sosa to march on Guatemala City. It was a little heavy but we all — students and professors — put up with it because, as our friend Pepín would say — without these fabrications Percy wouldn’t have existed. And perhaps because we sensed that that being who wandered the cold halls of “La Lenin” and discharged his frustrations on tolerant parishioners, was the best personal version you could get of this existence condemned to moral misery.

What followed has been terrible. Not because he was a spy — this is a profession like any other everywhere, and there have always been professional and honorable ones — but because he was determined to leave us his written memoirs. And to enter into the ideological game with some McCarthyism articles, like this now, the incoherence and humorous features of which did not omit their dangerousness as accusatory pamphlets in a country where there are no individual guarantees, nor independent judicial processes.

And it’s that PA’s article is not simply what it seems — a ridiculous burlesque — but a serious unfounded accusation that continues what the badly-paid-bloggers and Cubadebate were already cooking up when the CLICK Festival was held. Their intention is to create a state of opinion favorable to a crackdown on autonomous critical projects and the opposition, through their presentation of them as creatures of the American interference in internal Cuban matters, as anti-national boils that need to be lanced for the common good.

As an article, this poorly written pamphlet follows the rules of psychological warfare: a stunning collection of unconnected data, mentions of names with details of alleged activities (about 40 people were named/snitched on), a self-assured speech by the police in control, and the use of aggressive phrases that say nothing but imply a great deal. And above all, frighten.

It speaks, for example, of “known” things, about which “there is strong evidence,” accusations about about which “there isn’t a shadow of a doubt”; allusions to “secret meetings” with declared enemies and the promise that much more is known, but is being saved as ammunition for a future crackdown in which a guy like PA must feel like a pig in shit.

A favorite victim on this occasion is Eliécer Ávila — the young man who managed to draw out from Alarcón all the nonsense he harbored — who is called “the new favored son of the mercenaries.” He is accused of “harboring stupid ideas,” of wanting an “impossible Arab Spring,” and of using “fantasy concepts.” But despite everything he is warned that they are watching him very closely and will block the development of his “stupid-fantasy-impossible” plans with all “the resources and elements required.” All of which again demonstrates that Eliécer would be an excellent psychotherapist in charge of emptying decrepit minds, and that in this practice of saying nonsense there are no known limits: evidently Percy has surpassed Alarcón and his unforgettable metaphor of the skies filled with airplanes.

But Eliécer was not the only one. Antonio Rodiles comes in for his share, along with another four dozen people who are mentioned by name and supposed functions, with the same delight as a neighborhood snitch might find in it. This includes recognized critical figures and opponents of several new cultural projects and pluralist projects from the left like the Havana Times. And he adds, in a very odd manner, the prestigious Citizens Committee for Racial Integration which, he states, offends patriotic values with its recognition of the Independent Party of Color and Evaristo Estenoz. Who, according to Percy, were active in the nineteenth (sic) century.

And here comes the slip that accentuates the ridiculous appearance of this badly contrived — and worse written — plot. In his wild unbridling of repressive virtue, Percy touched on the edges of sin when he included in his list of “mercenaries” five intellectuals who not only have nothing to do with the opposition, but who in some cases have carried out glamorous pro-government acts of faith. And who, therefore, are officially recognized as intellectuals.

The Ministry of Culture (MINCULT), which had published PA’s article in one of its newsletters, was forced to apologize for it (the only moderately positive thing in this muddy mess), alleging that the libel is not consistent with their editorial line because of the attack on the five intellectuals. And consequently (and here they return to the swamp), accepting by default the rest of the repressive arguments, personal attacks, simplistic view of the world, and to putting dozens of people and institutions in danger by the accusations of a scribe in service to the worst snobs of the Cuban political class. And this is awful for MINCULT and, I believe, lost in opportunity to show the world that there is still some decency and good sense in the high political spheres of the Island.

In the end I am always assaulted by doubts about to what extent this was an initiative of Percy Alvarado, or the fulfillment of a suggestion from some higher up, with the intention not only of terrorizing Cuban intellectual sectors, but also conditioning the members of the political class themselves who already understand that it’s not possible to continue to govern a nation as if it were a herd of cows. In any case, I believe that the result will be inverse of that expected by the perpetrators. There are situations and processes in contemporary Cuba that are irreversible, and among them is the emergence of an independent public, pluralistic and diffuse space that could not be decimated with another Black Spring.

Percy Alvarado brought all his existential failures, twisted arguments and shovels of shit and threw them on Obama.

And the young people of the Critical Observatory told him something as brief as it is substantial: “Enough already!”

23 July 2012

Do You Remember the Revolutionary Offensive of 1968? / Haroldo Dilla Alfonso

A former privately-owned store in Havana now under State ownership and management. The sign over the clothing racks states that the clothes are: “Recycled but of Quality”

On March 13, 1968, Fidel Castro, in one of his miles-long speeches, announced to the Cuban people what he called “the Revolutionary Offensive*.” In reality, it had nothing revolutionary about it, on the contrary, it was an essentially counterrevolutionary measure intended to eliminate the urban petty bourgeoisie. And with it to eliminate one of the few areas of social autonomy remaining in the country after the brutal nationalization of everything that moved. After this step, the only thing left outside the State sector was a limited area of small farm cooperatives of differing forms, that owned 30 percent of the land and supplied something like 70 percent of the agricultural food to the Cuban population.

The Revolutionary Offensive was one more step in the sociopolitical control of the population and in the construction of a Thermidorian regime with totalitarian aspirations that finally consolidated itself on the base of Soviet subsidies. It was also another step in the repression of everyone who seemed estranged from a new morality more similar to the plebeian asceticism of the medieval peasant movements than the Marxist proposal.

And it was a particularly damaging outburst of the anti-urban sentiment, in the same way that cities were considered as nurseries of amoral manifestations and the rural world as an idyllic place to cultivate the new revolutionary virtues. If anyone doubts this, read this short paragraph from a speech as homophobic as it is anti-urban, uttered by FC in March of 1963:

“Many of those bums… have taken the extreme liberty of attempting to go to some of the places of public attendance to organize their faggoty shows… our society cannot make room for these degenerates. The socialist society cannot permit that kind of degeneration. There are many theories, I am not a scientist, I am not an expert in this matter, but I have always observed one thing: the countryside does not yield this inferior product. I have always observed this, and I always bear it very much in mind.”

And from here, obviously, they derived practices such as the agricultural mobilizations that battered us for decades, the schools in the countryside, and in the countryside they terrorized the families until very recently, and the fatal UMAP** (Military Units in Aid of Production) that destroyed the lives and dreams of thousands of Cubans. All in an attempt to subjugate a Caribbean population to a stoical and monastic lifestyle that, logically, the new political class escaped by reserving for themselves intimate recreational sites within and outside the country.

Recently I returned to the speech announcing the Revolutionary Offensive. I hadn’t gone back to it since that day I heard it, when I was a teenager, stuck in the crowd filling San Lázaro Street. And reading it served to reaffirm my conviction in the value of democracy, of public debate, and of the independent press. Because the report presented by Fidel Castro (FC) against small urban businesses — in the midst of a several hour tirade that included observations about the drought, the fight against imperialism and the victory of the 10 million ton sugar harvest — constituted a gross manipulation of public opinions that could only be carried out from uncontested power.

FC’s report was based on a study applied to 6,452 private businesses — including snack stands — and 955 bars, never making it clear if they were included in the previous figure or were an additional number. It was undertaken by Communist Party militants from each municipality with the support of the surveillance entities, the CDRs — Committees for the Defense of the Revolution — which obviously were determined to construct the results to agree with the conclusions they wanted to reach, to legitimize the operation. And in particular, those conclusions fed into the political passions of the moment.

So the study presents frankly childish data such as specifying that 66 percent of the clients of the bars and 72 percent of the proprietors were “anti-social and amoral” deviants from the revolutionary purposes. Claims difficult to prove, but sufficient to identify the happy drinkers as zigzagging enemies of the Revolution.

On the other hand, in his speech FC grossly distorted the statistics. Let’s say, for example, that when only 28 percent of the businesses were not legally registered, this was presented as “almost a third”; or when he had to explain that 51 percent of the business had good hygiene conditions, 40 percent had average conditions, and 9 percent bad, he presented this data as almost half “did not have good” hygiene conditions. And so on, making the reading an invitation to laughter if it weren’t that through it he was hiding a wave of expropriations against workers, against the “people” whom FC himself defined in his legal plea of 1953***, and against the few remaining spaces of social autonomy.

I say expressly workers, because there is something that neither the endeavors of the investigators, nor the manipulation of the orator can hide: of these 6,542 small businesses analyzed in Havana, 72 percent were registered and paid their taxes on time, 88 percent of the owners worked in their businesses and relied on family labor, and only 31 percent of them had other employees. And 73 percent of the owner families had no other income, with the overwhelming majority having daily gross revenues of less than one hundred pesos.

Curiously, only 6 percent of the business owners had requested to leave the country.

In a country where at that time the only way to express discontent was with your feet.

Translator’s notes:
*The 1968 Revolutionary Offensive, according to Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, was intended to fight selfishness and individualism and eradicate parasitism. The government confiscated 55,636 small, private businesses.
**UMAP — Concentration camps for religious believers, homosexuals and other “counterrevolutionaries.”
***Subsequently edited and published as “History will absolve me,” this refers to his statement at his trial for the attack on the Moncada Barracks on 26 July 1953, generally taken as the start date of the Revolution.

From Cubaencuentro

9 July 2012