Carlos Saladrigas and the Two Cubas / Iván García

Right now there are two Cubas. The visible, of official gridlock, popular disenchantment, and an unknown future. And that in which what happens in the few spaces in which the regime allows bare-chested debate, and where those who think differently aren’t called “mercenaries”, nor are they accused of being agents of the United States.

It looks like gibberish. While a Cuban who yells “democracy and freedom” in the public way is crushed with billy clubs and karate chops dispensed by intelligence experts in street fights, slowly and behind closed doors, liberal thought gains ground, respectful and tolerant.

One of these pockets of democratic debate is located in the old San Carlos seminary, in the old section of Havana. There, on March 30th, the magazine “Lay Space”, a publication of the Catholic Church, organized a conference there with the Cuban-American entrepreneur Carlos Saladrigas. Its title: Cuba and the Exodus.

Access was free. In the packed room close to 200 people gathered. You could see alternative bloggers like Yoani Sánchez or Miriam Celaya. Independent journalists a la Reinaldo Escobar and Miriam Leiva; economists marginalized by the State such as Oscar Espinosa Chepe; activists for racial integration such as Juan Antonio Madrazo and Leonardo Calvo, and a new generation of dissidents, like Eliécer Ávila or Antonio Rodiles.

Also in the discussion were distinguished neocommunists such as Félix Sautié or Pedro Campos; the moderate politician Esteban Morales; the anti-State priest José Conrado and His Worship Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, an authentic man whom nothing deters.

The majority of the democratic dissidence on the Island approves of these grounds for civilized debate. It’s the society on which they bet.

At 4 o’clock sharp in the afternoon in the central hallway of the Félix Varela Salon, Carlos Saladrigas made his way. He wore a white long sleeve guayabera, a trimmed beard, and wire-framed glasses.

After greeting the audience, he took out his Apple tablet and began his presentation. It wasn’t extensive. In little more than 30 minutes he drew with a broad brush his impressions on Cuban exile.

Saladrigas knows what it is to be dispossessed. Son of a political family during the republican era, he inherited from his father the genes of a pure and tough negotiator. His story is the vision we have of the United States. The solitary boy who arrived in an operation frocked by the Catholic Church, known as Peter Pan, and when his family could travel, he had to wash dishes and pick tomatoes in South Florida, as Saladrigas himself tells it. Then he became a successful businessman, with an estate valued at several million dollars.

Between that Saladrigas — who cried inconsolably and prayed in the last row of wooden pews at a small parish church in Miami in the 60s, and this one — seated with his immaculate guayabera in a debate arena in the Cuban capital, there is a 180-degree turn.

At one stage, he asked for the head of Fidel Castro on a tray; it was the shot at a target for all he’d lost. He had to live transplanted in Miami, while he felt the lullaby of la Habanera Tu or La Bayamesa in the distance.

After having been a conservative who disavowed all dialog with the olive green autocrats, and opposing a crossing loaded with Catholics to the other shore, he would travel to Cuba in 1998, during the visit of John Paul II, Saladrigas moved his political positions from the ultra-right to the center, perhaps leaning a little towards the left.

The ’why’ of his transformation is something that isn’t clear. If we were to take at face value his public statements, we would have to come to the conclusion that his Catholic faith put to the missile test was one of the causes of his political transplantation. There are those who allege other reasons.

In his rear-view mirror, Carlos Saladrigas observes how the pages of the almanac turn inexorably and the Cuban economy springs leaks everywhere. Castro II is betting heartlessly on State capitalism. And a virgin island opens its legs to, in the near future, receive the dance of the millions. Perhaps he doesn’t want to arrive late for the cutting of the cake.

At least so thinks a sector of exiles and dissidence on the Island. You can’t be naive. Something is cooking in the sewers of power. In that very salon, some months ago, a firm Fidelista like Alfredo Guevara responded to questions from “sellout mercenaries” such as Oscar Espinosa Chepe, ordered to be imprisoned in the spring of 2003 by his friend Fidel.

Through the San Carlos seminary have also passed some suspicious types, like Arturo López-Levy, graduate from a US university, and professor in Denver, cousin of Luis Alberto López Callejas, son-in-law of General Raúl Castro and the best picker of hard cash in Cuba.

The dissertation of Carlos Saladrigas was nothing to write home about. Old news. What every Cuban knows, because he has at least one relative in exile. The key wasn’t the bland, politically correct chat. No. It was the message that the round trip which sent Saladrigas into dissidence and exile has for the future of Cuba: reforms are underway and he wants to be one of the agents of change.

After his presentation, Saladrigas responded to a battery of questions. He ran several analyses from which we can learn that the Cuban-American impresario is not playing a sterile game, and is well-connected and informed, more than one might imagine.

He assured us that within 5 years, Cuba’s situation will unfailingly change. And, of course, ’no’ to more socialism, contrary to what was said recently in a press conference given by the economy czar, Marino Murillo, when he said that no political reforms would take place.

With serenity and self-assurance, Saladrigas drew a dream future of an inclusive, tolerant, and rich Cuba. To achieve it, he said, the country will rely on its enviable human capital. The astute businessman winked at the regime in affirming that the best merit of the Castro brothers was having known how to administer poverty.

“There are nations that can generate riches, but do not know how to administer poverty”, he noted. With the intent of stimulating those disaffected who are waiting for the slightest opportunity to flee Cuba, he said “if you were 25 years old, you wouldn’t get out of the country before me”.

Carlos Saladrigas sees it all very clearly. Too clearly. I noticed that he did not question the hundreds of detentions of dissidents for the visit of the German Pope, or the spontaneous blow to someone who shouted “Down with communism” in the Plaza Antonio Maceo in Santiago de Cuba. Nobody else asked, either.

And it is these open spaces for the Catholic Church that generate a certain mistrust and some, not meaning all, attend to see and hear, not to investigate. It’s the lack of custom after five decades of listening to only one discourse. And many still don’t believe it.

Photo: Juan Antonio Madrazo. Carlos Saladrigas makes his way to the dais to give his presentation, after having greeted the independent economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, standing, in a black shirt.

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Translated by: JT

April 1 2012