What Human Rights Are They Talking About? / Dimas Castellanos

Dimas Castellanos, 6 February 2015 — The conversations about normalisation of relations between Cuba and the United States, which were held in Havana on 21st and 22nd January, didn’t, as far as we know, advance the matter of human rights, because of differing understandings about the topic.

From the Magna Carta in 1215, up to the international treaties of 1966 — by way of the Act of Habeas Corpus (1674), the English Bill of Rights (1689), the Declaration of American Independence (1776), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789), and the Universal Declaration (1948) — human rights, at least in the west, are universal, indivisible, and interdependent and are expressed in concepts and principles to do with recognition, respect, and observance of judicial guarantees which protect the integrity and dignity of the human being. Therefore, the referred-to difference lies in reasons unconnected with this concept. A quick look at our constitutional history will demonstrate this. continue reading

In 1811, Father José Agustín Caballero, representative of the growing creole class, set out an Autonomous Government Bill for Cuba. This Bill envisaged an Assembly of Deputies of the People with power to pass laws and an Executive Power formed of a representative of the monarch, accompanied by a Council, which would give a collegiate character to the government.

In 1812, the independent-minded lawyer, Joaquín Infante, put together the Constitution Bill for the island of Cuba. This contemplated the division of powers (legislative, executive, judicial and military), tolerated religions, giving predominance to Catholicism, observed the rights and social duties related to equality, liberty and property and recognised freedom of opinion.

In 1821 the Constitution Professorship was created in the seminary of San Carlos. In his opening speech, Father Félix Varela, who was the head of that institution, declared: I would call this professorship, the professorship of liberty, of human rights, of national guarantees, of the regeneration of the illustrious Spain, the source of civic virtues.

In 1832, Father Varela presented to the Courts an Education Bill for the Economic, Political and Autonomous Government of the provinces of Ultramar, geared to Cuban circumstances. This Bill, which was not discussed due to the restoration of absolutism, disapproved of the putting in place of political  liberties and rights exclusively for white creoles. On this basis there was put together the first Cuban Bill for the abolition of slavery.

In 1869 the Constitution of Guáimaro was approved, which applied to the territories occupied by the Mambises. In this, the division of powers was endorsed, and it established that the House of Representatives could not attack the freedoms of worship, publishing, peaceful gatherings, education and petition.

In 1878, as a result of the Zanjón Pact, Spain established in Cuba, among other things, freedom of the press, of meeting and association, which gave birth to  Cuban society.  From those freedoms, the first political parties sprang up, fraternal associations, unions, journalism bodies and the first strikes.

In 1895 in Jimaguayú and in 1897 in Yaya, the second and third Mambisa constitutions were approved. In the first, military authority was split from civil and the civil government was devolved to a Government Council with executve and legislative functions. In the second, the Government Council had the right to pass laws and regulations in relation to the Government of the Revolution and military, civil and political life.

This included a part dealing with individual and political rights, in which everyone in the country had their religious opinions and worship protected, and had the right to freely express their views and also to gather and join together for legal purposes.

The 1901 constitution endorsed the division of powers, the idea of habeas corpus, freedom of expression, rights to gather and join together, and freedom of movement. Under its protection, a whole range of civic associations were created, and an immense network of newspapers and broadcasters. Its effect was reflected in the Protest of the Thirteen, struggles by the peasants, students, and especially the manual workers, who achieved the legalising of the First of May as Labour Day, and played a decisive role in the overthrow of Gerardo Machado in 1933 and the abolition of the Platt Amendment in 1934.

From Diario de Cuba

Translated by GH 

 

The New Scenario and the Absence of the Citizen / Dimas Castellano

Dimas Castellenos, Mexico City,  1 September 2015 — In Cuba, the concurrence among the failure of its totalitarian model, the aging of its leaders and the society. For this impact to be a positive one requires the presence of a missing factor: the citizen. If this thesis begs the question of how it is possible that in a country that is part of the Western world, and which has distinguished history of struggles, the citizen does not exist, the answer leads us to a complex phenomenon that demands more attention than has been given to it up to now.

The most immediate–although not the only–cause is contained in the dismantling of civil society that took place in Cuba in the Revolution’s first years, and in its later institutionalization. Civic education, the foundation of the citizen, began in Cuba in 1821 with Father Félix Varela[1], who upon assuming the post of head of the Constitution Department at San Carlos Seminary, defined it as the “institution of liberty and of the rights of man,” and conceived it as a means “to teach civic virtues.” continue reading

His work was continued by José de la Luz y Caballero[2], who arrived at the conclusion that “before revolution and independence, there was education,” and from this vision he conceived the art of education as being the basis of social change. This mission was carried on by succeeding generations of Cuban educators and thinkers up through the first half of the 20th Century.

Cuban civil society, which emerged as a result of the Pact of Zanjón in 1878, played an important role in the political/social problems of the Republic. This can be seen in the Protest of the Thirteen; the peasant struggles of San Felipe de Uñas, of Realengo 18 and of Ventas de Casanova; the strike movement that toppled the Gerardo Machado dictatorship; the student struggles for university autonomy and the repeal of the Platt Amendment; the Constitutional Assembly that gave rise to the Constitution of 1940 and the struggles against the coup d’etat of 1952; among other events.

The level of development that had been achieved by Cuban civil society was expressed by Fidel Castro during his trial for the assault of the Moncada barracks, when he said, “There once was a Republic. It had its Constitution, its laws, its liberties; a President, Congress and Tribunals; everyone could assemble, associate, speak and write with total liberty. The government did not satisfy the people, but the people could change it, and there were just days left before doing so. There existed a public opinion that was respected and observed, and all problems of collective interest were discussed freely. There were political parties, educational hours on the radio, discussion programs on television, public acts, and enthusiasm reverberated in the people.”

Despite those educational efforts and the advances of civil society, the level of maturity attained was not sufficient to impede its dismantling. In 1959, the Constitution of 1940 was replaced by the Fundamental Law of the Cuban State; power was concentrated in the hands of the leader of the Revolution, and property was transferred to ownership by the State, whose final stroke was the “Revolutionary Offensive” of 1968, which liquidated the more than 50,000 small businesses that still remained in the country. The result was confirmed in the Constitution of 1976, which institutionalized the total, absolute control of the State over the nation’s politics, economy, culture, communication media, and all persons.

If to this is added the negative effect of the loss of ethical values, frustration, despair, apathy, and the sustained exodus from the country, the Cuban reality appears to us in its nakedness and shows us the extent of the damage done as well as that which is to come.

By their very nature, all totalitarian models are destined to fail. The difference between one and another model lies in its capacity to last for a short or long time, which in turn depends on the degree to which each one is capable of limiting the freedom of individuals. In Cuba’s case, before the failure and the possibility of losing power, the revolutionary elite reinforced political, economic and cultural repression, and intensified its monopoly over the educational system and communication media. It was a step backwards, guided by the policy expressed by Fidel Castro in 1961, “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.”

Held back by this idea, with a society disarmed of civic institutions and spaces, in the absence of the most basic civil and political liberties, Cuban society–conditioned by the growing breach between wages and cost of living–took refuge in survivalism, being obliged to carry out supplementary activities, almost always outside the law, in search of alternative sources of subsistence.

This behavior, carried out over decades, transformed what was acceptable social morality. The Cuban, having been dispossesed of the condition of being a citizen, responded thusly: to low wages, alternative activities; to the absence of civil society, a hidden life; to the lack of material goods, theft from the State; and, when all possibilities were exhausted, escape from the country.

This scenario, which characterizes the Cuba of today, requires a cultural action, which as Paulo Freire[3] would say, “is always a systematized and deliberate form of action that bears upon the social structure, in the sense of, variously, maintaining it as it is, effecting small changes in it, or transforming it utterly.”

Why is this? Because, as the engineer López[4] would certainly affirm, “the properties of a system are ultimately determined by the properties of its components and the linkages among them, which therefore ensures that the quality of the system cannot be better than its components nor design, being that these act as limiters on the quality of the system as a whole.” Therefore, a better Cuba is not possible without better Cubans.

Building this culture requires, paraphrasing the concept of affirmative action, an educational action, equivalent to those that are put in place to ensure the participation and development of marginalized sectors. The realization of such a culture includes two simultaneous and interrelated processes: 1- Citizen empowerment, which will result from the measures implemented by the White House, and which the Cuban government will, on its part, need to implement if they are to be fully accomplished; 2 – Changes to the interior life of the individual, which contrary to the first process is not doable in the short term, but without which other changes will be of little use.

For the reasons outlined above, Cubans are excluded from the decision making process, but the participation in this process does not begin until there is awareness of each individual’s responsibility toward the destiny of his or her country. And this responsibility begins when each one makes a personal commitment and, based on this, seeks the collaboration of other people. It is a matter of a lengthy, but inevitable, process that proceeds from the interior to the exterior, from the individual to society, from the nation to the world.

The transformation of Cubans into public citizens, into political actors, is a challenge as complex as it is unavoidable, an unreachable goal without first feeling change to be not just something necessary, but something possible. And the only way forward lies in participation, in learning by doing, in making mistakes and starting over until we become effective, until we become true citizens.

Given all that has been outlined above, education curricula must include instruction in responsibility, which begins with the individual, flows to society, and extends ultimately to the international community. Thus, liberty, responsibility, rights and duties comprise an interrelated and indivisible whole.

Therefore, the effect of the concurrence between the failure of the totalitarian model, the aging of its leaders, and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States depends, above all, on our capacity to change so as to recover our condition as citizens which, in turn constitutes an inescapable necessity if we are to emerge from the stagnation in which we live.

[1] Félix Francisco José María de la Concepción Varela y Morales (1778-1853) was born in Havana and died in St. Augustine, Florida. He studied at the San Carlos Seminary, and the Royal and Pontifical University of St. Jerome in Havana, was ordained a deacon in 1810, and a priest in 1811. In the seminary where he studied, he occupied the chairs of Latin, Philosophy and Constitution.

[2] José de la Luz y Caballero (1800-1862), was born and died in Havana. He studied at the Convent of San Francisco, at the Royal and Pontifical University of Havana, and at the San Carlos Seminary. Educated in a religious ambience under the influence of his maternal uncle, the presbyter José Agustín Caballero, his love for his neighbor inclined him to the clerical life and the cloister.

[3] Paulo Freire (1921-1997), famous Brazilian educator. Among his most recognized works are Education as a Practice of Liberty (1967) and Cultural Action for Liberty (1970).

[4] José Ramón López, “Individual and Society,” article published in the digital magazine Consenso, Issue #5, 2005.

Previously published (in Spanish) in DiariodeCuba.com

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Cuba’s First Independent Think Tank Forms / 14ymedio

Opening day of the Meeting of Ideas in Cuba (Photo Miriam Celaya)
Opening day of the Meeting of Ideas in Cuba (Photo Miriam Celaya)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pinar del Rio, 12 September 2015 – This weekend the first Encuentro de Pensamiento (Meeting of Ideas) for Cuba is being held, sponsored by the independent think tank Center for Coexistence Studies. This meeting is intended to “think about the national home that we desire, contribute to the reconstruction of the human person and the fabric of civil society,” Dagoberto Valdes Hernandez, one of the event’s organizers, told this newspaper.

The program begins this Saturday with an opening panel that will address the topic, “The Cuban Economy in the Short, Medium and Long Term.” Among the guest panelists are María Caridad Gálvez, Pedro Campos, José A. Quintana and Dimas Castellanos. The discussion is divided into four subthemes: the economic model, property, work, and social security, according to the invitation to the participants. continue reading

The managers of the event also clarified that “in these laboratories of plural thinking it is not strictly necessary to reach consensus.” They added, “in the Cuba of ideas there will always be diversity and nuances,” while emphasizing that this will be “an academic workshop, that is, about studies. It will not be another political group.”

In welcoming remarks, Valdes Hernandez said, “our mission is to concentrate on a systematic workshop, coordinated with citizens, independent of ideologies and creeds, to support the fabric of a plural nation from a peaceful and inclusive vision.”

Founded in 2007, the Coexistence project is supported by its magazine of the same name, which has already published 45 editions, addressing issues ranging from culture to civics. For its part, the Center for Studies that has recently emerged considers itself to be “a continuation of the work started 22 years ago by the now defunct Center for Civic and Religious Training of the diocese of Pinar del Rio.”

Cuba Will Change To the Degree That We Cubans Change / Dimas Castellanos

Dimas Castellanos, 3 July 2015 — The leaders of Cuba and the United States have just announced the first and most important result of the process of normalizing relations between the two countries: the reopening of their embassies in Washington and Havana.

The 196 days elapsed between 17 December 2014 and 1 July 2015 is 100 times less than what passed between that 3rd of January of 1961, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to break diplomatic relations with government of Cuba. Because of its significance, that brief period will remain recorded in the history of the two nations, but especially in that of Cuba, creating as it does a favorable scenario for the changes that the “Largest of the Antilles” urgently needs.

Time will tell how long it will take to recover what was destroyed in more than half a century. In that sense, the opening of the embassies is only the first step in a long and complex path, for the magnitude of the anthropological damage that has been suffered will require much time, effort and will to recover. But, without a doubt, resuming diplomatic relations will produce an inevitable impact in the medium-long term on the fundamental liberties and the reconstruction of the citizenry, which constitute the two greatest deprivations of the Cuban people. continue reading

January of 1959 burst into Cuban history brimming with hopes, but the turn towards totalitarianism, suffered by the revolutionary process insofar as civil liberties were concerned, took Cuba back to an era as remote as 1878 [1]. This regression, which constitutes the first cause of the deplorable state of Cuban society–from its economy to its spiritual life–is a paradigmatic example of what should never have been, but whose positive aspect is that it shows us what should not and cannot be repeated in our history.

Therefore, more useful than calling out the guilty parties (although they exist) in the present and future view, is to highlight the level of responsibility of all or almost all Cubans. In the same way that not knowing the laws does not excuse the responsibility of the lawbreaker; all of us who, in one way or another, for reasons that extend from ignorance to the perversity harbored within some egos, in lesser or greater measure, are co-respondents in what has occurred. I wish, therefore, in a few lines, to highlight one of our ancestral maladies: personal responsibility transmuted into social indifference.

As to the question regarding the significance of restoring diplomatic relations, the answers comprise a spectrum ranging from those who consider the problem to be resolved, to those who believe that nothing will change here; but the most generalized aspect of the responses is the absence of the Cuban’s role as an active participant in this process–a crucial fact that cannot be ignored if one wants to understand, and transform, our reality.

Cubans, bereft of the liberties and spaces that breathe life into citizenship, lost the notion of civic responsibility. Their participation throughout more than half a century was reduced to supporting or rejecting what was induced by the powers-that-be. Those who today are older than 70 years old were only 14 back in 1959; all they have known is subordination to a totalitarian authority. Thus the generalized indifference toward current events is a logical consequence.

In the Gospel of Mark (1:14-15), the story is told of the a Christian experience that has as much validity today as 2,000 years ago. According to Mark, when Jesus returned to Galilee, he began to announce the good news of God, saying: The time has come, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Change your way of thinking and living, and believe the gospel.

From that perspective, the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States can be an important factor in the recovery of lost liberties, and of the condition of citizenship. But this factor will be for naught without a change in the Cuban people’s way of thinking and living. To paraphrase Jesus, the time has come–which must be accompanied, as He did, with actions directed, in the first place, to a change in conduct, which includes assuming some responsibility for the change.

Therefore, the historic transcendence of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US depends on the degree to which we are capable of changing to recover the condition of citizenship–which, in turn, is an unavoidable necessity for getting out of the stagnation in which we live.

The US leader’s speeches, from 17 December through today, do not demand civil liberties as a condition for reestablishing diplomatic relations. The statements contain an explicit renouncement of continuing a failed policy, and the recognition that if something is not working, we can and will change it.

With that turn, without renouncing the commitment to human rights, the Cuban government is stripped of its arguments of the “plaza under siege” and “the enemy,” which allowed it to quash all critical demonstrations within Cuba. Now, in the new scenario, the changes that Cuba really needs depends on a change of conduct, similar to that contained in the words of Jesus in Galilee.

If the package of measures announced by the White House opens a process of transformations that favor the rebirth and strengthening of civil society, the result will depend on the disposition, capability and intelligence of Cubans to take advantage of a scenario that, in the medium-long term, will remove the bases that enabled the government to decide the fate of the country and of every one of its inhabitants.

The foregoing lends to the renewal of diplomatic relations (even if this is only the first step of a long and difficult path) a dimension that places it as the most transcendental political event in Cuba after the 1st of January of 1959.

Without ignoring the great obstacles yet to be overcome, the reestablishment removes a way out that was threatening violence and a massive emigration to the United States–while at the same time it will remove the bases that permitted the totalitarian model to decide the fate of the country and of every one of its inhabitants.

This is why the decision is useful to US interests, useful to the Island’s government, and useful to the Cuban people, as long as we are capable of change, and of maximizing this favorable scenario to advance our empowerment.

Therefore, the success of the measures announced by the White House, and the resumption of diplomatic relations, do not depend so much on the will of the regime as of that of the Cuban people; something that neither Obama nor any outside force can supply: Cuba will change to the degree that we Cubans change.

Footnote

[1] With the signing of the Pact of Zanjón, which brought to an end the Ten Years’ War, a set of civil and political liberties were instituted that gave rise to Cuban civil society, legally endorsed.

Originally published in Diario de Cuba.

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

More But Still Falling Short / Dimas Castellano

Dimas Castellano, 25 May 2015 — The goal was to match the results obtained in 1912. Failure to meet this target is nothing new, nor are the reasons why.

At the closing session of the XI Congress of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) on May 17, the second secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) said in reference to the sugar harvest, “We will produce almost 300,000 tons more than last year, but we did not meet our target.”

Such failures are nothing new. It has happened year after year due to negative impacts of voluntary work brigades and nationalization of the economy. In the case of sugar production it fell from 8.2 million tons in 1989 to 1.1 million tons in the 2009-2010 harvest, the same amount produced in 1904. continue reading

The measures adopted to halt the decline focused on low productivity and poor organization but sidestepped the root causes. In 2001, a year when there was less sugar produced than in 1919, a general was appointed to head the Ministry of Sugar. New measures were adopted which included plans to produce fifty-four tons of sugar cane per hectare, to extract eleven tons of sugar for every hundred tons of cane, and to close “inefficient” factories. Nevertheless, the decline continued its relentless march. The general was replaced, the Sugar Industry Business Group (AZCUBA) was created and an annual growth target of 15% was set for 2016. But again the root causes were ignored.

Faced with the shortfalls of the 2011, 2012 and 2013 harvests and after taking appropriate measures, AZCUBA announced that the upcoming 2013-2014 harvest would be better than any of the previous decade. The plan was to produce 1.8 million tons, 200,000 more than the previous year, which had been 1.6 million tons. The PCC’s second secretary, Machado Ventura, toured a sizable number of sugar mills on the island, appealing to workers’ consciences and urging them to plant more and better, noting that “the main limitation is insufficient sugar cane and low agricultural yields.” In spite of this effort, “the best harvest of the last decade” barely surpassed that of the previous year, even though sugar mills remained in operation until June, when sugar levels in the cane are considerably less and summer rains halt the harvest.

Once again without seriously addressing what the sugar industry required or implementing even limited measures, a new goal was set. The 2014-2015 harvest would reach two million tons, 400,000 more than the previous harvest, the same amount Cuba produced in 1912.

According to official press reports, operations began in July and by late November producers had completed 80% of the work. Resources arrived in the country on time. Two more sugar mills went into operation. A synthetic fertilizer, Fitomas-M, was applied to more than 100,000 hectares, resulting in greater concentrations of sucrose in the cane. A technological solution was devised to make harvesting feasible and sustainable under wet conditions. More than 3,400 existing hauling trailers were refurbished and put into service. Fifteen million dollars were budgeted for equipment to repair roads and irrigation systems. More than 90% of the harvesting process was to be mechanized and the amount of raw cane going directly into the hopper was to increase by 50%.

According to the president of AZCUBA these measures were part of five key strategies for meeting the goals of the current harvest by 1) restoring agro-industrial efficiency, 2) streamlining the harvesting and transportation systems, 3) maximizing capacity, 4) ensuring the quality and purity of the sugar and 5) working with human capital. Consequently, plans included a 23% growth in sugar production, a potential capacity above 70% and sugarcane yields of no less than forty-three tons per hectare. 

Providing his own distinctive touch, the second secretary of the PCC resumed his now customary tour of the provinces.

In December he praised the harvest at the Boris Luis Santa Coloma mill in Madruga, which confirmed the success of its investments and repairs. On December 25 he chatted with managers and employees of the Antonio Sanchez mill in Cienfuegos. He did the same on July 14 at Ciudad Caracas, where he expressed appreciation for its strong performance in the initial phase of the campaign. He toured cane fields and mills in Villa Clara and visited the colossal Uruguay mill in Sancti Spiritus. In Ciego de Avila he spoke with the directors of the Ciro Redondo, Primero de Enero and Enrique Varona mills. And he did the same in Camagüey at the Batalla de las Guásimas, Argentina and Brazil mills.

In January he reviewed the results at five mills and plantations in Granma province. In Satiago de Cuba he visited the America Libre, Julio Antonio Mella and Dos Rios operations, where he reiterated the need to produce more cane to ensure sustained growth. In Holguin and Mayabeque he demanded better results, singling out the poor performance of the Hector Molina mill, where he noted that “an inability to find solutions to recognized technical problems persists.” But he acknowledged the strong performances of the Boris Luis Santa Coloma operation in Madruga and the Manuel Fajardo operation in Quivican.

At the conclusion of the so-called little harvest on December 31, in which forty-two of the fifty mills completed production, it became clear that the results were better than those of the previous year, both in terms of harvesting and processing. Everything pointed to the growth targets being met. However, there was sugar cane being left unprocessed, production time was being lost, and problems in harvesting and transportation remained. At the end of January, milling operations were already five days behind schedule. At the end of February only 91% of the harvested cane had been processed. The journalist Ana Margarita Gonzalez reported in the weekly magazine Trabajadores on Monday, March 23 that, due primarily to equipment failures, production was only at 68% of capacity. At 6.93%, downtime was also quite high. By the third week of March the production shortfall was already at 8%.

Faced with impending disaster, officials once again turned to a much used but ineffective tool: the appeals drive. By the first week of April, production was at 77.2%, so union organizers and AZCUBA summoned workers, technicians and managers to a special day-long event intended to help meet the target. It was dubbed “For a Victorious April.” Its official notice stated that workers “have the responsibility to fulfill the designated production goals of each plantation and mill. Victory in the harvest shall be determined by the results we achieve this month.”

In spite of these efforts, by April 23 production was off by 9% from projections. And as is normally the case by this date, the pace was beginning to slow. For every fourteen operations that had fulfilled their quotas, three failed to meet their targets. Finally, on May 17 Jose Machado Ventura announced, “We will produce almost 300,000 tons more than last year but we have still fallen short.”

Agricultural and industrial inefficiency is a direct result of the state’s monopoly on property. Contributing to the problem has been the abolition of the colonato, a system that dating back the 19th century that ensured an adequate supply of sugarcane without political officials having to issue appeals or to tell producers what they had to do. Other factors include inadequate salaries and a loss of interest on the part of producers. The failures of the last twenty-five years — a period that spans from 1989 to 2014 — serve as incontrovertible proof of a failed centralized state planning system. They point to the need for structural reform of property laws, for salaries that reflect actual living costs and for lifting bureaucratic impediments that prevent growth. Instituting these changes is the only way to motivate workers in the sugar industry, previously the nation’s most productive sector and its chief export earner, which could in turn have a positive impact on GDP and improve the lives of all Cubans.

Previously published in Diario de Cuba.

Causes and Dangers of the Government’s Erratic Course / Dimas Castellano

The Antecedents

The Revolutionaries who took power in 1959 substituted the 1940 Constitution for the Fundamental Law of the Cuban State*, the Prime Minister assumed the powers of the Head of Government, and the Council of Ministers replaced the Congress. Measures for “the benefit of the people” were decreed that legitimized the power acquired through force. At the same time, civil society was dismantled and civic and political liberties cut. Power was concentrated in the leader, private property passed into the hands of the state, institutionality was undone, and the condition of being a citizen disappeared.

Economic inefficiency was superseded by Soviet subsidies until the collapse the socialist bloc sunk the country into a profound crisis. In response, the government introduced some provisional reforms subordinate to political power. With the triumph of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela a new godfather emerged, and the Cuban government, freed from the pressure of the crisis, put a stop to the reforms. Between that moment and the substitution of the Leader of the Revolution [when Raul Castro stepping in for Fidel Castro], between July 2006 and February 2008, economic deterioration determined the start of new changes within a context of modernizing the model.

The Failure

The transfer of power among the same forces that had held it since 1959 preordained that the order, depth and speed of the changes would remain subordinate again to political interests. This condition disabled the Minimal Plan of Reforms put forth by General Raúl Castro, which aimed to achieve a strong and efficient agriculture, reduce imports, increase exports, attract investments, halt illegalities, check corruption, deflate the public payrolls, and propel self-employment.

continue reading

The subordination became instititutionalized during the First Conference of the Cuban Communist Party that took place in 2012. These proceedings revitalized the line suggested by Fidel Castro when, during the Cultural Congress of 1961, he asked, “What are the rights of revolutionary and non-revolutionary writers and artists?” and which he answered himself by saying, “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing. And this would not be any exceptional law for the artists and for the writers. This is a general principle for all citizens.” As it was not difficult to predict, in the absence of democracy, the change of form to preserve the content did not provide the expected result: the efficiency in preserving power could not be transferred to the economy.

Three years after commencing the modernization of the model, the decline has continued: farm production is deficient; sugar quotas are not reached; the reduction of imports and increase of exports are pending subjects; foreign investments have not reached the expected levels; the relationship between wages and cost of living worsens; illegalities continue their inexorable pace; and the limitations placed on self-employment and “cooperatives” have impeded these sectors taking off.

 The Transfer of Power

For biological reasons, the generation that took power in 1959 will exit the political scene in the next three years. This generation is confronting the need to legitimize its successors through different pathways than those through which they legitimized themselves. To do this, they would have to reform the state, including the constitution and the electoral law, against which emerge two simultaneous obstacles: the failure to modernize the model, and the reestablishment of relations with the United States.

The first obstacle is economic stagnation, a situation quite different from when they assumed power in 1959, and confiscated warehouses allowed power that had been acquired by force to be legitimized through the distribution of pre-produced goods. Added to this was the ever-growing exodus from Cuba, uncontrolled corruption, and the rise in citizen discontent, all of which prevents a transfer of power in conditions of prosperity.

The second obstacle is the White House’s new policy towards Cuba. The package of measures announced on 17 December 2014 will have an impact on the empowerment of Cubans, which is the weakest factor in changes for the Cuba of today. Throughout the unfolding of this process, the concept of the “external enemy” will begin to be eclipsed, hence the foreign contradiction — which played such a useful role in preserving power — will gradually be replaced by the contradiction between the Cuban people and government, which complicates the transfer of power.

If to these two great hindrances is added that the government is responsible for all that has occurred, good or bad, throughout more than half a century; that during this time the nomenklatura has acquired vested interests; that there are within it diverging opinions about how far the reforms should go; that the average age of its members militates against the vitality needed to undertake profound changes; and that for decades they have been able to govern unopposed — then the conclusion is that the government is not prepared to take on the contradictory propositions of making the reforms that the country requires, reestablishing relations with the United States, and preserving power. In this contradiction, which will continue setting the pace of the process in the short term, is contained, from my point of view, the explanation of the government’s erratic course:

On 17 December 2014, the Cuban president challenged the US government to adopt mutual measures for improving the bilateral climate, and advancing towards the normalization of ties between the countries (a step forward). On 28 January 2015, at the Third Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States [CELAC], he set forth four demands and said, “If these problems are not resolved, this diplomatic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States will not make sense (a step backward). On 11 April, at the Seventh Summit of the Americas, Raul Castro reduced the demands and said that the principal obstacles to opening the embassies was the removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the provision of banking facilities to enable financial transactions by the Cuban Interests Section in Washington (a step forward). Even though on 12 May, during goodbyes to French President François Hollande, he declared that when Cuba is finally removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism we will be able to name ambassadors, then on 20 and 21 May, during the third round of talks, the Cuban delegation entrenched itself in their interpretation of the Vienna Convention regarding the limits, the form, and the conduct becoming to North American diplomats (a step backward).

The American position could not have come as a surprise. Prior to departing for the summit in Panama, Barack Obama said, “Our new policy towards Cuba will also facilitate a greater connection to the Cuban people, including a greater flow of resources and information to them, and this is already showing results. We have seen an increase in contact between the people of Cuba and the United States, and the enthusiasm of the Cuban people towards these changes shows that we are taking the right path.” During the summit, Obama said, “Civil society is the conscience of our nations. It is the catalyzing force of change. It is the reason for which strong nations do not fear active citizens. Strong nations accept, support and empower active citizens… And when we engage with a civil society, it is because we believe that our relationship should be with governments and with the people they represent.” He made similar statements during the meeting he had with civil society representatives from Latin America, and in his personal encounter with Raúl Castro.

For her part, US delegation chief Roberta Jacobson, prior to the third round of negotiations, said during her appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the relationship of the US Interests Section in Havana “with the broadest cross-section” of Cubans “will grow once diplomatic relations are established with Cuba.”

That is to say, if despite those declarations there was progress in the removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and the provision of facilities for banking transactions in Washington, it makes no sense to delay the opening of the embassies because of some “interpretation” of the Vienna Convention.

Upon the conclusion of the third round of talks, the difference between the two delegations could be seen. In the press conference, in answer to the question about a fourth round, Josefina Vidal — from the Cuban side — responded that there has been progress, but that there remained pending topics to discuss forthwith. Meanwhile, Roberta Jacobson said more or less that for those topics another meeting was not necessary. Her position was that the diplomats would conduct themselves such as they do in other regimes similar to that of Cuba, where US diplomats have permission to travel within the country for periods that vary “between 24 hours and 10 days.”

The Dangers of the Erratic Course

The government of Cuba, for the reasons outlined, decided to introduce changes too late. For this reason the interrelation between economic stagnation, wage insufficiency, generalized corruption, popular discontent, and a growing exodus are incompatible with the slowness of the changes.

If this slow march is appreciated by the power structure as a guarantee of its stability, it is not so by Cuban society. The insistence on preserving power and the delay in initiating transformations have led to an extremely complex situation, internally and externally, which requires political will to act in keeping with the gravity of the matter.

To not act as a consequence of this scenario could lead to a fatal result, because an abrupt exit — for whatever reason that might cause it — would lead to a situation in which there would be no peaceful transition, and in which all, without exception, would be losers. Should this occur, the responsibility would fall on those who still hold the reins of power.

The prospect of relations with the United States — the most significant political event for Cuba since the 1959 Revolution — has generated an opportunity that should not be wasted. It is useful to the Cuban government, being that it provides it with “an honorable way out”; it is useful to US interests, for its own reasons; but above all, it is useful to Cubans, because it is a favorable context for their empowerment, and for them to once again become citizens.

Originally published in Diario de Cuba, 24 Jun 2015

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

26 June 2015

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

Upon this ground, in 1878–when Spain, in compliance with Pact of Zanjón, granted Cuba freedom of the press, assembly and association–there sprouted Cuban civil society: political parties, newspapers, labor unions, societies of blacks, fraternal organizations, and other diverse groups.

Development

With the birth of the Republic in 1902, civil society, having spread throughout the country, took part in the struggles of labor unions, peasants, and students, and in the intelligentsia’s debates conducted via the print press, radio, and television, about the problems afflicting the nation.

The importance of civil society was highlighted by Fidel Castro during his trial for the assault on the Moncada Barracks in 1953, when–referring to the limitations suffered by civil society with Fulgencio Batista’s coup d’etat in 1952–he said, “There once was a Republic. It had its Constitution, its laws, its liberties; a President, Congress and Courts; everyone could assemble, associate, speak and write with full liberty. The government did not satisfy the people, but the people could change the government, and there were only a few days left to do so. There was public opinion that was respected and heeded, and all problems of common interest were freely discussed. There were political parties, educational hours on radio, debate programs on television, public acts, and the people could sense enthusiasm.”

Disappearance

Having become a source of law, the 1959 Revolution–instead of fully reestablishing the Constitution of 1940–substituted it (without public consultation) with the Fundamental Law of the Cuban State*, and thus began a fatal process for Cuban society: the concentration of power, the elimination of private property, and the dismantling of civil society.

The organizations that fought against the Batista government were merged into the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations, which in 1963 became the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution, and later, in October, 1965, the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).

The diverse youth movement disappeared to give way, first, to the Young Rebels Association and, later, the Communist Youth Union. Women’s organizations of all types became the Federation of Cuban Woman. The associations of university students became the University Students Federation, and the pre-university-level ones became the Union of Secondary-School Students.

The labor movement was taken over, while the principle of university autonomy, endorsed in Article 53 of the Constitution of 1940, disappeared under the University Reform of 1962.

Organizations of employers met the same fate. The Landowners Association of Cuba, the Association of Settlers of Cuba, the Tobacco Harvesters, and the National Peasants Association, were substituted by the National Settlers Association, which was later renamed the National Association of Small Farmers.

The print, radio and television media, the enormous network of cinemas, the publishing domain, and cultural institutions were limited to the boundary set by the regime, with the intervention of the Chief of the Revolution during the 1961 Cultural Congress, when he asked, “What are the rights of the Revolutionary and non-Revolutionary writers and artists?” and he answered himself thus, “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, no right.” And there would be no exception to the law for artists and writers. This is a general principle for all citizens.

The organizations that made up civil society before its dismantling were not subordinate to the State nor to the administration in power at a given time. They were autonomous, a necessary condition without which they would have been unable to carry out the role they played in the Republic.

The subordination took practical shape with the adoption of the Constitution of 1976. Article 5 stipulates that the Communist Party is the supreme driving force of the society and the State.

Accordingly, Article 53 [1] recognizes freedom of speech and of the press insofar as these conform to the aims of the socialist society, and Article 62 provides that none of the liberties accorded to the citizens can be exercised against what is established in the Constitution and the nation’s laws, nor against the existence and aims of the Socialist State.

The resurgence of a civil society movement emerges from the stagnation and regression in the economy; from the generalization of corruption caused by the inadequacy of wages; from the growing exodus of Cubans and the aging of the population due to the diaspora, and the reluctance of Cuban women to bear children in those conditions; to the point of bringing the country to a dilemma: either change, or erupt in violence.

It demonstrates that the structural crisis in which Cuba is immersed has its root cause in the absence of fundamental liberties, in the decimation of autonomous civil society, and the non-participation of the citizen.

Even so, during the process normalizing relations with the United States — and on the eve of Cuba’s participation for the first time in the Summit of the Americas, which will take place in Panama [April 2015] — the Cuban Government, instead of recognizing the role parallel to the State’s that corresponds to an autonomous civil society, insists on proving the obsolete, absurd and unprovable: that any association that does not respond to the objectives of the Communist Party is an external creation and its members are paid operatives of the Enemy.

During the Third Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), in Costa Rica, on 28 January 2015, Cuban President Raúl Castro asserted that the US counterpart should not try to relate to Cuban society as though there is no sovereign government in Cuba. A retrograde statement intended to continue denying the existence of civil society sectors that are not under Government control.

And during the Ninth Extraordinary Summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which took place on 17 March in Venezuela, Castro reiterated that “Cuban civil society will be the voice of the voiceless, and will unmask the mercenaries who will present themselves as being the civil society, as well as their sponsors.”

In accordance with the conduct, the Party and the State have in recent days mobilized hundreds of official associations in the “Forum for Civil Society of the Seventh Summit of the Americas,” and in the forum, “Youth and the Americas We Desire,” among other events, to defend an indefensible past, without understanding nor accepting that, even in these official associations, as was evidenced in the above-mentioned events, voices were heard declaring that it was necessary to create an atmosphere conducive to debate, and create sites where the views of civil society can be confronted, so as to derive a collective interpretation of the country’s issues.

Normalizing relations with the US will not be enough to pull the country out of crisis if it is not accompanied by the reestablishment of fundamental liberties. There should be no doubt that these relations will contribute to citizen empowerment and to the reestablishment of autonomous civil society and of citizenship.

[1] Article 53 reads, “The University of Havana is autonomous and is governed according to its Statutes, and to the Law to which they should conform.”

From Diario de Cuba

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

*Translator’s Note: Also referred to as “The Fundamental Law of the Cuban Revolution”

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.

continue reading

The telephone, which premiered its first service in 1877, came to Cuba in 1881. The electric light bulb, which in 1879 was enjoyed in only a few important cities in the world, by 1889 was being utilized in Havana, Cárdenas and Puerto Príncipe, and in theaters such as Payret and Tacón. The motion picture, patented in 1895, was exhibited in Havana in 1897. Radio, which commenced in 1920, was launched in 1922 in Cuba. Television, almost parallel with the United States, began broadcasting from the first Cuban station in 1950. While the Internet began officially in Cuba in 1996, more than 10 years after it was in use in other latitudes.

This past February, the First Vice President of the Council of State, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, at the closing of the first National Computerization and Cybersecurity Workshop, set forth some issues regarding the Information Society that call for discussion, debate and consensus.

1. Internet access implies at the same time challenges and opportunities, and constitutes an action necessary for the development of society under current  conditions.

If the Information Society is distinguished by the generalized and efficient use of modern technologies in the era of globalization, when information has transformed the raw material of all activity and of each person, nobody could deny that, besides being necessary, it contains challenges and opportunities that must be faced. Regarding this thesis there cannot be disagreement.

2. Its access strategy should become a fundamental weapon of the Revolutionaries to achieve social participation in constructing the project for society that we want, starting from an integral design of the country. And I add that the usage strategy of this tool must be lead by the Party and should involve all institutions, and society, to achieve the fullest use of its potentialities in service of national development.

If we start from the premise that it is a necessity for all, then Internet access strategy cannot become a fundamental weapon of the Revolutionaries, but rather of all, because the Revolutionaries are only one part. And the project for society that we want (if that “we want” includes everyone) has to be agreed-upon by all.

Therefore that inclusive stragegy should not and and cannot be led by a party, which, as its meaning indicates, represents a “part,” whereas development is incumbent on all, not only on the Revolutionaries and the members of a party. This statement contradicts another part of the speech in which Díaz-Canel said that “we need to distinguish ourselves by a computerization with all, and for the good of all.”

3. Regulations and rules that govern access to the Internet and its use, should be coherent with current legislation, and align with the general principles of the Constitution and other laws, and adjust to the changing needs of social development.

Rather, besides being led by the Party and being a fundamental weapon of revolutionaries, Internet use should be coherent with the general principles of the Consitution and other laws. Here, the contradiction is so flagrant that it becomes inadmissible.

A phenomenon as modern and changing as the Information Society cannot be subordinate to a Constitution that urgently calls for profound reform, unless the purpose be that computerization should face the same fate as other projects in the country that remain stagnant.

The argument should be the opposite: the changes implied by an information society obligate us to reform a constitution that for a long time now has not met the needs of development, above all with regard to citizens’ rights and liberties, which constitute an unavoidable need of the Information Society, and which in the current Constitution are subordinate to one ideology and one party.

The preceding material demonstrates that the Information Society inescapably implies the respect for and complete defense of human rights, the recognition of their universaility, indivisibility and interrelation, and democratic access to the infrastructure and services of information technologies.

Díaz-Canel’s speech was uttered two decades after the official start of the Internet. It also came after President Barack Obama stated that Cuba has one of the lowest rates of Internet access in the world, that the cost of telecommunications in Cuba is exorbitatantly high, and that the services offered are extremely limited.

Among measures intended to empower the Cuban people, President Obama listed the need to increase Cuba’s access to communications and its capacity to freely communicate, and so would authorize the commercial export of equipment to improve the capacity of Cubans to communicate, including the sale of communication devices and articles to establish and update related systems.

The delay in introducing these measures has been accompanied by restrictions that seek to ensure that information obtained online corresponds with the Revolutionary ethic, and will not endanger national security.

In 1996, Decree 2091 was issued, whose articles state that the basis of Internet access policies will prioritize the connectivity of legal persons and those institutions of greatest relevance to the life and development of the country; that to guarantee fulfillment of the principles laid down in the Decree, access to networked information services of global scope would be selective; and that direct access from the Republic of Cuba to global computer networks would have to be authorized by the Interministerial Commission created by the Decree. [1]

Later, in 2003, Resolution 1802 resolved: Charge the Telecommunications Company of Cuba to employ all technical means necessary to detect and impede access to Internet navigation services via telephone lines that operate in national, non-convertible currency, starting as of 1 January 2004. [2]

The creation of the Information Society is incompatible with the priority of the Revolutionaries, with subordination to ideologies, and with a Constitution that endorses these restrictions. The contradiction is there: either the demands of modernity are assumed, or we run the risk of continuing to widen the information gap in the country and of Cubans in relation to the rest of the world.

The full use of the possibilities offered by the new information technolgies to foment online access that is free and autonomous, rich and diversified, plural and thematic, interactive and personalized, is a necessity. Especially in the era in which the diffference among levels of development is measured in terms of Internet connectivity. Simply put, computerization the old-fashioned way must be uprooted.

Footnotes:

1. Decree 209 of the Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers on Access from the Republic of Cuba to Global Computer Networks; 14 June, 1996.

2. Resolution 180/2003, dated 31 December, 2003, of the Ministry of Computer Science and Communications.

Originally published in Diario de Cuba

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

27 March 2015

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

The causes are quite obvious. A profound crisis brought on by an unfeasible economic model — exemplified by low salaries, widespread corruption and a mass exodus from the island — has had an adverse impact. Cubans are aware that delegates lack the basic power to effect change. In spite of the risks inherent in a one-party system — one which holds a monopoly on information, and a lack of fundamental freedoms — they have opted to boycott the polls. Or they cross out, nullify, scribble on or turn their ballots in blank. This includes tens of thousands of voters who cast their ballots at the last moment as a form of protest. We also know that for everyone who dares take such actions, there are others who are gradually losing the fear that has paralyzed them. In response to the argument that it is the people who nominate candidates, one might add that is also the people who boycott elections and invalidate ballots.

Rather than clinging to the past or continuing to make changes “slowly but steadily,” the authorities should take a critical look at these numbers and acknowledge the need to expand the reforms to political arena, beginning with a real electoral law that allows citizens to choose from candidates who offer a range of options. It is a matter of fulfilling the promise made on January 8, 1959 when the leader of the revolution announced that there would be elections “in the shortest period of time possible.” This period dragged on for no less than seventeen years, when in July 1976 the first post-revolution election law was enacted. Plagued with shortcomings, it was repealed in 1992 when Law 72, which governs current elections, was enacted.

This law limits direct elections to delegates for municipal assemblies. From here candidates for the provincial and national assemblies as well as the presidents, vice-presidents, secretary and other members of the Council of State are chosen by the various commissions for candidacies (as stipulated in article 67), which are made up of members of so-called mass organizations (article 68), all of whom are members of the only party allowed under the constitution.

According to the law, delegates elected directly by the people cannot exceed 50% of the total number of candidates. The other half are nominated by the commissions for candidacies, which has the power to choose people not elected by direct vote (articles 77 and 86), a violation of popular sovereignty.

In his famous book, The Social Contract, Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that people joining together to protect and defend their property expresses a general will, making the parties a collective political body. The exercise of this will — an expression of power — is referred to as sovereignty and a people which exercises it is sovereign.

If elections are a manifestation of popular sovereignty, then the Cuban electoral system is a denial of that sovereignty, as demonstrated in the recently held elections. What is needed is a new law that will respond to the interests of the Cuban people rather than simply serve as a means to hold onto power.

During the Tenth Plenary Session of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party it was announced that a new electoral law will govern the 2018 general elections. One might infer that it will set term limits for senior governmental posts and establish a maximum age for those occupying such posts. Such changes, however, are not enough. The new law must be enacted through a popular referendum that itself is the result of consensus, abandoning the practice of simply imposing laws without taking into consideration the interests of the people.

The 1.7 million Cubans who reject the electoral system have a right to choose from other options. Some years ago an opposition figure was nominated in the town of Plaza on two consecutive occasions and the only votes he got were his own and that of his wife. Nevertheless, in the last elections a computer technician, Yuniel López de Arroyo Naranjo, and a lawyer and journalist, Hildebrando Chaviano de Plaza, ran as opposition candidates in preliminary elections and won. In the subsequent municipal elections the former obtained 233 votes and the latter 189.

In other words, voters who abstained or voided their ballots now joined with those who openly voted for the opposition, despite the smear campaigns against the candidates.Given that the nation is a community made up of a diversity of people of equal dignity seeking a common good, one must recognize multi-party democracy as an expression of that diversity. It is, therefore, essential that Cubans’ political liberties be restored so they can begin to play an active necessary role in the destiny of Cuba.

Previously published in Diario de Cuba 

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

As external conflicts tended to suppress internal conflicts, the Cuban government used the disagreement to paralyze society, covering up its own failures and avoiding any commitment to human rights. However, it turned out that its skill at holding on to power was not applicable to the economy.

Upon being named President of the Council of State in 2008, Raul Castro proposed a basic reform plan. However, the 2012 Cuban Communist Party Conference reaffirmed Fidel Castro’s previous policy. In 1961 Fidel had posed a question at the Congress of Culture by asking “What are the rights of revolutionary and non-revolutionary writers and authors.” He responded by saying, “Within the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, nothing.” There would be no legal exception for artists or writers. In general this has been the case for all citizens as well.

The reforms were late in coming, limited and contradictory, and thus did not produce the expected results. Low salaries, widespread corruption, popular discontent and a growing exodus have been exacerbated by the impending loss of Venezuelan financial support. Nevertheless, the reforms did away with the conditions that made the regime’s resistance to change possible. In the absence of an independent civil society, a silent consensus for change has been emerging.

The failure of Fidel’s policies and of the embargo are part of a classic pattern in which conflicts first lead to war, then to great losses in human lives and material resources, and finally to the negotiating table.

Although the Cuban government’s intent was to force the United States to lift the embargo without the regime agreeing to democratize the country, U.S. actions simply ignore this fact. Obama did not demand a return to democracy as a pre-condition for restoring diplomatic relations. But measures intended to encourage citizen empowerment such as easing travel restrictions, raising the limit on hard currency remittances and providing greater access to telecommunications have placed the issue front and center in the minds of his own people and the international community.

These measures suggest the gradual empowerment of individual Cubans and the reemergence of civil society. Such an outcome would benefit U.S. interests and provide a “face-saving” way out for the Cuban government. In spite of its inherent contradictions the recently concluded seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama pointed in this direction.

The peculiarity of the process is rooted in the absence of an alternative political force with the ability to influence change internally. The driving force behind these reforms is the same one that has held power since 1959. It has been responsible for everything that has occurred in the last half century and has interests to protect. It has determined that the scope, direction and pace of change shall be subordinate to what political scientist Juan Linz describes as post-totalitarianism. In other words, an abiding desire for totalitarianism without the means to achieve it.

Ultimately, neither the process of reform nor the reestablishment of relations with the United States can be stopped. The government can slow them down but it cannot avoid them, even if they lead to new measures that restore Cubans’ status as citizens.

Published on Opinion page of the newspaper El Comercio, Lima, Peru, April 16, 2015

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

and prolonged, for Cuban democratization. This optimism is based on six considerations.

1. In his speech the U.S. president distanced himself from previous demands that Cuba democratize before the embargo is lifted. Instead, he proposed a series of measures that would encourage the empowerment of citizens and serve as a precursor for a discussion in Congress on repealing the law. This shift means there is no more  “enemy” to fight and no need to “circle the wagons.” On the Cuban side, there was a tenant of Fidelism, which held that Cuba had already changed in 1959 so there was no need for further change. This has given way to the Raulist viewpoint, which is inclined to see some things change.

2. The shift by the United States is a response to the failure of a policy whose goal was to promote change in Cuba as well as to the regional and international self-isolation that resulted from the policy. Cuba’s shift, though presented as a victory, reveals a failure of economic leadership, meager results from efforts at reform, mass exodus, widespread corruption and growing dissatisfaction. It occurs at a time when the fragility of Venezuelan oil subsidies is a topic of discussion and no new financial savior has appeared on the horizon.

3. The series of measures by the White House includes an increase in authorized travel to Cuba, management training for private Cuban businesses and farmers, an increase on the limit of remittances to individuals and donations to humanitarian projects, an expansion in the sale and commercial export of goods and services from the United States including to Cuba’s private sector, expanded communication access from Cuba and the ability to communicate freely, and allowing U.S. telecommunication providers to offer internet services at lower prices.

4. Since assuming power in 2006, the Cuban president has expressed a willingness to normalize relations with the United States and to adopt some domestic measures such as emigration reform. On the other side there has been a relaxation of certain policies by the American president since 2009, which paved the way for the joint announcement on December 17, 2014.

5. The measures by the White House assume an orderly and peaceful transition. This policy serves as a guarantee to those in power, to those who are responsible for everything both good or bad that has happened over a very long period of time. Nevertheless, I think the government of Cuba will try to slow the process even though its leaders know it is unavoidable. They realize that, if it all ends in violence, they will be the losers. Organized democratization guarantees stability and the future of the Cuban nation.

6. Cuba was able to mobilize individuals, institutions and governments to subvert the embargo. Several Latin American figures were involved or served as intermediaries. Canada and the Vatican also played a prominent role. With the enemy gone and the threat allayed, the previous rhetoric has become meaningless. These committed forces expect changes in Cuba in response to Obama’s speech. Denying this would mean losing the support achieved so far.

In order to evaluate the significance of these measures, it is worth analyzing the stagnation and reversals suffered during the period of confrontation. These include the disappearance of civil society, the absence of basic liberties, the subordination of the economy to politics, the loss of the Cubans’ status as citizens and other ills. Under a regime which might more accurately be defined as Fidelist, a key characteristic of which was confrontation, there was a refusal to back down until the opponent backed down. Better for the country to sink into the ocean, as was stated on one occasion.

As external conflicts supplanted internal ones, military confrontation became a way to avoid making any compromises on human rights. As the effects of the above-mentioned negotiations begin to take effect, however, external tensions will gradually give way to the tensions between people and government. What happens after that will be the sole and exclusive responsibility of Cubans themselves.

Given current conditions, doubts over the normalization of relations will be kicked aside at the negotiating table. Previous rescues were financed by subsidies from the Soviet Union and Venezuela, but the former has disappeared and the latter is bankrupt. There has also been little success at attracting foreign capital and there is no chance a new financial savior will suddenly appear.

It is a phenomenon unprecedented in history. A government that came to power by force has — despite fifty-five years of ongoing ineffectiveness and economic mismanagement — spearheaded this change without any other person, group or party managing to establish an alternative power base. With apparent continuity, Fidelism is being discarded in the name of Fidelism. It is an oddity that calls for detailed analysis, debate and research. How did a country with a western orientation and a civil society that arose in the first half of the twentieth century and lasted until mid-century — a country that had one of the most advanced constitutions for its time – manage to regress to a point of such economic, spiritual and societal decay?

The normalization of relations, although important, is only a first step. Lifting the embargo now depends more on the Cuban government than the United States. It involves moving beyond an expressed willingness to actually implementing measures to empower citizens and weaken opposition to repealing the law in Congress. Otherwise, it will work to the advantage of opponents of normalization. It is quite simple: lifting of the embargo is in the hands of Cuba, in domestic actions implemented for the benefit of Cubans.

In spite of this difficult hurdle, there will be a gradual and civilized process of transformation, whose success will depend on the commitment of the Cuban people, who have been deprived of the freedom and opportunities that are the lifeblood of a nation’s citizenry. It is one whose sense of civic responsibility has been lost but which can now no longer be ignored.

The shifting landscape will allow for a restructuring of the foundations that determine the fate of a nation and each of its people. Therefore, the importance of restoring diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States will depend to some extent on the behavior of both governments, but above all on the will and actions of Cubans themselves, a responsibility that can not be assumed by any government foreign or domestic.

19 January 2015

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

The escalation had as a starting point the nationalization of American properties and the response by the United States to break diplomatic relations and implement the embargo; the confrontation of over half a century that brought material losses and armed conflicts with tens of thousands of deaths, pain and suffering.

The reestablishment is the result of multiple factors, among them:

1 – The unworkability of Fidelismo, incapable of satisfying the most basic needs of the people.

2 – The failure of Venezuela, multiplied by the sharp fall in the price of oil and its effect on the subsidies to Cuba.

3 – The frustration of American policy intended to promote changes within the island.

4 – The use made by the Cuban government of mistakes in this policy to affect relations between the United States and the other countries in the region.

5- The use of the dispute by the Cuban government to justify the failures of it model.

6 – The shift in American policy since the first term of Barack Obama.

7 – The changes introduced since Raul Castro assumed the leadership of the state.

As an external conflicts tend to demobilize internal conflicts, the Cuban government utilized the dispute to block the rearmament of civil society, excuse the inefficiency, and avoid any commitment to human rights, and 18 years after taking power it institutionalized Fidelismo.

In the image and likeness of the Soviet Union it approved a the Constitution which endorsed the Communist Party as the leading force in society and of the state, and created a unicameral parliament that confirmed Fidel Castro as chief of state and the government.

The collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe unveiled the failure. The government had to introduce a package of short-term reforms that were paralyzed as soon as they begin to give birth to a middle-class.

The inefficiency resulting is reflected in the loss of any relationship between wages and the cost of living, the growth in the activities outside the law to survive, the massive exodus and the decline in population.

In this context General Raul Castro assumed leadership of the state and implemented a package of measures that demonstrated the exhaustion of Fidelismo, because the efficiency to conserve power turned out not to be transferable to the economy.

Worsening conditions and despair begin to march at a rhythm faster than that of the changes, one of its manifestations was the growing exodus, which represented a potential danger for the United States

To this we add a foreign-policy deployed by Cuba toward Latin America that managed to affect American influence in the region. As a result of these and other events the dispute became detrimental for both parties. The Cuban government failed in the attempt to manage an efficient economy and the United States government failed to yield to Cuba: Fidelismo failed and the embargo failed.

This no-win situation led to indirect contacts which led to direct and secret conversations, accelerated by various factors, the most decisive of which was the danger that the American citizen Alan Gross would die due to the worsening of his health.

Without ignoring the major obstacles to be overcome, the reestablishment will prevent an exit strategy that threatened violence and a massive immigration to the United States, and at the same time will remove the bases that allowed the totalitarian model to decide the fate of the country and each one of its inhabitants.

Because of this, the decision is useful to the interest of the United States; useful to the Cuban government, to whom it provides a “decent” exit; and above all, useful to Cubans in creating an environment favorable to their empowerment

The intention of the Cuban government, more than renouncing the confrontation, consisted in forcing in the United States to relax the American measures without undertaking internal changes that threaten the power of the Cuban government. However President Obama’s speech and the communication from the White House do not respond directly to this intention.

What’s more, the US president did not mention the Government, but rather Cuba and its people, announcing together with the instructions to reestablish relations, a package of measures directed to create conditions for citizen empowerment, in a context characterized by the end of the Fidelismo and growing discontent among Cubans.

Obama’s speech, although it doesn’t directly require the Cuban government to reestablish civil liberties, places it in an awkward position in its own country and before the international community. With that in place, the “enemy” is in the foreground of the Cuban government’s conduct with its own people. The rest is up to us.

Although the government and its press tried to make us believe that what happened was a limited exchange of prisoners and the reestablishment of relations, going forward attention will focus on the relationship between the people and the government, such that the news of this December 17 is the death certificate of Fidelismo and the event of greatest political significance in Cuba since 1959.

More important than agreeing or not agreeing with what happened, is taking advantage of the positive brought by the new scenario to fight for the recovery of the condition of citizenship. The success of the measures announced by the White House depend not so much on the will of the regime but on that of the Cuban people; something that cannot be brought by Obama or any external force, but only by ourselves.

The controls on a people lacking the arms of civic institutions will slow the effects, but they cannot avoid them. The government’s first manifestations of resistance was to remain silent about the measures proposed by the White House and to simply say that with a people like ours we can reach the 570th year of the Revolution.

However, the transformations that are happening in the economy will move inexorably to other sectors of society. And in this process, the speed, the rhythm and the direction, which were defined by the Cuban government before the normalization of relations, will suffer serious alterations, among others the emergence of a middle-class, the rebirth of civility, and the recovery of the condition of citizenship.

Published in Diario de Cuba

2 January 2015

“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

I participated with the JS and other students in demonstrations against the Batista dictatorship. During the sugar strike of 1955 students were going to workers’ assemblies to encourage them to join the strike. At these activities I met union leaders who would later belong to the People’s Socialist Party (PSP).

Did you suffer any consequences as a result of your activities?

In 1957 I was accused of a sabotage attack in Cienfuegos. I had no involvement but I was imprisoned and tried by the Emergency Court of Santa Clara. At the trial I was defended by the man who would later become President-of-the-Republic, Dr. Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado. I was acquitted but the threat from the chief-of-police of Cienfuegos forced me to leave town. For that reason I came to Havana and began my studies at a school called Candler Methodist College, where I continued my political activity. That’s why I was expelled from the school in early 1958.

In what political organization were you active at the time?

I was a member of a student movement called the March 13th Revolutionary Directorate until the triumph of the Revolution. Then, after the JS was reorganized and it became the youth organization of the People’s Socialist Party, I re-established ties with the organization. I was its president in Cienfuegos and a member of the provincial committee in the former province of Las Villas until youth organizations were folded into the AJR. I was then in charge of propaganda for the provincial committee in Las Villas and served on the national committee. While in this organization, I helped set up committees in Cienfuegos as well as those in rural areas that had opposed the government.

I remember a peasant leader who was working with us, Juan Gonzalez, who was later killed in an ambush. Much later, when I was on the Provincial Committee, one of our drivers was killed in another ambush. His name was Hector Martinez. He was a humble young peasant and, like all of us, very eager.

It was a very sad period, a time when Cubans were caught up in a war that made no sense because it was a war between brothers. The government cruelly evicted many families from the mountains. They lost their land and their belongings because it was thought they were cooperating with the rebels. The departure of these families created ghost towns in Pinar del Rio and other provinces.

It was a bloody period, one when hatred prevailed. It lasted several years and in the end totalitarianism won by instilling fear in society. Cubans as a whole, including those who risked their lives for an ideal, were shattered.

Was there anything from that period that had an impact on you?

There were many things. While I was in Cienfuegos, I remember the first militias that went to fight in Escambray. I was part of a battalion that was took over Cayo Loco, where we found remnants of Batista’s navy, which were under suspicion. I also remember the enthusiasm of that era, when the revolution had overwhelming support.

Another emotional moment was when the revolution was declared to be socialist. I was speaking at an AJR assembly in Sanctus Spiritus and suddenly there was a huge crowd in the street waving red flags and shouting, “Long live the socialist revolution!” And Fidel Castro made the proclamation in Havana on the eve of the Bay of Pigs.

The next day, after we found out about the landing on the beach, I boarded a jeep with 30-caliber machine guns — not knowing where we were going — to protect the airport at Santa Clara. I was somewhat like a commissar, with militiamen who did not have much experience but had a total willingness to sacrifice. Our mission was to protect this strategic location, which was not far from the Ciénaga de Zapata, from aerial attack. Fortunately, nothing happened.

Those experiences had a big impact on us. We thought we were going to turn Cuba into a paradise and people were full of hope. We had total confidence in the future, in our leaders, especially in Fidel, in Che, in Raul. To many of us from the JS our greatest inspiration was Raul Castro. We knew he had been in the JS. It was a time of tremendous enthusiasm and naivete, feelings that subsequently gave way to colossal frustration.

After that first experience in the youth movement, did you join any other political organization?

I joined the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations (ORI). I became core secretary at the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA), where I was departmental head when the party was forming within the ORI. There was Antero Regalado, an old peasant leader, and other directors who held high-level positions in INRA.

 At that time was the INRA something of a parallel government?

Yes, yes, it was a government. Even the agrarian development zones were almost republics. The heads of those zones confiscated land and had tremendous power. In supply planning, where I worked, they first put a Latin American in charge, but the man turned out to be a disaster. There was no one else to take his place, so they put me in charge. I was about 21 or 22-years-old and my only qualification was a high school diploma.

I remember at the time they fired an engineer, Santos Ríos, from INRA. Fidel Castro was President but in effect he was running the agency. After they removed Santo Ríos, they appointed Carlos Rafael Rodriguez president of INRA. I was given a position I didn’t want because he knew I had no experience. My goal at the time was to study economics at the University of Havana. There were also some special plans over which only Fidel Castro had control. Three weeks after completion of the one-year plan, Fidel’s envoys appeared with different plans, so all our work had to be thrown out and resources had to be reallocated to other planning projects. It was crazy.

After that did you hold some other position within the government?

Later I transferred to JUCEPLAN. There were big turnovers there and they asked Carlos Rafael for additional personnel. I was one of those selected. I went to work in the agricultural sector as department chief in the Supply Plan for Agriculture and Fisheries. I worked by day and studied economics by night at the University of Havana until the economic research teams were created. Then I was chosen to work on the livestock team.

A few months after these teams were formed, it seems that Fidel Castro decided he wanted some of them to work directly with him. We were relocated to 11th Street, near the home of Celia Sanchez. I did as I was told. I was assigned to a group specializing in artificial insemination. It was crazy because insemination is supposed to be done with animals specially selected for certain traits. Instead, they were inseminating any cow who happened to come along.

At the time I went to the countryside and realized what a mess it was. It was the peasants themselves and the INRA directors who showed me how bad things were. Around this time I began reading the works of some socialist economists. Among the Soviets I remember Liberman. Among the Poles there was Oskar Lange, W. Brus and M. Kalecki, who provided critiques within a socialist framework.

I began to realize a lot of things. Working with Fidel I understood that some things were irrational, such as the abolition of material incentives, which Che had championed, the systematic gutting of accounting systems and economic controls, and especially the mass confiscation of private property.

I was a spectator to the conflict between Che Guevara on the one hand and his defense of the budgetary finance system, which proposed to monopolize the entire economy, and Carlos Rafael Rodriguez on the other and his support for a more rational and flexible style of self-management.

I later discovered, however, that in such a dysfunctional system this too was impractical. When it came to theory, Carlos was brilliant but, though he was astute, he did not engage with Che directly but rather through third parties. Che was a man who was completely wrong when it came to economic theory. History has amply demonstrated this and the budgetary finance system is not even mentioned in Cuba today.

In light of the situation, I shared my views with my team. After I defended them, they took me to a meeting to try to dissuade me from my “misconceptions.” I remained unconvinced so they then took me to have a discussion with José Llanusa Gobel, who at the time was Minister of Education and someone very close to Fidel Castro.

What happened at this meeting?

We had a heated discussion. He tried to convince me, which made me increasingly more steadfast in my beliefs about the very things he was talking about, such as building communism and abolishing money. I asked him what the economic and rational basis for this was. I acknowledged that there had to be moral incentives, but at the same time you had to pay people more, in accordance with the quantity and quality of the work they performed. This is the position Raúl Castro himself ultimately adopted. Llanusa told me I was evil.

A short time later they bought a bull in Canada that looked like an elephant. We got word that we should go see it. Fidel was there. He was very impressesd, walking all around it. Later, the bull was discovered to have been injured. It seems they took too much semen from him before he was sold, which made him damaged goods. Llanusa arrived while I was there and went off to talk with Fidel, so we left. The next afternoon Fidel arrived at our office with his bodyguards and began saying offensive things to me.

“We know who you are hanging out with and who you are meeting.”

I said, “Look, Comandante, you have been misinformed. I am not meeting with anyone  nor hanging out with anyone. I am just telling you what I have been taught at the University of Havana.”

He took that as a sign of disrespect and became enraged. I only told him the truth. My point of view was based on what I had studied at the university. Many of our classes were taught by Soviet or Hispano-Soviet professors and our basic textbook was Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. From that moment I wanted in some way to oppose his program. I could not remain silent in the face of so many blunders and nonsensical policies which, among other things, were direct contradictions of basic Marxist principles.

Did this lead to any repercussions?

Two or three days later the head of the team called me in and told me I had to leave. That was in June 1967. They sacked me but kept sending a paycheck to my house until January 1968. At that time the “micro-faction” trial was taking place. Then the party secretary in Havana, a man named Betancourt, called to ask me what I thought of the trial since the statements of the accused happened to coincide with some of things I had done. Then he asked if I still felt the same way.

I said, “Yes. If I told you that I had changed, I’d be lying. Do you want me to lie?”

He said, “Then we’re going to send you on a heroic mission in order to reform you. And what you’ll find is that you have never worked so hard in your life.”

They sent me to clean bat guano out of caves such as La Jaula, which is on the road towards Escalera de Jaruco in Quivicán, and in Pinar del Río, where I got sick. As a result they transferred me from there to the Havana Green Belt to work in brigades of people convicted of petty crimes. It was very humiliating for me because I considered myself a revolutionary. It was a hard time but I still believed in the revolution, still thought mistakes were being made and had to put up with it until they were corrected, but time passed and nothing was resolved.

After all that how was it possible you went to work in the foreign service?

After almost two years of punishment I wrote to Carlos Rafael Rodríguez and also to Osvaldo Dorticós, who had known me in Cienfuegos. Then one fine day Llanusa called me and apologized. He told me he had made a huge mistake, that he had never ordered them to do this to me and asked if I would go work for him. I told him no, that I would not work with him. He asked me where I wanted to work. I said in the Ministry of Sugar with Miguel Ángel Figueras, an economist who had been my professor and who was vice-minister there. He picked up the phone, called him and immediately I began work at the ministry, though I was really very disillusioned.

One day I went to the Technical Assistance Center (CAT), where Humberto Knight was the coordinator. He was a little leery and asked if I really wanted to work there. I said yes because I had always admired Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, who headed that office. Carlos Rafael was a very intelligent and educated man. He had been a member of the old Communist Party. I started working there in an auxiliary capacity but I devised a comprehensive methodology for evaluating the work of foreign specialists and was congratulated by high-level officials from other organizations. Then Carlos Rafael called me in to explain it to him. When we started talking, I told him, “Doctor, you were commissioner in Cienfuegos at the end of the revolution of ’33.”

He asked me, “How do you know that?” He then looked at me and blurted out, “Oh, aren’t you the son of Oscar Espinosa?”

It so happened that my father once told me that he had participated in the creation of a soviet, was taken prisoner and was sent to Havana. Then Carlos Rafael, who held a position in the Hundred Days’ government, looked at him and said, “Come along. You’re going to be a prisoner of the revolution.”

Then my father responded, “This isn’t a revolution; it’s a piece of shit.”

This offended him. At times my father could be somewhat aggressive and the Communist Party of that era was extremely arrogant and sectarian. Carlos Rafael told me the same story during our conversation and said to me, “Your father was a shithead. Are you going to be like him?”

In short I worked with him, a few yards from his office in the Palace of the Revolution, dealing with relations with Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Then I also began dealing with the economic and scientific-technical ties with Yugoslavia. I must admit that, in terms of opportunity, I enjoyed working alongside Dr. Rodriguez, as he was respectfully referred to overseas. I learned a lot, especially in regard to his penchant for anti-dogmatic opinions and open dialogue. Given the position he held, he reserved his personal opinions for a narrow circle of people, though there was never any doubt he was a committed Marxist.

What did you do there?

I sat on intergovernmental commissions and served as secretary on those commissions. I also held discussions with our foreign partners on setting up accords, general conditions of co-operation and state credit agreements, some with special governmental powers. This was quite unusual considering I was never a member of the  Cuban Communist Party, which was a basic prerequisite for participating in these types of negotiations.

Later we moved to First and B streets in Vedado. It was then that I began to travel. My first trip was to Hungary in 1973, which I made with Carlos Rafael. It was awful. There was an enormous number of documents to be signed and when I looked over them, I realized half of them had not been signed. Carlos Rafael and Miklos Ajtai, the Hungarian vice-president, were supposed to have signed them. I thought this was going to be a disaster. I spoke openly with Carlos Rafael and explained to him what had happened. He said, “No problem. Bring them over,” and the two of them set about signing them, even though the signing ceremony had already been televised.

I also spent many years as secretary for Czechoslovakia and participated in many conferences with vice-presidents of the Cuban government. With José Ramón Fernández, Ricardo Cabrisas and other senior leaders for example. My department also oversaw the commercial interests of the State Committee for Economic Cooperation. We had a good working relationship, but I think he appointed me departmental head because of the problems he had with Fidel Castro.

What was not approved?

I was never formally appointed. It was a position with the Central Committee but I was not appointed. I was there for ten years, negotiating millions of rubles worth of business. We later went to the ministries, and ministers the vice-presidents provided signatures. It was for different types of business, such as sending young people to work in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. I am talking about volunteers. I worked out the language in all those documents. In the case of Czechoslovakia I held discussions with the Czech vice-minister.

But things did not go well. What happened was that they told the kids they could not bring this thing or that thing, that they could keep only a portion of the money they were paid and the rest they had to turn over to the government. Nevertheless, the kids were dying to go. The Czechs and Hungarians also complained that our young people were all in love and always screwing around but, when it came time to work, they were better than those from other countries.

How long did you do this type of work?

I dealt with Hungary and Czechoslovakia until 1984, when I was made economic advisor in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. I had an office and a lot of autonomy. This situation created a lot of tension with the ambassador but in terms of the work itself I had no problems. It was the beginning of perestroika and I had said that I was in agreement with Gorbachev.

When a Yugoslav man approached me, I immediately informed the security office of what had happened but I waited a few hours before informing the ambassador. They took advantage of the situation and used it as a pretext to get rid of me. Fidel had been there during a visit to Belgrade and had seen me. From the look on his face it was obvious he was not happy I was there. Then, when I went back to Cuba in April of 1987 for vacation, they told me I could not go back. They told me they were trying to protect me, that the enemy was trying to do me harm. They didn’t even let me go back to collect my things. My wife Miriam was also a diplomat in charge of cultural affairs, press releases and sports. They let her go back to collect our belongings and she kept working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but I was prevented from working in the diplomatic field and was sent to work at the National Bank.

I was a specialist dealing with businesses affiliated with the National Assembly of People’s Power and the Ministry of Domestic Commerce. I started making statements about the need for reform. In March 1992 I was summoned to a meeting where they even brought up my problems with Fidel. They told me that I was raising issues that had already been discussed at the last party congress. I stated that I did not have to accept what the congress had agreed upon because I was not a party member. I began arguing with them, citing the congress’ own statistics. I was then removed from my post at the bank and sent me to work at a tiny bank near my house, which you and I both know, dealing with paperwork of no importance.

Anyway, little by little I began typing articles and sending them around, sharing them with friends. That’s how you and I became acquainted. Colleagues of Oswaldo Payá also began having contact with me. You later helped me transcribe the articles I typed onto  a computer. Then my circle of acquaintances significantly widened. I had a program on Radio Martí called “Talking to Chepe” until I was arrested in 2003 and was was given a 20-year prison sentence.

What effect does a prison sentence have on a person like yourself who has dedicated his entire life to the revolution and to socialism? 

It was very difficult, including what was a very delicate moment for me when I was being transported to Guantanamo to serve my sentence. Even the Batista government would have been more forthright in the way I was tried. The charges they brought against me were so crude. They accused me of being an American agent when everyone knew that I had never agreed with American policy. They accused me of meeting with certain American congressmen when they knew that I had told those congressmen they should lift the embargo. It was really awful.

I came to the conclusion that I had followed the revolutionary line but that it was the government itself that gone against that line, that it had become stagnant, conservative and counter-revolutionary. It wasn’t even nationalistic because through its actions it had distorted the national identity. It had forced millions of Cubans to leave the country while making a significant portion of the remaining population want to leave the island as well.

Do you feel hatred to some of the people who caused you harm?

No, I try to avoid hate because it stifles your intellect. You have to look for a point of reflection in order to try to understand because some things are not easy to understand. I have come to the conclusion that in Cuba there can be no end to the crisis without reconciliation. Cubans have only one possible path, like in Spain, like in Chile. Of course, there can be justice — justice for everyone — but Cuba has no way of solving its problems unless it is based on national compromise and reconciliation. We have to look for compromise.

I envision initiating a dialogue that might end — as happened in the 1930s — with a new constitution that resembles as much as possible the constitution of 1940. The situation now is so serious that we have to take a series of measures such as granting peasants access to the land, increasing the range of self-employment options, legalizing small and medium-sized private businesses and later establishing a truly representative constituent assembly like the one in 1940 that included conservatives, Christians, communists, liberals, everyone. That’s my proposal.

Before, however, you felt hatred. Does this mean you have evolved?

Yes, that was a phase. I have to acknowledge that I came from the communist ranks, where they used to talk about class struggle and where in a certain way they preached hate, but I have overcome all that. I  have realized that it doesn’t get you anywhere, that it doesn’t allow you to be analytical, because you start off with a series of prejudices which leads to a biased analysis.

Of course, I am human and I have feelings. They have haunted me at times and at any given moment this type of sentiment can disrupt any analysis I might be doing, but I try to avoid it. I don’t get upset about it. I look at Cuban leaders in a positive light when they say things I believe to be correct.

For example, Raúl Castro gave a speech on July 26, 2007 that I believe to be that of a realist and I have said so. Many people have attacked me for that and for many other things that I said about people who are not exactly friends of mine. I think I must stick with this approach so that hatred and prejudice do not blind me and prevent me from looking at things analytically. There is a rule I try to follow, though I don’t know if I always succeed, which is to have a warm heart and a cool head.

After revolutions succeed and their leaders come to power — becoming the law unto themselves — do other revolutionaries end up being the victims?

I am aware of that but that’s not revolution. What has happened here has been an attack on power by people who crave power above all else. That does not qualify as revolution. The fact that a revolution may have been violent does not mean that all revolutions have to resort to violence. There are many revolutions in different spheres of human life that have led to advancement, to development, to progress. I don’t necessarily associate revolution with violence.

Given all that has happened to you, have some of your ideas changed?

I have come to the conclusion that no one doctrine has a monopoly on truth. I believe, for example, that those promoting private property and those promoting public property are not mutually exclusive. They can co-exist. There are countries in the world where there is real public property — not like in Cuba, where it’s an illusion — and private property as well. There are markets; there is competition. In other words, the two things are compatible. The most successful societies in the world are those that have adopted this model in one way or another.

For example, in terms of living standards, wealth per capita, transparency and low levels of corruption as measured by the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index, nations like Holland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Canada and Denmark rank high. Each has its own peculiarities, so they cannot be copied. But that is the way.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the recent world economic crisis have demonstrated that neither extreme individualism nor total state control offers solutions. We must go in search of a society where private property exists because the desire for social status and material success — within certain regulatory boundaries and controls — can be extremely beneficial.

But at the same time public ownership is also useful because in many sectors the potential profits are not large enough to spur private initiative and therefore the state must play an important role. Although they do not produce high returns, certain activities such as education, public health and other areas require the state to be involved for the reasons discussed or for strategic considerations. I am referring, of course, to a democratic state.

Do you consider yourself to be a Marxist?

No, frankly I would say no. When asked if he was a Marxist, even Marx himself said no. Marx is a man who must be looked at in the context of his time. The problems of the 19th century are not those of today. To look to Marx for solutions to our current problems is a mistake. Even some of his basic proposals did not come to pass.

His follower Rosa Luxemburg recognized through her own analysis that his theory of the impoverishment of the working class did not hold up. The prediction that socialism would first triumph in Western Europe, where there was a larger and more developed working class, also did not come true. I don’t think Marx had aspirations to be a soothsayer. There is only one passage in the Critique of the Ghota Program which speaks about the future. For that reason I am not a Marxist; I find that absurd.

I believe the world needs a series of solutions that can be found in neither the 19th nor the 20th century. They have to be devised now. Even institutions that were valuable in the 20th century, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, will have to adapt to new circumstances. Some concepts which were valid in the past are obsolete today given the unstoppable advance of globalization, science and technology. By necessity new ways of thinking and interacting in the world will have to be implemented.

I believe that international cooperation will play a much more important role than it has so far. In turn there will be a better chance of fighting ignorance, hunger and poverty on a global scale, as well as the challenges to human life brought on by environmental impacts. I’m sure this process will lead to the strengthening of the United Nations, giving this institution a much wider mandate.

Were you released “on parole?” What is that?

“Parole” for medical reasons means that I can go back to prison whenever I am considered cured, which is ridiculous since my illnesses are chronic. They summoned me to the Playa Municipal Provincial Court two years after my release to remind me of this, to tell me that I could not leave Havana without permission, that there was a commission in the neighborhood supervising me and, depending on what I say, I could  go back to jail.

Above my apartment here, in #8, there is a State Security office that I think is monitoring me. They don’t even let me go outside. They apply different policies to different people. They allow some of those freed to leave. I have asked to go to the United States but they turned me down. I have even been invited to events in Poland, Puerto Rico and other places and, even though I have filed all the necessary paperwork, I have never received the authorization to leave: the famous White Card.

How did you see the relationship of economics to politics?

They are inseparable. In this regard Marx might have had some valid arguments. He used to say that society is based on production relationships and I still believe that, though I don’t deny that there is a relationship between the foundation and the framework above it. I believe that if there is more economic freedom, there will be more political freedom. Fidel Castro is very clear about this. He denies that there is economic reform because he knows that one thing leads to another and the consequences are inevitable.

The United States has imposed enormous restrictions on economic trade with Cuba: they don’t offer credit, you have to pay in advance, they don’t buy anything, you have to use foreign vessels. Nevertheless, with all these obstacles, the United States is now at least Cuba’s fourth largest trading partner. That is bound to have an impact. If there were more freedom, we would feel more in control of our own future. That would give us the motivation to fight for our political freedom, for the creation of a favorable economic environment.

The new law allowing individuals to lease agricultural land is full of snags and that is not by accident. It was carefully designed to make sure that people do not feel like owners. That is why I believe there is a very big correlation between economics and politics. Cuba is a country that has a geographical position and socio-political traditions are better than China’s. But even in China, with all its economic changes, people are beginning to push back. The protests there over the economic crisis and the closing of factories are huge, to say nothing of Russia.

Freedom is also an aspect of production. I defend this thesis because I believe competition plays a more important role than freedom of movement or freedom of thought. It allows you to choose the best option in a world with ever more choices, where dialogue and responsible, civilized debate are essential for sound and sustainable development.

From your standpoint what might be the main obstacles to change in Cuba?

The first is having the political will to move forward in a gradual way. I would begin with agriculture, giving land to people, giving them the means to pay for it, a way for people to come together on a voluntary basis. The state can retain a role in certain areas. There’s no contradiction there.

What the private sector will be and what the public sector will be will depend on results and concrete conditions. I think public involvement can be very efficient when it comes to education, public health and other sectors. Before the revolution students in Cienfuegos went from private primary schools to public secondary schools. It wasn’t because the public schools were free; it was because the quality was better. Private-sector education can be allowed to operate within certain guidelines, as was the case before 1959.

I came to Havana to go to a private school. You still had to pass the state exams. You have to avoid extremes. State extremism fell with the Berlin Wall and extreme capitalism fell the current economic crisis. Now Obama wants to guarantee health insurance for more than 40 million Americans and to improve public education, so he is being called a socialist. That’s nonsense. We must promote private initiatives as a key aspect of social progress and economic development but subject to regulation to curb excessive ambition and unjust enrichment.

Do you believe American policy is partly to blame for Cuba’s problems?

I do believe American policy has a degree of responsibility for this, a big one. I have always said that the Cuban government had two great allies. The Soviet Union gave a huge amount of economic support to the regime. But on the political side there has been the United States, with its unwavering stance, that has fostered totalitarianism. American policy and the embargo was like oxygen to the most conservative factions within the party.

Your book Chronicles of a Disaster? was published in 2003 and in 2007 Revolution or Devolution was published. Is there a direct relationship between them?

There is a direct relationship. They are collections of articles that express my viewpoints about the genesis of the Cuban drama, theories on how to overcome the crisis and proposals for national reconstruction in a framework of reconciliation that sets aside the hatreds that for so long have poisoned Cuban society. They cover different eras. Chronicles of a Disaster is about one era and Revolution or Devolution? is about another. I would say they represent a maturation in thinking, one achieved through reflection, dialog with others — including some with whom I disagree on several issues — and many years spent in opposition to totalitarianism.

For example, in the last book there is a series of articles I wrote about the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the UN. This led me to collect a significant amount of data and to study the history of Cuban economic theory, all of which showed that Cuba before the revolution was not the disaster that government propaganda would have us believe. This research has led me to the conclusion that, although there were serious problems hampering national development, from 1902 to 1958 Cuban had progressed in spite of its various governments and not because of the desires of those governments.

Cuban civil society had made advances in education and public health. In some significant ways such as the number of doctors per capita, life expectancy and infant mortality, the public health situation was better than that of European countries. Advances in education as well as in public health were comparable to those of Europe, not to Latin America, where the only countries comparable to Cuba were Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and perhaps Costa Rica.

Cuba did not begin in 1959, regardless of the fact that great strides were made in medicine and that educational efforts became focused on areas that had previously been marginalized, especially in rural areas. Unfortunately, even these accomplishments, which were achieved through the efforts of the people, are currently being undone due to the lack of necessary financial support.

In the introduction to Revolution or Devolution? Carmelo Mesa Lago writes, “The writings of Oscar Espinosa have inspired and influenced the work of many Cuban economists living overseas.” What does that statement mean to you and how did your training allow you to reach that level of professionalism? 

Well, I am very flattered that a person whom I greatly admire and whom I consider to be the greatest living Cuban economist, someone who works for the International Labor Organization, has made this assessment of my work. For me that’s very heartening.

What I have done is to examine data and information, summarize and research official statistics, and look for misrepresentations. I rely on data from CEPAL, the UN, foreign publications and the Cuban press. If you were to go to my house, you would find thousands of clippings from periodicals and journals such as El País, ABC, El Mundo, El Nuevo Herald, The Economist and even official domestic publications such and Granma and Juventud Rebelde. I use them to analyze the economy as well and social and historical events. I really like history. It’s what I like most. I am a history nut. I always have a history book in my hand.

Often I see parallels in Cuban history. Many things seem to repeat themselves. For example there was Spain’s obstinate refusal to for carry out reforms and its rigidly conservative stance. Its insistence on not taking any action at that time became one of the root causes of the Cuban wars of independence. And now there’s something similar going on: the obstinance of the Cuban government means all doorways are closed off. So far there has been no danger of things blowing up, but no one knows if that will continue to be the case.

You have made important recommendations but the government, which would have to implement them, is not considering them. What is the significance of your work?

It is gratifying to know that my articles are read and heard on foreign radio stations. It is gratifying to know that some people access them through the internet or read them in newspapers published overseas. That some television interviews I give to foreign broadcasters make their way back here. That people tell me, “I saw you on television!” It is gratifying that friends are generous enough to make copies of them.

This is just the beginning; I am sure things will change for the better. Not too long ago we didn’t have the internet. Though there are a lot of hassles, we now have it. Who knows if one day soon I might also have it in my home.

Do you believe this tiny seed might germinate at some point?

That’s the idea, to sow the seeds of the future. I might live to see it or I might not, but I am modestly trying to independently collaborate on that because, as you know, I don’t belong to any organization. Sometimes I am asked to join a collaborative effort and I agree to do it. And if I don’t want to, I don’t agree to do it. And that’s how I participate, by offering my ideas. I do what I can. I even think that my work might, as you put it, be useful to the government itself. I hope it might help lead Cuba towards democracy. I would have no objection to that but I do not have any personal ambitions.

What do you feel would be the optimal outcome and what might be the possible outcome for Cuba?

To me the optimal outcome for Cuba would be something along the lines of the 1940 constitution. It seems to me that such a Cuba would be an expression of José Martí’s desire for a “republic with everyone and for the good of everyone.” It would be one in which individual aspirations are supported, one with private ownership where market forces are an important tool for the distribution of resources, where there is competition and the opportunity for improvement. There would be significant public participation that complements private initiative, but always within a democratic framework. There would be debates and political parties but we would not have to wait until an election is held to make decisions.

I think these things are possible; I don’t think it is a dream. It is something that other countries have achieved and I ask myself why we cannot also achieve the same thing through tenacity and through major investments in education and culture, which would lay the groundwork for fulfilling our destiny. I believe that throughout our history the Cuban people have demonstrated such motivation and aspiration, and can do so again.

What events have had a big impact on you personally?

Some things have had a big impact on me both positively and negatively. After the victory on January 1, 1959 I had a lot of dreams, though it all ended in enormous national frustration. It was a day I will never forget.

I was active in the youth movement and later I served as a diplomat, working to obtain advantages for my country. I have always fulfilled my duty and followed my conscience. Perhaps mistakes were made but they were always made with the best of intentions, trying to do something useful for Cuba.

As far as negative aspects go, there are also events that have had an impact on me. In 1967 I was expelled from economic research teams and was sent to clean dung out of caves and to work alongside criminals. In 1987 I was forced to leave the foreign service. In 1992 I was fired from the National Bank. They sacked my wife Marian from her job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs just because she decided to stay with me. Another terrible blow came when I was arrested in 2003 and sentenced to twenty years in prison under inhuman conditions. All this was very hard but, you know, life goes on, thank God. I don’t know why. I’ve always pulled myself back up, though it wasn’t easy.

When your mother died, you were in jail…

My mother died a few weeks after I was released from prison, so I was able to be with her. By then she was very badly off. Much of the time she was unconscious and was suffering a lot. She was an example of hard work, of tenacity, of struggle and at the same time she was very tolerant. She never was a communist. She always rejected those theories. She was very devout but very tolerant. Even when I was involved in Marxist activities, she never objected. She respected my decision just as she respected it when I decided to oppose totalitarianism.

Do you feel fulfilled?

I feel fulfilled. I feel that I did something for my country. At certain times it was difficult because I was misunderstood by many countrymen, but I can also see the fruits of my labor. People have become aware and many countrymen — many intellectuals, valuable people — have joined the opposition movement. I think the struggle to achieve the kind of society I have hoped for — one of national reconciliation, a vision that I have carried around with me for many years — is paying off and that is quite comforting.

Do you have friends and/or enemies?

I don’t consider anyone to be an enemy, though some do consider me to be their enemy. I don’t hate anyone because hate doesn’t allow you to think. As a human being I can at any given moment become infuriated and anger takes over, but I try to let it go. I have a lot of friends, people I really admire, including some whose viewpoints are different. You yourself were one of those people. We have discussed them on occasion, arguing over our ideas, but we are still friends. There are people overseas with whom I have never spoken in person but have spent years talking on the phone: economists, scholars, journalists. So I have many people to help me, who want to support me in my fight.

Your mother was Catholic. Did her beliefs have any influence on you? 

My mother was Catholic and very devout but never wanted to impose her beliefs on me. My father was a communist but ended up being religious too. He left Cuba and ultimately died in New York. In his later years he completely rejected this system and died a Christian — a very, very devout Catholic. He was an intelligent man. Even when he was a communist, he enrolled me in a Methodist elementary school — the Elizabeth Bowman, which was run by American missionaries — of which I have very fond memories. Even before he was a believer, he encouraged me to study the Bible because he considered it to be valuable.

Then I met other communists who felt the same way. For example, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, who knew the Bible very well and quoted it extensively. Or Juan Marinello who on one occasion, when asked if a library were burning down, what one book would be rescue, said the bible.

As you look back on your life, is there anything you would have done differently or are you at peace?

I am at peace with everything I have done in my life. I am very proud that I always did what my conscience dictated. When I worked with Fidel Castro, I could have done what everyone else did and I would not have had any problems. I could have taken an opportunistic approach and accepted everything he said at the time.

When I lost my job in foreign affairs, I could have adapted. I had a comfortable position, signing documents on behalf of the government even though I was not a party member. I was sent as an adviser to different countries, to Granada where I met with Maurice Bishop, to North Korea where I met with Kim Il Sung. I don’t go looking for problems. But my conscience told me to do something else and it made them look at me as though I were an enemy, which brought me to where I am now.

When all is said and done, I have to thank them. All the persecution and harassment led me to understand that the Cuban situation cannot be solved with tepid reforms. What is needed is a radical change to the whole dysfunctional system that has led the nation to disaster.

I am the son of the bourgeoisie. My family had money. My mother owned a pharmaceutical company and real estate in Cienfuegos and Havana. I left all that behind and joined the revolution without any interest in material benefit. I did not join the revolution out of class interest or out of any other interest but out of a concern for social justice and sincere love for my country.

I have come to the conclusion that democracy is essential. It is a political weapon, a social weapon, an economic weapon. Democracy and freedom are essential for a nation’s development in every area. Respect for individual sovereignty within a democratic legal framework is one of the determinants for the advancement of a people. I think one of the great advantages of American society and other societies is that they have managed to maintain balance and a capacity for self-criticism across generations.

What other national historic figures have had an influence on your personal development?

There are historical personalities whom I consider to be irreplaceable figures. First of all there is Félix Varela. When one reads about him, one wonders how a man of his era could say the things he said. It’s not what he said, but when and with what insight he said them.

There is also Martí, a key figure in Cuban history, to say nothing of military and political geniuses such as Antonio Maceo y Máximo Gómez. We also cannot forget Fernando Ortiz, the third discoverer of Cuba, a cornerstone of Cuban culture, a man who rejected tempting political offers and eschewed party politics so that he could carry out his research without other commitments.

There’s Juan Gualberto Gómez, a slave who became a remarkable figure. There’s Enrique José Varona… There are even figures whom we have to reconsider in light of independence. Although they made mistakes, as is the case with some who sought mere autonomy, they played an important role in the formation of the national consciousness by cleverly using the limited freedoms granted by the Spanish government to create conditions that would later allow those who sought independence to show that there was no alternative other than complete separation from Spain.

These include Jorge Mañach and Ramiro Guerra, whose book Sugar and the Population of the Antilles is one of the most important treatises to have been published in Cuba. The list of extraordinary men that our small island has produced is enormous.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I believe that what really matters is what one says. That’s what I can say.

From Diario de Cuba

13 December 2013

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

First of all, the ZEDM workers will receive 80% of the pay rate agreed between the employment agency and the investors. Next, payment will be in Cuban pesos (CUP), so that, in order to pay for nearly all their daily necessities they will have to convert them into convertible pesos (CUC). Thirdly, they won’t exchange what the workers are paid into CUC at the official conversion rate of 24 CUPs to 1 CUP, but at a special rate giving the workers only 10 CUPs for every 1 CUC.

The first of these is relatively good, because up to now Cuban workers contracted to entrepreneurs or countries never received 4/5 of the amount paid amount for their work. The second one is bad.

Let’s suppose that a foreign entrepreneur pays $1,000 a month for the services of an electrician; the employment agency converts the dollars into 1,000 CUC, of which the electrician gets 800. With this money, which he has earned, he could lead a decent life without having to “fight” or “invent” anything to survive.

The third part is the worst, because with the special rate of 1 CUC for 10 Cuban pesos, the 800 dollars is no longer 800 CUC, it gets converted into 333 CUC. And in the end the state grabs two-thirds of the $1,000 paid. In this way the worker is hurt by the foreigner but more than anything by the State.

On the other hand, the worker will retain the rights contained in Art 27 of the  Foreign Investment Law, which indicates that the investor has to comply with the employment and social security legislation applying in the Republic of Cuba.

But the fact is that the employment legislation, contained in the Employment Rules Law, passed 29 December 2013, in spite of the fact that it constitutes a step backwards from the Law of Labour Information Commissions of 1924 (enacted in order to channel the employer-employee conflicts related to loading sugar), nevertheless, having disappeared, it is impossible to know exactly what it says.

The disparity between the level of pay and the cost of living in Cuba is primarily due to the decades of totalitarian socialism, especially from 1989 on, when price inflation began to outstrip salary increases, leading up to the present crisis, one of whose manifestations–with the most negative impact–is inadequate pay.

That problem is so worrying for Cuban workers that it was referred to in an interview with Carmen Rosa–who is right now leading the preparation for the 20th Congress of the CTC (Workers Central Union of Cuba)–published in the newspaper Granma dated 27th April: in all the analyses carried out this year the recurrent theme of the assembly members’ proposals relates to salaries. That shows that the organisers’ objectives go in a different direction to the worries of the unemployed.

The 1940 Constitution affirms the following in Art. 61: The Law will set up a process for periodic review of salaries or minimum wages, by way of joint committees for each employment sector; in accordance with the living standards and particular circumstances appurtaining in each region and each industrial, agricultural or commercial activity.

Today, not only do the workers not participate in this process, but they also do not know how the calculation works out. By definition, the minimum wage is the basic amount you need to subsist. Using this definition, most of the salaries in Cuba, being insufficient to cover basic necessities, are in fact lower than what the minimum wage should be.

Because of that anomaly, people have to look for other employment outside of the wage relationship–almost always on the edge of what is legal–and Cubans are forced to keep shifting from one place to another, from one activity to another and one profession to another, without regard to vocation or training.

The official press has stressed that thousands of jobs are going to be created with much higher salaries than the current average of 20 CUC a month. Nevertheless, the way in which they are paid, which in any other part of the world would lead to union protests, in the case of Cuban workers, having no space or institutions to defend them, they can only express their discontent in private, at the same time as they go to the employment agencies to try to improve their position, because that mechanism, in spite of the abuse and mockery, permits them to receive a higher wage than the national average.

It has to be added that one of the main worries of foreign investors is whether they can count on efficient workers, and therefore it suits them to pay them a salary capable of motivating them and awakening their interest in the results of their activities.

Having said that, the current analysis shows us that the way in which workers will be paid now can act as an obstacle to the objective of attracting foreign investment. Therefore, they need to change the proportion from one good thing and many bad things to the opposite of one bad thing and many good things, because asking for everything to be good would be like asking for the moon.

*Translator’s notes: This refers to foreign investment into Cuba, not the reverse.

Translated by GH

Originally published in Diario de Cuba.

22 April 2014

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.

continue reading

Una Noche gained three of the prizes awarded in the Tribeca Film Festival. Javier Núñez Florián, jointly with Dariel Arrechada–neither with acting experience before Lucy Mulloy selected them in a casting session–were awarded the category of Best Actor; it also obtained the Best Direction and Best Photography awards, which made it the most recommended film in the New York festival.

Then, in the 43rd Film Festival of India, Mulloy’s debut film received the jury’s special prize, the Silver Peacock, worth $27,500. In the first Brasilia International Film Festival it picked up Best Script. It next entries–in the Deauville Film Festival, in France; in the Vancouver International Film Festival in Canada; in the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival; and in the Rio Festival–are likely to attract further awards.

In Cuba, the film opened in the month of September in a sexual health fair, organised by the National Centre of Sex Education, in the cinema La Rampa, and more recently in the 34rd International Festival of New Latin American Cine in Havana, included in the “Made in Cuba” section, in which were included audiovisual productions made in the island without the right to compete for the Coral awards.

On each of these occasions it was shown just once, and because of that only a few Cubans have had the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the multiprize-winning film which deals with a very significant aspect of their lives.

The feature film focuses on the social phenomenon of illegal emigration, especially concerning young people going to the United States, which constitutes one of the worst tragedies in Cuba because of the large number of people who have died in the process, because of the split families, and because of the brain drain of Cuban professionals (a theme I will return to later).

The principal cause of the Cuban migration phenomenon lies in the absence of civil rights such as being able to freely enter and leave the country, which has developed into a flight to realise human aspirations, which, although they are basic ones, are impossible to satisfy within our frontiers.

We are talking about a general permanent flow which Una Noche presents on a personal level in terms of the story of three young people who escape in a fragile craft, made of car tyres.

In spite of the fact that the director spent several years in Havana, gathering information for the feature, it remains suprising that, without being Cuban, she manages to get so deeply inside the behaviour of a part of the society and show in sound and vision the conduct of a section of present-day Cuba, its shortages and frustrations.

Lila, one of the film’s protagonists, tells how people leave Cuba via different routes, but she never imagined that Elio, her twin brother, could abandon her. The story begins when Elio starts to work in the kitchen of the Hotel Nacional, and there makes the acquaintance of Raúl.

From that moment on, Lila’s worry that her brother might leave her begins to give her horrible nightmares which prevent her sleeping. Right away the film starts to look into the social settings and digs about for the possible reasons for flight.

In another scene Lila comments that in Havana you can get what you want. The shops are empty, but if you know the right person, everything is for sale; a statement about the reality of daily life in the capital, which is demonstrated by way of Raúl and Elio’s vicissitudes as they seek the things they need to cross the dangerous Straits of Florida: tyres, compass, wood, a motor, food and glucose.

In each process we see highlighted the mistreatment by state organisations, the environment and language of the slums, the under-the-counter business, the loveless sexual relations, the domestic violence, the moral deterioration in the bosom of the family, the destruction and lack of hygiene in Havana, the robberies, and police repression and abuse. An asphyxiating climate which is illustrated and accentuated by rap and reggaeton music.

In the same way, the camera, which can penetrate further than the human eye,  and the microphone, which can register sounds undetectable by the human ear, make incursions into the homes of the protagonists.

In the twins’ house, the macho attitudes, the disagreements between the parents and the material misery they live in; in Raúl’s apartment, the dirt, the physical and moral destruction, where his mother, who is getting on in years, and is suffering from AIDS, has to work as a prostitute, and the absence of a father, who left Cuba and does not keep in contact with them.

Along with the above, mixed in are scenes of groups of young people and adolescents behaving irresponsibly, bathing in the contaminated waters of the Havana Malecon, or risking their lives cycling about in the middle of the traffic; the old man singing dementedly in the street, whose daughter married an Italian and never came back to see him; the woman selling religious artifacts who completes the picture with false predictions in return for money.

The climax, which concludes and summarises what has happened in the events narrated, expresses the key to the story. In the boat, the dramatic conflicts, the superficiality, and the lack of foresight, show themselves.

Elio loves Raúl and Raúl loves his sister; discussions about prostitution and Elio’s and Raúl’s superficial approach to their future in Miami; Lila’s fall into the water; the shark attack, and the sinking of their boat which leads to Elio’s death, while the shipwrecked Lila and Raúl desperately cling on to a piece of polystyrene, until they are rescued by a sea scooter on a Florida beach. The film ends with Raúl’s detention in Havana, where we see dream and reality mixed up and confused.

The treatment of social phenomenon on the screen is nothing new. Information about the discovery of one of the pioneers of the seventh art, French theatre director and actor, producer of Viaje a la Luna (Journey to the Moon), George Méliès (1861-1938), shows us cinema as a way of interpreting and forming reality; and the North American film director David Wark Griffith (1875- 1948) director of Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, this last considered to be the artistic culmination of the silent screen, who looked at history as a source of cinematographic experiences.

In that sense, Una Noche, with its penetrating analysis of Cuban immigration, may be said to occupy a place in the history of social criticism in our country centred on that way of observing social reality at the margin of official apologetics.

That current, which was present in Cuba since the silent film era, started to show itself after the Revolution with the documentary PM–a short film about the ways in which a group of people in Havana had fun, which was produced in 1961 by Orlando Jiménez Leal and Sabá Cabrera Infante–which showed us a modern look at the Revolutionary reality, and became, because of that, the most problematic film in Cuba’s audiovisual history, at a time when the priority for the Cuban Institute of Cinema Arts and Industry was propaganda about class struggle and the fight against the threats of imperialism.

PM was censored and it was forbidden to show it, which produced controversy among the artists and intellectuals which led to the discourse of the Leader of the Revolution on 30 June 1961, known as Palabras a los intelectuales  (Words to the intellectuals), in which he introduced the restrictive idea: Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing. From that moment on, culture, which precedes and transcends politics, became a prisoner of the Revolution right up to today.

In 1971, in the fictional feature film Una pelea cubana contra los demonios (A Cuban struggle against demons), its director, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, proposed: in any time or place it is unrealistic to develop human existence in any authentic manner, if you impose limits on the process, if you define limits of acceptability of group social behaviour, if, with the starting point of a moral interpretation of society (whether it’s called bourgeois or socialist, religion or liberal) you prevent people freely discussing their own visions of the world …

The intellectual, he said, is the specialist who is most able to express clearly the semantic incoherences which have arisen within the Revolution. In the ’90’s of the last century, among the 60 cinematic works of fiction produced, there emerged important works of social criticism.

In the 21st century, among the many film directors who have made incursions into social phenomena, I would like to focus on the prize-winning creator Fernando Pérez, who has clearly shown the potential of cinematographic criticism for encouraging reflection among Cubans.

In La Vida es Silbar (Life is to Whistle) (1998), Fernando dealt with the search for happiness by way of inner liberation, the truth and social communication, and in Suite Habana (Havana Suite) (2003), he decided to convert our contradictory reality–as seen in Una Noche–into an inexhaustible source of inspiration for love and inner liberty: love of a neighbour and of a city, which, in spite of its neglected and destroyed condition, he shows us to be beautiful and full of possibilities.

In that respect, Una Noche and Suite Habana are radically different. The first one concentrates on showing the harshness of the physical and moral destruction, the second turns away from that destruction in order to show the hidden beauty and the possibilities of getting beyond it. Between the two of them they offer a comprehensive close-up on the general reality of Havana and Cuba.

On the same lines, the film producer Alfredo Guevara, President of the New Latin American Cine Festival, in its 33rd event in 2011, said, “The Cuban Revolution, which, in 1959 could …” This Revolution now requires the privatisation of Cuban Society, freed from the state bureaucracy, which corrupts everything.

The 2011 festival showed us a group of films whose common theme was social criticism: Casa Vieja de Lester Hamlet (Lester Hamlet’s Old House), a film which talks about who we are and how to understand Cubans’ lives from the standpoint of emotional commitment. Esteban Insausti’s Larga Distancia (Long Distance), in which he shows the frustrations caused by emigration in our society.

Boleto al paraíso (Ticket to Paradise) by Eduardo Chijona, inspired by real events, deals with the degradation of youth, going as far as deliberately catching the AIDS virus in order to be able to have a better life in a sanatorium. Afinidades (Relationships) by Jorge Perugorría and Vladimir Cruz, in which corruption leads to emptiness, taking refuge in your instincts, using sex as a way of discharging electricity, manipulating people near to you as a means to reaffirming your damaged personality. Martí el ojo del canario, (Martí , the eye of the canary), by Fernando Pérez, a masterwork of cinema as historical investigation.

Just as Lucy Malloy outlines some of the causes of emigration, her film offers the opportunity to show, as a kind of accompaniment, some thoughts about the migration problem in Cuba, which could be useful for those people who, having seen the film, feel inclined to get to understand a bit more about contemporary Cuba.

The economic inefficiency, the loss of civil and political rights, the inadequacy of salaries in relation to the cost of living, among other things, have had very negative effects: corruption, a phenomenon which was present in the political administrative sphere in the republic before the revolution, spread into all levels of society; while immigration, which had characterised the country since earliest times, changed after 1959 into a diaspora, that’s to say, with people moving out all over the world, as shown in the statistical data.

On 9 January 1959, the government enacted Law No.2, to restrict the right of freedom to leave the country on the part of those who wanted to go. This provision was amended by Law No. 18, which stipulated that any Cuban in possession of a valid passport issued by the Ministry of State, who wanted to travel to another country, had to obtain an “authorisation to that effect , which would be provided by the Chief of National Police”.

In 1961, the Ministry of the Interior instituted the notorious “exit permit” and laid down the length of time Cubans could remain abroad. In 1976, Law No. 1312 was enacted, by way of which permission to leave was confirmed.

In spite of these measures, the number of Cubans in the United States, who, in 1959, amounted to some 124,000, increased substantially after that date. Firstly by way of people linked to the overthrown regime or who lost their property, along with the thousands of children who left by way of Operation Peter Pan (1960-62), and then the first massive outflow via the port of Camarioca and the air bridge from Varadero, with 260,000 Cubans leaving between 1965 and 1973.

In April 1980, after a bus violently crashed through the fence of the Peruvian embassy in Havana, and its passengers requested refuge, thousands of Cubans invaded the embassy with the same intention. The result was another 125,000 Cubans left the island.

Between May and August 1994, groups of Cubans invaded the Belgian and German embassies and also the Chilean consulate, at the same time as various boats were seized.

On August 5th of the same year, Fidel Castro accused the United States of encouraging illegal immigration, and said: either they should take measures or we will not prevent people who want to go and seek their family members.

As a result, during the summer of 1994 approximately 33,000 Cubans escaped from the island, of whom about 31,000 were provisionally detained at the Guantánamo Naval Base.

During those three huge wave–Camarioca, Mariel and Guantánamo–there also occurred innumerable tragedies. Cautious estimates suggest that at least 25% of the boat people didn’t survive their journey in their variety of very different floating objects.

Nevertheless, as the main cause of the emigration was the economic deterioration and the absence of liberty, none of these laws was able to hold up these individual departures, in groups or en masse.

The Cuban diaspora constitutes a continuing process over a period of time by all the different ways of which Cuban imagination and desperation could conceive, which is reflected in the 2010 United States Census, which showed a total of 1,800,000 Cubans, which, added in to all the others who spread out all over the world, takes us past 2 million; that’s to say, that 18% of all Cubans are abroad.

Family members separated for years, or all their lives; married couples who have grown old with the pain of not being able to return to their children; kids grown up in other countries who will never more be able to see their parents. Suffering which has caused anthropological damage in many Cuban homes, where the family ceases to be the school of love, education and security and becomes instead a place for ideological disagreements, grudges and mental upsets, exactly what Lucy Mulloy was stressing in Una Noche.

The diaspora, resulting from the absence of liberties and economic inefficiency, has had, in turn, other negative effects. The rate of demographic increase was altered during the years 2001-2010 by a negative migration balance of 342,199 people, to a rate of on average 34,000 per year; a process which is converting Cuba into the only country in America with a declining population.

In the same way, it has led to a brain drain of professionals, as Cuba, which had managed to achieve a very high proportion of higher education graduates, has changed into one of the countries which is losing its professionals and technicians due to emigration.

In the last 30 years tens of thousands of doctors, engineers, qualified in various specialties such as mid-range technical people, and skilled workers, have emigrated, which amounts to a present day and potential future threat to the country.

The fact is that the illegal departures before and after the Ley de Ajuste (U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act), and before and after the migration accords which have been agreed, clearly shows it is directly related to the Cuban internal crisis.

The production of Una Noche, a film which shows the role of cinema in the way we see, interpret, and form reality; comes at exactly the moment when the Cuban government decided to modify the current migration legislation, although the change does not give Cubans back all the rights which were violated by the legislation described.

The need to obtain permission to leave the country disappears, but certain categories of Cubans, either because of the positions of responsibility they occupy, or because of studies undertaken, continue to be subject to the same limitations as previously, which will be the cause of further young people abandoning their studies and fleeing in order not to be caught by the new law.

In this sense, Una Noche is the precursor to new migratory changes up to the point where Cubans will recover the right and freedom to leave their country just like any other citizens in the world.

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Published in German in edition 60 of TRIGON magazine, entitled “Fliegen oder bleiben?; hintergründe zum film Una noche. (To fly or to stay? background to the film One Night)

Translated by GH

25 February 2014