Freedom in Cuba from a Bird’s Eye View / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

Jeovany Jimenez Vega, 2 September 2017 — After the experience of a trip to Cuba, the Peruvian columnist Alfredo Bullard remains convinced that the solution to the Cuban problem involves everything from liberation from the government of Donald Trump to more business activity and travel by Americans to the island.

I believe that expressing an opinion without deep knowledge of an issue is not something that a responsible journalist should do, at least not one whose column appears in a newspaper aimed at millions of readers. This is a luxury reserved for modest digital news sites like Ciudano Cero (Citizen Zero) but incompatible with the expectations of respected publications. In such cases, success depends on research and prior, careful study, especially when dealing with a dictatorship that has long exhibited an extraordinary talent for deception and disingenuousness.

Bullard’s first mistake was in presuming that freedom, an elusive and abstract concept, can be achieved so easily — one might almost say physically — by doing someting as simple as dropping leaflets over Havana’s seaside promenade, the Malecón. But it does not make sense when dealing with closed societies such as Cuba and North Korea. In these instances, any analysis must first and foremost take into account decades of indiscriminate indoctrination that has caused untold moral harm and turned citizens into apathetic and uncritical masses, stript of their civic involvement. These are wounds that will take virtually a generation to overcome and whose ultimate conequence is the awful weight of social apathy caused by too many decades of unchecked abuse of power.

To claim that it is private businesses — hostals, restaurants and cafes for example — where the greatest battle of ideas is taking place in Cuba today suggests a total ignorance of our reality. To say something like that indicates an almost complete misreading of Cuban affairs. It ignores the reckless activism waged for many years and decades by Cuba’s political opposition, which has fought a continuous, uphill battle against one of the best organized and most repressive intelligence agencies the world has ever seen.

In fact, it is precisely these businesses where I would least expect to find open or even casual discussions critical of the Castro-communist regime. It is an axiom, written in stone at the entrance to each of these establishments, that their very survival is dependent on their owners’ complete acquiescence to authority, something even the lowliest employee knows all too well, the sine qua non. The threat of immediate closure has always proven to be a highly effective tool of social coercion.

I challenge anyone to look online and find even one anti-establishment webpage maintained by one of these entrepreneurs and I will calmly put my right hand under the guillotine with all the confidence in the world. I will then raise my hand intact as evidence that a flourishing private sector without political reforms would not necessarily lead to a greater array of dissenting opinions. At least not given the current rules of the game.

It seems Bullard is completely unaware that all the wealth generated by businesses and travelers from the U.S., which he claims would lead to greater freedom, would go directly into the hands of the Castro regime, not to the country’s people. It is a unmitigated error to look for the causes of our misfortune outside of Cuba. It is not about Donald Trump, nor the persistence of the American embargo, nor the shortage of American tourists. No, the essential causes of all our ills is always be found in the obsessions of four senile old men who from the Plaza of the Revolucion keep an entire country in a state of backwardness with their capricious whims and penurious personal interests.

Our columnist is mistaken if he believes that casual contact with tourists is enough to ignite and maintain this enthusiasm for private business. If that is what he thinks, he is totally ignorant of our experience. In fact, our entrepreneurial spirit was never completely snuffed out. There are hundreds if not thousands of clandestine workshops and businesses nurtured by the black market behind the back of the autocratic state. They can serve you with a beer on a back patio as they repair your Sputnik and put it into orbit. A notable example? Our celebrated almendrones — restored American cars from the 1950s — those sixty-year old testaments to Creole ingenuity, which does not give out even in the most trying circumstances. It is precisely that spirit that intimidates those in power and is the reason they tie our hands.

Does Mr. Bullard believe that enthusiasm is all it takes for an entrepreneur to keep a business in Cuba open without the existence of a basic wholesale market, in the midst of the worst shortages in our history and when faced with an army of inspectors on constant attack and armed with a body of absurd laws whose only purpose is to hinder success? Every enterprise of this type in Cuba gets by on pure courage, with no thanks to the Castro government but rather in spite of it.

According to analyses like that of Bullard, not taking advantage of “openings” that the Cuban government is “allowing” in order to bring freedom to the island is a stupid political strategy. However, so is not being aware that these so-called openings are nothing more than a pure scam, glitz intended to deceive the world. There is nothing authentic, certain or sincere to be found in them. Coming from a naive beginner, these comments could be taken as a baffling dispaly of myopia, but not from a professional journalist.

Or perhaps Bullard is ignoring the fact that, of every one-hundred private businesses that register in Cuba, no less than eighty close within a few months. Are Cubans bad managers? No. The regime itself has admitted that its strategy is to prevent the “accumulation of wealth” — in other words, to prevent people from being prosperous — at all costs. At the beginning of August, Raúl Castro issued a clear warning by launching an offensive against the private sector, canceling business licenses for dozens of previously allowed activities.

Where but in Havana are laws drafted that restrain Cuba’s private sector economy, ignore farmers’ management decisions and prohibit the free sale of their products, resulting in half the nation’s crops rotting in the field? What good is a livestock farmer’s “enthusiasm” if current laws severely restrict his economic growth? What openings are people talking about when there are dozens of legal tools designed specifically to thwart the success of non-state initiatives, tools used over and over to seize the properties of “backsliders”?

Who drafts the laws that handcuff our most cherished civil and political rights? Washington perhaps? No, all these aberrations have been crafted in Havana. What purpose is served when the eagerness and desire of Cuban exiles to invest in their own country is banned  for decades by the bad faith of the implacable dictatorship? No purpose is served.

It is neither Trump nor his predecessors who have deprived the Cuban nation of its accumulated wealth. It is the bad faith of the Castro brothers.

Blithely expressing an opinion about Cuba today — a society crushed by a totalitarian dictatorship in which things are never as they seem — will always carry a high risk of error. Bullard’s point of view overlooks one key detail: the dictatorship itself.