Looking 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 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
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 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).
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
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:
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
“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.
Shot 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.
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.
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
In 1953, in his self defense statement [as he appeared at his trial for the Moncada Barracks attack] History will absolve me, Fidel Castro addressed some key issues pending in our country: land reform for instance. He announced on that opportunity, as a priority in his program, giving productive land to those in possession of five or less acres; a nationalistic and democratic project that had its first episode in October, 1958, when, in the middle of the guerrilla war a bill of law was issued from La Sierra Maestra. Once he took power, actual laws were passed–on May 1959 and October 1963–in which property titles were issued to 100 thousand farmers, but 70% of productive land remained in government hands.
The new monopoly of the land and the elimination of the institutions of the civil society related to the agricultural (farming) activity generated a progressive decrease of the agricultural efficiency, while about 40% of the productive land of the country became idle; a regression that was continued until Cuba lost the subsidies from the former Soviet Union. Since then, the government had spent millions of dollars to buy food supplies that otherwise could had been produced locally.
With such an obvious deficiency of the agricultural production, just five months after taking over the presidency of the State council and of the Cabinet, General Raúl Castro, conscious of the deplorable condition of economy, expressed emphatically: We have to focus on the land! We have to get it to produce! And he added, that sooner than later laws and regulations will be passed to (once again) lease idle lands to farmers on the condition they make them productive as soon as possible.
One week after his speech, the Official Gazette of Cuba published the Decree Law 259 on that regard. This measure, could not solve such a serious problem on its own, might have been valid if this law had been conceived as the first step in a long way to go, for which a strong political will is need to face the historical problem of private property in Cuba, worsened during the Revolutionary government which promoted large state farms (collectivism).
For its content, the Decree Law 259 of July, 2008 dictated from the totalitarian optics, evaded the root of the problem. This same law was just meant to lease small pieces of land of 30 – 100 acres infected with the marabu weed, and accompanied by multiple prohibitions such as: no building of houses, warehouses or infrastructure and no hiring of employees.The absurdity was that the Decree-Law, issued to attack an inefficiency whose primary cause if the inability of the State to make the land produce, is limited to offering parcels in usufruct (a kind of leasing arrangement), that it enjoying the fruits of the work of others, while the inefficient State reserves the right to keep the property. The results obtained in these conditions aren’t what was hoped for.
However, even though the above mentioned Decree-Law lacked the power to increase agricultural production, the law itself was an implicit recognition of the need for a change. Its main fault consisted of ignoring the possession of the property in hands of the producers and keeping the economic decisions subordinated to politics. Given its unsatisfactory results and the zigzagging process without the political will required, in December, 2012, Decree-Law 259 was repealed and replaced with the Decree-Law 300.
The new regulation made some advances such as: allowed the construction of housings, stores and other facilities; also allowed farmers to hire permanent or temp workers; and let farmers lease up to 5 acres, though limited to those that already had leased contracts and were associated to official entities: State farm, and State Cooperative Farms.
Decree-Law 300 brought the same fault of the previous one, the State kept the monopoly of land and private producers subordinated to the State. In its article 11 it states that the lessees can join as workers State Farms as legal entities, or as member of a cooperative farm, for which “the lessee yields the right of the land and other infrastructure to the entity to which he joins, such entity decides whether he continues working this land or not.”
In addition, the Decree-Law 300 preserved other limitations such as inputs and services not tied to the mentioned entities, with clear disadvantages for individuals regarding the term of the contract. Such limitation revealed once again there was not a strong political will to bring agricultural production to a profitable level and a desire to avoid creating domestic entrepreneurs.
The new failure is very well adjusted to the government reforms slogan of ” no rush but not pause “, in January, 2014 Law 311 was passed, which modifies Law 300, to extend the leases to up to 150 acres to the most productive sector of the peasantry, especially to people working for state farms, that were excluded in the previous legislation. However, the lease depends on there only being credit and services cooperatives in the municipality; and b) the State farms as legal entities, basic units of cooperative production and cooperatives of agricultural production in the municipality are located at a distance exceeding three (3) miles of the requested area.
This official data does not explain the fact that after leasing 3.7 million acres of idle lands (since Decree-Law 259 was adopted in 2008), there has been reported increase in production; although there is another 2.5 million acres of land idle of the total 15.6 million acres of potentially productive land in the country. This negative result reminds us of that phrase of Jose Marti: “Cuba has an enormous potential to become a wealthy nation, but that is impossible if Cubans cannot be wealthy as well.”
Translated by: Rafael
From Diario de Cuba
2 March 2014
In a statement issued on Tuesday, February 11th, Rogelio Sierra Diaz, Cuba’s deputy foreign minister, reported that the Council of Foreign Ministers of the European Union (EU) had authorized the European Commission and the EU’s senior representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, to begin negotiations on a political dialogue and cooperation agreement with the Republic of Cuba. He added that “Cuba will consider the invitation from the Europeans in a respectful and constructive way and within the context of Cuba’s sovereignty and national interests.”
This represents the possible start of negotiations on a bilateral agreement, which depends on the Cuban authorities’ willingness to accept the invitation. In this regard Catherine Ashton said, “I hope Cuba will take up this offer and that we can work towards a stronger relationship,” but added “the decision is not a policy change from the past,” which can be interpreted as a change of tone, not of substance. Meanwhile the EU ambassador to Cuba said that the policy is the same but there is “a new dynamic” and called the decision a “big step forward for a possible agreement,” adding that the agreement would “formalize cooperation at all levels on a firmer legal and policy basis.”
Transitions towards democracy are dependent on both internal and external factors, with the latter assuming greater or lesser importance in relation to the strength or weakness of the former. In retrospect we can see that this has been exactly the case with Cuba.
When revolutionary forces came to power in 1959, they became the source of all laws and led the country towards totalitarianism. The constitution of 1940 was replaced with the Fundamental Law of the Cuban State, which allowed the designated prime minister to assume the role of head of government and the recently created Council of Ministers to take over the functions of Congress. Subsequently, power became concentrated in the hands of the strongman and property in the hands of the state. Civil society was dismantled, and civil liberties and human rights were restricted. As a result Cubans were relieved of vital tools and opportunities for civil discourse, which meant losing their status as citizens.
In 1996 the countries of the then European Community, which maintained bilateral relations with Cuba, established the Common Position in order to “encourage a process of transition to pluralist democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as a sustainable recovery and improvement of the living conditions of the Cuban people.” That decision, which provided moral support to the island’s opposition, sharpened differences between the EU and the Cuban government. When the European Commission delegation took up residence in Havana in 2002, it welcomed Cuba’s request to sign on to the Cotonou Agreement (1), opening a new stage in bilateral relations. However, the imprisonment of 75 peaceful dissidents in 2003 and the execution of three young men who attempted to commandeer a boat to escape the country led the European Union Council (2) to reaffirm that its Common Position remained valid and in force.
In 2008, when hurricanes deepened the country’s internal crisis, the government signed an accord restoring relations with the EU and agreed to restart a political dialogue. The European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cuba issued a statement announcing the decision, with the Spanish government playing a key role, repealing the Common Position. However, just as Spain assumed the EU presidency in 2010, two events dashed the arrangement: Cuba refused entry to Spanish EU deputy Luis Yanez and the Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died the following month of a prolonged hunger strike.
If the Cuban government were now to accept the EU’s offer, it would have to agree to a dialogue on the subject of human rights and proceed to reestablish what it should never have abolished in the first place. Interestingly, we are not operating under the same conditions as in the past, when then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Felipe Pérez Roque, said in reference to the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, “If the EU were to drop its insistence on a sterile and confrontational voting procedure, then Cuba would be inclined to sit down with the EU to work out a plan.” He added that Cuba “would feel a moral responsibility to abide by the European decision and would sign the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights the next day, indicating that we had entered a new stage in our relationship.”
Judging from the words of Catherine Ashton, certain demands would have to be on the table for EU countries to agree to negotiations.
She noted that, first, Cuban statutes would have to be brought into compliance with the United Nations Charter and all its instruments of international law such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 30 of this document states, “Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as conferring any rights to a state, group or person to engage in any activity or perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.” It is a provision that for Cuba has special significance, as it was one of the sponsors of and signatories to this important document. Secondly, it would also have to ratify human rights conventions it signed 2008, which form the legal basis for the principle of personal dignity and guarantee that the planned changes will have a positive effect on Cuban society.
To meet the first requirement, the Cuban government would have to halt political repression and summary imprisonment. EU countries would encourage exchanges with civil society so that Cubans might gradually emerge from the political margins to recover their status as citizens. This would help promote popular sovereignty so that Cubans might become the protagonists of their history and destiny.
In addition to other issues on the table there should be a requirement that the soon-to-be drafted Labor Code once again include the right to form free trade unions and the right to freely hire workers, two things that were part of the Labor Legislation of 1938 and the Constitution of 1940. Similarly, the new Investment Law should allow participation by Cuban nationals since the programs in which foreign investors are being invited to participate will be worthwhile only if Cubans benefit from these changes by having their rights restored. In the case of the Mariel Special Development Zone, the project will be of enormous benefit to the Cuban economy provided it helps lead to the country’s democratization. Otherwise, these steps will only strengthen the current economic and political model and condemn Cubans to continued civic, political and economic poverty.
(1) A comprehensive partnership agreement between the EU and 79 countries from Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Article 9, paragraph 2 states: “The Parties undertake to promote and protect all fundamental freedoms and human rights, whether civil and political or economic rights.”
(2) Name for the European Community’s heads-of-state and heads-of-government summit, which takes place regularly, at least every six months.
From Diario de Cuba
14 February 2014
By Dimas Castellano
As if what happened during the first three days of competition on Margarita Island was an exception and not a manifestation of the stagnation experienced in all spheres of Cuban society, a sports commentator on the television show Morning Journal said that “the team from Villa Clara did not meet expectations.”
In baseball, which is the topic before us, what happened could not be a surprise. The avowed superiority of “free” versus “slave” ball was not confirmed in practice. The challenge launched against professionalism in 1960 did not stand the test of time. But the acceptance of this fact by the Cuban authorities—though without public acknowledgement and coming too late—is still good news, because this decision requires them to banish the ideological slogan and return to the path that they never should have left.
In 1948, at the meeting of the Caribbean Baseball Confederation held in Miami, representatives of the professional leagues of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Panama and Venezuela formed the Caribbean Series. From the inaugural event in February 1949, when the Almendares team went undefeated to take victory in Havana until the close of participation in 1960 with the victory of Cienfuegos in Panama, Cuban teams won seven out of twelve championships: irrefutable proof of the quality of “slave” ball during those years.
Sports after 1959, separated from civil society, was monopolized by the state, and subordinated to politics and ideology. At a prohibitive cost for a third-world country, a supremacy was established in Central American, Pan American and worldwide amateur competitions for decades, which was heralded as the victory of free baseball over slave baseball.
Amidst that unfounded euphoria, in January 1967, the leader of the revolution said: “Professional sports has been eradicated, especially in one of the most popular sports: baseball … But the most interesting thing is that no professional athlete, whose business is sports, has played with as much enthusiasm, as much bravery, as much courage, as that demonstrated by our athletes, who are not professional.”
And in October 1975 he declared: “If in other Latin American countries no social revolution exists, if they don’t develop the social revolution, then no matter how many techniques they use, how many coaches they hire, how many things they dream up, they will not be able to achieve the successes that Cuba achieves in sports.”
The decline was slow but sure. The defeats in the World Classics, but above all the one suffered last year at the last stop, against the U.S. team, composed of university students between 19 and 23 years of age, who despite their weak offensive output swept five games from the supposed “amateurs” from the largest of the Antilles.
Now, 54 years after that decision, after the setback suffered and the loss of many talents who left “free” baseball in search of contracts in the Major Leagues, Cuba returned to the Caribbean Series with the winning team from the 52nd National Series, at a time when the rest of the participants exhibit a superior level to our baseball.
Villa Clara, reinforced with several of the most experienced top Cuban players—twelve of whom have been integrated into the Cuban team—faced the champions of the winter leagues from Mexico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Three days were all it took to show the gap between them and us.
The first day we lost 9-4 to the Hermosillo Orange (Mexico), the second day to the Magellan Navigators (Venezuela) 8-5, and on the third day the Licey Tigers (Dominican Republic) beat us 9-2, to set a record: the worst performance by a Cuban team in the Caribbean Series.
On February 4 we saved face against the Mayagüez Indians (Puerto Rico), but now our inclusion was pure imagination and wishful thinking. As Oscar Sánchez Serra wrote in the newspaper Granma on February 4: “If the Orange win today against Puerto Rico, and if they lose tomorrow against Venezuela, and if the Dominican Republic wins one more time, then on Thursday, first place from the qualifying phase will play against the king of the 52nd National Series.”
We returned to “slave” ball at a distinct disadvantage. Teams like the Magellan Navigators, from an ALBA-member country, just as Cuba is, which can also count many active players in the U.S. Major Leagues, has in its ranks some Cubans who left the island, illustrating the tardiness of Cuba compared with similar countries.
Cuba has conditions and prospects: the permissibility, though still under state control, of some players participating in foreign leagues; the increase of wages to players, though still insufficient; Cubans can again enjoy Major League Baseball games on local television, though still with limitations; new programs have been implemented, such as one I enjoyed a couple of days ago that allowed an interview with the legendary Camilo Pascual. All this indicates that we are on the way, but the results of this first step, and some of the next, will not reach Cuba’s full potential, because it is one thing to decide to change, and another to rebuild what was destroyed.
After the night, however long it seems, follows sunrise. That we still have to listen to the likes of Yulieski Gurriel say that he hopes to get permission from the Cuban authorities to play abroad, or that the Cuban authorities still have not given him permission, indicates the presence of obstacles to be overthrown in order to achieve the freedom that our athletes have lacked, and determines the decline that we are paying for with defeats.
Translated by Tomás A.
From Diario de Cuba
10 February 2014