The Cuban government, shackled by a chain of failures after seven long years of inflexibility, decided to begin releasing political prisoners jailed in the spring of 2003, in order to change its image abroad, to seek aid, and to proceed with a reform called “update the model.” This shift underscores the failure of inflexibility and the decision to change certain things. Though it certainly does not mean that the Government is moving toward democracy, the attempt itself entails the introduction of certain measures, such as the release of prisoners, which lead to a more favorable scenario for additional steps.
In the face of this challenge, it is important to consider why, since the emergence of the republic in 1902, Cuba has changed again and again and again, yet has always returned to the starting point. The principal cause of these setbacks is the lack of citizen participation as agents of change, due to the weakness of civil society up to 1959, and its disappearance after that date. That is, we approach possible changes from the past, representing a real threat of repeated setbacks.
The absence of the people, not as followers of this or that leader, but as agents of change has resulted in politics being monopolized by elite figures or characterized by personalism, messianism, the use of physical and verbal violence, and the use of public power as a private reserve, a fact that should be taken into account to avoid the upcoming changes once again ending in regression. To that end I will try to highlight some roots of these evils by analyzing facts and figures. This time I’ll spotlight a man who became involved in the fight against political and administrative corruption.
Eduardo René Chibás y Rivas (1907-1951), journalist and politician, exalted character, talkative, bold and eccentric, joined the Student Directory, 1927 and 1930. He was imprisoned and was exiled on several occasions. He was a member of the Partido Revolucionario Cubano (known as the Authentic party) founded in 1934, and was elected in 1939 to the Constituent Assembly, representing the House in 1940 and Senator in 1944. In 1947, as a the result of an internal split in the Authentic Party, he founded, along with other leaders, the Party of the Cuban People (known as the Orthodox party),and was nominated for the presidency of the Republic in the elections of 1948 and 1952.
Chiba proclaimed himself as leader of the Moral Revolution. Bad politicians, he said, “steal from the people to enrich themselves”; all domestic political struggles are rooted in dishonesty, it is essential therefore to put the reins of the Republic in clean hands, however it would be wrong to reduce moral responsibility to regulate human behavior in social relationships with administrative honesty. The simplification of the concept allowed him to use it as a weapon against their enemies in elections, but it was unusable as an instrument of profound changes in the political class and the people. It had a purpose: to draw attention to administrative corruption in a time when that evil was widespread. His slogan, Shame against Money!, was used to achieve power as an immediate objective, but not to build the nation honored with social justice that he himself professed.
Chibas made heavy use of freedom of the press. As early as 1934, the Silver Anniversary edition of the magazine Bohemia, he appeared among his colleagues. In addition to The Crucible and other newspapers he used the CMW radio station CMW The Voice of West Indies, the CMQ and COCO, forming a new style of Cuban policy, based on the use of the media to stay in the limelight of public interest.
A relentless accuser, controversial and contradictory, he constantly turned for defense to verbal aggression. In 1933, with the dissolution of the Pentarchy, he proposed Grau San Martín for president; in 1946 he praised the work of Grau with the following words: “In education we have been effective for the first time in the history of Cuba, which was a dream of Marti and a desire of Estrada Palma: the republic has more teachers than soldiers.” But in June 1948, he called Grau a rival of the Borgias, “the greatest pretender given to the world since the time of Caligula, whose side have sacrificed twenty years of my life, without asking or accept anything.”
He used accusation in a systematic way. In May 1939, he accused Blas Roca of treason; in 1942, the chief of police of overstepping his boundaries; in 1943, he filed two motions in the House against Batista and against Congress; in July 1945, he accused Carlos Miguel de Céspedes of the sale of a piece of Paseo; and in January 1947, in a letter read on radio, he challenged Grau for supposed intentions to be run for reelection; in 1950, he accused President Prio of the assault on a correctional court, for which he stole the documents in a cause for embezzlement; in 1951, he accused Rolando Masferrer of placing a bomb at the home of Roberto Agramonte, and so on. His behavior earned him friends and enemies. Characterized as crazy, he replied,” I’d rather be an honorable crazy man than a shameless thief.” He engaged in duels with sabers, pistols, and fists several times.
The defense of what he considered useful at all times, led him in 1946 to defend something indefensible: terrorism. He established a distinction between revolutionary and simple attack terrorism. He said, “The use of the bomb can be explained when it is used as a cry of rebellion against a regime of terror… but never when used against a government which is the product of national will.”
Death was in his work and in his speech. In November 1939, on the eve of the election of delegates to the Constituent Assembly, he was wounded by a bullet and when asked who had been the aggressors, he said: “Do not worry about finding out, I die for the revolution, vote for Grau San Martín”; but the popularity sparked by his having been shot resulted in his coming in second in the voting. In January 1948, at a meeting of the party, he jumped on the head table and began to shout, “Put your heart into it! Orthodoxy needs a martyr!” In May of that year, on the campaign trail in the East, he said, “The day that Chibas believes he is headed for extinction, or a decline in the love of citizen, he will leave with a shot to the heart, not because of cowardice before his failure, but because his sacrifice will lead to the victory of his disciples.”
Because of his popularity polls showed him as a favorite to win the 1952 elections, but on August 5, 1951, unable to prove the charge that he had made against Aureliano Sánchez Arango, he shot himself, from which he died on August 16.
The concept of immediacy, characteristic of the revolutionary changes, did now allow him to draft a political project that would respond to Cuban conditions and the social psychology; he simply asked people to follow him. On one occasion he said, “Our people are reporting the theft of the rulers with the same calmness that they read the colored comics pages or listen to the radio.” Because of this he called out desperately to the conscience of the indifferent citizen, “People of Cuba, wake up,” without understanding that interior changes in people don’t respond to revolutionary urgencies. So, quite rightly, someone said of his death, “Chibas was a man imbued with messianic ideas about history, morality and politics. He gave no time to thought about the new order, because ultimately, the new order was he himself, a chronic disease from which we still suffer.”
At that time, as in the present, Cuba needed a change capable of breaking both the elitist monopoly of the economy as well as the politics to access to social justice. For this it was necessary to strengthen civil society, without which there can be no progress, personal or social, toward modernity. Chibas devised a perfect paradise to be imposed on a complex reality, built from his own imagination: to expel the thieves of power and put in place an honest man, servant of the nation. That man had to be his own person, who did not want or need the national heritage; the changes he advocated had to be made from the damaging pattern of staff and warlordism, two of the negative cultural phenomena rooted in our political history.
His experience shows us that the current release of political prisoners must be accompanied by the implementation of rights and freedoms, and above all the promotion of civic culture, so that the destiny of the nation does not depend exclusively on messianic leaders, who so often arise in our society.
Movement is a universal property: nature changes and society changes. The difference is that changes in nature respond to objective laws which operate with or without human involvement, while history is made by men, allowing them to hasten or delay change, but not to stop it. The need for social change manifests itself as a permanent dissatisfaction with what has been achieved, which makes society a perfectible entity.
In Cuba, the convergence of various factors – internal, external, historical, sociological and cultural – at a specific time and geopolitical space, led to the prevailing immobility of the recent decades. But these same factors, together with new ones, have placed the limits of immobility on the agenda. A reality that the authorities of the country, long entrenched in the idea that Cuba has already changed, have acknowledged in their discourse – the need to change whatever needs to be changed, or update the model, or both.
Attempts to homogenize the pluralistic society, changing the citizenry en masse, ignoring the vital role of rights and freedoms to determine what, when, and how to do things, first led to stagnation, then to decline, and finally resulted in a resounding failure with significant material and spiritual damage.
Although the infeasibility of the model has brought the economy to the point of collapse, the system continues to cling to an ideology with no future, to the point that, to paraphrase Lenin’s definition of a revolutionary situation, the coincidence in Cuba of: the exhaustion of the model; the stagnation of the nation; public discontent; external pressures; and consensus for change, forms an objective picture showing that those underneath do not want, and those above are not able, to continue as before. In this context, while clinging to immobility and the politics of confrontation, a series of events happened very early in 2010: the government denied entry to Cuba to a Member of the European Parliament, the Socialist Luís Yáñez; the political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died following a prolonged hunger strike; a similar strike was started by the dissident Guillermo Fariñas; and there were various manifestations of repression against the Ladies in White, which formed a new scenario at the very time when the government announced the “update of the model.”
Behavioral change was manifested in accepting and allowing previously unacceptable acts, such as: allowing Rosa Diez, leader of the Spanish Progressive and Democratic Union, what had earlier been forbidden to Luis Yáñez – to enter Cuba with a tourist visa and meet with several dissidents; the Cuban foreign minister meeting with the Troika of the European Union, where they raised the proposal of Cuba’s willingness to continue dialogue despite the alleged “media campaign against Cuba”; and the meeting of the Cuban head of state with authorities of the Catholic Church, where they addressed the issue of the Ladies in White, Fariñas’s strike, and the release of prisoners.
But while this change in behavior does not mean that the political will exists to democratize Cuba, there is an important practical result: the failure of inaction, as the issue of the prisoners could be a prelude to other urgent claims of society. I refer to rights relating to freely leaving and returning to the country, free Internet access, or freedom of expression, to name just three of the many needs of Cubans.
If the government’s tactic consists only in releasing prisoners to change the external appearance and to gain access to plans of cooperation and funding sources, it is on the way to a new and resounding failure. To avoid this it is important that, in the absence of an independent civil society with the legal recognition to act within Cuba, the international community, while encouraging the release of prisoners, should place on its agenda with Cuba the need to ratify human rights pacts signed more than two years ago and put the domestic legislation in line with those documents. It would be a grave mistake to implement aid to the government without it demonstrating its readiness to go beyond the liberation of political prisoners, which did not help either the government or Cuban society.
The desire to change must be demonstrated with the implementation of human rights, based on the dignity of the person, and the acceptance that, along with the government’s attempt to update the model, citizens enjoy the right to propose alternative models, which implies renouncing the strategic interest of remaining in power forever. Citizen participation parallel to that of the State is a requirement of modernity. Cuba has changed throughout its history and yet we are in a deep structural crisis, one of the causes of which has been the weakness or absence of civil society, that place of interaction and coexistence of diverse interests, where their autonomy and independence from the state constitutes an irreplaceable instrument for citizen participation.
The demonstration of the ability to retain power cannot be extrapolated to progress in the economy, which also indicates that it is insufficient to stop history. Everything changes, and Cuba is changing.
Translated by: Tomás A.
Monseñor Enrique Pérez Serantes, born in Galicia, Doctor of Philosophy and Theology, ordained in 1910 and professor of the Seminary San Carlos and San Ambrosio for six years. In the diocese of Cienfuegos he held the positions of Visor and Vicar General, where he founded the St. Paul Council of the Knights of Columbus. In 1922 he he was ordained as a bishop and was appointed second bishop of Camaguey by Pope Pius XI. In 1948 the Holy See appointed him archbishop of Santiago de Cuba.
Pérez Serantes was the bishop most committed to the social problems of Cuba, he called attention to the working world, became the prototype of a missionary bishop and one of the leading apostles of the Cuban church. His activity was inspired by the Rerum Novarum Encyclical (1891) of Pope Leo XIII, who favored the creation of groups, associations and Catholic unions, the germ of the current Social Doctrine of the Church. When the Moncada Barracks were assaulted on July 26, 1953, he assumed an attitude of commitment, as reflected in the circulars with which he assaulted the Batista government, and that involved the Church in the convulsive sitaution in Cuba.
The first circulars were Peace for the Dead, on July 29 of that year, and the Letter to Col. Rio Chaviano, the following day. Later he issued To The People of the East, on May 28, 1957, a pronunciation for social peace; We Want Peace, on March 24, 1958, a new call to seek peace, aimed at mediating between the government and the guerrillas; the circular With Regards to the Explosion of the Powder Keg of Cobre, on April 16, 1958, where he tried to show that those who set off the explosion didn’t think it would cause major damage at the National Sanctuary, avoiding any accusation against the Rebel Army; We Invoke the Lord, on August 22, 1958, issued during the counteroffensive of the Rebel Army; Walk Macabre, on October 7, 1958, where he castigates the parading of the corpse of a young rebel through the streets of the city and calling it a barbarism; and Enough of War, on December 24, 1958, in which he stated that “no one should idly enjoy themselves, while millions of Cubans writhe and groan in the anguish of intense pain and misery.” This position explained that in the act celebrated on January 2, 1959 in Santiago de Cuba, on hearing Fidel Castro for the first time, Monsignor Pérez Serantes was the first to make use of the word.
I heard one version that says Sarría saved him because he was following orders, and Fidel’s wife was the daughter of a politician very close to Batista, who had interceded for her husband. Regardless of which version may or may not be true, the fact that I want to emphasize is that, in the Letter to Col. Rio Chaviano of July 30, Pérez Serantes established his determination to intercede for the fugitives and his readiness to serve as a guarantor for their lives, a decision that allowed him to participate in the transfer of Fidel from the place he was captured to Santiago de Cuba, preventing his assassination. This latter was confirmed by General Juan Escalona Reguera in an interview with the journalist Luís Báez, in which he said that, being in Siboney, near where Fidel Castro was arrested, he could observe the moment when Sarría and Pérez Serantes were talking on the road with Col. Perez Chamont, who demanded that they turn over Fidel Castro, who was in custody.
In May 1960, after Fidel declared the socialist character of the Revolution, Pérez Serantes issued a circular in which he defined the position of the Church with regards to such a definitive turn of events: With communism nothing, absolutely nothing. After an ecclesiastical life, characterized by a commitment to social problems in Cuba, before and after the Revolution, and interceding for the life of Fidel Castro, Monseñor Enrique Pérez Serantes died in Cuba on April 19, 1968.
The contradictions between Church and Revolution were becoming more acute event to the point of open conflict. A proof of the worsening of relations was the detention for several hours in Camaguey — in December 1960 during a return trip to Santiago de Cuba — of the first speaker of the event held on January 2 in Santiago de Cuba, where Fidel Castro addressed Cubans publicly for the first time.
After a prominent ecclesiastical life, characterized by a commitment to social problems before and after the Revolution, and interceding for the life of Fidel Castro, as did other men of the Church in conflict situations in the history of Cuba, men such as Pedro Agustin Morell, Antonio María Claret and Olallo José Valdés, Monseñor Enrique Pérez Serántes died in Cuba on April 19, 1968, at 84 years of age.
Pedro Agustín Morell, Antonio María Claret, Olallo José Valdés and Enrique Pérez Serantes are not alone, but are representative of the importance of ethics, courage, commitment and willingness to confront conflict. The facts, which are part of our history, are little reported and they contain many lessons for the present case of Cuban prisoners of conscience and for many other problems faced at the negotiating table.
In 1833, when Havana was ravaged by cholera and there was a shortage of doctors, a boy of 13, immersed in the care of the sick, discovered his true vocation. When asked by one San Juan de Dios friars who observed him with curiosity whether he would like to serve God by caring for the sick, he answered, “Yes, Father, it is my greatest dream.” Almost immediately he took his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and became part of the Brothers of St. John of God, a hospital order which had representatives in Cuba from 1603. This child who become a monk, and who had been placed by his parents a month after his birth in the Real Casa Cuna of St. Joseph the Patriarch, was Brother Olallo José Valdés.
In 1835, when the cholera epidemic was raging in Port-au-Prince, where dozens of patients died, Olallo was sent to reinforce the brothers who worked the San Juan de Dios Hospital — supported by the order since 1728 — where he remained for 54 years, sweeping, washing sheets and bandages, bathing the elderly, healing and feeding the mourners. In this noisy place, accompanied by his readings he became the Head Nurse, using the best techniques to cure ailments, practice surgery and act as a pharmacist.
His strength of character, his dedication, his commitment to the suffering and above all his faith enabled him to deal with the variety of complex situations.
In 1842 Cuba had implemented the decrees of secularization, by which the religious orders were suppressed and their property seized by the government. That is why the Port-au-Prince Hospital became public charity. At that time, although the hospital’s brothers were forced to become state employees and submit to demands beyond their ordinary work, Brother Olallo, ignoring the order, continued his work, preventing the poor patients from suffering the negative consequences of the measure. In 1868, at the outbreak of the Great War, the military authorities occupied the Hospital, turning it into a military garrison and ordering a halt to the care of sick civilians. Olallo not only opposed this measure, but acted as a mediator, to ensure that the only patients discharged were those who could continue their treatment outside the hospital premises, thanks to which, the rest could remain in the hospital.
But it was in 1873 when his name was permanently inscribed in our history. On 11 May of that year Major Ignacio Agramonte was killed in combat on the field of Jimaguayú and his body was taken to Port-au-Prince. The next day, his lifeless body, carried on horseback, was put on display in the middle of the Plaza as a warning and a trophy of war, with orders that no one could touch it. Learning of this, Olallo ordered a stretcher prepared and went to the scene where he told the military authorities that the only higher orders that he followed were those of the Lord. He then loaded the body, took it into the hall of the Hospital and with his handkerchief, he wiped the face covered in mud and blood. The body was then transferred to the infirmary, where it was washed and shrouded, thus preventing the military from being able to further pursue the remains of the Major.
In addition to participating directly in several epidemics, as occurred with cholera, smallpox and yellow fever in 1871, he cared for cholera patients directly and never caught the disease. When Brother Juan Manuel Torres, the only member of the Order left alive, contracted leprosy in 1866, took over Olallo took over this grooming and feeding and cared for the priest until his death ten years later. The final proof of his care for the most seriously ill occurred in 1888. In the presence of witness and before a notary, he stated that all his possessions, including an inherited house and the money that was owed to him by the public administration, would be left to the Hospital de San Juan de Dios in Port-au-Prince, where he served for more than half century.
At 69 years of age, March 7, 1889, ill, but while still attending dozens of patients every day, he died at the Hospital where he exercised his charitable work. He lived for the poor, died poor, and his body was borne by the poor and among them was buried. On his tomb inscription reads: This monument would be in heaven, if it were formed by the hearts of the poor, grateful to Father Olallo who cared for them for 53 years in the Hospital de San Juan de Dios in Port-au-Prince.
In March 1989, the Catholic Church in Camagüey processed a claim for sainthood. In December 2006, Pope Benedict XVI signed the decrees that recognized him as Venerable. In November 2008, the Mass of Beatification was celebrated in the city of Camagüey, where they declared canonically that Brother Jose Valdes Olallo Beato was beatified, a valuable example of the participation of figures of the Church in the political and social issues of Cuba throughout history.
The article by Juan Varela Pérez, faulting the control and dedication in the sugar harvest, published in the daily Granma on May 5, 2010, is evidence that the critical condition of Cuban sugar production reflects the situation of agricultural production and the of the economy in general.
Among other things Varela said that “the current year’s harvest, 2010, can be described as poor in production and efficiency,” it has been “the poorest since 1905,” and the Ministry of Sugar and the Business Groups had no control and had to enforce organizational alternatives that would allow them to solve the difficulties which as of March 25 resulted in “a deficit of over 850,000 tons of sugar cane,” that cane yields in 2005-2008 “grew 24 tons per hectare to 41.6, again depressed and showing a costly decrease,” and that to reverse the current crisis demands a comprehensive review and recommendations to analyze how to improve the cane yield “whose production is now the lowest paid work in agriculture.”
To understand the magnitude of the disaster, we review some data of Cuban sugar production in the last 115 years. In 1895 for the first time the country produced 1.4 million tons of sugar, an amount that fell with the incendiary torch during the War of Independence. In 1903 production was 1 million tonnes and in 1907 reached 1.3 million, in 1919 4.0 million was exceeded, and in 1925 the figure reached 5.3 million, in 1948, 6.1 million and in 1952the country achieved the colossal figure of 7.2 million tonnes. In 1959 there were more than 6 million tonnes and in 1970 it reached 8.5 million, a record number in our history, with the drawback that the determined effort to accomplish this disrupted the entire Cuban economy. Then the harvests between 1982 and 1990 were close to that of 1970, until 1999 hardly reached 3.8 million tonnes.
To address the decline of sugar, Ulises Rosales del Toro, Major General and Chief of General Staff of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), was appointed Minister of Sugar. In that position, he forecast a recovery and in 2001 reached the figure of 5 million tonnes. To that end he directed two projects: the Sugar Industry Restructuring and the Alvaro Reynoso Task. The first was aimed, among other things, at achieving an industrial output of 11%, which meant removing 100 tons of cane, 11 tons of sugar, but in 2002, 71 of the 156 sugar mills closed and 60% of the land was redistributed from cane to other crops, even though Cuba has enviable conditions for its production. The second, which is named after the famous Cuban Alvaro Reynoso, intended to achieve a yield of 54 tons of cane per hectare (well below the world average), which was also unsuccessful.
The strategy proved to be unfeasible. In 2001 there were 3.5 million tonnes produced instead of 5.0 million, an amount similar to 1918, and in 2002 it dropped to 2.2 million tonnes, the lowest in 80 years. In 2003 it dropped to 2.1 million and in 2004 there was a slight recovery which reached 2.52 million, then it fell precipitously in 2005, which produced only 1.3 million, the worst sugar harvest in the last hundred years — a figure that was produced in Cuba in 1907 — while the yield per hectare, as explained by Juan Varela, suffered a slight increase before continuing to decline.
The other measures taken for the agricultural economy have been, essentially, the enactment of Law 259, on the distribution of land in usufruct, and changes of staff in charge of the ministries.
The first measure, Act 259, is limited to handing over idle land in usufruct for 10 years; these are lands which were invaded by the marabou weed, to the point that the area of cultivated land between 1998 and 2007 decreased by 33%. Despite this, the Law retains ownership in state hands. On Thursday, May 13, on the television show The Morning Journal, the journalist Ariel Terrero said that although Act 259 increased the number of farmers, they lack the equipment, resources and experience, and that Cuba is importing 80% of consumed agricultural products; that the yield of bananas grew over the previous year, a year which was also very bad for cyclones, but yield decreased in many other areas such as taro, fresh vegetables, etc., and that half of the land given by Act 259 is still not producing.
The second measure, changes of staff, has not had any positive effect; Ulises Rosales del Toro, after eight years without being able to stop the decline in sugar production, “based on his extensive experience of leadership and political authority and the need to enhance agricultural production, of the country,” was appointed Minister of Agriculture and in his place, as Minister of Sugar, Luis Manuel Ávila González, was appointed but later dismissed. More recently, the First Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero, was promoted to Minister and Ulises Rosales and elevated to the post of the comprehensive care of the Sugar Ministry, Agriculture and Food Industry.
The essence of failure both in sugar production and the rest of the economy, is the subordination of the economy to politics, the inefficient current structure of ownership and wages that do not correspondence to the cost of living. A millennium of experience and economics have shown all over the world that human beings act depending on their interests, so when the interest is gone, as has happened in Cuba for the reasons discussed, the result can be no other: preventing citizens, by law, from ownership, and paying them an insufficient income, means what instead of engaging in production they will remain outside the law, with the consequent detrimental ethical deterioration.