Dimas Castellanos, 3 July 2015 — The leaders of Cuba and the United States have just announced the first and most important result of the process of normalizing relations between the two countries: the reopening of their embassies in Washington and Havana.
The 196 days elapsed between 17 December 2014 and 1 July 2015 is 100 times less than what passed between that 3rd of January of 1961, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided to break diplomatic relations with government of Cuba. Because of its significance, that brief period will remain recorded in the history of the two nations, but especially in that of Cuba, creating as it does a favorable scenario for the changes that the “Largest of the Antilles” urgently needs.
Time will tell how long it will take to recover what was destroyed in more than half a century. In that sense, the opening of the embassies is only the first step in a long and complex path, for the magnitude of the anthropological damage that has been suffered will require much time, effort and will to recover. But, without a doubt, resuming diplomatic relations will produce an inevitable impact in the medium-long term on the fundamental liberties and the reconstruction of the citizenry, which constitute the two greatest deprivations of the Cuban people.
January of 1959 burst into Cuban history brimming with hopes, but the turn towards totalitarianism, suffered by the revolutionary process insofar as civil liberties were concerned, took Cuba back to an era as remote as 1878 . This regression, which constitutes the first cause of the deplorable state of Cuban society–from its economy to its spiritual life–is a paradigmatic example of what should never have been, but whose positive aspect is that it shows us what should not and cannot be repeated in our history.
Therefore, more useful than calling out the guilty parties (although they exist) in the present and future view, is to highlight the level of responsibility of all or almost all Cubans. In the same way that not knowing the laws does not excuse the responsibility of the lawbreaker; all of us who, in one way or another, for reasons that extend from ignorance to the perversity harbored within some egos, in lesser or greater measure, are co-respondents in what has occurred. I wish, therefore, in a few lines, to highlight one of our ancestral maladies: personal responsibility transmuted into social indifference.
As to the question regarding the significance of restoring diplomatic relations, the answers comprise a spectrum ranging from those who consider the problem to be resolved, to those who believe that nothing will change here; but the most generalized aspect of the responses is the absence of the Cuban’s role as an active participant in this process–a crucial fact that cannot be ignored if one wants to understand, and transform, our reality.
Cubans, bereft of the liberties and spaces that breathe life into citizenship, lost the notion of civic responsibility. Their participation throughout more than half a century was reduced to supporting or rejecting what was induced by the powers-that-be. Those who today are older than 70 years old were only 14 back in 1959; all they have known is subordination to a totalitarian authority. Thus the generalized indifference toward current events is a logical consequence.
In the Gospel of Mark (1:14-15), the story is told of the a Christian experience that has as much validity today as 2,000 years ago. According to Mark, when Jesus returned to Galilee, he began to announce the good news of God, saying: The time has come, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Change your way of thinking and living, and believe the gospel.
From that perspective, the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States can be an important factor in the recovery of lost liberties, and of the condition of citizenship. But this factor will be for naught without a change in the Cuban people’s way of thinking and living. To paraphrase Jesus, the time has come–which must be accompanied, as He did, with actions directed, in the first place, to a change in conduct, which includes assuming some responsibility for the change.
Therefore, the historic transcendence of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US depends on the degree to which we are capable of changing to recover the condition of citizenship–which, in turn, is an unavoidable necessity for getting out of the stagnation in which we live.
The US leader’s speeches, from 17 December through today, do not demand civic liberties as a condition for reestablishing diplomatic relations. The statements contain an explicit renouncement of continuing a failed policy, and the recognition that if something is not working, we can and will change it.
With that turn, without renouncing the commitment to human rights, the Cuban government is stripped of its arguments of the “plaza under siege” and “the enemy,” which allowed it to quash all critical demonstrations within Cuba. Now, in the new scenario, the changes that Cuba really needs depends on a change of conduct, similar to that contained in the words of Jesus in Galilee.
If the package of measures announced by the White House opens a process of transformations that favor the rebirth and strengthening of civil society, the result will depend on the disposition, capability and intelligence of Cubans to take advantage of a scenario that, in the medium-long term, will remove the bases that enabled the government to decide the fate of the country and of every one of its inhabitants.
The foregoing lends to the renewal of diplomatic relations (even if this is only the first step of a long and difficult path) a dimension that places it as the most transcendental political event in Cuba after the 1st of January of 1959.
Without ignoring the great obstacles yet to be overcome, the reestablishment removes a way out that was threatening violence and a massive emigration to the United States–while at the same time it will remove the bases that permitted the totalitarian model to decide the fate of the country and of every one of its inhabitants.
This is why the decision is useful to US interests, useful to the Island’s government, and useful to the Cuban people, as long as we are capable of change, and of maximizing this favorable scenario to advance our empowerment.
Therefore, the success of the measures announced by the White House, and the resumption of diplomatic relations, do not depend so much on the will of the regime as of that of the Cuban people; something that neither Obama nor any outside force can supply: Cuba will change to the degree that we Cubans change.
 With the signing of the Pact of Zanjón, which brought to an end the Ten Years’ War, a set of civic and political liberties were instituted that gave rise to Cuban civil society, legally endorsed.
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison
Dimas Castellano, 25 May 2015 — The goal was to match the results obtained in 1912. Failure to meet this target is nothing new, nor are the reasons why.
At the closing session of the XI Congress of the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) on May 17, the second secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) said in reference to the sugar harvest, “We will produce almost 300,000 tons more than last year, but we did not meet our target.”
Such failures are nothing new. It has happened year after year due to negative impacts of voluntary work brigades and nationalization of the economy. In the case of sugar production it fell from 8.2 million tons in 1989 to 1.1 million tons in the 2009-2010 harvest, the same amount produced in 1904.
The measures adopted to halt the decline focused on low productivity and poor organization but sidestepped the root causes. In 2001, a year when there was less sugar produced than in 1919, a general was appointed to head the Ministry of Sugar. New measures were adopted which included plans to produce fifty-four tons of sugar cane per hectare, to extract eleven tons of sugar for every hundred tons of cane, and to close “inefficient” factories. Nevertheless, the decline continued its relentless march. The general was replaced, the Sugar Industry Business Group (AZCUBA) was created and an annual growth target of 15% was set for 2016. But again the root causes were ignored.
Faced with the shortfalls of the 2011, 2012 and 2013 harvests and after taking appropriate measures, AZCUBA announced that the upcoming 2013-2014 harvest would be better than any of the previous decade. The plan was to produce 1.8 million tons, 200,000 more than the previous year, which had been 1.6 million tons. The PCC’s second secretary, Machado Ventura, toured a sizable number of sugar mills on the island, appealing to workers’ consciences and urging them to plant more and better, noting that “the main limitation is insufficient sugar cane and low agricultural yields.” In spite of this effort, “the best harvest of the last decade” barely surpassed that of the previous year, even though sugar mills remained in operation until June, when sugar levels in the cane are considerably less and summer rains halt the harvest.
Once again without seriously addressing what the sugar industry required or implementing even limited measures, a new goal was set. The 2014-2015 harvest would reach two million tons, 400,000 more than the previous harvest, the same amount Cuba produced in 1912.
According to official press reports, operations began in July and by late November producers had completed 80% of the work. Resources arrived in the country on time. Two more sugar mills went into operation. A synthetic fertilizer, Fitomas-M, was applied to more than 100,000 hectares, resulting in greater concentrations of sucrose in the cane. A technological solution was devised to make harvesting feasible and sustainable under wet conditions. More than 3,400 existing hauling trailers were refurbished and put into service. Fifteen million dollars were budgeted for equipment to repair roads and irrigation systems. More than 90% of the harvesting process was to be mechanized and the amount of raw cane going directly into the hopper was to increase by 50%.
According to the president of AZCUBA these measures were part of five key strategies for meeting the goals of the current harvest by 1) restoring agro-industrial efficiency, 2) streamlining the harvesting and transportation systems, 3) maximizing capacity, 4) ensuring the quality and purity of the sugar and 5) working with human capital. Consequently, plans included a 23% growth in sugar production, a potential capacity above 70% and sugarcane yields of no less than forty-three tons per hectare.
Providing his own distinctive touch, the second secretary of the PCC resumed his now customary tour of the provinces.
In December he praised the harvest at the Boris Luis Santa Coloma mill in Madruga, which confirmed the success of its investments and repairs. On December 25 he chatted with managers and employees of the Antonio Sanchez mill in Cienfuegos. He did the same on July 14 at Ciudad Caracas, where he expressed appreciation for its strong performance in the initial phase of the campaign. He toured cane fields and mills in Villa Clara and visited the colossal Uruguay mill in Sancti Spiritus. In Ciego de Avila he spoke with the directors of the Ciro Redondo, Primero de Enero and Enrique Varona mills. And he did the same in Camagüey at the Batalla de las Guásimas, Argentina and Brazil mills.
In January he reviewed the results at five mills and plantations in Granma province. In Satiago de Cuba he visited the America Libre, Julio Antonio Mella and Dos Rios operations, where he reiterated the need to produce more cane to ensure sustained growth. In Holguin and Mayabeque he demanded better results, singling out the poor performance of the Hector Molina mill, where he noted that “an inability to find solutions to recognized technical problems persists.” But he acknowledged the strong performances of the Boris Luis Santa Coloma operation in Madruga and the Manuel Fajardo operation in Quivican.
At the conclusion of the so-called little harvest on December 31, in which forty-two of the fifty mills completed production, it became clear that the results were better than those of the previous year, both in terms of harvesting and processing. Everything pointed to the growth targets being met. However, there was sugar cane being left unprocessed, production time was being lost, and problems in harvesting and transportation remained. At the end of January, milling operations were already five days behind schedule. At the end of February only 91% of the harvested cane had been processed. The journalist Ana Margarita Gonzalez reported in the weekly magazine Trabajadores on Monday, March 23 that, due primarily to equipment failures, production was only at 68% of capacity. At 6.93%, downtime was also quite high. By the third week of March the production shortfall was already at 8%.
Faced with impending disaster, officials once again turned to a much used but ineffective tool: the appeals drive. By the first week of April, production was at 77.2%, so union organizers and AZCUBA summoned workers, technicians and managers to a special day-long event intended to help meet the target. It was dubbed “For a Victorious April.” Its official notice stated that workers “have the responsibility to fulfill the designated production goals of each plantation and mill. Victory in the harvest shall be determined by the results we achieve this month.”
In spite of these efforts, by April 23 production was off by 9% from projections. And as is normally the case by this date, the pace was beginning to slow. For every fourteen operations that had fulfilled their quotas, three failed to meet their targets. Finally, on May 17 Jose Machado Ventura announced, “We will produce almost 300,000 tons more than last year but we have still fallen short.”
Agricultural and industrial inefficiency is a direct result of the state’s monopoly on property. Contributing to the problem has been the abolition of the colonato, a system that dating back the 19th century that ensured an adequate supply of sugarcane without political officials having to issue appeals or to tell producers what they had to do. Other factors include inadequate salaries and a loss of interest on the part of producers. The failures of the last twenty-five years — a period that spans from 1989 to 2014 — serve as incontrovertible proof of a failed centralized state planning system. They point to the need for structural reform of property laws, for salaries that reflect actual living costs and for lifting bureaucratic impediments that prevent growth. Instituting these changes is the only way to motivate workers in the sugar industry, previously the nation’s most productive sector and its chief export earner, which could in turn have a positive impact on GDP and improve the lives of all Cubans.
Previously published in Diario de Cuba.
The Revolutionaries who took power in 1959 substituted the 1940 Constitution for the Fundamental Law of the Cuban State*, the Prime Minister assumed the powers of the Head of Government, and the Council of Ministers replaced the Congress. Measures for “the benefit of the people” were decreed that legitimized the power acquired through force. At the same time, civil society was dismantled and civic and political liberties cut. Power was concentrated in the leader, private property passed into the hands of the state, institutionality was undone, and the condition of being a citizen disappeared.
Economic inefficiency was superseded by Soviet subsidies until the collapse the socialist bloc sunk the country into a profound crisis. In response, the government introduced some provisional reforms subordinate to political power. With the triumph of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela a new godfather emerged, and the Cuban government, freed from the pressure of the crisis, put a stop to the reforms. Between that moment and the substitution of the Leader of the Revolution [when Raul Castro stepping in for Fidel Castro], between July 2006 and February 2008, economic deterioration determined the start of new changes within a context of modernizing the model.
The transfer of power among the same forces that had held it since 1959 preordained that the order, depth and speed of the changes would remain subordinate again to political interests. This condition disabled the Minimal Plan of Reforms put forth by General Raúl Castro, which aimed to achieve a strong and efficient agriculture, reduce imports, increase exports, attract investments, halt illegalities, check corruption, deflate the public payrolls, and propel self-employment.
The subordination became instititutionalized during the First Conference of the Cuban Communist Party that took place in 2012. These proceedings revitalized the line suggested by Fidel Castro when, during the Cultural Congress of 1961, he asked, “What are the rights of revolutionary and non-revolutionary writers and artists?” and which he answered himself by saying, “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing. And this would not be any exceptional law for the artists and for the writers. This is a general principle for all citizens.” As it was not difficult to predict, in the absence of democracy, the change of form to preserve the content did not provide the expected result: the efficiency in preserving power could not be transferred to the economy.
Three years after commencing the modernization of the model, the decline has continued: farm production is deficient; sugar quotas are not reached; the reduction of imports and increase of exports are pending subjects; foreign investments have not reached the expected levels; the relationship between wages and cost of living worsens; illegalities continue their inexorable pace; and the limitations placed on self-employment and “cooperatives” have impeded these sectors taking off.
The Transfer of Power
For biological reasons, the generation that took power in 1959 will exit the political scene in the next three years. This generation is confronting the need to legitimize its successors through different pathways than those through which they legitimized themselves. To do this, they would have to reform the state, including the constitution and the electoral law, against which emerge two simultaneous obstacles: the failure to modernize the model, and the reestablishment of relations with the United States.
The first obstacle is economic stagnation, a situation quite different from when they assumed power in 1959, and confiscated warehouses allowed power that had been acquired by force to be legitimized through the distribution of pre-produced goods. Added to this was the ever-growing exodus from Cuba, uncontrolled corruption, and the rise in citizen discontent, all of which prevents a transfer of power in conditions of prosperity.
The second obstacle is the White House’s new policy towards Cuba. The package of measures announced on 17 December 2014 will have an impact on the empowerment of Cubans, which is the weakest factor in changes for the Cuba of today. Throughout the unfolding of this process, the concept of the “external enemy” will begin to be eclipsed, hence the foreign contradiction — which played such a useful role in preserving power — will gradually be replaced by the contradiction between the Cuban people and government, which complicates the transfer of power.
If to these two great hindrances is added that the government is responsible for all that has occurred, good or bad, throughout more than half a century; that during this time the nomenklatura has acquired vested interests; that there are within it diverging opinions about how far the reforms should go; that the average age of its members militates against the vitality needed to undertake profound changes; and that for decades they have been able to govern unopposed — then the conclusion is that the government is not prepared to take on the contradictory propositions of making the reforms that the country requires, reestablishing relations with the United States, and preserving power. In this contradiction, which will continue setting the pace of the process in the short term, is contained, from my point of view, the explanation of the government’s erratic course:
On 17 December 2014, the Cuban president challenged the US government to adopt mutual measures for improving the bilateral climate, and advancing towards the normalization of ties between the countries (a step forward). On 28 January 2015, at the Third Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States [CELAC], he set forth four demands and said, “If these problems are not resolved, this diplomatic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States will not make sense (a step backward). On 11 April, at the Seventh Summit of the Americas, Raul Castro reduced the demands and said that the principal obstacles to opening the embassies was the removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the provision of banking facilities to enable financial transactions by the Cuban Interests Section in Washington (a step forward). Even though on 12 May, during goodbyes to French President François Hollande, he declared that when Cuba is finally removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism we will be able to name ambassadors, then on 20 and 21 May, during the third round of talks, the Cuban delegation entrenched itself in their interpretation of the Vienna Convention regarding the limits, the form, and the conduct becoming to North American diplomats (a step backward).
The American position could not have come as a surprise. Prior to departing for the summit in Panama, Barack Obama said, “Our new policy towards Cuba will also facilitate a greater connection to the Cuban people, including a greater flow of resources and information to them, and this is already showing results. We have seen an increase in contact between the people of Cuba and the United States, and the enthusiasm of the Cuban people towards these changes shows that we are taking the right path.” During the summit, Obama said, “Civil society is the conscience of our nations. It is the catalyzing force of change. It is the reason for which strong nations do not fear active citizens. Strong nations accept, support and empower active citizens… And when we engage with a civil society, it is because we believe that our relationship should be with governments and with the people they represent.” He made similar statements during the meeting he had with civil society representatives from Latin America, and in his personal encounter with Raúl Castro.
For her part, US delegation chief Roberta Jacobson, prior to the third round of negotiations, said during her appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the relationship of the US Interests Section in Havana “with the broadest cross-section” of Cubans “will grow once diplomatic relations are established with Cuba.”
That is to say, if despite those declarations there was progress in the removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and the provision of facilities for banking transactions in Washington, it makes no sense to delay the opening of the embassies because of some “interpretation” of the Vienna Convention.
Upon the conclusion of the third round of talks, the difference between the two delegations could be seen. In the press conference, in answer to the question about a fourth round, Josefina Vidal — from the Cuban side — responded that there has been progress, but that there remained pending topics to discuss forthwith. Meanwhile, Roberta Jacobson said more or less that for those topics another meeting was not necessary. Her position was that the diplomats would conduct themselves such as they do in other regimes similar to that of Cuba, where US diplomats have permission to travel within the country for periods that vary “between 24 hours and 10 days.”
The Dangers of the Erratic Course
The government of Cuba, for the reasons outlined, decided to introduce changes too late. For this reason the interrelation between economic stagnation, wage insufficiency, generalized corruption, popular discontent, and a growing exodus are incompatible with the slowness of the changes.
If this slow march is appreciated by the power structure as a guarantee of its stability, it is not so by Cuban society. The insistence on preserving power and the delay in initiating transformations have led to an extremely complex situation, internally and externally, which requires political will to act in keeping with the gravity of the matter.
To not act as a consequence of this scenario could lead to a fatal result, because an abrupt exit — for whatever reason that might cause it — would lead to a situation in which there would be no peaceful transition, and in which all, without exception, would be losers. Should this occur, the responsibility would fall on those who still hold the reins of power.
The prospect of relations with the United States — the most significant political event for Cuba since the 1959 Revolution — has generated an opportunity that should not be wasted. It is useful to the Cuban government, being that it provides it with “an honorable way out”; it is useful to US interests, for its own reasons; but above all, it is useful to Cubans, because it is a favorable context for their empowerment, and for them to once again become citizens.
Originally published in Diario de Cuba, 24 Jun 2015
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison
26 June 2015