Views on Cuba
There are almost as many views about Cuba's past, present and future as there are individuals. Whether you were born in Cuba, have traveled there, or just learned something about the island's complex history, chances are you have an opinion about what Fidel Castro has meant to the Cuban nation and the Cuban people.
Read interview escerpts from a distinguished group of experts presenting four divergent perspectives.
An Exploration into the Origins of the Cuban Human Rights Movement
The president of the Miami-based Cuban Committee for Human Rights, Ricardo Bofill spent 12 years imprisoned in Cuba.
In these remarks, which I originally prepared for a panel organized by the Sakharov Foundation at the Free University of Berlin, I will speak about the influence that... the Cuban political prisoners of the 1960s had on the renewal of our sources of thought... and about the origin of the human rights movement that we helped to create...
... The decision to denounce the crimes of the Castro regime against the opposition originated in the vital center of resistance that Cuban political prisons have always been (even before the Citizens' Rights group was formed). There, in the shared confines of a prison cell, we prisoners were both witnesses to and victims of the crimes against the dignity and physical integrity of human beings that were perpetrated by the thugs representing Fidel Castro's political power within the prison system. I especially remember in those early days the impact caused by the physical extermination, through a clinically induced death, of the political prisoner César Páez, who had been the Commander of the Directorio Revolucionario 13 de Marzo...
An Unstoppable Conviction
... We were sure that there was an unavoidable need to carry out organizational efforts to utilize treaty conventions and international human rights organizations... which were reaching their peak of influence. While incarcerated as political prisoners, we began to prepare instruments denouncing, in a systematic way, the violations of human rights in Cuba. The fundamental truth is that those prisons were, and continue to be, the most important site for documenting the prevailing state of terrorism in the country. Moreover, the most genuine political vanguards of the Cuban people were, and are still, imprisoned in these barracks of Cuban Stalinism.
With that as our premise, we took our first slow steps that have lasted for decades as we struggle against a wall of silence, indifference, and most of all, the complicity of Fidel Castro and his disinformation machine, which inundates -- and to a certain degree dominates -- the world press. As a result of this impunity regarding public opinion, the overwhelming majority of international human rights organizations in the 1960s and most of the 1970s closed their doors to accusations that reached their offices regarding Cuba. This was the reprehensible era that the late cinematographer Nestor Almendros captured in his documentary, "Nobody Listened..."
Reasons of State
... The greatest challenge we faced was to document, with rigorous care, the accusations of crimes and other atrocities that were committed by Castro's henchmen as official state policy. In this chapter of the history of our protest movement, the help of the lawyer Aramís Taboada was of utmost importance. Through his efforts, we successfully removed, by indirect means, entire files kept by the Central Registry of Prisons at the Ministry of Justice. These files contained the cases of citizens who had been condemned to death and executed by firing squad because of trumped-up charges brought by those ominous "revolutionary tribunals" and later, by the "special courts for offenses against the security of the State," that were part of each province's court system.
With these documents, which were sent to the governments of France and Great Britain through their respective embassies in Havana and eventually reached international human rights organizations, we were able to provide irrefutable proof of an undeniable truth: Fidel Castro had traded in the entire judiciary system in Cuba for an implacable weapon that inflicted the worst kind of torture and death on anyone who challenged his mania to remain in power and create a dynasty perpetuating his legacy of enslavement.
The First Echoes
Ian Martin, the Secretary General of Amnesty International in those years, later told us that with this information in hand, his organization began to closely monitor the critical situation regarding individual rights in Cuba. French authorities followed the same course, according to the account we were provided years later by Claude Malhuret, who at that time was Secretary of State for Human Rights during the government of Francois Mitterrand in France.
The sources for the information used in the reports that we had delivered to international organizations such as the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International, and governments and public figures all over the world... were part of the daily horrors that in some instances we had to suffer and, in others, witness in person, because the Cuban Political Prisoner Camp System, from 1959 up to today, is a gallery of unending horrors.
We began to reconstruct trial proceedings, which proved that in Cuba the repressive machine, just as in other tyrannies of the "left" on this planet, indiscriminately killed any opponent who was marked for death, and masked the events as a product of "revolutionary justice." This brought about executions by firing squad, ordered by the Summary War Tribunals, which were entirely composed of State Security police, and included the so-called defense attorneys who, in accordance with their job duties, concurred with the sentences that had already been determined.
In this way, we began in 1976 to compile an increasingly thick dossier on the brutal repressiveness of Castroism. It slowly filtered out to various European chanceries and, in some cases, to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Along with other initiatives, this helped open a new era that introduced the now-accepted idea that a kind of "Permanent Martial Law" prevails in Cuba, and that the country is controlled through a "Perpetual State of Siege" that to a great degree was copied from the Stalinist regime that ruled throughout the former Soviet orbit.
By then we could prove that many death sentences in Cuba had been handed down by puppet tribunals that failed to abide by the most minimal standards of due process and penal law that exist in civilized countries. We were thus able to obtain an Open Letter, signed in 1979 by more than 50 prominent intellectuals, among them Jorge Semprún, Ernesto Sábato, Juan Goytisolo, K.S. Karol, Francesco Rossi, Milan Kundera and others, which described Fidel Castro's firing squads as "death squads."
To this abundance of direct proof... we added accounts of terror reconstructed by Cuban political prisoners such as Ernesto Díaz Rodríguez, Alberto de la Cruz, Ramón Guín, René González Herreros, Guido Faramiñán, and others, which allowed us to prepare well-founded charges regarding the endless atrocities and systematic tortures as evidenced by the cruel and degrading treatment of those who resisted oppression. We also provided proof of the sub-human living conditions instituted by the Cuban prison system... to eliminate those who maintained a firm ideology of resistance. We could also demonstrate the use of all forms of dirty warfare in attempting to crush the family members of those same resistors through extortion and blackmail....
I myself remember the murder of Ventura García Marín, Cipriano García Marín and Eugenio García Marín because for many months I had been next to them in the isolation cells at the Combinado del Este Prison in Havana. These three Jehovah's Witnesses had attempted to seek asylum in the Apostolic Nunciature in Cuba along with other persecuted members of their church. They described their experiences to me with a wealth of details, including the false accusation against them that linked them to the death of an employee of that diplomatic mission.
Subsequently, our Human Rights Committee was able to clarify the facts, which we presented to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights during its 1988 visit to Cuba. The supposed civil employee of the Vatican Embassy was no more than a State Security agent who, while posing as a staff member, splattered himself with blood and played dead. It was this incident that caused the García Marín brothers to be charged and executed by a firing squad. In 1985, after a thorough investigation, we were able to establish that the dead man was alive and living in the Fontanar Division of the Boyeros district in Havana. In addition, we determined that his real name was Isidro Peñalver León, and that he was a second lieutenant in the Ministry of the Interior at that time....
Fidel Castro's Feat
Historian and essayist Rafael Rojas is a professor and researcher at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (C.I.D.E.) in Mexico City.
Cubans of my generation either feel hatred or love for Fidel, or perhaps a mixture of both. We do not see him simply as a European or American head of state, questionable, sometimes ridiculous and always exposed to criticism. He is the living legend of a revolutionary era. A solemn and heroic presence with an almost familiar, intensely affectionate relationship with the people. Cubans like me, born a little before or a little after 1959, neither criticize nor judge Fidel: we adore him or despise him, loathe or idolize him. We were born in a country where a revolution, headed by him and personified by him, radically transformed the social order, presenting itself as a symbol of the rebirth of the Cuban nation.
The revolution cut the umbilical cord that tied us to our past in order to make it easier to accept our present: first it rendered us weightless, then drew us in. Ignorant of the past we were taught to hate it; unaware of the outside world, we learned to distrust it.
Our vision of Cuba and the world was shaped by Fidel Castro's simple and unique interpretation of our history: Our country had been a colony of Spain for 400 years, and then for fifty years a neo-colony of the United States. Until finally in 1959, with the triumph of the revolution, Cuba achieved true independence . But in Fidel's narrative the revolution accomplished even more than that; along with sovereignty came social justice. Socialism and nationalism became the cornerstones of a simple and effective ideology which, fused with the personality of Fidel Castro, has sustained the Cuban political system for more than forty-five years.
We are not only the sons and daughters of Fidel's narrative, but also of the symbols he created. As children we witnessed his triumphant entry into Havana; we saw him climb on a tank while leading Cuba's defense during Bay of Pigs; stood motionless while he addressed tens of thousands people at the Plaza de la Revolución and watched our parents applaud him, and shout in awe "Fidel, for sure, hit the Yankees hard," or simply chant "Fidel Fidel Fidel Fidel! in a long reiteration of the name, drowned at the end in a frenetic ovation. And up there, at the zenith, Fidel answered this demonstrations of love with a smile, rubbing his hands together, as if applauding himself.
We were characters in a fictional play, acting out a script conceived by the ambitious mind of a messianic caudillo leader. Our education was based on the certainty of the historic exceptionalism of the Cuban revolution. An accident of geography -- Cuba's proximity to the United Sates -- was to be regarded as a blessing, bestowing upon us the mission of redeeming not just our island, but the rest of the world, from Yankee Imperialist domination. We were taught that we were different because we were better: more independent, more just, freer, more cultured. We imagined that being Cuban — that is, the inhabitants of Fidel Castro's nation -- was a privilege, and that the entire world, enraptured by the great feat of the revolution, was grateful for our mere existence.
Our parents and grandparents, who did know the rest of the world and knew the past, underestimated the enormous talent of that Napoleon of the Caribbean. They handed over to him their judgment, their role as protagonists of history, entering into a symbolic transaction that opened the doors and windows of our homes to the mythic presence of the Commander in Chief. Once embedded in the hearts of our families, Fidel displaced our parents, enamored our mothers and wives, fascinated our brothers and children. His infinite public power was built on this intimate affection by a majority of Cuban families. A large picture of Fidel hung in the family room next to the photographs of grandmothers or grandchildren, perfectly integrated into the lives and affections of the people. Cubans believed in Fidel as one believes in a saint who performs the miracle of achieving national greatness.
As a child and an adolescent I went many times to the Plaza de la Revolución to hear Fidel speak. Then we lived in El Vedado, and the families in the neighborhood, impelled by the Committee for the Defense of the revolution, joined in the street to walk together to the Plaza. I recall those pilgrimages as ceremonies of reconciliation when the hatred and the envies, the resentment for the vigilance and denunciations that poisoned the life of the neighborhood, were set aside to attend to that revolutionary communion headed by the Commander in Chief.
From the ground, the figure of Fidel dwarfed the giant white statue of Martí. His body, agitated in front of the microphones, was like a distant green dot. The voice, amplified by dozens of loudspeakers, could be heard clearly, though each phrase left behind an echo. I remember the silence, the seriousness with which my parents listened to his words -- the solemn stance, head tilted down, arms crossed in front, a position that we children imitated without clearly comprehending Fidel's words, and the shame of being reprimanded when in the middle of that political mass I dared laugh or play with another child.
I was eight years old when I first understood a speech by Fidel Castro. It was dedicated to Salvador Allende, right after the military coup in Chile in 1973. Fidel's words, weaving together the history of the bombardment of the Presidential Palace (La Moneda), Allende's resistance along the hallways and on the stairs, with his rifle, with his gun, with that helmet incongruous with his intellectual's glasses, and finally, the suicide in his office, bloody, covered in the Chilean flag, had a profound impact on me. Fidel was a speaker who knew how to provoke an emotional reaction with the drama of politics.
I also remember a phrase spoken by Fidel in honor of the innocent victims of a terrorist bomb which blew up a Cuban civilian plane. It is a phrase that today seems purple, even pathetic -- but at that time it was engraved in my ten year old brain: "when an energetic and manly people cry, injustice trembles."
Between 1985 and 1990, while studying philosophy at the University of Havana, I began to hear Fidel's words differently. I began to discover contradictions, to reject his posturing, to recognize his subterfuges. Above all I was bothered by his arrogance, disguised in demagogic exaltations of the "dignity" and the "courage" of the Cuban people.
Once I saw Fidel up close. Several pioneers were holding an honor guard in front of Che Guevara's beach house in Tarará. Fidel stopped at the entrance, shook our hands, patted our heads, and went in, followed by the usual entourage of journalists and bodyguards. When I evoke that moment my memory recalls the pink color of that skin, in perfect contrast to the olive green of his uniform and the softness of his hands. A color and texture incompatible with the harsh exercise of power against all odds. In 1990, shortly before emigrating to Mexico, I met Fidel personally and had a conversation. I had just returned from Moscow and Fidel was curious about perestroika and glasnost. Fifteen years after that encounter I recall not the white beard, colored gray, nor the expressive eyebrows which so easily transform his face from charm to irritation, but those reddish spots dotting his forehead and his temples. Evidently, with time, my eyes have opened to the flaws in that soft and pink skin -- deceitful texture of a frenetic will to dominate, just as the consciousness of a free man opens to the vices and the cunning of a caudillo.
When one begins to distinguish between a democratic and dictatorial regime, it is inevitable to associate Fidel Castro's image with the longest personal dictatorship in the history of Latin America.
The Right Priorities: Health, Education, and Literacy
University of Massachusetts-Boston sociologist Miren Uriarte is a senior research associate and founding director of the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy. This excerpt is from a 2002 Oxfam report she wrote entitled Cuba: Social Policy at the Crossroads: Maintaining Priorities, Transforming Practice.
"Cuba's achievements in social development are impressive given the size of its gross domestic product per capita. As the human development index of the United Nations makes clear year after year, Cuba should be the envy of many other nations, ostensibly far richer. [Cuba] demonstrates how much nations can do with the resources they have if they focus on the right priorities - health, education, and literacy." — Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, April 11, 2000
When Cuba's revolution came to power in 1959, its model of development aimed to link economic growth with advances in social justice. From the start, transforming economic changes were accompanied by equally transforming social initiatives. For example, in 1959, Cuba carried out a profound agrarian reform which ended latifundia in the island and distributed land to thousands of formerly landless small farmers. Alongside this fundamental reform were programs directed at providing health care and education to the farmers and their families. A national health system and its rural health services were introduced in 1959; only 8% of the rural population had access to health care at that time. The National Literacy Campaign of 1961, recognized as one of the most successful initiatives of its kind, mobilized teachers, workers, and secondary school students to teach more than 700,000 persons how to read. This campaign reduced the illiteracy rate from 23% to 4% in the space of one year.
Initiatives in the cities were no less ambitious. Urban reform brought a halving of rents for Cuban tenants, opportunities for tenants to own their housing, and an ambitious program of housing construction for those living in marginal shantytowns. New housing, along with the implementation of measures to create jobs and reduce unemployment, especially among women, rapidly transformed the former shantytowns.
The swift pace of change of the early years gave way to more measured advances, but the values that framed those initiatives have greatly influenced the body of social policy in Cuba. Cuban social policy is characterized by its emphasis on universal coverage and reach for all programs and for all educational, health, and social benefits. These are seen as part of a "social wage" that workers accrue in addition to their monetary wage.
Social policy has also favored the development of equity across society, including the equitable distribution of benefits across all sectors of the population, sometimes favoring the most vulnerable. In the last 40 years Cubans have greatly reduced differences in income between the lowest and the highest paid persons. Women have benefited significantly from the revolution as they have educated themselves and entered the labor force in large numbers. The differences among Cubans of different races have also been reduced.
Cuban social policy is also characterized by the exclusive participation of the public sector in its development and execution. The government assumes responsibility for financing social programs and for providing all social benefits.
The programs and subsidies that make up Cuba's safety net cover its citizens from cradle to grave. They have led the island to outcomes that, especially in health and education, are almost universally recognized as positive. The 1999 Human Development Index (H.D.I.), which measures basic dimensions of human development -- longevity, knowledge, and a decent standard of living -- ranked Cuba 58 out of 174 countries. Primary indicators for Cuba were: life expectancy at birth (75.7 years), adult literacy rate (95.9%), combined enrollment in school (72%), and per capita income (est. $3100)...
Health care is considered a right of Cuban citizens and is provided free of charge. Health care was nationalized in Cuba in 1961, although some physicians continued to operate privately and a very small number still do so today. When, in 1959, Cuba began the process of transforming the health status of its population, it faced some important challenges. First of all, most health care was concentrated in urban areas, and was offered through a network of private clinics and a weak public system that was generally regarded as deficient. Second, in the first years after the revolution, about one-half of the physicians left the country, many in the wake of the socialization of medicine. Cuba was left with the burden of caring for its people with greatly diminished resources and the need to train almost all its medical personnel. But it was also left with the opportunity to develop a health care system from the ground up. And it developed a system that has attracted the attention of the world for its reach, its access, and its orientation to prevention. Health outcomes worsened during the first decade of the revolution as the system was put in place, but outcomes recovered by 1970 and have continued to improve to this day....
Education is also considered a right of every citizen and is provided free of charge at every level. The Cuban educational system includes pre-primary, primary (1 to 6), secondary (7 to 9), and pre-university or technical/professional education (10 to 12). University education is also available. The evolution in this area is similar. In 1959, the educational attainment of Cubans stood at third grade. Forty-five percent of primary school children did not attend school, and 23% of the population over 10 years old was illiterate. The National Literacy Campaign reduced the illiteracy rate to 4% in 1961; the illiteracy rate in Cuba has remained under 10% and today stands at 6.8% of the population. According to the United Nations, the rate of literacy among people 15 and older in Cuba was 97%, compared to 99% in Canada and the United States, 96% in Costa Rica, and 83% in the Dominican Republic. In the 1960s and 1970s, schools were constructed, and a system of scholarships was instituted that assured that all children, regardless of where they lived or the economic situation of the family, would be able to attend school. The number of children in the labor force, low even in 1960 when compared to Latin America as a whole, first decreased and then dropped to zero as the availability of schools led to dramatic increases in the rates of enrollment in primary, secondary (high school), and tertiary (university or professional school) education...
In 1980, 98.8% of the children 6-11 were attending primary schools. Enrollments in secondary education also climbed from 14% in 1960 to a high of 90% in 1990... Enrollments in higher education increased from a low of 7% in 1970 to a high of 21% in 1990. These enrollments were strongly affected by the economic crisis of the 1990s, dropping to 12% in 1996. Nevertheless, the educational attainment of Cubans has translated into a highly educated workforce: of all Cuban workers, 14% have a university degree.
Culture for All
Another area that strongly reflects the universality present in Cuban social policy is arts and culture. As early as 1959, several new cultural institutions were founded in Cuba that would become important to the development of art and culture across Latin America: Casa de las Americas, the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry (I.C.A.I.C.), the National Theatre, the National Ballet, the National Symphonic Orchestra, and the National Folkloric Group. The literacy campaign also raised Cuban capacity to fully engage in the arts and culture. These developments alone would have enhanced the life of the Cuban people. But what has most characterized the process of cultural development in Cuba is the massive participation and access to arts and culture that is available to the Cuban people.
Cuba's Future — or Futures
Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, and the author of Cuba the Morning After: Confronting Castro's Legacy (Washington, D.C.: AEI Press, 2003).
Conventional wisdom has it that when Fidel Castro departs the scene -- an event which is bound to occur sooner rather than later -- Cuba and Cubans will have a chance to start all over again. For some, this means a chance to leave the island altogether and join their relatives or former countrymen in Miami. For elements of the exile community in Southern Florida it means, presumably, a chance to turn the clock back to 1958, when the island was a close ally of the United States and had one of the highest standards of living in Latin America. For others, it means important political and economic changes which will turn the island into a "bourgeois democracy" similar to Costa Rica, El Salvador or the Dominican Republic. For still others, it means a chance to finally make socialism work, in the sense that in the absence of a U.S. embargo (and U.S. political and diplomatic hostility) the country would presumably have a chance to fully realize its economic potential within the existing Communist system.
Evidently those who dream these dreams are not the same people; in some cases they do not even occupy the same political jurisdiction. The official policy of the United States government under every administration since President John F. Kennedy has been the third option -- to see Cuba transformed into an "ordinary" Latin American democracy. To be sure, no administration, including the present one, has the slightest idea exactly how such an eventuality can be brought about; even the recent Powell report is largely devoted to U.S. responses after a transition has begun. The last option -- which implies the lifting of the embargo and the normalization of relations -- has been the official preference of the Cuban government from the very beginning, although there is reason to doubt that Fidel Castro himself sincerely favors it as much as many of the people around him.
For its part, the exile community dreams dreams that can probably never be realized -- to return home both physically and spiritually, to vindicate its opposition to the revolution, to exact revenge from those under whose rule they and their families have suffered enormously, to merge the Cuba of the island with the Cuba of the diaspora. For people on the island, the issue of the day is more basic -- economic survival in a system which is deliberately organized to produce scarcity for purposes of political control. Ordinary Cubans are tired of long lines to buy basic necessities, of the endless indoctrination, of calls for ceaseless sacrifice, of promises of a well-being that continually recede behind the horizon. But they also harbor a deep fear of a sudden political upheaval which would plunge the country into a sea of uncertainty. These fears are not without foundation. Quite apart from revanchist fantasies of some elements of the exile community, it is far from clear that an alternative system will produce abundance, all the more so since Cuba has lost its place in the world sugar market and is unlikely to ever again be a prosperous country.
Nobody can forecast exactly what political form Cuba will assume after Fidel Castro has passed from the scene. But some predictions can be made with reasonable certainty. There will be no civil war or political uprising, partly because those who might be inclined to participate in such an event have already left the island (or are planning to leave), partly because the military and police remain the most effective agencies of the government, and partly, too, because the suffocating mechanisms of an authoritarian state assure that any potential opposition is divided and infiltrated. Nor will there be a succession crisis, since the dictator has already made clear that his brother Raúl will become head of state in the event of his disappearance. Should Raúl Castro die before his brother, doubtless another successor would be named, possibly even one of Fidel Castro's sons, two of whom have recently been profiled in the Cuban media.
It is less clear, however, what the real political and economic content of Cuba will be under Raúl Castro or some other member of the Castro family. A kind of crony capitalism, in conjunction with unscrupulous foreign investors, is already growing within the larger (and increasingly empty) shell of socialism. In many ways the country is already transitioning toward something resembling the more old-fashioned patrimonial systems such as we have seen in Trujillo's Dominican Republic or Somoza's Nicaragua -- where the army is the most important (really, the only real) political party, and where there is a confusion of the interests of the ruling family and those of the state. Whether its leaders chose to call such a system "Marxism-Leninism," "Communism," "socialism" or something else is almost irrelevant.
There is a tragic fact which Cubans on both sides of the Florida straits must face. Nearly fifty years of revolution has created an enormous gap in culture, expectations, and sense of nationhood. The Cubans in the United States are destined to become like the rest of us, and over time our history will become theirs. Meanwhile, whether we or they like or not, the Cuban revolution "is" Cuban history, and cannot be unlived or forgotten. Cubans on the island cannot become North America even if they wished to do so, and Cuba can never be like the United States. In all likelihood it will always be poor and resentful of its neighbor, defiant in its attitudes and extravagant in its nationalism. At the same time, however, Cuba has no choice but to accept its fate as a Caribbean island, uniquely fitted for tropical agriculture and tourism, but little else. In that sense it is not likely to differ greatly from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad or a host of other places created for an eighteenth and nineteenth century world that no longer exists and can never again be summoned to life.
Future historians will marvel at the way that a revolution in a small Caribbean country known mainly for sugar, beaches and the rhumba, provoked so much passion in the United States — and the world — for half a century. The revolution in Cuba has failed to create a viable alternative to the system it replaced, and now -- ironically--attributes its failures exclusively to the failure of the ex-imperial power to play its traditional role as protector, banker, and market for its harvests. Yet one might almost argue that at this point the Cuban revolution is "about" resistance to the United States and very little else. To some extent, of course, this is true of Cuban history generally (with the additional caveat that it was and is also about resistance to Spain). This, at least, would explain the long run of hostility between the two countries, and temper any optimism about the future of bilateral relations, regardless of the political system which emerges to pick up the pieces from Castro's project.
Originally published in 2005.