What the Cuban government is worried about is human rights activists who might grab their mass appeal. But in the end of the day, the civil society has been growing in Cuba, first of all, due to the courage, and second, thanks to the support it has been receiving.
An interview with Erich de la Fuente, campaigner for democracy in Cuba, by Victor Makarov
Fidel Castro seems to be gone, but maybe not – we do not really know. We have seen Raul Castro initiating reforms, but we do not know how serious he is about them. What is it that the Cuban regime is today?
Fidel is not handling the everyday affairs; Raul has run the government since 2006. While Fidel was much more personalistic, Raul has a very different style. He relies on his inner circle and his closest advisors and takes much more consideration of what other people say. Raul is more pragmatic as well, especially with economic issues, while Fidel was much more concerned with his image and how he went down in history. Having said that, the government has shown no signs of political reform. Interestingly, though, the Cuban government has been working a lot to establish its image as reformers. It took some cosmetic steps allowing people to have DVD players, stay in hotels etc. It has raised expectations, especially among the Cuban youth. He has recognized that there is internal corruption and lack of efficiency and called for a national debate on the issue. When Raul officially took power, a lot of people expected the younger bureaucrats to become part of his inner circle. It did not happen. The government is nervous and have entrenched themselves by bringing in some of the old guard. Sometimes you have to keep your enemies closer than your friends.
We were waiting for Raul to address the big currency issue (Cuba uses two currencies: one domestic and one convertible with real purchasing power, but out of reach for most Cubans – ed.) and announce some agricultural reforms in his July 26 speech (the most important speech of the year); that didn’t happen. And a lot of people in the opposition, in the civic society and inside the government itself are saying: this is more of the same. We have seen signals that there are tensions inside the government: there are some who want to introduce some new measures. Not because they want to reform, but because they want to prevent a political upheaval, something similar to what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989, what happened in Georgia, in Ukraine where masses just took to the streets. And to do that, they have to address the problems – transportation, poverty etc. On the other hand, there are there Fidelistas in the government who are not in favour of that. We must remind ourselves that, when Fidel was in power, at one point there were some light reforms, but they were quickly reverted. Raul’s July 26 speech did not give us anything, and there is discontent. Important expectations have been raised and not fulfilled. At the same time, while everyone is waiting for reforms, there is another current: a harder crackdown on the satellite antennas and the internet. This crackdown has been led by Ramiro Valdes, minister of Informatics and Communications, former minister of the interior and head of the police minister of and a hardliner. So, on the one hand, you see some slight openings, and the government has encouraged students to speak at the universities etc., but, on the other hand you see, for example, more crack-downs on bancos de peliculas where people rent films from each other. A lot of people like to download a programme from the Miami TV, even just a regular documentary or a regular sitcom. I think this is a government that does not feel secure, that knows there are a lot of issues. They know Cuba well, they know exactly what is going on, they know there is discontent.
As for Fidel, he has always been there. All my life he has been there. And he is always omnipresent. The fact that he is getting out of the picture and the moment when he does not physically exist will mark an end of an era on Cuba. The people are looking forward to it and to moving on. There is a lot of potential and a lot of individuals who are prepared, who have skills and human potential.
There have been suggestions that what Raul has in mind for Cuba is the Vietnamese model. Is he really going to do that and are Cubans going to take that?
We are not Vietnamese, and we don’t have 90 m people; our resources are different. Having said that, I think that the government is looking to extract a lot from the Vietnamese model which is about keeping political control while having an economic opening. Raul understands that he needs to address the economic issues to avoid political turmoil. They have allowed Vietnamese presence in Cuba, and high level Cuban officials have been travelling to Vietnam especially in the last few years. Also, the way the Vietnamese run their government is not personality-based, but more of a triumvirate, more Raul’s style. I think that’s where the government is trying to take Cuba. But how much can you open economically before it gets out of hand? For example, Cubans who work in foreign firms do not get hired and paid directly, unlike in Vietnam. The Vietnamese also have access to the Internet, although there are no political freedoms. They are looking at how you lease land, which is still controlled by the government. The government knows that the Cuban situation is different. A big portion of the population are young Cubans who have close contact with the US and their families there. Every Cuban has a mother, a cousin, a friend, or a brother who lives abroad. Cuban Americans come back to the island, because the government had no choice but to allow it. People know how other people live; that’s why more and more people demand change – economical, social and political. So I think the government are looking at the Vietnamese model, but they are still very careful.
What is it that the Cubans want? In the independent Cuban journalist Yoanni Sanchez’s blog I read her husband’s verse about waiting for change, and it seems that what the Cubans want most of all are simple everyday economic freedoms…
The vast majority of Cubans are not political. But the still want to have access to the internet, they want to be able to travel and to do other things, which they know they cannot do because of the government. When Ricardo Alarcon (the President of the National Assembly of Cuba – ed.) went to speak at the university, he was questioned very harshly by the students, who asked “Why cannot I go to Bolivia to see where Che Guevara died?”
Even if you have views, when you have to get up in the morning, find out how to get milk for your kids, people are just trying to find ways to make a living. A friend in Cuba told me recently that he was building a little addition to the apartment. He said: sure, it’s illegal. But here something can be illegal one day, legal next day and illegal again the day after. What I want to do is get up in the morning, go teach math to my students, be able to live off my salary, come back home, be with my family, watch a baseball game and not have to go to a committee meeting. Most Cubans just want to live a normal life.
But there is also a consensus among the majority of the population in Cuba that they want freedom of expression, freedom of information, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly. The Cuban people want to be free. People in the former Soviet republics know well what I am talking about.
When I was in Cuba, I couldn’t help comparing what I saw during Soviet time and what I saw there. A critical journalist like Yoanni Sanchez can live and work in Havana and update her blog regularly. With her views, she would have been in jail in no time in the Soviet Union. There seem to be some possibilities for the civil society, despite the oppression. How strong is it today?
These groups have been arrested regularly, people have been thrown out of their jobs, they have been prevented from being incorporated into society and still they exist in spite of that and go on in different areas of the country. For a long time, the tactics of the Cuban government has been to infiltrate human rights groups, create their own groups. At times, they have allowed some human rights groups to operate. What the government is worried about is human rights activists who might grab their mass appeal. One activist got arrested on the street; he got released and was arrested two days later. While he was released, he held a press conference in his house with the foreign media and went right back. During the black spring of 2003, 75 people got arrested – some of the most active human rights activists. Sometimes the government might not arrest somebody who has a lot of international recognition, so arresting somebody may cause backlash. But in the end of the day, the civil society has been growing in Cuba, first of all, due to the courage, and second, thanks to the support it has been receiving. Those people put their lives in the line every day. There is a great change in the civil society. It is encouraging to see that it is growing, but the government is paying close attention.
The younger people were not part of the revolution and there is a young generation that does not believe in the communist doctrine. Whether they have political motives or there are social issues – a lot of the discontent in many countries, not just in Cuba, started on social and economic issues – they turned it into a political thing. But, again, a lot of people want to be able to talk to whoever they want freely, to be able to travel, to have access to the internet etc. We see it not just in Yoanni’s blog, but also in the Cuban rap music, which is not a traditional Cuban music, but it is now having a tremendous impact. There are many rappers who in their lyrics criticise the Cuban society and the government. One of them, called Gorky, was just arrested, because he was very critical. There are other rappers who are critical, but the government chose to arrest Gorky, because he is the harshest critic. There are others who get arrested and whom we don’t know about. It is because of their lyrics, but also because of the following they have. People do not believe in the authorities and this is the way to vent out. The youth are leading this civic society upheaval.
The US is a very important factor in what is going on in Cuba. Do you think that going on with the US embargo is a good way of pressuring the Cuban government to reform? Isn’t Europe’s focus on dialogue more productive?
The embargo is not black-and-white. It has several components. On the one hand, the Cuban government should not be allowed to have free credit from the World Bank, from the IMF and other institutions that would help to reinforce the regime. There are aspects that should be relaxed, for example, the travel part, especially travel for Cuban Americans. Cuban Americans do go to Cuba, but they could do so with lesser restrictions. I encourage anyone go to Cuba, but do not buy a package. I am against travel to Cuba for people who just go to Varadero or Cayo Largo, because that helps the regime with money and it does not help the Cuban people. Business in Cuba, the way it is conducted today, does not help the Cuban people. The companies are not allowed to hire people and pay them directly. The government will never allow that to happen because the Cuban government gets the money from the corporations. So people have to get hired through the Cuban government to get the job. Otherwise, why would a foreign company employee go to a local party meeting, to a communist rally? Of course, the embargo has been used by the Cuban government as a propaganda tool. Everything is the US’s fault according to the Cuban government. In fact, Cuba and the US do engage in a lot of trade. The US is Cuba’s fifth or sixth trading partner, because Cuba can buy in cash, and there is a lot of humanitarian assistance to Cuba from the United States.
As for the European Union, it has now opened dialogue with Cuba, and it is a great way to see what the Cuban government will do. They signed two international acts: on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights. What have they done since? There is an exchange between the EU and Cuba – great, but let the Cubans be accountable. But I think that the Cuban government is buying time. They need to consolidate power. They do not feel they have the legitimacy in the population. There is change in the civil society, but not in the government. Where will we go? We don’t know. Raul is more pragmatic, so the steps will he take to accomplish his objective – which is remaining in power – could be different from what Fidel would do. It could be dealing with the US or cooperating in drug traffic (a lot of trafficking from Colombia and other parts of America go through Cuba; some people who are on the wanted list for drug trade find refuge in Cuba.). US policy towards Cuba is what people usually want to talk about, and that’s what the Cuban government has done for years: drive the Cuba debate towards US’s Cuba policy. We can discuss what approach to Cuba is right, but the most important is what is going on inside. The solution to Cuba is inside Cuba.
Sooner or later, the day will come when you and more than one million other Cuban Americans will be able to choose whether to go to Cuba or to stay in the US. If you decide to go there, your vision of Cuba’s future might differ from what those who live in Cuba now want. They will probably tell you that they want to retain the free health-care system and other social rights granted by the Cuban government today. On many issues, people may say: no, we don’t want the American model.
The right to free health-care and the right to free education are supported by most Cubans. Good things in any system should be preserved. What all Cubans agree on across the board is that there should be freedom of expression, of assembly, religion. Most American Cubans will not go back to live in Cuba – it has been too long. A small portion, including myself, will go back. But at the moment, most Cubans, if you ask them what their goal number one is, will answer it is to leave the country, and it is insane. The Cubans agree on basic principles. It is not to copy the US model, or European model, or Chinese model, but to try and get basic things to work for Cuba, but in a free Cuba.