Thursday, December 27, 2007

Cuban Party Official on the Need for Criticism

Excerpts from an interview with Elíades Acosta, head of the Department of Culture of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba as published in Progresso Weekly

By Isachi Fernández

From the section ‘Cuba from the Inside,’ published in the portal Cubarte on Nov. 28, 2007.

Every once in a while, it is healthy to rethink what one has done, to calibrate how society has evolved. When you introduce changes in a sector, repercussions surge through the entire system. It's a question of the healthy exercise of good government.

Q.: To what do you attribute the so-called "critical indigence" that bogs down the media in Cuba?

A.: To several factors. There's the abuse of institutional practices to limit criticism. We cannot ignore that -- for many reasons and for a long time -- questions became a nuisance. True, the enemy uses our errors and our criticism.

Q.: Also our silence.

A.: Also. It uses all the empty spaces we leave. Criticism can help solve our problems; silences never solve anything. Asked to choose, we opt for criticism. We must abandon the practice of shushing down the problems, which does not help the Revolution but instead protects posts or positions or postures that are harmful to the ethical climate of society.

Institutionally, criticism was not always permitted, understood or encouraged. This creates a reflex attitude on those who are obliged to engage in [criticism] because of their work. Of course, this is not the task of a profession; criticism is a condition that is part of being a human being.

A kind of self-censorship syndrome is created: "I'm looking for trouble if I tackle a scabrous topic." "I'm going to stay in the center, so as not to invite trouble." A very dangerous vacuum is formed and, even though society may grow economically, it will decline in that climate.

Silences are fatal in a society; so are forgetfulness, self-censorship or unbridled censorship -- because censorship exists in all societies that are divided into classes. Wherever there is a State, there is censorship.

Q.: Sometimes, it is well concealed.

A.: It conceals itself well, when it comes to the market. But, going back to Cuba, the call to debate issued by Raúl on July 26 in Camagüey was beneficial in terms of avoiding that trap. Raúl himself, who heads the Party and the State, with all the moral authority he enjoys, told the people that this is the time to "remove our shirts" and discuss our problems.

The Political Bureau issued a document that supports criticism in the media. But what did we find? There is reluctance, inertia, there are people who are not prepared because they find it difficult to break the psychological barrier. But when we read the press, and we read the non-institutional press, and the e-mails (which are here to stay), we see that the people are participating.

We see a very healthy activation of the civic spirit of Cubans. In the wake of Raúl's speech, more than 5 million people have participated in the debates and 1.2 million opinions have been expressed.

Q.: When talking about a rearrangement in the country, what do you consider possible and convenient?

A.: Both are intimately linked. I recall a statement by Marx that was picked up by Lenin, a profoundly revolutionary and dialectic statement that goes: "Every contradiction carries within itself its own solution." Jules Verne said it differently: "What one man can dream, another man can bring to reality."

The aspirations of Cuban society, as expressed in the discussions that resulted from Raúl's speech, on the street, in homes and in Party nuclei, are possible and necessary. They are aspirations to material well-being, to the hope that you can take care of yourself and your family with the fruit of your honest labor. They are aspirations to personal and social development, to a greater access to knowledge, to a fuller life that is based on revolutionary principles.

Everything is done for a more efficient, more participatory society that recognizes and respect differences, that doesn't fall apart and does not place itself at the service of a foreign power.

What needs to be done in this country is a matter of efficiency, of participation, a matter of guaranteeing people a larger quota of responsibility because they feel co-responsible for the decisions.

We aspire to a society that talks out loud about its problems, without fear, where the media reflect life without triumphalism, where the errors are aired publicly in a search for solutions, where people can express themselves honestly, where the economy works, where the services work, where Cubans do not feel they are second-class citizens in their own country due to some measures that were indispensable in the past but that are obsolete and unsustainable today. We want a society with plenty of information, varied information, with high-level cultural products, where we can communicate with the world in a natural manner and can defend the essence of our identity and the accomplishments of the Revolution.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Fidel Castro Loses a Publlic Argument on Human Rights Conventions

Fhil Peters of the Lexington Institute offers an interpretation of the political evolution of Cuba in his invaluable Cuba Triangle blog.

On International Human Rights Day, Foreign Minister Perez Roque, formerly private secretary to Fidel Castro, announced Cuba would sign two UN human rights conventions. A few days later, Fidel Castro sent a message to the TV round table recalling why Cuba had not done so six years earlier.
The section on labor union rights would provide “a pretext for imperialism to try to divide and fragment workers, create artificial unions, and reduce their political and social power and influence,” Castro said in 2001.

A section on education would “open the doors to the privatization of teaching, which in the past allowed painful differences and irritating privileges and injustices, including racial discrimination.”
Subsequently the government reiterated it would sign the UN conventions.

Phil's comment:

Castro asked that the text of his 2001 statement be titled, “History will tell who is right.”

Maybe history will also tell us who is in charge.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Cuban dissidents note subtle change in Raul Castro's policies,0,1074204.column

South Florida

Ray Sanchez

Cuba notebook

December 16, 2007


That organizers drudged up a dozen souls for a peaceful march on International Human Rights Day was a feat in itself.

In the days before last Monday's march and other unusual rights demonstrations here, state security agents had rounded up and jailed as many as 80 dissidents to prevent them from attending the events, according to rights observers. About 30 others in the provinces who had planned to participate were prevented from leaving their homes.

But rather than face long detention and lengthy prison terms, the dissidents were swept up by authorities and detained for hours or even days and then released.

Nearing its 18th month in power, Raul Castro's interim government appears to be flirting with a more restrained approach to dissent on the socialist island.

"The government was less subtle in the past," said Elizardo Sanchez, leader of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation. "The repression was pure and hard. Now they're being more cautious."

At the same time, Cubans are living through other subtle changes, including the screening of the Academy Award-winning film The Lives of Others. The film is about East Germany's dreaded Stasi secret police — a model for Cuba's own state security apparatus.

More than 1,000 Cubans waited for hours outside the Acapulco Theater for the film's debut during the Havana Film Festival last week. When the doors opened, the crowd stampeded for the seats.

"Something is changing in Cuba when this movie is being shown," said Cecilio, a 65-year-old independent journalist who attended the premiere, but did not want his last name used. "It means that at least some sectors of the government have an interest in changing old ways."

Many Cubans identified with the film: A captain in the German Democratic Republic's Ministerium fur Staatssicherheit that by the mid-1980s had recruited more than 100,000 East Germans to snoop and snitch on each other, pursues a playwright suspected of sedition.

When the film ended late Saturday, the audience exploded in a long round of applause.

"The movie captures nearly exactly a part of Cuban reality," said Sánchez, the human rights observer. "Many Cubans identify — not only the victims of the repression but the repressors themselves. We have our own Stasi, which is very powerful."

Days later, their work could be seen on the street. Minutes after Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque announced that Cuba will allow United Nations monitoring of its rights record, a dozen demonstrators staged a peaceful protest outside the UNESCO offices, a few blocks away from the foreign ministry.

Shouts of "Worms! Traitors! Mercenaries!" rained down on the 12 silent marchers, who were outnumbered by more than 100 furious government supporters and security agents.

The peaceful demonstrators, elbows locked, stepped into a clenched fisted and manhandling gauntlet on a warm December morning.

"Was this overkill because that is what they do automatically, or did the government expect that far more than a few dozen might have shown up for the demonstration?" Cuba analyst Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute, a think tank outside Washington, D.C., asked in his blog.

Last week, Cuba's state press dismissed the demonstrations as "street theater" orchestrated after "frenetic subversive activity" between dissidents and U.S. officials here. Cuba considers dissidents mercenaries in the employ of the U.S. Interest Section.

Ray Sánchez can be reached at rlsanchez@sun-sentinel .com.

Copyright © 2007, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Friday, December 14, 2007

Payment System Reformed for Employees of Foreign Firms

Cuba allows foreign firms to pay in hard currency

Published on Monday, December 10, 2007

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters): Cuba on Friday said it will allow foreign companies to pay Cuban employees with hard currency, a move that legalises widespread "under the table" payments and requires workers to declare and pay tax on that income.

Representatives of 698 foreign companies registered with Cuba's Chamber of Commerce were told by Finance Ministry officials this week that as of Jan. 1, 2008, they must also record in their books all hard currency payments to staff.

Foreign businesses in communist Cuba employ staff through government agencies, which are paid in hard currency and, in turn, pay the employees in Cuban pesos worth 24 times less.

To supplement low wages, companies often pay Cuban staff an additional amount under the table in hard currency, and authorities have turned a blind eye, until now.

"This will normalize relations between foreign investors and Cuba," said Foreign Investment Minister Marta Lomas.

"Cuban workers receive their salary in pesos, and it is known that they receive another payment. We are adjusting the taxes to the circumstances," she said.

Multinational companies have long urged Cuba to allow hard currency payments, and joint ventures between foreign firms and the state already pay results-based bonuses to some Cuban staff in hard currency, about $30 a month on average.

"This will allow us to legally pay all our workers in hard currency," said a manager of a major foreign company in Cuba. "The bonus is, in effect, a wage."

Cuba wants to make the hidden payments above-board so that they can be taxed, said another foreign businessman.

Western diplomats said allowing foreign companies to pay in hard currency was a break with Cuba's egalitarian socialist system, and attributed the change to the less ideological rule of acting President Raul Castro, who took over when his elder brother Fidel Castro fell ill 16 months ago.

"This recognizes that some people are more equal than others in Cuba," said one diplomat.

Cubans have lived virtually free of taxes for three decades, so for many of those employed by foreign companies, filing annual income tax returns will come as a shock.

The National Tax Office was set up in 1995 and the next year began taxing the hard currency income of self-employed Cubans, mainly family restaurants known as "paladares," the closest thing to a small private business in Cuba.

Their taxes must be paid in hard currency according to a scale that rises as high as 40 percent.

Official Unemployment Statistics Challenged

Cuban newspaper challenges government employment claim

Published on Monday, November 26, 2007

By Marc Frank

HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters): An official Cuban newspaper questioned government claims of 2 percent unemployment on Sunday in the latest challenge to government rhetoric begun under acting president Raul Castro more than a year ago.

The article in the Union of Young Communists' "Rebel Youth" newspaper questioned government claims that almost all young people are working or in school.

The Union of Young Communists is the youth wing of the ruling Communist party.

"The figures never reflect reality," said the article, which concluded that those involved in ensuring youth are working or studying should "tear themselves away from illusory figures" and take another look.

Among numerous examples provided by the two-page article was a report that around 16,000 youth in eastern Santiago were unemployed in 2006, when a survey by social workers put the figure at 29,000.

Eastern Granma province claimed only 2 percent of its population as unemployed in 2006, or around 2,000 people, while another social worker survey found the number of unemployed under 45 was 37,000, the newspaper said, including housewives and 13,000 men.

Raul Castro, since temporarily taking over for his ailing brother Fidel Castro 16 months ago, has urged the official media to be more critical, blasted bureaucrats for inaccurate reporting and encouraged debate among ordinary citizens over the country's social and economic ills.

Since then retail-level pilfering and fraud, problems with the free health care and education systems, a lack of entertainment for young people and worker apathy are some subjects that have captured the attention of the usually docile official media.

Fidel Castro, 81, suffering from an undisclosed intestinal ailment, has undergone various operations since stepping aside. He regularly comments on international and domestic affairs through writings published and broadcast by all media, but has not appeared in public.

Cuba launched a series of programs to reincorporate high school drop-outs into society in 2001 and has managed to find work or study for tens of thousands of them since then, in an effort that has helped limit drug use and violence in comparison with many other countries in the region.

However, Sunday's report said some youth signed up for high school equivalency and other community education programs, for which they are paid a government stipend, and never showed up. Many others refused employment because of poor working conditions and low wages, it said.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Rafael Hernandez: It is imperative that we make changes"

'It is imperative that we make changes'

An interview with Cuban politologist and editor Rafael Hernández

Progresso Weekly

By Manuel Alberto Ramy

The following is a condensed version of a long and revealing interview broadcast by Radio Progreso Alternativa on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007.

"Cuba today is experiencing an intellectual movement never before seen," affirms Cuban politologist Rafael Hernández, who for years has promoted a culture of debate in our country.

That statement explains the existence of the quarterly magazine Temas, edited by Hernández, which -- in 52 issues -- has touched on practically every problem that affects intellectuals worldwide, particularly the most pressing problems of today's Cuban reality.

To Hernández, "the magazine is in some way the mirror of that intellectual movement, of that output of ideas, of that diversity of Cuba's contemporary thinking that looks not only inwardly but also outwardly, at the rest of the world."

In a small office on the fifth floor of the ICAIC building [Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry], Hernández sits in his trench of ideas. This thinker of average height, a forehead so ample that it has displaced his hair, of fragile appearance and solid thinking, chats not only with words but also with his eyes, which often appear tired of traveling to the future with a round-trip ticket.

To him, Temas "is a sort of stethoscope, the device doctors use to hear the heartbeats of contemporary society, primarily Cuban but also the state of thinking in Latin America."

This monitoring of Cuban hearbeats began in 1995 under the sponsorship of Culture Minister Abel Prieto, who asked Hernández to edit the magazine "so it could become a space for debate, from the perspective of a critical reflection of Cuba's and the world's contemporary problems. That was a necessity at the time, and still is."

The date is significant, because it places the promotion of the debate of ideas 12 years earlier than its beginning in Cuban society. In addition, Hernández says, the publication of the magazine for the purpose of debating -- and "debate is discrepancy" -- reprises a rich process of criticism and introspection that were interrupted by extraneous events that affected Cuba.

The politologist takes out his return ticket because "to understand the present, you have to look backward." He tells me that between 1986 and 1990 "a very important process of public discussion took place, which in my judgment is the most profound and democratic critical debate ever staged in Cuba, and it culminated with the call to the Fourth [Cuban Communist] Party Congress."

The debate "developed a docket of problems, of basic things that had to do with the mismanagement of the Cuban socialist model, not only in connection with economic aspects but also political, social, cultural, etc. At that point, an expectation for change was created; the temperature of public opinion, of the critical social consciousness about those problems, was already high.

"At that exact moment, the crisis of the Special Period unraveled and amid that crisis it was clearly impossible to go ahead with the agenda of the so-called 'rectification' and to implement policies that provided answers to the problems."

As I listen, I recall that Hernández is not the first of the personalities that I have interviewed who refer to that period (1986-1990) of strong critical debate, which I immediately associate with the early alert sounded by Fidel Castro about the likely collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc in general.

Another detail that many of the analysts and Cubanologists who write in the foreign press should be aware of is that the current debate in Cuba is focused on the need to perfect the "Cuban socialist model," not on the option between the socialist system and some other system.

"The system's principles must be defended, but the model itself must be transformed" so it may be buttressed, Hernández affirms. "I have heard -- and I don't know if the figure has been used officially -- that more than 2 million proposals have been received and recorded.

"No doubt, some of the proposals are not viable, but I am sure that all the proposals involve every important problem in Cuban society, all the problems that affect the operation of the Cuban socialist model. And I think that that's what the discussions have been all about."

The fluidity of the dialogue returned us to the present, so the question was inevitable: The open debates in the workplaces, nuclei of the Comunist Party and the barrios throughout Cuba -- are they a simple exercise by the people on the psychiatrist's couch, a simple catharsis?

"That cannot happen," he replies, emphatically. "We are in a crucial moment in the history of our country. Into this moment have come together an immense capacity of intellectual creation and an immense social energy. We have a truly educated population, people who think with their own heads. As a result, after all these years, we have at our disposal a public opinion, a citizenry with a capacity for consistent critical analysis, consistent and committed.

"The fact that the leadership of the Revolution summons us to a discussion of the nation's problems and asks us to express ourselves openly is a measure of the willingness for change that exists in the country. I don't think that the leadership of the Revolution can call to a discussion of a number of problems and then do nothing."

Before I can formulate my next question, Hernández answers it. "It's not a question of whether we should make changes or not. The fact is that it is imperative that we make changes. Politics is not the art of exercising human will; politics is the art of what's possible and meeting the needs that reality imposes upon us. Cuban society today demands changes and it is a fundamental element of socialism in Cuba that consensus should be articulated around the response to those changes."

Applying to the problems a traditional Cuban song, I tell him that the accumulated difficulties "are so many that they trip each other up" and that, in my opinion, they could exceed the responses.

Hernández's reply: "We have a number of material problems; we have a number of problems related to the scarcity of resources, but other problems don't have anything to do with that. They have to do with mentalities, with ways of thinking and conceiving socialism, with ways of thinking and conceiving participation.

"Without the effective participation of the citizenry in the control of politics and the decision-making process, we cannot solve any important problem, whether it's the production of milk, local transportation, energy supplies, the savings of resources or the construction of homes.

"All that involves the participation of citizens in the making of decisions involving priorities and in their control of politics. No bureaucratic administrative mechanism can control politics or prevent corruption like the people can."

Hernández tells me that, in its 52 issues, Temas has broached issues such as transitions, the role of the market in socialism, national consensus, socialist property, and the citizens' effective participation, among other topics.

In round tables and articles, the magazine has published the opinions of economists, sociologists, anthropologists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and designers, as well as the discussions and criticism made daily by the ordinary Cuban. Not just print them, but also present them in forum-debates, which any citizen can attend and join. These discussions are even advertised on television, Hernández says.

Has the magazine received phone calls or reprimands for the articles it publishes? I ask. Has anyone tried to censor it?

"Everything that is displayed in the intellectual terrain with ideas, with critical points of view, has to overcome obstacles," he answers. "That's natural, that's normal. If someone doesn't want to fall ill with lead poisoning or silicosis, one should not work in a mine. If one doesn't want problems with the spine, one should not work at a computer.

"Professions, jobs have their own occupational diseases. Our job has them, too; it runs into mentalities that at some point resist the airing of certain things."

I try to interrupt him, but he continues: "In Cuba in the past 15 years, the battle has been waged in an adequate, negotiated manner, through dialogue. The dialogue between the institutions that make decisions and the institutions in the world of culture, the world of thinking, is increasingly fluid. And 'fluid' doesn't mean there is no disagreement.

"The resistance to new ideas, criticism and changes is something that I find in my neighborhood. I don't have to go to any government office to meet with resistance. In our civic culture, there are elements that resist change and refuse to accept specific criticism or reject the convenience of discussing specific problems in public.

"It's not a mentality that's exclusively installed in the head of some bureaucrats but in the heads of many citizens I know who are reluctant to discussion. They don't really believe that a debate can unfold and go to the core of an issue and contend that we are often not ready for debate.

"When we talk about debate or criticism, we often talk about censorship, restrictions, control, but we never talk about our own lack of a 'debate culture.' We must foster a culture of debate from the start, because our society doesn't have it.

"We often call a debate 'good' when the participants say the same as we think. That's not debate; debate is discrepancy. And it is very important that in a debate we express divergent positions in a spirit of dialogue, of mutual respect. And I think that politics is going through that stage right now."

To this Cuban politologist who has given courses in several U.S. and European universities as an invited professor, participation and criticism are essential to build the model of Cuban socialism.

"All the discussion about Raúl's speech on July 26 is a discussion that calls to discrepancy. And that is something that, to me, is essential for the vitality of a political culture. In our case, socialist cultural politics cannot be healthy if it is not developed from the debate and criticism of an immense majority of citizens.

"Public opinion in Cuba is represented by the immense majority of citizens, not by a group that controls a specific number of communications media. And that's essential to make changes and to express, to permit the media (including magazines like Temas) to confront and deal with the problems facing the ordinary citizen."

Hernández final words seem to coincide with the idea held by many
Cuban intellectual and politicians about the future of Cuba.

"All the formulas destined to promote, emphasize and deepen the social contents of socialism are formulas directed at the core of the central problems of Cuba's development. The Revolution must go forward and leave more and more room for the new generations.

"Those new generations are demanding capability, power, a degree of decision over their own ideas, their own problems and criteria about the meaning of a socialist society. And I think that the socialism of the future is the socialism of the young."

Manuel Alberto Ramy is Havana bureau chief of Radio Progreso Alternativa and editor of Progreso Semanal, the Spanish-language version of Progreso Weekly.

Eduardo Heras Leon: "Intellectuals are revolutionaries who criticize and think with their own heads'

Progresso Weekly

‘Intellectuals are revolutionaries who criticize and think with their own heads’

An interview with writer Eduardo Heras León

By Manuel Alberto Ramy

Last week, I interviewed two musicians about the next Congress of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC). Music was present at the birth of our nation, and poetry wrote the lyrics for our national anthem. The wars of independence and revolution, as well as the Cuban reality, have been told in novels and stories by many writers. Writers like Eduardo Heras León, one of the most important story-tellers our country has produced.

Heras has been very committed to the truth, to the search for a high literature that reflects the lives, the here-and-now of Cubans. There are two books in his oeuvre that I would describe as pinnacles. One is “The War Had Six Names,” winner of the 1968 David Award, where he dealt with the 1961 Bay of Pigs battle. (Heras, a militiaman, fought in that transcendental historical event.)

The other is “Steps on the Grass,” which won the 1970 Casa de las Américas Award. In it, he gives a gritty portrait of the men and women who fought against the counterrevolutionaries on the Escambray mountain range in the 1960s. Some scholars call this period a civil war; others, a struggle of classes.

His unorthodox vision of the revolutionary combatants cost him dearly. At the dawning of the Gray Quinquennium, he was separated from the University of Havana, where he studied journalism, and was sent to work as a common laborer at a steel factory (Socialist Vanguard) outside the capital. Years went by before he could return to the university to get his degrees in journalism and Spanish literature.

In the interim, as a writer, he extracted from his daily life stories with a labor theme. The topic had not been explored until then, even though society was defined as a working society. With his book “Steel,” the writer-laborer (or laborer-writer) vindicated the essence of his concerns and anxieties: the human being.

Today, we talk with this multiracial man with an orderly mind and a facile tongue. Winner of the 2006 Publishers National Award, his vocation as an educator led him to found the Onelio Jorge Cardoso Center for Literary Formation, which he directs.

Progreso Weekly: What are, in your opinion, the fundamental topics that the Seventh Congress of the UNEAC should deal with?

Eduardo Heras León: The 1998 Congress was really a very special Congress, to such an extent that many comrades compared the issues discussed and the conclusions reached with those made during the Party Congress, particularly because topics of national incidence were discussed that were a concern not only to the writers and artists but also to the entire intellectual movement. In other words, not only the professional problems typical of any institution but also the problems that had to do with society, with the crisis of values we were experiencing.

Other problems broached were racial prejudice (zones of racial discrimination that exist in the country), marginal zones for the youth, hegemonic globalization and the penetration of that globalization in sectors of the nation's life such as tourism, the economy, the press. And above all, what has always been a fundamental concern of the intellectual community: the role of the writer, the artist, in our society.

I think this is one of the essential issues, because in our country the teacher, the doctor, the engineer, the architect have a pretty clear idea of what their role in society is. The teacher knows he must educate. The doctor knows he must save lives, he must cure. But, what is the role of the writer. Simply to write?

No. If we are -- as I like to phrase it -- a participating conscience of what is happening in the country, we need to participate actively in the whole set of problems that are under discussion, more so today, when the fate of the country assumes a special importance.

I am the First Vice President of the Writers Association, whose board of directors will change when the Congress ends. I am a member of the UNEAC Congress' Organizing Committee and I think that, logically, we have to deal with the guild's problems, which involve the writer's or artist's economic situation. For example, in the case of writers, the problems of copyright, promotion, printing and literature are very important.

Along with that, a series of topics will be broached that will place the UNEAC at the heart of the nation's problems, same as in 1998. On the table again will be the UNEAC's insertion into that agenda and the UNEAC's reflections on the political, economic and social situations in the country during a period that many people call a "transition." This is a period that is being felt at a social level. There is an awareness among the people that these problems should be discussed, and the country's leadership is stimulating those reflections.

Right now, I would tell you that the whole of society is reflecting about how to do things better and how to improve the society we are building. So, I think that the UNEAC will have an effect on the problems, on the work with the young people, which seems to us to be most important because -- although the UNEAC is not a youth organization -- it has a very important relationship with young people. The Saíz Brothers Association, which brings together young writers and artists, is closely linked with the UNEAC, and the UNEAC is enabling and evaluating those links.

Therefore, I think that the role of the intellectuals in society is one of the topics that will be discussed and reflected upon during the Congress.

There is something that often seems a common site: what the Commander in Chief called the Battle of Ideas. Culture has a capital importance in that Battle of Ideas. Culture is the nation's moral shield, its ethical shield, and we are -- as Cintio Vitier said -- a nation that can be characterized as a flag inside a trench. We are defending our identity and that's where the role of the intellectual acquires meaning. By defending our identity we defend our culture.

Culture is the first thing we must save, Fidel said in a UNEAC Congress (in 1992, I believe) and he paraphrased Martí by saying that "without culture, freedom is impossible." Or, as Martí said, "To be educated is the only way to be free."

Fidel pointed out something that's essential. In other stages of the revolution, culture possibly did not have the role it has today, but, to the degree that our leaders matured and we ourselves matured, culture has come to occupy the place it deserves. In other words, culture is the nation's moral shield and it's the first thing we need to safeguard.

That's one of the topics we shall reflect on during the Congress. As we have seen in the meetings prior to the Congress, there's going to be a very serious approach to the problems of education, of education as part of the enormous plans the Revolution has in mind. We can already draft a balance sheet on the latest modalities of education.

To some, that subject has not been as positive as it should be, so I think we must reflect on that; writers and artists have things to say. But we're dealing not only with the problems of education and the press -- which to us are essential -- but also with the problems of popular participation, because the society we are building and the system we want to make and perfect is based fundamentally on the people's participation.

In other words, when we talk about democracy we talk about participation, participation with criteria, with decision-making, participation by the real people in the making of decisions in this country.

That's where we are headed. All the reflections being made at this time and the decisions that indisputably will follow point to that end. So, I think the Congress will be held in a very important point in time and I think it will be as important as the 1998 Congress.

PW: Do you think that, at any time, there will be a reversal in the nation's cultural policies, or at least in the government's policy toward creators, as happened during the so-called Gray Quinquennium?

HERAS: Look, I lived through that period.

PW: In your own flesh.

HERAS: Yes, I was one of the victims of that process, but I am absolutely convinced that it will not be repeated. For several reasons: firstly, because the country's leaders have matured, have grown intellectually and now have a better understanding of the problems of intellectuals and of literary creation.

On the other hand, the leaders' trust in intellectuals has increased enormously. The 1998 Congress demonstrated that intellectuals are revolutionaries, just like anyone else, they are intellectuals who worry, who criticize, who have their own opinions and think with their own heads.

Sometimes those opinions, those reasonings trouble some thinkers who are more dogmatic, who are conservative, but I think that the [1998] Congress demonstrated the valor and revolutionary quality intellectuals have. That's on one hand.

In second place, intellectuals also have matured. They have a better understanding of the role they must play within society. And on the other hand, there is a unity in the intellectual movement that never existed before, that didn't exist in the 1970s. A unity based on principles and, what's important, in diversity. In other words, don't look for unanimity because it doesn't exist.

As Cintio Vitier said in a lecture, "We are a universe and universe means uni-verse, unity in diversity." And that's precisely what we see now. And, let's be honest, Culture Minister Abel Prieto is the best thing that has happened to Cuban culture in the past 30 years. He really is an intellectual, a revolutionary and a leader, something that has seldom been seen in the culture world.

[Prieto] is a man who enjoys not only the support but also the trust and admiration of the intellectual movement, because he has earned them. This is not adulation, I am not praising the leader, on the contrary. I am bound to him by ties of friendship. I published his first tale, because he was a student at the School of Letters at the time I was a professor at the School of Journalism. At this moment, he enjoys that support and understands what the cultural processes should be, what cultural policy should be.

As he said not long ago during a meeting at the Writers Association: "The role of the leader and functionary of culture is to serve the intellectual movement, to permit the intellectual movement to find a channel, to create the conditions so that movement may create, because as it grows it enriches the nation's culture." Do you understand?

PW: Will the UNEAC have greater access to the formulation of policy, of the cultural programming broadcast on TV, for example, or on the mass media in general?

HERAS: Look, that's another problem, and I'm glad you mentioned it. That's another problem that is at a crucial point and evidently will be discussed during the Congress. There are many criteria about the mass media, something that was discussed in the previous Congress. It's going to be a permanent concern.

What we don't want is two cultural policies, that is, the ICRT (Cuban Institute of Radio and Television) has one cultural policy and the Culture Minister has another. There must be only one cultural policy. I think we're going in that direction and the UNEAC has a lot to say about this and will say it, I'm sure, during the Congress.

I don't know if there will be an immediate change of policies at the ICRT, but we shall make our influence felt. At this moment, I would say there is a rapprochement; in some ICRT committees there is open and critical talk about the existing problems. Of course, they have a difficult task; they must maintain a daily programming for everyone, for every taste.

But I think there are many things that can be improved, that are problems of principles, problems of policy. And agreements can be reached, so I think the Congress will debate these issues in depth and will accomplish something.
Manuel Alberto Ramy is Havana bureau chief of Radio Progreso Alternativa and editor of Progreso Semanal, the Spanish-language version of Progreso Weekly.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Economist: Raul's Talking Cure

Raúl's talking cure
Oct 25th 2007 HAVANA
From The Economist print edition

Pointers to a coming liberalisation

“WE HAVE a system in which anything you do is either forbidden or compulsory,” complains Miguel, an academic and a member of Cuba's ruling Communist Party. “Perhaps we need to change that to become more efficient.” He notes angrily that what he earns in a month, a trainee waiter can pick up in tips in a day in the island's tourist hotels. It is a common complaint, and only one of many. But now it is Cuba's government that is encouraging everyone to grumble.

Though independent economists doubt official claims that Cuba's economy is growing at around 10% a year, they agree that it is expanding again after a decade of privation. That is mainly thanks to aid from Venezuela and trade with China. There are fewer power cuts and more buses on the streets. But wages are still below their level of 1989. Food is rationed or expensive and medicines are often in short supply. This week the education minister admitted that low pay was prompting an “exodus” of teachers from schools.

Raúl Castro, who took over as Cuba's acting president in July 2006 when his elder brother, Fidel, had intestinal surgery, seems to be aware of the popular frustration. Acknowledging that the economy needed “structural and conceptual changes”, in July he called for an “open debate” on what to do. Nothing should be off the agenda, he insisted.

The debate has taken place at local branches of the Communist Party, as well as trade unions and other mass organisations. At each meeting, a notetaker has recorded without attribution the criticisms and suggestions. Over the next two months the results will be analysed. Cuba-watchers reckon that, after a slow start, the debate has been franker and more wide-ranging than the last such exercise held in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the island's sponsor.

Apart from petty corruption and slovenly officials, the main gripes have been low pay, rising income inequality, inefficiency, waste and asphyxiating bureaucracy. Loyal Communist militants have joined ordinary people in criticising defects in the prized health and education systems, including Cuba's policy of sending some 25,000 doctors and other specialists to support Hugo Chávez's “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela. (Mr Chávez pays Cuba some $3 billion-4 billion a year, partly in oil, for their services.)

How will Raúl Castro respond to all this? Unlike Fidel, he is thought to favour the course pursued by China and Vietnam, in which markets and private investment have been combined with Communist political control. Even before the debate began, government economists had been studying measures such as allowing more self-employment and private or co-operative ownership of small and medium-sized businesses, as well as reforming land tenure and freeing agricultural markets.

Under Raúl Castro the government has already been a bit more welcoming of foreign investment. He has also said that wages need to rise, though that will have to be accompanied by changes in prices and the official exchange rate.

How much will really change? The first announcements are expected by the end of December. They are likely to include a bit more scope for private initiative and for markets and prices, but all within an economy and society still dominated by the state. Officials insist that what Fidel Castro calls the “pure poison” of “neo-liberal formulae” will not be swallowed. The official mantra is that rather than copying any foreign model, policy changes will comprise “a Cuban response to the Cuban reality”. As long as Fidel continues to hover in the background—in a recent video with Mr Chávez he seemed stronger—he may inhibit any real liberalisation.

But the direction seems clear. Even some of the dissidents on the island, such as Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist, foresee gradual economic liberalisation, though others are more sceptical. “A turning point has been reached,” says Anicia García, director of the University of Havana's Centre for the Study of the Cuban Economy. Most Cubans seem to think so, and even more hope so.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Elections in Historical Context


La Alborada - October 19

With elections set to take place in Cuba, following a constitution where, although the elections are not partisan, the Communist Party is the only legal party, we wonder how things might be different had history been different in Cuba and Latin America. What if the US had not overthrown every progressive, nationalist, or leftist government in Latin America that was popularly elected?

Cuba's revolution was not a coup against an elected government, but a popular uprising against the dictatorship of Batista, successor to the dictatorship of Machado, both of them strongmen of the US on the island. A progressive government elected after Machado was cut short when the US worked to undermine it, opening the door for Batista, who convinced the US ambassador that he was the right man for the job. Previously, independence from Spain had been denied to the Cubans when the US intervened militarily in 1898 to prevent it.

Those circumstances, and a surfeit of lackluster or corrupt goverments on the island after the limited independence of 1902, did not augur well for electoral solutions in Cuba. Indeed, Fidel Castro had been planning to run for office, and had challenged Batista in court, before giving up on those options.

Neither did events elsewhere help. For example:

In 1954, the US overthrew the reformist government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. Ten years later, President Johnson ordered all-out support for the coup in Brazil that ousted the constitutional government. In 1965, the US landed troops in the Dominican Republic in support of a coup against the elected president, Juan Bosch. (He had been elected to replace Trujillo, the long-time US strongman on that island.) In 1973, the CIA set up the coup against Allende, who had been elected and was gaining in popularity. In 1984, the US, aware that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua were about to win overwhelmingly in open elections, preemptively declared the elections null and began an undeclared war to overthrow the elected government.

Throughout, the US worked closely with dictatorships of every kind south of the Rio Grande. By the late 1970s, democracy had practically disappeared in Latin America.

Towards the end of the century, however, the dictatorships had ceased to be useful for the new neoliberal program, which depended on elected governments to legitimize it, and elections, even if limited, as in Chile, were allowed. The result was a growing trend towards independence and a new style of government, now aimed at a Socialism for the 20th Century: Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and, almost, Mexico. Other leftist governments were elected, as in Brazil and Uruguay, that have turned out to be quite acceptable to the US despite its earlier opposition to them, as is the socialist presidency of Chile.

But the old ways are not a thing of the past. In 2002, the US backed the failed coup in Venezuela, and then the lockout, and the referendum. The new democracies, with record popular support as in Venezuela and Bolivia and Ecuador, are now called in the US undemocratic and worrisome and destabilizing.

They represent the wrong kind of electoral results, as far as the US is concerned. The latter continues to seek military bases in the region, from the Dominican Republic to Colombia to Paraguay. Before, the justification was the communist threat; now, it is the asserted threat from terrorism, contraband, and urban gangs.

Cuba does not hold elections as in the US. For example, It has one party, not two. The government, however, has survived almost 50 years of US attempts to overthrow it. For the new governments, circumstances are not like they were in Cuba in 1959. Governments of the kind that used to be overthrown in brief now prosper, at least so far, with popular support and despite NED and USAID funding for opposition groups and the steady drumbeat of propaganda in the US against the new governments. Masses of people who used to think that elections were useless are now energized and politically active. Isn't that what democracy should be?

What if this history had been different? Would Cuba's elections have a different look?
Next year the US will hold its own presidential elections. The new government will early on show what it has learned from

Ramy: Risks and Hopes

This was probably the first article written by Ramy in his series on the internal debate now underway in Cuba.

Cuba: Risks and hopes
From Havana

On the occasion of this new July 26
By Manuel Alberto Ramy

Progresso Weekly

To the press, as well as to many analysts, foreign theoreticians and Cubanologists (a profitable profession to some), practically nothing is happening now in Cuba. At most, there is a simple substitution process that, whether transitory or not, lacks any significance.

Many journalists who think that way write their articles mischievously, needling the Cuban authorities to elicit a response. But they run headlong into people who have spent half a century dealing with rogues twice their size.

What's happening on the island is something more than a transitory or permanent transfer of power, something more than a simple relay of the executive post, or a transition within the high circles of government. Of course, everything begins within those circles. Fidel Castro, the historic leader of the Cuban process, knows that perfectly well and therefore is beyond what's merely circumstantial and inevitable.

Both Fidel and Raúl know that this is an operation more delicate and transcendental than the raid on the Moncada barracks in 1953. They are preparing the transition of power to a new generation and, logically, they want to leave the house as orderly as possible to satisfy the traditional views of their own generation. But they also want to leave the windows open to the fresh breezes brought by the young people who were formed by the very process Fidel and Raúl led. And this unavoidable requirement constitutes both the first risk and the new hope.

Fidel Castro is not just taking pills and writing reflections. No one should be so naive as to think that. "I am now doing what I must do," he said (more or less) in one of his reflections. He has a strategic global vision that frames the necessary changes and their boundaries, some of which he outlined in a recent article on youth-related topics. Fidel also represents the balance and equilibrium of the different forces that move inside the system.

Raúl Castro is not a mere executor. Unquestionably, he participates in the strategic design and also works as an engineer at the construction site. The latter task is daunting, because he must launch and guide the new style of work, inasmuch as Fidel's heir is (as Fidel clearly defined it) the Party, and the Party has grown as new generations have been born.

There will be no "Fidel-style" leadership; there will be a team leadership. And that's already happening, as a lucid and intellectual Cuban priest, Msgr. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, told our fine friend and journalist Lucía López Coll in a work published by IPS: a change in style already implies a change. To Marxists, the translation is easy: form and content constitute a dialectical unit.

If the reader is a good observer, he must have observed that every time that Raúl Castro (as interim president) met with foreign visitors last year, he did so in the company of all the government and party officials who were connected with the topic at hand. There were even meetings where a department chief was invited to participate.

The government functions as a team; the tasks are distributed; responsibilities are demanded; ministers are asked to manage and account for greater rationality in plans and goals. I ask the reader to note that the housing construction projections, which originally called for 100,000 new houses every year, are down to 70,000 this year -- and even that figure will be hard to achieve.

The hope

More than 70 percent of all Cuban people were born after the triumph of the Revolution in 1959 and a great many of them never lived through the best stage of the process, in the mid-1980s. They have only lived through the Special Period, with its penuries, difficulties and loss of values.

But this, and no other, is the human geography of Cuba, the majority and determining population, either as producers of goods and services or political leaders and state officials.

This is a generation of Cubans who have received an education with First World resources and characteristics. They handle sciences and state-of-the-art technologies; they are people with minds prepared for the complexity of today's realities, both domestic and international. They are open to dialogue and, most particularly, they are very rational.

The generation that will assume power in the foreseeable future is the generation that has developed -- despite enormous difficulties -- the leading sciences of the 21st Century: biotechnology and cybernetics. When dealing with people thus prepared, you can't give them simple answers to complex problems, challenge their rationality with dogmas or substitute apology for information and deep analysis.

I sense that the new house under construction, or the bridge being built for the generational transition by the founders of the Cuban process takes into account the factor of youth -- and that factor is key. Why do I say this? I read into the details.

The first element is the repeated call to young people -- made by both Raúl and Fidel -- to debate ideas and devote more time to the study of the international and national reality than to production work. That call is not just rhetorical; I invite you to re-read my article "Signs and signals" (From Havana; PW, June 21, 2007).

This insistence on youth comes because this new, emerging generation must not be directed with top-heavy commands -- not that it could be. Instead, we need to start with dialogue, reasoning and real participation. Any ukases would be as harmful to the transition as corruption is. Even more so, because it would annihilate the protagonists of the continuity in the process, which is not a carbon copy of the past but a novel re-creation where the new people are obliged to make their mark.

In the past two sessions of the National Assembly, the critical participation of the delegates and the search for answers to pressing problems and explanations for pending problems were constant, much more so than reported. That's another element that will be enriched as never before when the accounts are settled in the next elections.

To me, it is evident -- and this is another element -- that the Party and the government differ in their approaches to anything that has to do with young people and the Young Communists' Union (UJC).

I repeat my usual example: every day, the difference between Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, and Juventud Rebelde [Rebel Youth], the UJC daily, is greater. The information, the topics and the research are different in each paper: as they dig into the problems, they reflect the problems of each sector.

The new style is being forged with prudence, some might say, maintaining Marxism as an instrument critical of the capitalist society, which has been its traditional task, and critical of our daily life, because it is also valuable in that regard.

There will surely be readers (especially in my back yard) who will say that there have been contradictory statements and attitudes, calls to advance and to halt. Of course. But has anyone seen a process as complex as Cuba's -- a process of transition, relay, and launching of calculated innovations -- that has developed in linear fashion from its inception? Search the history books.

The risk

We are not living in the 1960s, when the camps were well defined and the radicalizations generated by confrontation erased the shadings. Perhaps at that time there was no room for shadings.

Today, the enemy is the same, but the national and international realities are more complex; they need clarity and firmness of principle. They need delicacy in some approaches and the skill to discern those shadings that can help us along the long strategic road. And that road leads not only to our consolidation but also to the international reality around us and in close geographical proximity: Latin America.

While our Motherland has been freer since the Cuban Revolution, she has committed herself to be part of the continental process. The necessary domestic innovations, which will open greater vistas to the individual, the person, the citizen, carry with them some risks; the principal risk is naiveté, a mortal sin to revolutionaries. The only antidote is training, team work, responsible and effective participation, and discrepancy within the options, without paying a price for such discrepancy.

For those who will not see, let me quote my grandmother, an exceptional and wise woman. She used to say that life was like the flamboyán tree: first the flowers, then the leaf sheaths. But those people who focus on those two details miss the bigger picture: the tree. And that's what many people do; they're so fascinated by the leaf sheaths and flowers that they miss the tree.

Manuel Alberto Ramy is Havana bureau chief for Radio Progreso Alternativa and editor of Progreso Semanal, the Spanish-language version of Progreso Weekly.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Aurelio Alonso:: Less Fearful of Letting People Make Money

From Havana

Progresso Weekly September 11 - 17, 2007

‘Less fearful of letting people make money’

An interview with intellectual Aurelio Alonso

By Manuel Alberto Ramy

To Aurelio Alonso, the Cuban reality has been marked not only by the permanent hostility of the U.S. administrations "that have hampered the normal development of changes within" but also by the alternatives open to the island by the processes taking place in Latin America.

"Without these two elements, you couldn't understand today's Cuba," the sociologist tells me on a Saturday afternoon, through the smoke of a cigar "of the type sold through the ration card."

Alonso, 67, average height, rosy-cheeked, with shrewd eyes not hidden by his glasses, is the deputy director of the magazine Casa de las Américas. This man, who from his speech and manners could be described as a thinking Everyman, occupies a special place in Cuba's intellectual world, the author of a long list of books, articles, essays and lectures. In the 1960s, he was a member of the advisory board of the famous and controversial magazine Pensamiento Crítico (Critical Thought.)

In between cups of coffee, I interview him.

MANUEL ALBERTO RAMY: What are the main problems faced at present by the Cuban population?

AURELIO ALONSO: Beginning in 2004, the macroeconomy begins to recover with some impetus, with acceptable growth. But, due to the deterioration suffered in the 1990s, the recovery is very slow.

The macroeconomic improvement achieved by the country still is not felt by the population. Food, housing and transportation are the weaknesses that place us in the indices of poverty, though not among the indicators of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank.

Here, you can't measure values by saying that the average Cuban earns US$40 a month, because we don't pay for education, health care, funerals or income tax. Even the amount we pay for a divorce is so little it's laughable. The Cuban people don't live under the same stress as someone in the United States who earns $40,000 a year but has to worry about spending one third of his salary on the mortgage for his home and if he can't pay it he's out on the street.

Here, the problems are different. However, if you don't take into account the real benefits we get and consider food, transportation and housing, it is evident that the population lives in a high context of deterioration.

RAMY: Raúl Castro's speech on July 26, in which he announced (but did not define) some structural changes, has been described by many as very critical of our reality. What is your opinion?

ALONSO: What's important is not whether it was critical of others or self-critical. It opened the possibility of doing different things that either never occurred to us or we couldn't do yesterday.

In agriculture, we had two visions: one, that identified agriculture as a subsistence economy; another, that identified family farm production -- the private producer -- with small business and therefore demonized it.

However, most of what the population consumes is not what the state-owned property produces. I remember the creation in the 1990s of the Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs), which, among other things, sought decentralization, but they were so limited in their abilities that they left no room for the peasant. They did not provide sufficient incentives to become what we had hoped they would.

I think that when Raúl talks about structural changes he's thinking that the country must procure an effective agricultural sector, even if it doesn't supply 100 percent of the needs but only 70 or 80 percent of what we consume.

RAMY: Are effective cooperatives a way to solve the problem of food?

ALONSO: Raúl is not launching a program -- yet. He has issued a call and announced a disposition. He is announcing that the country's political leadership is not unwilling to make the changes that seem to be necessary and timely to increase production and productivity. I think he is referring to the world of agricultural production and its relation to the industrial and service sectors.

RAMY: Will it be necessary to give producers other incentives?

ALONSO: Historically, there has never been an incentive device to produce the foods we want. In my opinion, it would be worthwhile to tell a family: "Look, here you have 10 hectares. Work the land however you wish. Whatever you produce, you sell in the market; or you deliver a minimal portion to the state." The family should not invest all its productive effort for the benefit of the state.

In the end, we should be less fearful of letting people make money. If you give people the space to live better and to triple what they give to society, hey, they should live better.

I remember that Che, the great promoter of moral stimuli, once said that it is not possible to expect a superior form of stimulus from a population that's starving. In other words, society must first satisfy its basic needs.

RAMY: You have just mentioned the market. Speculating on the possible changes, what role do you think the market should play?

ALONSO: That's a question for which nobody today has an answer. What everybody will tell you is that the market must play a role. I believe that, too.

Marx never proposed the possibility of crushing the market. Marx proposed the possibility of a society that surpasses the market. You can't issue four decrees, expropriate 20,000 small businesses and abolish the market.

The vision of a possible socialism also includes the existence (albeit transitory) of a market controlled by a state that is increasingly democratic, where the citizen participates more effectively and where the Assembly of the People's Power, which meets only twice a year, deals with the country's needs.

Whenever we see that the market makes contributions that are not outrageous, why not adopt them?
And if possible surpass them, because that's the time to go beyond the market.

RAMY: As a journalist, I have recently heard two constant themes among the population and on the Internet, such as the forum-debates. One is the effective participation of the citizen, as a greater form of socialist democracy; the other, entrepreneurial self-management, as the magnification of socialism. What can you tell me about that?

ALONSO: I don't think that self-management as a concept is reprehensible or cannot be included within a scheme of socialization. The problem is that self-management failed in Yugoslavia because it was adopted with a Stalinist methodology and style. In other words, there was self-managerial dogmatism.

I don't favor a self-managerial model. I favor the concept where we must think about what's the greatest level of participation from the grassroots structures. We have a serious problem in our People's Power system.

RAMY: What is that?

ALONSO: The municipalities have no power to decide anything; they have no budget. We have been unable to find mechanisms of decentralization that lead us to joint ventures, to an increase in small ownerships, to a more flexible view of the economy. We have been unable to decentralize economic devices. Everything emerges from the State's main budget and trickles down.

That's no good. We have to make space for the municipalities to create their own resources, handle them and even impose municipal taxes upon private enterprises that operate within them. The same with the provincial governments.


Indisputably, Aurelio Alonso continues to be the profound Marxist, the often-irreverent revolutionary (irreverence being a Cuban characteristic), the same entertaining and charming talker I met years ago after one of his lectures. I chat with him every time we share some time together.

We could have talked a lot longer (and in fact we went beyond a simple interview), steeped in the aroma of coffee and tobacco, discussing not only Cuba but also the current situation in Latin America. His opinion, which I share, is that "the Bush administration's aggressiveness might grow, because what's happening in the Middle East could be replicated in our own region, specifically in Venezuela." But that's a subject for another story.

I prefer to let my readers weigh Alonso's opinions about facets of our reality.

Manuel Alberto Ramy is Havana bureau chief for Radio Progreso Alternativa and editor of Progreso Semanal, the Spanish-language version of Progreso Weekly.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Phil Peters on Cuba's Economic Debate

Will Raul Castro Reform Cuba’s Economy?

Philip Peters
Cuba Policy Report
Sep 25, 2007
Print Page

Talk to anyone who worked with Raul Castro, or anyone clued in to the process that produced Cuba’s economic reforms in the early 1990’s, and you get the same story: that he supported those reforms and is not averse to the use of market mechanisms to improve Cuba’s economy.
But with his brother in power, we could never know Raul’s preference for Cuban economic policy if he were in charge.

That may soon change.

Fidel Castro has not appeared in public for more than a year, and in the video released last week he doesn’t appear capable of taking back the reins of executive power that he delegated in July 2006.

With Raul Castro now serving as interim chief executive, Cuba is engaged in an economic policy debate of potentially great consequence. (To follow this issue, check out my blog, The Cuban Triangle.)

Fidel Castro started this debate, but the longer it goes on the more it seems to follow a path that he would not have planned.

Delivering his last major policy speech in the formal lecture hall of the University of Havana in November 2005, Fidel confronted his generation’s mortality. “The veterans are disappearing,” he said, “and making room for new generations of leaders.” He asked whether socialism is “irreversible,” and his answer was clear. “This revolution can destroy itself,” he said. “We can destroy it, and the fault would be ours.”

To ensure the long-term political survival of socialism, Fidel argued, Cuba needed to put its economic house in order.

At the time of that speech, Cuba was reaping the benefit of Venezuelan oil, high nickel prices, and stronger tourism revenues. With breathing space, Fidel was asserting his orthodox economic thinking. He reduced the number of joint ventures with foreign investors by about 100, and squeezed Cuba’s small entrepreneurial sector.

In the speech, he detailed the black-market activity that pervades Cuba’s economy, from pilfered inventories to off-the-books entrepreneurship, and he wanted to put an end to it. He called for more control and policing. He threatened to close Cuba’s remaining private restaurants and to give a “Christian burial” to private taxis that help Cubans get to work amid insufficient public transit. He planned to deploy teenage “social workers,” who were already watching the till in gas stations, to combat corruption in bakeries, pharmacies, and cafeterias.

But then Fidel fell ill, delegated executive power, and left public view.

As interim leader, his brother Raul made the economy his priority, telling Cuba’s legislature that he is “tired of excuses.” He settled the state’s debts to farmers and tripled prices paid to milk and beef producers. He ended abusive pricing at Cuba’s airports, where high landing fees and refueling charges were making Cuba a less competitive tourism destination. He changed customs regulations to allow Cubans to receive video equipment and car parts from relatives overseas – a change in direction from a policy that seemed to seek to squeeze every possible bit of revenue from visitors. Rather than “bury” private taxis, he ordered police to stop harassing them – a small step, but the first bit of good news that Cuba’s entrepreneurs have received in years. Private restaurants remain open. Fidel’s social workers returned to their normal jobs.

And under Raul, the debate about Cuba’s economic future took a different turn.

Articles in official media showed that many of Cuba’s socialist enterprises are dysfunctional, abusing consumers, and able to operate only because employees use black-market fixes to keep them going.

Officials took up the discussion of the black market, but unlike Fidel, they aren’t scapegoating “egotists” and “cheapskates” who skirt the law. Raul Castro and others argue that Cubans resort to “indiscipline” because they can’t make ends meet with meager state salaries. There’s a big difference between blaming greed and saying people deserve a day’s pay for a day’s work. There’s also a big difference between targeting the black market and targeting a root cause, which is the stark inequality of income in Cuba’s workforce.

Last July 26, Raul Castro gave his first major policy speech. He told folksy stories about milk and farm production that ridiculed the bureaucracy and low productivity of state agriculture. He stated a need to examine and expand the practices that work in the agriculture sector, which would imply an expansion of private farming, where productivity is highest. He called for increased foreign investment. He called for “structural changes” which, in Marxist terms, could imply a change in property relations and a selective shift away from state ownership. He closed by quoting Fidel, seven years ago: “Revolution is a sense of the historical moment, it is to change all that must be changed.”

This speech was preceded by a process where the party, state enterprises, research centers and other institutions across Cuba were summoned to describe problems and solutions that would raise output, productivity, living standards. It was followed by grass-roots discussions now taking place in workplaces, union locals, and neighborhood Communist Party units.

This debate is producing proposals that were taboo one year ago: to expand private agriculture and small enterprise and provide micro-credits, have the state stop providing services it provides poorly, grant autonomy to state enterprises, expand foreign investment. Some of the proposals and calls for change have emerged on foreign websites and in interviews with foreign media, and through the Internet these ideas have recirculated in Cuba.

Having unleashed this debate and highlighted fundamental economic problems, Raul Castro has yet to make major decisions. That will likely occur once his own policy team completes its work and, as one Cuban economist argues, “political consensus” is obtained.

Cuba’s political system has an orthodox wing – its detractors call it the “Taliban” – and there are indications that its weight is felt in the current debate. A new salary policy, geared toward increasing state salaries so workers could cover their basic needs without outside income, was promised for June 2007 but not delivered. A study of “socialist property” that could promote fundamental reforms was initiated last fall, but later it was announced that its results would come “within three years.” And the sharpest comment in Raul Castro’s July 26 speech – that instead of guaranteeing milk to children only, Cuba’s goal should be to supply milk to all who want it – was dropped from the text printed in Cuban newspapers the next day.

Taking all this into account, it is my view that Cuba will initiate some degree of economic reform during the coming year.

I reach this conclusion for three reasons.

First, while there are differing opinions within the Cuban political system regarding economic policy, there is consensus that something must be done – for both political and economic reasons – to address the unfinished business of the reforms of the 1990’s, especially income inequality. That task requires a degree of economic growth that small-scale changes cannot provide.

Second, if the Cuban government’s intention were to stand pat, it would surely be directing an old, tried-and-true message to the Cuban people now: that Cuba is besieged by a hostile U.S. Administration that perceives weakness, and this is a time to concentrate on defense and to avoid experimentation in domestic policy. But Raul Castro’s message has been the opposite.

That is because, third, as more and more time has passed with Fidel Castro offstage, Raul Castro has steadily raised expectations for policy changes that will improve Cubans’ daily lives. He has done so through small initial policy steps, through his public speeches, and now by pushing a discussion of economic problems and “structural changes” to Cuba’s grass roots organizations. It is hard to conceive that a politician in any political system, much less one in Raul Castro’s circumstance today, would embark on a strategy of raising expectations to this degree if his intention were not to deliver results. It bears noting that Raul Castro has tempered expectations by telling the Cuban people not to expect dramatic improvement overnight.

There are two kinds of policy change that could liberate productive energies and yield positive results in Cuba. One is administrative change that would make the state sector more productive: decentralization, greater flexibility for state enterprises, new policies to bring more foreign investment. The other would involve granting more space for private economic activity. My guess is that we will see a combination, with initial moves in the agriculture sector.

A turn to significant reform would change the trajectory of Cuba’s domestic policy and would carry political implications in Cuba and abroad. The Cuban public would surely welcome an economic improvement and the government gain support. And those who have called for change in Cuban policies – dissidents, the Bush Administration, European governments – would have to decide how to react.

President Bush is awaiting the day when “the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away” and views that day as a moment of opportunity for the United States and others to exhort Cubans to change their political system. He may be waiting for a moment that, in practical political terms, has already passed. Change in Cuba, however gradual, is far likelier to come from within the system itself as it grapples with its economic future and the prospect of Fidel Castro’s entire generation soon leaving the scene.

Copyright © 2007 Lexington Institute. All rights reserved.

Printed From on 10/8/2007

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Foreign Minister Discusses Reform with Students

Cuban official touts flexibility over dogmatism

Havana, Oct 4 (EFE).- Cuba's foreign minister told students at the
University of Havana that the island's communist government must put
flexibility ahead of dogma in adapting to new realities even if Washington
ends its economic embargo against the Castro regime.

Felipe Perez Roque made the comment Wednesday night during an exchange where
several students mentioned the serious problems in the economy and asked
whether Cuba could resolve its unfinished business if the 45-year-old
embargo were lifted.

After insisting that the U.S. policy has cost the island's economy nearly
$90 billion, the foreign minister said that Cuba cannot blame the embargo
for the "problems, mistakes and setbacks" cited in a July speech by acting
President Raul Castro, who stepped in when older brother Fidel fell ill 14
months ago.

Damian Dikinson, a freshman studying engineering, asked the foreign minister
Wednesday night: "What would happen if they ended the embargo and we
continue with some of the very deficient management methods we have, if we
continue with the waste, with the land we have without putting it into
production as Raul said?"

Perez Roque responded that in that case Cuba will have to adapt to the new
reality. "We cannot be dogmatic. We have to be flexible," though without
compromising on the "principle" of defending socialism.

Some of Cuba's woes, he said, are due to a "peculiar situation today, but
that doesn't mean that it has to continue being like this. That is the
result of a war economy, of a beseiged country, which lacks resources.
The lack of resources leads to centralization regarding their use."

To another question by student Naibi Hernandez regarding how the hotel
industry could face a possible avalanche of U.S. tourists if Washington's
travel restrictions to Cuba were lifted, Perez Roque acknowledged that the
island is not fully prepared to confront that circumstance.

He said that U.S. tourism "among other benefits, will come to resolve the
problem of seasonality" with visiting Canadians and Europeans, who travel to
the island mainly during the winter months.

"They (the Americans) will come at the time we have the emptiest hotels,"
and he added that the first million of those hypothetical future tourists
would bring as much as $3 billion in revenues to Cuba.

During the dialogue, a journalism student who identified herself only as
Elizabeth lamented the fact that Cuban media - which are entirely under
state control - do not deal with certain conflicts and issues considered
taboo but which concern society.

"We're letting you know that those zones of silence are being filled with
other information created perhaps by people we don't like and who almost
always, unfortunately, are the enemy," she said.

The foreign minister responded that the leadership of the Communist Party
"has devised a very clear policy of a commitment to the truth and is not due
to other interests, because the press is the daughter of the revolution that
democratized the access to the media."

He acknowledged that the press "has to reflect reality," but went on to say
that it also "has to speak about the battle, the resistance and how we can
break and resist the embargo."

Perez Roque, who at 42 is by far the youngest member of Cuba's ruling elite,
has been mentioned as a possible future leader of the island. EFE rmo/bp

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Unless reforms are made, we'll lose everything’

September 27 - October 3, 2007‘

'Unless reforms are made, we'll lose everything' -- Discussion in CDRs

By Manuel Alberto Ramy

In September 1960, Fidel Castro founded the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) for the purpose of combating the wave of bombings and sabotage coursing through in the country. Today, 47 years later, the CDRs, which bring together millions of Cubans, are immersed in the debates called for by the Communist Party of Cuba to help the Cuban process move forward.

"Unless reforms are made, we'll lose everything," Jorge said to me as we
left the CDR meeting in his building, in the Vedado neighborhood, following an analysis of the July 26 speech by the acting president of Cuba, Army Gen. Raúl Castro. What reforms was he talking about?

"Well, reforms that will make the system work, so services will not be a
disaster, so money will be worth something, so there will be one single
currency (as a comrade said), so corruption won't continue to devour us like termites."

The ordinary Cuban wants reforms to be tangible, not a conflict "between
what the press, the TV say and my daily struggle to deal with food and
transportation," said Catalina Fernández, who is a member of Jorge's CDR.

The absence in the media of the problems that concern Cubans is one of the issues discussed at several of the debates I've heard about from reliable sources.

"Seeing is believing, that's the thing," Catalina adds, and she tells me
that at the meeting she asked "Why don't most young people come to these assemblies? Because they don't think [these assemblies] will solve the problems. They grew up hearing about the same problems, seeing the same sewage problems in the same streets, seeing that the buildings in which they live are not maintained -- at most a dash of paint -- that agriculture is not productive. And now, that money doesn't go far enough."

A young man from the same CDR, a university graduate who listened in
silence, explains his attitude thus: "When we want things to work well, the TV and the newspapers are full of references, commentaries and political messages telling us to work harder. But have you seen any [TV program] showing the debates in the CDRs or in the factories? No. So, what's the use?"

Evidently, there's a little bit of everything. Committees where the people
speak their hearts out, and others where silence and a raised hand will
approve whatever is proposed. The latter are the people invited by Raúl
Castro last Sunday to participate with total sincerity and candor on any
subject. (See: "Raúl Castro: Speak with candor so we can get feedback," in Progreso Blog, Sept. 23, 2007.)

Catalina spoke out because "I don't want to waste this opportunity or the
good things we have accomplished." She has been a militiawoman, has been mobilized many times. "I fell in love with the revolution," she says with feeling. "It hurts when you lose a great love; to save it, you must make changes." Divorced after 20 years of marriage, she says: "I don't want to lose my other great love -- the revolution."

In other CDRs and many workplaces, the debates have been brisk. Topics have ranged from opening spaces to service cooperatives "that can solve something that has not been solved for as long as the revolution has lasted" -- an allusion to efficiency and quality -- to the instability and improvisation that afflict the ongoing projects.

On the subject of improvisation, multiple references have been made to the repair of household appliances and electronic equipment in general.

"People buy without taking into account the repair parts needed per
appliance, so what happens is that you go to the service center and they
tell you there are no parts available," Luis says. He points to the column
in the newspaper Juventud Rebelde called "Acknowledge Receipt," which, he says, "is full of such cases."

In my previous article, I wrote about the discussions in academic forums
open to the public. In this article, I deal with the life experiences of the
people in some places of the capital, with the participation of the
physician, the engineer and the humblest worker.

"I don't know what a 'structure' is, as a comrade called it," says
Arístides. "But, yes, we must be practical and look for whatever works and solves problems." Moreover, "I read the newspapers and listen to the
speeches and I want someone to tell me why the private farmers produce more than the state-run farms. Fidel has said that revolution means changing everything that needs to be changed. So?"

For most Cubans, the problems are perfectly identified. "The challenge is to take the bull by the horns and change," says CDR member Manuel. "But without losing political control. That, never."

The government must "give more autonomy to the companies," he says, "explore other forms of property ownership -- cooperative or communal -- that, well regulated by the law, can fill the holes of state inefficiency." And that inefficiency "is historical."

Guillermo, from the Playa municipality, cautions not to give the wrong
answers to the problems. "On many occasions, we give an administrative
answer to a political problem. On others, we respond juridically to problems whose solution is economic."

Public health was another topic held up for discussion, apparently in a
balanced manner. While the citizens acknowledge the quality of the doctors' work, they wonder why resources like X-ray film are rationed in specific clinics. Or why family doctors are not available in areas or hospitals whose condition leaves much to be desired, whereas they are plentiful in other areas.

"I agree that we should help other countries, but we should ration that
solidarity," Catalina suggested at the assembly in her neighborhood.

As the readers see, there is a little of everything: incredulity and faith;
apathy and participation; love and separation; silences and proposals. It is very likely that Raúl Castro's statement last Sunday will motivate the dumb to speak and that, in the end, many of the suggestions will be enshrined in new policies.

All the opinions are being collected and listed by topics, municipalities
and provinces. There is ample material for feedback, as Raúl Castro said.

Manuel Alberto Ramy is Havana bureau chief of Radio Progreso Alternativa and editor of Progreso Semanal, the Spanish-language version of Progreso Weekly.

Monday, October 1, 2007

A Cuban Overview of the Process of Change

One Tune, Two Interpretations

By Manuel Alberto Ramy September 27, 2007

I had promised this article to the many readers who told me they were interested in precise explanations about my latest writings and wondered if my opinions were an island inside the island. Well, I hope they'll find the answers here.

In Cuba, we are living a generational transit in the revolutionary process, and are also shaping the indispensable changes in structure and mentality that can no longer be postponed. It is a passing of the baton, but on a different track/reality. Perhaps because of the complexity of the situation and the accumulation of problems that still require solutions, this race is being run on a muddy track.

The generational transit is a biological fact that corresponds to the human composition of society; the shaping of changes is an exigency of reality. There are structures (as well as mentalities) that do not respond to the current requirements.

Cuba and Cubans remain the same, yet they are different. They have an excellent technical and professional formation and technical preparation, so the answers must be not only valid and different but also novel, to fit the circumstances. They must also be able to travel along new channels.

We are witnesses to the struggle between the needs imposed by the stubborn reality, the needs of the citizens, the paradigm of society, the man we want to build, and the official line of thought -- a body of ideas and practices that have ruled for a long time.

All this is being debated in homes, in nuclei (grassroots organizations) of the Communist Party of Cuba and in work centers. The debate also is waged in magazines and academic forums open to all ordinary Cubans.

Some of the readers who wrote to me said that the young people and freedom of thought are "hamstrung by the structures to which they obligatorily belong." To answer them, let me quote some of the presentations by ordinary people and intellectuals at the recently held symposium "Socialist Transition in Cuba," sponsored by the magazine Temas (Themes), published in Cuba.

"The process of change and adaptation undergone by [the Revolution], in addition to the recourse to means that respond to the present state of affairs, is characterized by positing a transformation in the way of thinking and building the Cuban socialist project," said Carlos Lage Codorniú, national president of the University Students Federation (FEU).

"It commands us [...] to rethink the way of articulating our model and participating in it," he adds, which necessitates "the strengthening of credibility in institutions and organizations and their reconversion in real spaces of participation."

Are the need for structural changes, participation and institutional credibility the exclusive opinion of the new generations?

Ramón de la Cruz Ochoa, a judge who for years served as Attorney General of the Republic, believes that "the weakness of the institutions is manifest" and the role of the institutions of justice is to augment and serve as guarantor ("with the necessary autonomy") to the citizen, "in the face of any illegality or arbitrariness," regardless of its source.

De la Cruz does not remain on the margins of the legal institutions and, when he opines about the need to strengthen the People's Power and allow it to play "the role assigned to it" (because without it "there is no socialist democracy"), he agrees with the president of the FEU on the functioning of institutionality.

The topic of the market, as well as the forms of property ownership, were discussed. To Jorge L. Acanda, professor of philosophy at the University of Havana, "the market must have a place, be it central to, or at the periphery of, the system."

Acanda then wondered why there is so much talk about the socialization of property. His answer? "Because the existing socialism has been a model of core-state that equated the elimination of capitalist private property with state control of property and social property with state property."

Professor Acanda recalls that "both Marx and Engels made it clear that state control of property does not mean socialization." And he added: "After what happened in eastern Europe, it has become clear that the State cannot be confused with society as a whole, and that state property does not have to be a synonym for the property of society as a whole."

I expect that a good many readers are surprised at the fact that these topics are being discussed publicly and openly in today's Cuba. But let me continue, with some of the opinions expressed by sociologist Aurelio Alonso of House of the Americas.

"Socialization has a greater sense. A socialist economy must not be a state economy outright. The socialist State has to perform a regulatory function, has to be an investor in, and an owner of, the natural resources, the major public services -- electricity, gas, water. But a mixed economy should also be legitimized, including not only foreign investment but national investment as well," Alonso said.

"It is necessary to foster, for example, a sector of family economy in those productive and service activities where [that sector] is most efficient to solve the problems of society," he said.

According to Alonso, "private initiative must include spaces that are not limited to 200 self-employment activities," a clear reference to the current legislation, which regulates the types of activities that citizens may engage in as private individuals.

Alonso favors trying out new forms of property ownership; if they work, they should be validated, if they don't, go back to state control. In his view, practice should be a requirement for the truth. But -- and he raises this "but" -- no one should hinder or raise obstacles to the ongoing experience, in an effort to invalidate it.

Why does he say this? Because, according to Judge Narciso Cobo, president of the Economic Law Society of Cuba, "if we look at the Cooperatives for Farm Production (CPA) and Credits and Service Cooperatives (CCS), we find that both are afflicted by a high degree of interference from the state structures that control agriculture and the sugar industry."

In other words, the state structures limit the cooperatives' attributions and decision-making capacity.

Judge De la Cruz favors "expanding the meaning of that type of property, to make it stronger and extend it beyond agriculture to other sectors of production-and-services -- gastronomy, for example -- that have not been developed in Cuba. There, pure state ownership has not been successful. Community ownership has not developed either, yet it's a social ownership."

No aspect was left out of the debate. The relationship between the economy and the market; the indispensable presence of ethics in both economy and the market; whether the island will copy some model of socialism -- all of these topics were discussed. It became clear, both explicitly and implicitly, that the process must be national, Cuban.

Let me insist, dear readers. Isn't it remarkable that these events are happening in Cuba practically every month, at various levels and to various degrees? Articles on these subjects are published regularly on the Internet, but the Miami media publish only those that are most convenient for their editorial concept of info-comics. Why the silence?

Because, I think, the approaches, analyses, criticism and possible solutions, without exception, depart from socialist positions and are designed to ease the transit on a socialist track.

It is not a question of dismantling the system but of rebuilding it with the effective participation of all citizens, through the established institutions. As I mentioned in a previous article, these institutions are in a process of reorganization and refitting, so they may serve as conduits that guarantee that the changes will not go off-course.

In the essence of the debate, we can appreciate that the greater the economic democracy, the greater the political democracy, which is one of the objectives of a genuine revolutionary process. (If some reader does not understand this relationship, I refer him to the reality of representative democracy, as it exists and functions in the United States. He will see that, in practice, economic power supplants the will and needs of the population.)

No doubt, someone will ask how much weight these symposia, forums and debates carry in the official political decisions. I could give a long answer, but I'll simply say that when the life experience of the people, the intellectual sector and culture in general are in harmony, failure to take them into account is the equivalent of a divorce between government and society.

I don't think that's the situation here. Rather, I perceive that these debates and publications help create a climate that will facilitate the creation of measures that will come in stages.

No offense, but when a tranquil reader looks at the Cuban reality from a critical perspective (and this symposium was critical, as others were), he will come to the conclusion that the mindset that prevails in Miami is unable to deal with the Cuban reality.

Miami is disqualified, not only because it doesn't understand and doesn't wish to understand, but also because it acts as a conscious instrument of foreign intervention. It couldn't be otherwise. As the saying goes: "[A tune] sounds one way on the violin, another way on a guitar." Interpretation is all.

Manuel Alberto Ramy is Havana bureau chief of Radio Progreso Alternativa and editor of Progreso Semanal, the Spanish-language version of Progreso Weekly.