Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Yoani Sanchez interviewed by Salim Lamrani

An interview by Salim Lamrani, originally published on Rebelion Website as republished in The South Journal, translated into English.

A Conversation with Cuban Blogger Yoani Sanchez

French journalist and expert in relations between Cuba and the United States recently interviewed Cuba blogger Yoani Sanchez in Havana. The interview was posted on Rebelion website and on Cubadebate website. Yoani Sanchez is the new figure of Cuban opposition. Since she created her blog “Generation Y” back in 2007, she has been granted several international prizes, including the Ortega y Gasset Journalism Prize in 2008, the Bitacoras.com Prize in 2008, the Bob’s Prize in 2008, the Maria Moors Cabot Prize in 2008, granted by the prestigious US University of Columbia. Similarly, the Cuban blogger was selected among the world’s 100 most influential personalities by Time Magazine in 2008, along with George W. Bush, Hu Jintao and Dalai Lama. Yoani´s blog was included on the list of the 25 best blogs of the world by CNN and Time Magazine in 2008.

In November 30, 2008, Spain’s El Pais newspaper included her on its list of the 100 most influential Hispanic-American personalities of the year (a list where you can’t find Fidel or Raul Castro).

Foreign Policy magazine, on its part, included her among the 10 most important intellectuals of the year, while Mexico’s Gato Pardo magazine did the same in 2008.

This impressing landslide of distinctions, as well as their simultaneous occurrence, has raised numerous questions, so much so that Yoani Sanchez, according to her own confession, is absolutely unknown in her own country. How can a person, who is unknown to her neighbors—according to the blogger—, be on the list of the 100 most influential personalities in the world?

A diplomat from a western country, who is close to this atypical opponent of the Cuban government, had read a series of articles I wrote about Yoani Sanchez and that were somewhat critical. He showed the blogger my articles and she wanted to meet me to clear out some points I had referred to.

The meeting with the young dissident, of controversial fame, did not take place in any dark apartment with closed windows or in a remote site that could avoid the indiscrete ears of “the political police.” On the contrary, the meeting took place in the lobby of the Hotel Plaza, in the heart of the Old Section of Havana, and in a sunny afternoon. The place was packed with people, many foreign tourists wandering around the huge hall of the majestic building that opened its doors in the early 20th century.

Yoani Sanchez has close ties with western embassies. In fact, a simple call by my contact at midday allowed us to set the date just three hours later. And at 3 pm, the blogger showed up smiling, dressed in a long skirt and a blue jersey. She also wore a sports jacket to keep herself warm in the relatively fresh temperature of the Havana winter.

Our conversation lasted nearly two hours as we sat at a table in the bar and in the presence of her husband Reinaldo Escobar, who accompanied her for some 20 minutes before they left the place as they headed for another meeting. Yoani Sanchez appeared very cordial and friendly; she proved her great peace. Her voice was firm and she never showed being uncomfortable. Already used to meeting with the western media, she really masters the arts of communication.

This blogger, a person who looks weak, intelligent and astute is aware that, although hard for her to admit her western media relation is not by mere chance, but because it advocates the setting up of “sui generis” capitalism in Cuba.

The Incident on November 6, 2009

Salim Lamrani: Let´s start with the incident that occurred on November 6, 2009 in Havana. You explained on your blog that you were arrested along another three friends of yours by “three unknown hefty men” during “an afternoon stormed with beating, cries and insults.” You denounced the Cuban police for having committed violence against you. Do you maintain your version of the events?

Yoani Sánchez: Yes indeed, I confirm I was submitted to violence. They held me for 25 minutes. I was beaten. I managed to take a piece of paper that one of the men had in his pocket and I hid it in my mouth. One of them pressed his knee over my chest and the other, from the front seat would beat me in the kidney area and my head so that I opened my mouth and get the piece of paper. For a moment, I thought I would never get out of that car.

SL: the story on your blog is really terrifying. I quote: you spoke of “beats and pushes,” of “beating knuckles,” of “stream of beats,” “Knees on your chest,” beating your “kidneys and […] your head, “pulling you by your hair,” of your face “going red due to pressure and painful body, of “ beats that went on” and “ all those bruises.” However, when you met with the international press on November 9 all those marks had faded it out of your body. How can you explain that?

YS: They are beating professionals.

SL: Ok, but why didn’t you show the pictures of the marks?

YS: I got the pictures. I got the proving images.

SL: So you got the proofs?

YS: I got the proofs in the pictures.

SL: But, why haven’t you published them to reject all rumors saying you might have fabricated this attack so that the press told about your case?

YS: I rather keep them for the time being and not publish them. I want to present them to a court some day so that these three men are judged. I can perfectly recall their faces and I got the pictures of two of them at least. As to the third man, he is still to be identified but since he was the chief, he will be easy to spot. I also have the piece of paper I took from one of them, which has my saliva because I kept it in my mouth. The name of a woman was written in that paper.

SL: Fine. You publish many photos on your blog. It is not difficult to understand why you prefer not to release the pictures this time.

YS: As I told you, I rather keep them for justice.

SL: You are aware that your attitude gives credit to those who think that you fabricated the attack against you, aren’t you?

YS: It is my choice.

SL: However, even the western media, which quite favor you, took some unusual precautious measures when telling your story. BBC correspondent in Havana Fernando Ravberg wrote, for instance, that you “had no bruises, marks or scars.” France Presse news agency told the story by clarifying carefully enough that it is your own version and it gave it the title: “Cuba: Blooger Yoani Sanchez Says to have been Beaten and Briefly Arrested.” On the other hand, the reporter affirmed that you “were not hurt.”

YS: I wouldn’t like to evaluate their work. I am not who is supposed to judge them. They are professionals who face very complicated situations that I can not evaluate. The fact is that the existence or not of physical marks is not evidence of the event.

SL: But the presence of those marks would reveal that violence took place. That is why publishing the photos would be so important.

YS: You should understand that they are professionals in intimidation. The fact that three unknown men took me to a car without presenting any documents gives me the right to complaint as if they had broken all my bones. The photos are not that important because the illegal act has been committed. Now being so accurate as to say “if it hurts here or there” is just my internal pain.

SL: Ok, but the problem is that you presented it all as a very violent attack. You talked about “kidnapping you in the worst Sicilian Camorra style.”

YS: Yes, that is true, but it is my word against theirs. The fact of getting into these details, if I have bruises or not takes us far off the real subject, which is that they kidnapped me during 25 minutes illegally.

SL: Excuse my insistence, but I think this is important. There is some difference between an identity control, which lasts 25 minutes, and police violence. My question is very simple. You said and I quote: “I had a cheekbone and an eyebrow swollen all during the weekend.” Since you got the pictures, you can now show the marks.

YS: I just told you I rather keep them for court.

SL: You are aware that some people will find it hard to believe your version, if you do not publish the photos, aren’t you?

YS: I think that by getting into these details we miss the subject. The fact is that three bloggers accompanied by a friend of theirs were on their way to a place in the city, right on the corner of 23 and G streets. We had heard that a group of youngsters had called a march against violence there. They are alternative kind of people, hip hop and rap singers, artists. I would be there as a blogger to make pictures and post them on my blog and make some interviews. On the way to that site we were stopped by a “Geely” car.

SL: Was it an action to prevent you from taking part of the event?

YS: That was the reason, evidently. They never told us that formally, but that was their objective. They told me to get in the car. I asked them who they were. One of them took me by my wrist and I held back. That happened in a Havana zone which is centrally located, right at a bus stop.

SL: So there were people at the place then. I mean there were witnesses.

YS: Yes, there were witnesses but they do not want to talk. They are scared.

SL: Not even in an anonymous way? Why hasn’t the western media interviewed them anonymously as they usually do when they publish critical articles about Cuba?

YS: I can’t explain about the reaction of the press. I can tell them what happened. One of them, a man about fifty years old, with a strong body as if he had ever practiced free wrestling—I tell you this because my father practiced that sports and he has the same body shape-. I have quite weak wrists and I managed to get out of his grasp and I asked him who he was. There were three men plus the driver.

SL: So then, there were four men instead of three.

YS: Yes, but I couldn’t reach to see the driver’s face. “Yoani, get in the car, you know who we are.” I replied: “I don’t know who you are.” The smallest one said: “Listen, you know who I am, you know me well.” I answered him: “No, I don’t know who you are. Who are you? Let me see your papers or just any document.” The other one told me: “Get in the car, do not make things difficult.” Then I started to shout. “Help! Kidnappers!”

SL: Did you know that they were policemen wearing civilian clothes?

YS: I figured it out, but they never showed me any document.

SL: Then, what was your objective?

YS: I wanted things to be done legally; that is, that they showed me their documents and then they could take me although I suspected they really represented the authority. You can not force a citizen to get in a private car without presenting any documents, or else it is illegal and thus kidnapping.

SL: How did the people at the bus stop react?

YS: The people were astonished because “kidnapping” is not a common word in Cuba; such a phenomenon does not exist here. Then they wondered what was going on. We did not look like criminals. Some tried to approach us but one of the policemen shouted at them: “Do not get into this, these ones are counterrevolutionaries!” And this confirmed that they were part of the political police although I figured it out when I saw the Geely car, a new Chinese make, which has not been sold anywhere in Cuba. These cars only belong to people with the Armed Forces and the Interior Ministries.

SL: Do you mean that since the beginning you knew that they were policemen wearing civilian clothes because you identified the car they were driving?

YS: I sensed that. On the other hand I confirmed it when one of them called a uniformed policeman. A patrol made up of a woman and a man came and took two of us away. They left us in the hands of these unknown men.

SL: But at that point you did not have any doubt about who they were, did you?

YS: No, but they did not show us any documents. The policemen did not say that they represented Cuban authority. They said no word.

SL: It is hard to understand any interest of Cuban authorities in attacking at the risk of unleashing an international scandal. You are famous. Why would they do that?

YS: They wanted to make me radical so that I wrote violent articles against them, but they won’t get away with it.

SL: We can not say that you are soft about the Cuban government.

YS: I never use verbal violence or personal attacks. I never use hard adjectives like “bloody repression”, for instance. Their objective was that of having me radicalized.

SL: However you are very tough about the Cuban government. You can read in your blog that: “the ship taking in water is about to be shipwrecked.” You speak about “the shouts of the despot,” of “people in the shadows who, like vampires, feed from our human joy, inoculate us with fear through beating, threats and blackmail,” “the shipwreck of the process, the system, the expectations, the illusions. [It is] [total] shipwreck,” these are really strong words.

YS: Perhaps they are, though their objective was burning the Yoani Sanchez phenomenon by demonizing me. For that reason my blog was blocked for a long time.

SL: However, it seems surprising that Cuban authorities decided to physically attack you.

YS: It was clumsy. I can’t understand why they prevented me from attending the march since my thinking is quite different from those who use repression. I can’t explain. Perhaps they did not want me to meet with the youths. The police thought I would start a scandal or make an incendiary discourse.

Back to my arrest; the police took my friends away in an energetic and firm manner, but without any violence. When I realized they would leave us alone with Orlando, and with these three guys I held on tightly to a tree at the place and Claudia grasped my waist in an effort to prevent being separated from me just before she was taken away.

SL: What’s the use of resisting the police in uniform and run the risk of being accused for that and commit crime? In France, if you resist the police, you run the risk of being imposed sanctions.

YS: They took them away, anyhow. The police woman took Claudia. The other three persons took us to the car and I started to shout again: “Help! This is a Kidnap!

SL: Why? Did you know they were police men not wearing their uniforms?

YS: They did not show any documents. Then, they started to beat me and they pushed me inside the car. Claudia witnessed it and she told about it.

SL: But, You have just told me that the police patrol had taken Claudia away, haven’t you?

YS: She saw the scene from a distance while the police car drove away. I defended myself and launched beats like an animal that feels that its last hour has come. They drove around Vedado as they tried to take the piece of paper out of my mouth. I took one of them by his testicles and he increased his violence. They took us to a poor neighborhood, La Timba, which is near the Revolution Square. The man stepped down, opened the door of the car and asked us to get out. I did not want to get off. They took us out by force including Orlando and then they left.

A woman approached us and we told her we had been kidnapped. She took us for insane people and left. The car returned but did not stop. They threw out my purse in which I had my cell phone and my camera.

SL: Did they return your cell and your camera?

YS: Yes

SL: Doesn’t it sound funny to you that they bothered to return? They could have confiscated your cell and your camera, which are your work tools.

YS: Well, I don’t know. It all lasted 25 minutes.

SL: You are aware however, that as long as you do not publish the photos your version will be submitted to doubt and that will cast a shadow on the credibility of all that you say.

YS: I do not care about it.


SL: In 2002 you decided to migrate to Switzerland. Two years later you returned to Cuba. It appears difficult to understand why you left the “European paradise” to return to the country which you describe as hell. My question is simple: Why?
YS: It is a good question. Firstly, I like to go against the current. I like to organize my life in my own way. What is absurd is not the fact of leaving and returning but the Cuban migration laws, which stipulate that any person who spends eleven months abroad loses his or her permanent resident status. Under different conditions, I could spend two years abroad and with the money earned I could return to Cuba to repair my home and do some other things. Then it is not the fact of deciding to return to Cuba that is amazing, but the Cuban migration laws.
SL: Surprising enough is particularly the fact that having the chance to live in one of the richest countries in the world, you had decided to return to your country, which you describe in quite an apocalyptic manner, nearly two years later you left.
YS: There are several reasons for that. First, I was not able to leave with my family. We are a small family but very united with my sister and with my parents. My father was sick during my stay in Switzerland and I was afraid that he could die and that I was not able to see him anymore. I also felt guilty for being living a better life than theirs. Every time I bought a pair of shoes, or that I logged on the Internet, I thought of them. I felt guilty.
SL: OK, but you could help them from Switzerland by sending them money.
YS: That is true, but there is still another reason. I thought that with all I learned in Switzerland I could change things when I returned to Cuba. You also feel this nostalgia for the people, your friends. It was not a well thought decision, but I do not regret it. I wanted to return and so I did. Actually, it’s something that could seem uncommon, but I Iike doing unusual things. I opened a blog and the people asked me why I was doing that, while the blog satisfies me professionally.
SL: That is alright, but despite all these reasons, it is still difficult to understand why you returned to Cuba while people in the West think that all Cubans want to leave their country. It is something even more surprising in your case because you present your country, I repeat, in an apocalyptic way.
YS: As a philologist I would consider that word, since “apocalyptic” is a grandiloquent term. There is something that characterizes my blog: verbal moderation.
SL: That is not always the case. For instance, you describe Cuba as “a huge prison, with ideological walls.” The terms are quite strong.
YS: I have never written that.
SL: Those were the words you used during an interview with France 24 TV Channel on October 22, 2009.
YS: Did you read that in French or in Spanish?
SL: In French.
YS: Do not trust translations because I never said that. Quite often I come across words I have not said. For instance, Spain’s ABC newspaper attributed words to me that I had never pronounced and I protested that. The article was withdrawn from the Internet site.
SL: Which were those words?
YS: “In Cuban hospitals, more people die from hunger than from diseases.” It was a total lie. I never said that.
SL: Then, did the western media manipulate what you had said?
YS: I wouldn’t say that.
SL: If they attributed words to you that you did not say; then it is manipulation.
YS: Granma newspaper manipulates reality further more than the western press when it say that I am the product of the Prisa media group.
SL: Exactly, Don’t you think that the western media uses you because you advocate “sui-generis” capitalism in Cuba?
YS: I am not responsible for what the media does. My blog is personal therapy, a kind of exorcism. I have a feeling that I am being more manipulated in my own country than in any other part. You know about this law in Cuba, Law 88 called the “Gag” law, which imprisons the people who do what we are doing.
SL: You mean?
YS: I mean that our conversation may be considered a crime and that you may be punished up to 15 years in jail.
SL: Sorry but, the fact that I interview you may take you to jail?
YS: Of course!
SL: I do not have the feeling that this worries you that much, since you are giving me this interview, in full day light, in the lobby of a hotel in the heart of Old Havana.
YS: I am not worried. This law states that any person that denounces the violations of human rights in Cuba cooperates with the economic sanctions, since Washington justifies the imposition of the sanctions against Cuba because of the violation of human rights.
SL: If I’m not wrong, Law 88 was passed in 1996 as a response to the Helms-Burton Law and particularly punishes those people who collaborate with the implementation of the American law in Cuba, for instance, by providing Washington information about foreign investors in Cuba so that they be taken to American courts. As far as I know, nobody has been condemned for that so far. Let’s talk about freedom of expression. You have certain freedom to speak through your blog. You are being interviewed this afternoon in a hotel. Don´t you notice any contradiction between your affirming that there is no freedom of expression in Cuba and the reality about your writings and activities, which show the opposite?
YS: Yes, but you can not see my blog in Cuba since it has been blocked.
SL: I can assure you that I visited it this morning before we had this interview, from this very hotel.
YS: It is possible, but most of the time it is blocked. Any way, at present, I can’t have the smallest space in the Cuban press, while I am a moderate person, no space in radio or television.
SL: However, you can publish whatever you want on your blog, can’t you?
YS: But I can not publish a single word on the Cuban press.
SL: In France, which is a democratic country, wide sectors of the population have no access to the media because most media outlets belong to private economic or financial groups.
YS: Yes, but it is different.
SL: Were you threatened because of your activities? Have you ever been threatened with prison for what you write about?
YS: No direct prison threats, but they do not allow me to travel abroad. I am currently invited to a Congress on the Spanish Language, in Chile; I did all proceedings, but they do not allow me to go.
SL: Have you received any explanation?
YS: None, but I´d like to put something straight. US sanctions against Cuba are atrocious. It is a failed policy. I have said this many times, but they do not publish it because it bothers them that I have this opinion, which is contrary to the archetype of any opposition member.


SL: So you oppose the economic sanctions.
YS: Absolutely, and I say this in every interview. Some weeks ago, I sent a letter to the US Senate requesting that the American citizens be allowed to travel to Cuba. It is atrocious to see how they do not allow American citizens to visit Cuba, just like the Cuban government prohibits me to travel out of my country.
SL: What’s your opinion on the hopes sparked by the election of Obama, who promised a policy change towards Cuba, but has disappointed so many people?
YS: He came to power without the support of the Miami-based fundamentalist lobby, which backed the other candidate. On my part, I have already given my statement against the sanctions.
SL: This fundamentalist lobby opposes the lifting of the sanctions.
YS: You can discuss with them and expose my criteria, but I would not say they are enemies of the homeland. I don’t think so.
SL: A group of them participated in the invasion against their own country in 1961, at the orders of the CIA. Several of them are involved in terrorist actions against Cuba.
YS: The Cuban exiles have the right to think and take decisions. I favor their right to vote. Here, the Cuban exile has been very much stigmatized.
SL: Do you mean the “historic” exile or the ones that have emigrated for economic reasons?
YS: Actually, I oppose all extremes. But these persons who are in favor of the economic sanctions are not anti-Cuba people. Just think that they are defending Cuba according to their own criteria.
SL: Perhaps, but the economic sanctions affect the most vulnerable sectors of the Cuban population and not the leaders. Then, it is difficult to favor the sanctions and intend to defend the wellbeing of the Cuban people at the same time.
YS: That is their opinion. That’s it.
SL: They are not naive. They know that the Cuban people are suffering because of the sanctions.
YS: They are simply different. They think they will be able to change the regime by imposing sanctions. In any case, I think that the blockade has been the perfect argument for the Cuban government to keep its intolerance, control and internal repression.
SL: Economic sanctions have an impact. Or do you think that the sanctions are a mere excuse for Havana?
YS: They are an excuse leading to repression.
SL: Do they affect the country from the economic point of view, according to you? Or is it only a secondary issue?
YS: The real problem lies on the lack of productivity in Cuba. If they lift the sanctions tomorrow, I doubt that the result will show.
SL: In this case, why doesn’t the United States lift the sanctions and eliminate the excuse for the Cuban government? That way, it would reveal that economic difficulties are the result of domestic policy. If Washington insists that much on the sanctions, despite their anachronistic character, despite the opposition staged by the large majority of the international community, 187 countries in 2009, despite the rejection by a majority of US public opinion, despite the rejection by the world of business, there must be a reason, don’t you think?
YS: Simply because Obama is not the dictator in the United States and he can not eliminate the sanctions.
SL: He can not eliminate them totally because an agreement by the Congress is necessary; however, he can soften them considerably, what he has not done so far, since except for the elimination of the restrictions imposed by Bush in 2004, almost nothing has changed.
YS: No, that is not true, because he has also allowed US telecommunication companies to do business with Cuba.


SL: You have to admit that this is all very little when we know that Obama promised a new approach of Cuba. Let’s go back to your personal case. How can you explain this landslide of prizes, as well as your international success?
YS: I can’t say much except expressing my gratitude. Any prize implies a dose of subjectivity on the part of the jury. Any prize can be questioned. For instance, many Latin American writers deserved the Nobel Literature Prize better than Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
SL: Do you say that because you think he is not as talented or due to his position favoring the Cuban Revolution? You do not deny his talent as a writer, or do you?
YS: It is my opinion, but I will not say that he took the prize and then accuse him of being an agent of the Swedish government.
SL: He obtained the prize for his literary work, while you have been rewarded for your political position against the government. That is the impression we have.
YS: Let’s talk about the Ortega and Gasset Prize granted by El Pais newspaper, which sparks more controversy. I won it in the “Internet” category. Some say that other journalists have not yet won the prize, but I am a blogger and a pioneer in this field. I consider myself a figure in the Internet. The Ortega y Gasset jury is made up of highly prestigious personalities and I would not say they took part of any conspiracy against Cuba.
SL: But you can’t deny that the El Pais newspaper maintains a very hostile editorial line towards Cuba. And some people think that the prize, which includes 15,000 Euros, was a way to reward your writings against the government.
YS: People think what they want to think. I think my work was rewarded. My blog has 10 million visits monthly. It is a cyclone.
However, that is not what an internationally recognized site measuring traffic says; a site like Alexa.com, of Amazon, which at the same time can not be taken as suspicious in terms of partiality in favor of alternative media sites from Cuba, Venezuela and Spain. A simple comparison of Yoani´s blog to other media outlets confirms that Generacion Y has much less traffic than the other websites to which it is compared, which have made their traffic public, below 10 million accesses monthly. Does Generacion Y alter its stats? I would seem it does. Another example, the Website with the largest traffic in the United States and one with the largest traffic in the world is The New York Times, which reports 17 million accesses every month.
SL: How do manage to pay the cost of the management of such a large proportion?
YS: A friend of mine in Germany would deal with that, because the site was hosted in Germany. It has been hosted in Spain for over a year now and I got and 18-month free management thanks to The Bob´s Prize.
SL: And how about the 18-language translation?
YS: They are friends and admirers who do it voluntarily and for free.
SL: Many people find it hard to believe that, because no other Web site in the world, even those of the most important international institutions -for example, the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the European Union- has so many linguistic versions. Not even the Web sites of the US State Department or the CIA have such variety.
YS: I’m telling you the truth.
SL: Even President Obama responded to your interview. How do you explain that?
YS: First, I want to say they were not complacent questions.
SL: We can’t say either that you were critical, since you didn’t ask him to lift the economic sanctions that you say “are used as justification for the production disaster and to repress those who think differently.” That’s exactly what Washington says in that regard. The most daring question was when you asked him if he was thinking about invading Cuba. ¿How do you explain the fact that President Obama spent part of his time to answer you in spite of his extremely tight schedule, an unprecedented economic crisis, the reform of the health system, Iraq, Afghanistan, the military bases in Colombia, the coup d’état in Honduras, and hundreds of requests for interviews from the most important media in the world waiting for him?
YS: I’m a fortunate person. I’d like to tell you that I’ve also sent questions to President Raúl Castro and he has not responded yet. I don’t give up hope. Besides, he now has the advantage of having Obama’s answers.
SL: How did you reach Obama?
YS: I passed on the questions to several people who were coming to see me and could possibly contact him.
SL: Do you think that Obama answered you because you’re a Cuban blogger or because you’re opposed to the government?
YS: I don’t think so. Obama replied because he speaks with citizens.
SL: He receives thousands of requests everyday. Why to answer you, if you’re just a blogger?
YS: Obama is close to my generation, to my way of thinking.
SL: But why you? There are millions of bloggers around the world. Don’t you think you have been capitalized on in Washington’s media war against Havana?
YS: In my opinion, perhaps he wanted to address some aspects, like the invasion of Cuba. Perhaps I gave him the opportunity to express himself about a topic he wanted to deal with a long time ago. Political propaganda constantly talks about a possible invasion of Cuba.
SL: But there was one, wasn’t it?
YS: When?
SL: In 1961. And in 2003, Roger Noriega, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, said that any Cuban migratory wave to the United States would be considered a threat to national security and would require a military response.
YS: That’s another issue. Going back to the interview, I believe it made it possible to clarify certain aspects. I was under the impression that none of the sides wanted a normalization of relations, reaching an understanding. I asked him when we were going to find a solution.

SL: In your opinion, who is responsible for this conflict between the two countries?

YS: It’s difficult to find somebody to blame.

SL: In this specific case, the United States is the one imposing unilateral sanctions on Cuba, and not the other way around.

YS: Yes, but Cuba confiscated properties from the United States.

SL: I get the impression that you’re acting as Washington’s advocate.

YS: Confiscations occurred.

SL: It’s true, but they were made in accordance with international law. Cuba also confiscated properties from France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, and the United Kingdom, and indemnified those nations. The only country that rejected that compensation was the United States.

YS: Cuba also allowed the installation of military bases on its territory and of missiles from a far-off empire…

SL: …Just like the United States installed nuclear bases against the USSR in Italy and Turkey.

YS: Nuclear missiles could reach the United States.

SL: Just like the US nuclear missiles could reach Cuba or the USSR.

YS: It’s true, but I think there was an escalation of confrontation on the part of the two countries.

The five Cuban political prisoners and dissidence

SL: Let’s tackle another subject. A lot is said about the five Cuban political prisoners in the United Stated, sentenced to life imprisonment for infiltrating extreme right factions in Florida, involved in terrorism against Cuba.

YS: It’s not an issue the population is interested in. It’s political propaganda.

SL: But what is your point of view in this regard?

YS: I’ll try to be as neutral as possible. They’re agents from the Ministry of the Interior who infiltrated the United States to collect information. The Cuban government says they were not carrying out activities of espionage but that they had infiltrated Cuban groups to prevent terrorist acts. But the Cuban government has always said those groups were linked to Washington.

SL: Then the radical groups of exiles have bonds with the US government.

YS: That’s what the political propaganda says.

SL: Then it’s not true.

YS: If it’s true it means that the five were carrying out activities of espionage.

SL: Then, in this case, the United States has to admit that violent groups are part of the government.

YS: It’s true.

SL: Do you think the Five should be released or that they deserve their sentences?

YS: I think it would be worth re-examining their cases, but in a political context of greater calm. I don’t think that the political use of this case could be good for them. The Cuban government gives this issue too high a media profile.

SL: Perhaps because it’s a matter totally censured by the western press.

YS: I think that the situation of those persons could be salvaged, they’re human beings, with families and children, but there are also victims on the other side.

SL: But the Five have not committed crimes.

YS: No, but they provided information that resulted in the death of several people.

SL: If you refer to the events of February 24, 1996, when the two airplanes of the radical organization Brothers to the Rescue were downed after they violated Cuban airspace several times and dropped fliers inciting rebellion.

YS: Yes.

SL: However, the district attorney admitted that it was impossible to prove Gerardo Hernandez’s guilt in this case.

YS: It’s true. I think that’s what we get when politics interferes in matters of justice.

SL: Do you think this is about a political case?

YS: For the Cuban government, it’s a political case.

SL: And for the United States?

YS: I understand that there’s a division of powers there, but the political atmosphere could have influenced the judges and the jury, but I don’t think we’re talking about a political case led by Washington. It’s difficult to have a clear image of this case, since we have never been able to have full information in this regard. But the release of the political prisoners it’s a priority for Cubans.

The US financing of Cuban dissidents

SL: Wayne S. Smith, the last ambassador of the United States in Cuba [sic, Wayne was head of USINT in the Carter Administration, with several successors], declared that “sending money to Cuban dissidents was illegal and unwise.” He added that “no one should give money to dissidents and much less with the objective of overthrowing the Cuban government.” And explains: “When the United States declares that its objective is to overthrow the Cuban government and then affirms that one of the means to achieve that objective is to provide Cuban dissidents with funds, then they are, in fact, in a position of agents paid by a foreign power to overthrow their own government.”

YS: I think that the financing of the opposition on the part of the United States has been presented as a reality, which is not the case. I know several members of the group of the 75 dissidents arrested in 2003 and I very much doubt that version. I have no evidence that the 75 were arrested for that reason. I don’t believe in the evidence presented before the Cuban court.

SL: I don’t think it’s possible to ignore this reality.

YS: Why?

SL: The US government itself affirms that it finances the internal opposition since 1959. Suffice is to consult, besides the declassified archives, Section 1705 of the Torricelli Law of 1992, Section 109 of the Helms-Burton Law of 1996, and the two reports of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba of May, 2004, and July, 2006. All these documents reveal that the President of the United States finances internal opposition in Cuba with the purpose of overthrowing the government of Havana.

YS: I don’t know, but…

SL: If you allow me to, I will quote the laws in question. Thus, Section 1705 of the Torricelli Law stipulates that “the United States will provide assistance to non-governmental organizations suitable for support to individuals and organizations which promote democratic and non-violent change in Cuba.”

Section 109 of the Helms-Burton Law is also very clear: “The President [of the United States] is authorized to offer assistance and to offer all kinds of support to individuals and non-governmental independent organizations to organize forces with a view towards constructing a democracy in Cuba.”

The first report of the Commission for Assistance for a Free Cuba sets forth the establishment of “a solid program of support which favors Cuban civil society.” Among the measures announced were 36 million dollars in financing to “support the democratic opposition and the strengthening of the emerging civil society.”

The second report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba sets forth a 31 million dollar budget to finance, even more, internal opposition. In addition, the financing of at least 20 million dollars a year for the following years, with the same objective, “until the dictatorship ceases to exist,” is also planned.

YS: Who told you that that money reached the dissidents?

SL: The US Interest Section affirmed it in a communiqué: “The US policy, for a long time now, is that of providing humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people, particularly the families of political prisoners. We also allow private organizations to do the same.”

YS: Well…

SL: Even Amnesty International, which recalls the existence of 58 political prisoners in Cuba, recognizes that they’re in prison “for having received funds or materials from the US government to carry out activities considered by the authorities as subversive and damaging for Cuba.

YS: I don’t know if…

SL: On the other hand, dissidents themselves admit they receive money from the United States. Laura Pollán, one of the so-called Ladies in White, declared: “We accept aid, support, from the ultra-right to the left, unconditionally.” Opponent Vladimiro Roca also confessed that Cuban dissidence is subsidized by Washington, claiming that the financial aid received was “totally and completely legal.” For dissident René Gómez, the economic support on the part of the United States “is not something that needs to be concealed or that we have to be ashamed of.”

Even the western press recognizes it. France Press agency reports that “dissidents, for their part, defended and accepted that economic aid.” The Spanish agency EFE refers to the «opponents paid by the United States.” And the British Reuters news agency points out: “the US government openly provides federal financial aid for the dissidents’ activities, which is considered by Cuba as an illegal act.” And I could give many more examples.

YS: All that is the Cuban government’s fault, which prevents the economic prosperity of its citizens, which imposes rationing on the population. People have to queue to obtain products. It’s necessary to judge the Cuban government first, which has led thousands of people to accept foreign aid.

SL: The problem is that dissidents commit a crime that Cuban law and all penal codes in the world severely punish. Being financed by a foreign power is a serious crime in France and in the rest of the world.

YS: We can admit that the fact of financing an opposition is proof of interference, but…

SL: But in this case the people you describe as political prisoners are not political prisoners, since they committed a crime when they accepted money from the United States, and Cuban law condemned them on that basis.

YS: I think that this government interfered many times in the internal affairs of other countries, financing rebel movements and the guerrilla. It intervened in Angola and…

SL: Yes, but it was a matter of helping pro-independence movements against Portuguese colonialism and South Africa’s segregationist regime. When South Africa invaded Namibia, Cuba intervened to defend that country’s independence. Nelson Mandela publicly thanked Cuba for that and was the reason for which he made his first trip to Havana and not to Washington or Paris.

YS: But many Cubans died for that, far from their land.

SL: Yes, but it was for a noble cause, whether in Angola, the Congo or Namibia. The battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 made it possible to put an end to Apartheid in South Africa. That’s what Mandela says! Aren’t you proud of that?

YS: OK, but at the end of the day it’s my country’s interference abroad what bothers me more than anything else. It’s necessary to decriminalize prosperity.

SL: Even the fact of receiving money from a foreign power?

YS: People have to be economically autonomous.

SL: If I understand correctly, you advocate the privatization of certain sectors of the economy.

YS: Privatize? No, I don’t like that term, because it has pejorative connotation, but put them in the hands of private people, yes.

Social achievements in Cuba?

SL: It’s a question of semantics then. In your opinion, what are the social achievements of this country?

YS: Every achievement has had an enormous cost. All things that could look positive have had a cost in terms of freedom. My son receives a very indoctrinatory education and he’s taught a History of Cuba that does not correspond to reality at all. I would rather have a less ideological education for my son. On the other hand, nobody wants to be a teacher in this country because salaries are very low.

SL: OK, but that doesn’t prevent Cuba from being the country with the highest number pf professors per inhabitant in the world, with a maximum of 20 students per classroom, which is not the case in France, for example.

YS: Yes, but there was a cost for that, and that’s why education and health are not real achievements to me.

SL: We can’t deny something acknowledged by all international institutions. With regard to education, the illiteracy rate in Latin America is 11.7% and 0.2% in Cuba. The primary education rate is 92% in Latin America and 100% in Cuba, and as for secondary education level is 52% and 99.7%, respectively. These are figures from UNESCO’s Department of Education.

YS: I agree, but in 1959, although conditions were difficult in Cuba, the situation was not that bad. There was a flourishing intellectual life, a political thinking that was alive. Actually, most of the current supposed achievements presented as results of the system were inherent in our idiosyncrasy. Those achievements existed before.

SL: It’s not true; I’m going to quote a source free of any suspicion: a report from the World Bank. It’s a long quote, but it’s worthy to recall.

“Cuba has become internationally recognized for its achievements in the areas of education and health, with social service delivery outcomes that surpass most countries in the developing world and in some areas match first-world standards. Since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, and the subsequent establishment of a communist one-.party government, the country has created a social service system that guarantees universal access to education and health care provided by the State. This model has enabled Cuba to achieve near universal literacy, the eradication of certain diseases, widespread access to potable water and basic sanitation, and among the lowest infant mortality rates and longest life expectancies in the region. A review of Cuba’s social indicators reveals a pattern of almost continuous improvement from the 1960’s through the 1980’s. Several major indices, such as life expectancy and infant mortality, continued to improve during the country’s economic crisis of the 1990’s… Today, Cuba’s social performance is among the best in the developing world, as documented by numerous international sources including the World Health Organization, the United Nations Development Programme and other UN agencies , and the World Bank. According to 2002 World Development Indicators, Cuba far outranks both Latin America and the Caribbean and other lower-middle income countries in major indices of education, health and sanitation.”

Moreover, figures show this. In 1959, infant mortality rate was 60 per every one thousand live births. In 2009, it was 4.8. We’re talking about the lowest rate in the American continent, of the Third World; even lower than that of the United States.

YS: Well, but…

SL: Life expectancy was 58 years before the Revolution. Now, it’s almost 80 years, and it’s similar to that of many developed nations. At present, Cuba has 67,000 doctors, as compared to 6,000 in 1959. According to the English newspaper The Guardian, Cuba has twice the amount of doctors as compared to England, for a population that is four times smaller.

YS: OK, but in terms of freedom of expression there was a reduction with respect to Batista’s government. The regime was a dictatorship but there was a plural and open freedom of the press, radio programs of all political tendencies.

SL: It’s not true. Censorship also existed. Between December, 1956, and January, 1959, during the war against the Batista regime, censorship was imposed for 630 days, out of 759. And opponents were doomed as a rule.

YS: It’s true that there was censorship, intimidation and dead people in the end.

SL: Then you can’t say that the situation was better with Batista, since opponents were assassinated. That’s no longer the case today. Do you think that January 1st is a tragic date in Cuban history?

YS: No, no, not at all. It was a process that aroused a lot of hope, but that betrayed most Cubans. For many people, it was a bright moment, but they put an end to a dictatorship and established another. I’m not as negative as some.

Luis Posada Carriles, the Cuban Adjustment Act and migration

SL: What do you think about Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA agent and responsible for a large amount of crimes in Cuba and whom the United States refuses to trial?

YS: It’s a political issue people are not interested in. It’s a smokescreen.

SL: At least it interests the relatives of the victims. What’s your point of view in this regard?

YS: I don’t like violent actions.

SL: Do you condemn his terrorist acts?

YS: I condemn all terrorist acts, event those committed today in Iraq by an alleged Iraqi resistance that kills Iraqis.

SL: Who kills most Iraqis, the attacks of the resistance or the US bombings?

YS: I don’t know.

SL: A word about the Cuban Adjustment Act that stipulates that Cubans legally or illegally migrating to the United States automatically get the status of permanent resident.

YS: It’s an advantage the rest of the countries don’t enjoy. But the fact that Cubans seek to migrate to the United States is due to the fact that here the situation is difficult.

SL: And also the United States is the richest country in the world. There are also many Europeans immigrants there. You admit that the Cuban Adjustment Act is a wonderful tool of incitement to legal and illegal emigration.

YS: It is, indeed, a factor of incitement.

SL: Don’t you see it as a tool to destabilize society and the government?

YS: In this case we can also say that the fact of giving the Spanish citizenship to descendants of Spaniards born in Cuba is a destabilizing factor.

SL: That’s beside the point, since there are historic reasons for that and besides Spain applies this law to all Latin American countries and not only to Cuba, while the Cuban Adjustment Act is unique in the world.

YS: Yes, but there are strong relations. Baseball is played both in Cuba and in the United States.

SL: And also in the Dominican Republic and there’s no Dominican Adjustment Act.

YS: There is, however, a tradition of rapprochement.

SL: Then, why wasn’t this law approved before the Revolution?

YS: Because Cubans didn’t want to leave their country. At that time, Cuba was a country of immigration and not of emigration.

SL: It’s absolutely false, because in the 1950’s Cuba already ranked second among Latin American countries in terms of the number of migrants to the United States, only after Mexico. Cuba sent more emigrants to the United States than all of Central America and South America together, while today Cuba only occupies the 10th position, in spite of the Cuban Adjustment Act and the economic sanctions.

YS: Maybe, but that obsession of leaving the country did no exist.

SL: Figures show the opposite. Nowadays, I repeat, Cuba only occupies the 10th position in the American continent in terms of migratory emission to the United States. Then, the obsession you’re talking about is stronger in at least nine countries of the continent.

YS: Yes, but at that time Cubans left and returned.

SL: It’s the same things today, since every year Cubans abroad return to spend their vacation here. In addition, before 2004 and before the restrictions imposed by President Bush that limited the trips of Cubans from the US to 14 days every three years, Cubans constituted the minority in the United States that traveled more often to their country of origin, much more than Mexicans, for example, which shows that the vast majority of Cubans in the United States are economic émigrés and not political exiles, since they return to their country for visiting, something a political exile wouldn’t do.

YS: Yes, but ask them if they want to stay to live here again.

SL: But that’s what you did, right? Besides, in July, 2007, you wrote in your blog that your case was not an isolated one. And I quote: “Three years ago [...] in Zurich [...], I decided to return to my country to stay. My friends thought I was joking; my mother refused to accept that her daughter no longer lived in the Switzerland of milk and chocolate.” On August 12, 2004, you showed up before immigration authorities in Havanato explain your case. You wrote: I was surprised when they told me to mark in line, in the queue of ‘those who return’ [...]. So I found, all of a sudden, other ‘crazy people’ like I, each of them with his or her gruesome story of return.” Then, this phenomenon of returning to the country exists.

YS: Yes, but these are people who return for personal reasons. There are some who had debts abroad, others who couldn’t stand living abroad. Well, dozens of reasons.

SL: Then, in spite of difficulties and daily vicissitudes, life is not that terrible here, since some return. Do you think that Cubans have too much of an idyllic vision of life abroad?

YS: That’s due to the propaganda of the regime, which presents life abroad too negatively and that has caused the opposite effect on the people, who have overly idealized the western way of life. The problem is that, in Cuba, emigration for more than eleven months is definitive, when one could live two years abroad and return for a while and then leave again, etc.

SL: Then, if I understand correctly, the problem in Cuba is rather of an economic nature, since people want to leave the country to improve their standard of living.

YS: Many would like to travel and then be able to return but migratory laws don’t allow them. I’m sure that if that were possible many people would emigrate for two years, and then they would return to leave again and return, etc.

SL: There were interesting comments about it in your blog. Several émigrés spoke about their disappointments with respect to the western way of living.

YS: That’s very human. You fall in love with a woman and three months later you lose your enthusiasm. You buy a pair of shoes and two days later you don’t like them any more. Disappointments are part of human nature. The worst thing is that people can’t return.

SL: But people return.

YS: Yes, but only on vacation.

SL: But they have the right to stay all the time they want, even several years, although they lose some advantages related to their status of permanent resident, like the ration card, priority for housing, etc.

YS: Yes, but people can’t stay for several months here, they have their lives abroad, their jobs, etc.

SL: That’s something else, and it’s the same for all émigrés the world over. In any case, they can perfectly return to Cuba whenever they like and stay there all the time they want. The only thing is that if they stay for more than eleven months outside the country they lose some advantages. On the other hand, I find it hard to understand, if reality is so terrible here, if someone has the opportunity to live abroad, in a developed country, why would he or she like to return to live in Cuba again?

YS: For numerous reasons, their family bonds, etc.

SL: Then reality is not that dramatic.

YS: I wouldn’t say that, but some people have better living conditions than others.

SL: What are in your opinion the objectives of the US government with respect to Cuba?

YS: The United States wants a change of government in Cuba, but that’s also what I want.

SL: Then you share a common objective with the United States

YS: Like many Cubans.

SL: I’m not convinced of that, but, why? Why is it a dictatorship? What does Washington want from Cuba?

YS: I believe it’s a geopolitical issue. There’s also the will of the Cuban exile, which is taken into account, and that wants a new Cuba, the well-being of Cubans.

SL: With the imposition of economic sanctions?

YS: It all depends on whom you’re referring to. As for the United States, I think they want to prevent the migratory bomb from exploding.

SL: Is that so? With the Cuban Adjustment Act that incites Cubans to leave their country? That’s not serious. Why don’t they repeal that law then?

YS: I think that the real objective of the United States is to finish with the Cuban government in order to have a more stable space. A lot has been said about David against Goliath to talk about the conflict. But to me the only Goliath is the Cuban government, which imposes control, illegality, low wages, repression, limitations.

SL: You don’t think that US hostility has also contributed?

YS: I not only think it has contributed to it but also that it has become the main argument to say that we live in a besieged fortress and that all dissidence is treason. Actually, I think that the Cuban government fears the disappearance of this confrontation. The Cuban government wants the maintenance of economic sanctions.

SL: Really? Because that’s exactly what Washington says in a somewhat contradictory way, because if that were the case, it should lift the sanctions, thus leaving the Cuban government to stand up to its responsibilities. The excuse of the sanctions to justify problems in Cuba wouldn’t exist.

YS: Every time the United States has tried to improve the situation, the Cuban government has had a counterproductive attitude.

SL: When has the United States tried to improve the situation? Sanctions have been strengthened since 1960, with the exception of the Carter period. It’s difficult then to maintain this discourse. In 1992, the United States voted the Torricelli Law with an extraterritorial reach; in 1996, the Helms-Burton Law, extraterritorial and retroactive; in 2004, Bush adopted new sanctions and increased them in 2006. We can’t say that the United States has tried to improve the situation. Facts show the opposite. Besides, if sanctions are favorable to the Cuban government and it’s only a matter of an excuse, why not eliminate them? Leaders are not the ones who suffer as a consequence of sanctions, but the people.

YS: Obama took a step in that regard, insufficient perhaps, but interesting.

SL: He only eliminated the restrictions Bush imposed on Cubans, which prevented them from travelling to their country for more than 14 days every three years, at the very best, and provided that they had a direct member of their family in Cuba. He even redefined the concept of family. Thus, a Cuban in Florida who only had an uncle in Cuba couldn’t travel to his country because he was not considered to be a “direct” family member. Obama didn’t eliminate all the sanctions imposed by Bush and we didn’t even return to the status that existed under Clinton.

YS: I think the two parties should lower their tone about everything, and Obama has done that. Obama can’t eliminate sanctions, since it takes congressional approval.

SL: But he can alleviate them significantly, by signing simple executive orders, which he refuses to do for the time being.

YS: He’s busy on other issues, like unemployment and the heath reform.

SL: However he took time to respond to your interview.

YS: I’m a fortunate person.

SL: The position of the Cuban government is the following: we don’t have to take steps before the United States since we don’t impose sanctions on the United States.

YS: Yes and the government also says that the United States should not ask for domestic changes, because that’s interference.

SL: That’s the case, right?

YS: Then if I ask for a change it’s also interference?

SL: No, because you’re Cuban and for that reason you have the right to decide the future of your country.

YS: The problem is not who is asking for those changes but the changes in question.

SL: I’m not sure, because as a French citizen I wouldn’t like the Belgian or the German government to interfere with France’s internal affairs. As a Cuban, do you accept that the US government tells you how to govern your country?

YS: If the objective is an aggression to the country, it’s obviously unacceptable.

SL: Do you consider economic sanctions an aggression?

YS: Yes, I consider them an aggression that hasn’t had results and that it’s a mummy of the cold war, that it makes no sense, that it affects the people and that has made the government stronger. But I repeat that the Cuban government is responsible for 80% of the current economic crisis and the remaining 20% is due to the economic sanctions.

SL: Once more, I repeat, it’s exactly the position of the US government and figures show the opposite. If that were the case I don’t think that 187 countries in the world would bother to vote a resolution against the sanctions. This is the 18th consecutive time that the vast majority of the UN member nations declare themselves to be against this economic punishment. If it were marginal issue, I don’t think these nations would bother to vote.

YS: But I’m not a specialist in economics; it’s my personal feeling

SL: What do you advocate then for Cuba?

YS: I think the economy needs to be liberalized. That can’t be done overnight, because it would cause a fracture and social differences that would affect the most vulnerable people. But it has to be done gradually and the Cuban government has the possibility of doing it.

SL: A “sui generis” capitalism, like you say.

YS: Cuba is a sui generis island. We can create a sui generis capitalism.

SL: Yoani Sánchez, thank you for your time and your availability.

YS: Thank you.

Salim Lamrani is a professor in charge of courses at the Paris-Sorbonne -Paris IV University and at the Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée University. He’s a French journalist and a specialist on relations between Cuba and the USA. He has just published lamranisalim


Published response by Yoani:

I don’t enjoy going through life defending myself against attacks, perhaps because I have spent most of it in the crossfire of criticism. I’ve learned that at times it is better to digest the insult and move on, because denigration sullies the one who does it more than the victim. Everything, however, has its limits. It is a very different thing to put words in my mouth that I did not say, as has happened with the interview published by Salim Lamrani in Rebelión. As I started to read it I didn’t note much distortion, but by the second part I couldn’t recognize myself. It’s true that in the introduction he tries to generate an aversion for me in his readers, but it is the right of any interviewer to describe how he sees the object of his questions.

The big surprise has been noted, in the way in which he presents the text: enormous omissions, distortions and even invented phrases attributed to me. It would have been just another attempt, among many thousands, to attribute to me positions I don’t share and declarations I never made, if it weren’t for the fact that the official Cuban media was prepared to quickly echo the rearranged interview. Yesterday, when I saw the presenter of the most boring program on official television refer, without ever mentioning my name, to a series of questions that had “stripped me naked,” I began to understand everything. The reason for the adulteration was not haste in transcription nor the desire of the journalist to prove his hypothesis at all cost, even distorting the words of the interviewee to do so. Something major is brewing with this semi-apocryphal text, and I now make a stop along the way in my blog to warn of it.

I have a very vivid memory of that afternoon almost three months ago - curiously Mr. Lamrani has waited all this time to publish our conversation - and of the words we exchanged. I remember his stereotypical questions, at times uninformed about our reality, and with very little resemblance to those, as documented, that he has reworked to appear to be a specialist. I would not characterize myself as one who responds in monosyllables, and I had a hard time finding myself among so much parsimony. As our interchange at the Hotel Plaza advanced, I could sense the sympathy he had for my position growing. In the end, I felt that all the barriers had fallen and he understood that we were not opponents, simply people who saw the same phenomena from different viewpoints. A final hug on his part confirmed it. But, evidently, his discipline for “the cause” was stronger than his journalistic ethics, and the professor from the Sorbonne ended up - visibly in the second part of the interview - falsifying my voice. On his painfully hip iPhone my moderate phrases must have been like a computer virus, eating away at the stereotypes, a call to end the confrontation that people like him prefer to feed.

Presumably one or both of them have a tape which could be made public.
--J McA

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Cuban Medical Aid to Haiti

One of the World’s Best Kept Secrets:Cuban Medical Aid to Haiti


Media coverage of Cuban medical cooperation following the disastrous recent earthquake in Haiti was sparse indeed. International news reports usually described the Dominican Republic as being the first to provide assistance, while Fox News sang the praises of U.S. relief efforts in a report entitled "U.S. Spearheads Global Response to Haiti Earthquake"-a common theme of its extensive coverage. CNN also broadcast hundreds of reports, and in fact one focused on a Cuban doctor wearing a T-shirt with a large image of Che Guevara–and yet described him as a "Spanish doctor".

In general, international news reports ignored Cuba’s efforts. By March 24, CNN for example, had 601 reports on their news website regarding the earthquake in Haiti-of which only 18 (briefly) referenced Cuban assistance. Similarly, between them the New York Times and the Washington Post had 750 posts regarding the earthquake and relief efforts, though not a single one discusses in any detail any Cuban support. In reality, however, Cuba’s medical role had been extremely important-and had been present since 1998.

Cuba and Haiti Pre-Earthquake

In 1998, Haiti was struck by Hurricane Georges. The hurricane caused 230 deaths, destroyed 80% of the crops, and left 167,000 people homeless.[1] Despite the fact that Cuba and Haiti had not had diplomatic relations in over 36 years, Cuba immediately offered a multifaceted agreement to assist them, of which the most important was medical cooperation.

Cuba adopted a two-pronged public health approach to help Haiti. First, it agreed to maintain hundreds of doctors in the country for as long as necessary, working wherever they were posted by the Haitian government. This was particularly significant as Haiti’s health care system was easily the worst in the Americas, with life expectancy of only 54 years in 1990 and one out of every 5 adult deaths due to AIDS, while 12.1% of children died from preventable intestinal infectious diseases.[2]

In addition Cuba agreed to train Haitian doctors in Cuba, providing that they would later return and take the places of the Cuban doctors (a process of "brain gain" rather than "brain drain"). Significantly, the students were selected from non-traditional backgrounds, and were mainly poor. It was thought that, because of their socio-economic background, they fully understood their country’s need for medical personnel, and would return to work where they were needed. The first cohort of students began studying in May, 1999 at the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM).

By 2007, significant change had already been achieved throughout the country. It is worth noting that Cuban medical personnel were estimated to be caring for 75% of the population.[3] Studies by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) indicated clear improvements in the health profile since this extensive Cuban medical cooperation began.


Improvements in Public Health in Haiti, 1999-2007[4]

Health Indicator 1999 2007

Infant Mortality, per 1,000 live births 80 33
Child Mortality Under 5 per 1,000 135 59.4
Maternal Mortality per 100,000 live births 523 285
Life Expectancy (years) 54 61

Cuban medical personnel had clearly made a major difference to the national health profile since 1998, largely because of their proactive role in preventive medicine-as can be seen below.

Selected Statistics on Cuban Medical Cooperation
Dec. 1998-May 2007[5]

Visits to the doctor 10,682,124
Doctor visits to patients 4,150,631
Attended births 86,633
Major and minor surgeries 160,283
Vaccinations 899,829
Lives saved (emergency) 210,852


By 2010, at no cost to medical students, Cuba had trained some 550 Haitian doctors, and is at present training a further 567. Moreover, since 1998 some 6,094 Cuban medical personnel have worked in Haiti. They had given over 14.6 million consultations, carried out 207,000 surgical operations, including 45,000 vision restoration operations through their Operation Miracle programme, attended 103,000 births, and taught literacy to 165,000. In fact at the time of the earthquake there were 344 Cuban medical personnel there. All of this medical cooperation, it must be remembered, was provided over an 11-year period before the earthquake of January 12, 2010.[6]

Cuba and Haiti Post-Earthquake

The earthquake killed at least 220,000, injured 300,000 and left 1.5 million homeless.[7] Haitian PrimeMinister Jean-Max Bellerive described it as "the worst catastrophe that has occurred in Haiti in two centuries".[8]

International aid began flooding in. It is important to note the type of medical aid provided by some major international players. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), for example, an organization known for its international medical assistance, flew in some 348 international staff, in addition to the 3,060 national staff it already employed. By March 12 they had treated some 54,000 patients, and completed 3,700 surgical operations.[9]

Canada’s contribution included the deployment of 2,046 Canadian Forces personnel, including 200 DART personnel. The DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team) received the most media attention, as it conducted 21,000 consultations-though it should be noted they do not treat any serious trauma patients or provide surgical care. Indeed, among the DART personnel, only 45 are medical staff, with others being involved in water purification, security, and reconstruction. In total, the Canadians stayed for only 7 weeks.[10]

The United States government, which received extensive positive media attention, sent the USNS "Comfort", a 1,000-bed hospital ship with a 550-person medical staff and stayed for 7 weeks, in which time they treated 871 patients, performing 843 surgical operations.[11] Both the Canadian and US contributions were important-while they were there.

Lost in the media shuffle was the fact that, for the first 72 hours following the earthquake, Cuban doctors were in fact the main medical support for the country. Within the first 24 hours, they had completed 1,000 emergency surgeries, turned their living quarters into clinics, and were running the only medical centers in the country, including 5 comprehensive diagnostic centers (small hospitals) which they had previously built. In addition another 5 in various stages of construction were also used, and they turned their ophthalmology center into a field hospital-which treated 605 patients within the first 12 hours following the earthquake.[12]

Cuba soon became responsible for some 1,500 medical personnel in Haiti. Of those, some 344 doctors were already working in Haiti, while over 350 members of the "Henry Reeve" Emergency Response Medical Brigade were sent by Cuba following the earthquake. In addition, 546 graduates of ELAM from a variety of countries, and 184 5th and 6th year Haitian ELAM students joined, as did a number of Venezuelan medical personnel. In the final analysis, they were working throughout Haiti in 20 rehabilitation centers and 20 hospitals, running 15 operating theatres, and had vaccinated 400,000. With reason Fidel Castro stated, "we send doctors, not soldiers".[13]

A glance at the medical role of the various key players is instructive.

Comparative Medical Contributions in Haiti by March 23[14]

MSF Canada United States Cuba
No. of Staff
3,408 45 550 1,504

No. of Patients Treated
54,000 21,000 871 227,143

No. of Surgeries
3,700 0 843 6,499

These comparative data, compiled from several sources, are particularly telling as they indicate the significant (and widely ignored) medical contribution of the Cubans. In fact, they have treated 4.2 times the number of patients compared with MSF (which has over twice as many workers, as well as significantly more financial resources), and 10.8 times more than the Canadian DART team. (As noted, Canadian and US medical personnel had left by March 9). Also notable is the fact that the Cuban medical contingent was roughly three times the size of the American staff, although they treated 260.7 times more patients than U.S. medical personnel. Clearly, there have been significant differences in the nature of medical assistance provided.

It is also important to note that approximately one-half of the Cuban medical staff was working outside the capital, Port-au-Prince, where there was significant damage as well. Many medical missions could not get there, however, due to transportation issues. Significantly, the Cuban medical brigade also worked to minimize epidemics by making up 30 teams to educate communities on how to properly dispose of waste, as well as how to minimize public health risks. Noted Cuban artist Kcho also headed a cultural brigade made up of clowns, magicians and dancers, supported by psychologists and psychiatrists, to deal with the trauma experienced by Haitian children.

Perhaps most impressively, following the growing concern for the health of the country, due to a poor and now largely destroyed health care system Cuba, working with ALBA (the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América) countries, presented to the WHO an integral program to reconstruct the health care system of Haiti. Essentially, they are offering to rebuild the entire health care system. It will be supported by ALBA and Brazil, and run by Cubans and Cuban-trained medical staff. This is to include hospitals, polyclinics, and medical schools. In addition, the Cuban government has offered to increase the number of Haitian students attending medical school in Cuba. This offer of medical cooperation represents an enormous degree of support for Haiti.[15] Sadly, this generous offer has not been reported by international media.

While North American media might have ignored Cuba’s role, Haiti has not. A pointed remark was made by Haitian President Mr. René Préval, who noted, "you did not wait for an earthquake to help us".[16] Similarly, Haiti’s Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive has also repeatedly noted that the first three countries to help were Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

Sadly (but not surprisingly), while Cuba’s efforts to assist Haiti have increased, international efforts have continued to dwindle. The head of the Cuban medical mission, Dr. Carlos Alberto García, summed up well the situation just two weeks after the tragedy: "many foreign delegations have already begun to leave, and the aid which is arriving now is not the same it used to be. Sadly, as always happens, soon another tragedy will appear in another country, and the people of Haiti will be forgotten, left to their own fate". Significantly, he added "However we will still be here long after they have all gone."[17] This in fact has been the case. Canadian forces, for example, returned home and the USNS Comfort sailed several weeks ago. By contrast, Cuban President Raúl Castro noted: "we have accompanied the Haitian people, and we will continue with them whatever time is needed, no matter how many years, with our very modest support".[18]

A representative of the World Council of Churches to the United Nations made the telling comment that "humanitarian aid could not be human if it was only publicized for 15 days".[19] Today Cuba, with the support of ALBA and Brazil, is working not to build a field hospital, but rather a health care system. And, while international efforts have been largely abandoned, the Cuban staff and Cuban-trained medical staff will remain, as they have done for the past 11 years, for as long as necessary. This is a story that international media have chosen not to tell-now that the television cameras have gone. Yet it is an extraordinary story of true humanitarianism, and of great success in saving lives since 1998. Moreover, in light of Cuba’s success in providing public health care (at no cost to the patients) to millions of Haitians, this approach to preventive, culturally sensitive, low cost and effective medicine needs to be told. That significant contribution to this impoverished nation, and Cuba’s ongoing commitment to its people, clearly deserve to be recognized. Until then it will sadly remain as one of the world’s best- kept secrets.

Emily J. Kirk will be an M.A. student in Latin American Studies at CambridgeUniversity in September.

John Kirk is a professor of Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University, Canada. Both are working on a project on Cuban medical internationalism sponsored by Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Professor Kirk co-wrote with Michael Erisman the 2009 book "Cuba’s Medical Internationalism: Origins, Evolution and Goals" (Palgrave Macmillan). He spent most of February and March in El Salvador and Guatemala, accompanying the Henry Reeve Brigade in El Salvador, and working with the Brigada Medica Cubana in Guatemala.


[1] "Audit of USAID/HAITI Hurricane Georges Recovery Programme". USAID. 15 May, 2001. Retrieved 10 March, 2010 from

[2] See entry for "Haiti" on the Pan American Health Organization website, found at http://www.paho.org/english/dd.ais/cp_332.htm. Accessed February 2, 2010.

[3] William Steif, "Cuban Doctors Aid Strife-Torn Haiti." The State. April 26, 2004, and found athttp://havanajournal.com/culture/entry/cuban_doctors_aid_strife_torn_haiti/Accessed June 21, 2007.

[4] See entry for "Haiti" on the Pan American Health Organization website, found at http://www.paho.org/english/dd/ais/cp_332.htm. Accessed February 2 2010.

[5] Anna Kovac, "Cuba Trains Hundred of Haitian Doctors to Make a Difference," August 6, 2007. Located on the MEDICC website athttp:www.medicc.org/cubahealthreports/chr-article.php?&a=1035. Accessed February 2, 2010.

[6] Ibid., "Haitian Medical Students in Cuba". Medical Education Cooperation With Cuba. 12 January, 2010. Retrieved 12 January, 2010 from , "La colabaración cubana permanecerá en Haití los años que sean necesarios", Cubadebate. 24 February, 2010. Retrieved 9 March, 2010 from , "Fact Sheet: Cuban Medical Cooperation With Haiti". Medicc Review. 15 January, 2009. Retrieved 2 February, 2010 fromhttp://www.medicc.org/ns/index.php?s=104.

[7] "Haiti Earthquake: Special Coverage". CNN. 20 March, 2010. Retrieved 22 March, 2010 from

[8] Tyler Maltbie, "Haiti Earthquake: The Nations That Are Stepping Up To Help", The Christian Science Monitor, Posted January 14, 2010 onhttp://www.csmonitor.com/layout/set/print/content/view/print273879. Accessed January 28, 2010.

[9] "Two Months After the Quake, New Services and New Concerns". MSF. 12 March, 2010. Retrieved 17 March, 2010 from

[10] "Canada’s Response to the Earthquake in Haiti: Progress to Date". Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. March 17, 2010. Retrieved 17 March, 2010 from

[11] "USNS Comfort Completes HaitiMission, March 9, 2010". American Forces Press Service. 9 March, 2010. Retrieved 11 March, 2010 from

[12] John Burnett, "Cuban Doctors Unsung Heroes of Haitian Earthquake", National Public Radio report, January 24, 2010, and found athttp://www.npr.org/templates/story.ph?storyID=122919202. Accessed 28 January, 2010.

[13] José Steinsleger. "Haiti, Cuba y la ley primera," La Jornada, February 3, 2010., Data in this section came from the address given by Ambassador Rodolfo Reyes Rodríguez on January, 27, 2010 inGeneva at the 13th Special Session of the U.N. Human Rights Council on Haiti. It can be accessed at "Cuba en Ginebra: ‘Ante tan difícil situación humanitaria en Haití no puede haber titubeos ni indiferencia," on the Cubbadebate website:

[14] Connor Gorry. "Two of the 170,000 + Cases". Medicc Review. March 8, 2010. Retrieved 10 March, 2010 from , "Cooperación con Haití debe ser a largo plazo." Juventud Rebelde. 23 March, 2010. Retrieved March 23, 2010 from , "Haiti: Two Months After The Quake, New Services and New Concerns". MSF. 12 March, 2010. Retrieved 17 March, 2010 from http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/news/article_print.cfm?id=4320>, "Haiti-USNS Comfort Medical And Surgical Support". U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 11 March, 2010. Retrieved 11 March, 2010 from , Brett Popplewell. "This HaitianTown Is Singing Canada’s Praise". The Star. 26 January, 2010. Retrieved 17 March from , "USNS Comfort Leaves Haiti". 13 News. 11 March, 2010. Retrieved 11 March, 2010 from

[15] In a March 27, 2010 meeting in Port-au-Prince between President Préval and the Cuban and Brazilian ministers of health (José Ramón Balaguer and José Gomes), details were provided about what Balaguer termed "a plot of solidarity to assist the Haitian people". Gomes added "We have just signed an agreement-Cuba, Brazil and Haiti-according to which all three countries make a commitment to unite our forces in order to reconstruct the health system in Haiti. An extraordinary amount of work is currently being carried out in terms of meeting the most basic and most pressing needs, but now it is necessary to think about the future [.] Haiti needs a permanent, quality healthcare system, supported by well-trained professionals [.] We will provide this, together with Cuba-a country with an extremely long internationalist experience, a great degree of technical ability, great determination, and an enormous amount of heart. Brazil and Cuba, two nations that are so close, so similar, now face a new challenge: together we will unite our efforts to rebuild Haiti, and rebuild the public health system of this country". See "Cuba y Brasil suman esfuerzos con Haití," Juventud Rebelde, March 28, 2010 (Translation to English provided by authors).

[16] "Presidente Preval agradece a Fidel y Raúl Castro ayuda solidaria a Haití". 8 February, 2010. Retrieved 9 February, 2010 from

[17] María Laura Carpineta, "Habla el jefe de los 344 médicos cubanos instalados en Haití desde hace doce años". Página 12 [Argentina]. February 4, 2010, found at CUBA-L [18] Ibid. [19] "Press Conference on Haiti Humanitarian Aid," held at the United Nations on March 23, 2004 and found at htto://www.un.org/News/briefings/docs/2004/CanadaPressCfc.doc.htm. Accessed November 21, 2008.

This commentary was written for Cuba-L Analysis and CounterPunch.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Corruption: The true counter-revolution?

By Esteban Morales

From the UNEAC website

When we closely observe Cuba's internal situation today, we can have no doubt that the counter-revolution, little by little, is taking positions at certain levels of the State and Government.

Without a doubt, it is becoming evident that there are people in positions of government and state who are girding themselves financially for when the Revolution falls, and others may have everything almost ready to transfer state-owned assets to private hands, as happened in the old USSR.

Fidel said that we ourselves could put an end to the Revolution and I tend to think that, among other concerns, the Commander in Chief was referring to the questions relative to corruption. Because this phenomenon, already present, has continued to appear in force. If not, see what has happened with the distribution of lands in usufruct in some municipalities around the country: fraud, illegalities, favoritism, bureaucratic slowness, etc.

In reality, corruption is a lot more dangerous than the so-called domestic dissidence. The latter is still isolated; it lacks an alternative program, has no real leaders, no masses. But corruption turns out to be the true counter-revolution, which can do the most damage because it is within the government and the state apparatus, which really manage the country's resources.

Otherwise, let us look at something very simple. When is there powdered milk in the black market (which has been rising in price to 70 pesos per kilogram)? When the powdered milk reaches the state-owned warehouses. There's no better example than that. And so it is with the products acquired in the black market by part of a majority of the population. In other words, at the expense of the state's resources, there is an illegal market from which everyone benefits, except the State.

And what can you tell me about the street vendors, outside the large hard-currency stores, offering to sell everything. It is a corruption in which almost everyone participates, generated by the corruption of state functionaries. Because, as far as we know, in Cuba there is only one importer – the State. I don't think that what comes in the packages from Miami can generate a market that big, much less a market of lasting products.

Observe, too, the movement of pork meat from state-run stores to private outlets, the prices of beverages and water sold at the various tourism chains. The suspicious differences in prices that we stumble on so frequently.

In other words, it is evident that there is an illegal flow of products between the state's wholesale trade and the street commerce. An entire underground economy that the State is unable to control and will be impossible to set aright as long as the big imbalances between supply and demand that today characterizes our economy exists.

This economy is, then, a form of counter-revolution that does have concealed leaders, offers alternatives to the State's offerings, and has masses that practice it.

But the situation sketched above is not the most dangerous part of the affair we are now dealing with. That's only its popular surrounding.

What was recently learned regarding the weaknesses of a group of functionaries at a very high level – having to do with favoritism, the buddy system, certain acts of corruption and carelessness in the handling of sensitive information, as well as some evidence of a struggle for power waged by those functionaries – was information that, lamentably, was passing into the hands of the Spanish intelligence services, even though those services were very careful not to enlist the officials' participation. Those are extremely serious matters.

In other words, matters as sensitive as the hunger and hope for power, favoritism, corruption and unseemly statements about the country's top leadership, which were already known by the foreign special services. A real “political merchandise” with extremely high added value in the hands of the enemies of the Revolution.

When the Cuban government turned over to the FBI all the information it had about the activities of the counter-revolution in the United States, activities that included even the possibility of assassination attempts against the U.S. president, what did the FBI do? Instead of taking steps against the counter-revolution, instead of acting against the Cuban-American Mafia, they sought to find out, like hound dogs, where the information that Cuba had given them came from, what were the sources. And there we have our five devoted, heroic compatriots who have spent more than 11 years serving unjust sentences in U.S. prisons.

After the statements made by Fidel about how we ourselves can destroy the Revolution, about the existence of reasons to think that our Revolution may be reversible, what the U.S. special services must be doing is looking for information that corroborates Fidel's concerns.

They're looking for confirmation for the words of the Commander in Chief, watching closely what happens every day in Cuba, digging into everything that may allow them to find out where is the real counter-revolutionary force in Cuba, a force that can topple the Revolution, a force that appears to be not below but above, in the very levels of government and the state apparatus.

It is formed by the corrupt officials, not at all minor, who are being discovered in very high posts and with strong connections – personal, domestic and external – generated after dozens of years occupying the same positions of power. Note than none of the men “defenestrated” until now (at least since Trials 1 and 2) was a simple employee.

Very recently, General Acevedo, director of the IACC (Institute of Civil Aeronautics of Cuba) was removed, and what is making the rounds in unofficial circles about the reasons for his ouster is enough to keep people awake at nights.

There must be some truth in what they say, because this is a very small and familial country. The affair still has not had an exhaustive public explanation, as the people expect, because – if it's like the rumors say – the people's money and resources were squandered amid an economic situation that's quite critical to the country. So, either to vindicate Acevedo or to condemn him, you have to explain it to the people, the people the Revolution has created and formed, technically and scientifically, and who are prepared and with sufficient ability.

In reality, I must say, as a hypothesis, that what happened in the IACC is not unique. It has been discovered in other places and there may still be companies where the same is happening, i.e., where the chiefs are receiving commissions and opening bank accounts in other countries. Which is a working theory valid enough to open other investigations so that such affairs will not catch us by surprise. In economics, there is a “surprise audit” that is not meant to offend anyone and should not annoy anyone. To audit is not to offend; it is a mechanism of precaution that contributes to honesty.

An element we mustn’t fail to consider is that the focus of the United States' policy toward Cuba changed long ago (1986-1994). Today, basic attention is paid to Cuba's domestic reality. It is not an absolute orientation but it is fundamental and prioritized. Everything that's happening domestically in Cuba is being observed, monitored by the American politicians and particularly by the U.S. special services.

For obvious reasons that need not be explained, the Americans know better than us what Cubans and how many Cubans have bank accounts abroad. Who receive commissions and what business they're in. Because all the companies with which Cuba does business have intelligence apparatuses and almost all of them coordinate with the U.S. services. And if they don't, there are officials who, as soon as they get hold of sensitive information about Cuba, link up with the American services, which, by the way, pay handsomely for that information.

What's most lamentable is that the American services are better informed than we are about all the possible movements of our businessmen. And that's information that, if left to run, in other words, accumulate, is an excellent conduit for bribery, blackmail and the recruiting of any Cuban official. This doesn't mean it always works; there may be someone who becomes corrupt but doesn't allow himself to be recruited, because it is a very subtle matter. But whoever turns to corruption to enrich himself will find it difficult to retain other values.

Any Cuban functionary who, in his relations with any foreign enterprise, becomes corrupt, should know that that information could fall into the hands of the special services of any country, and from there to the hands of the American services it's but an instant. A dossier is immediately opened, and it is filled with information until it is considered necessary or pertinent to subject that functionary to bribery, blackmail or recruitment.

This is not being paranoid. Only fools fail to realize that any sensitive information about Cuba, its activities abroad or regarding any Cuban functionary, that is considered to be useful is very well paid by the special services of the United States. And if we don't know this by now, we're finished.

It is, then, a covert area of the subversion against Cuba that, particularly in the medium and long run, produces very good political dividends. It is an area of the counter-revolution that has nothing to do with the so-called dissidence, the piddling groups or the ill-called “ladies in white.”

Observe how the weaknesses of some Cuban functionaries were being transferred to the Spanish intelligence services. Cubans in the FAR and the MININT involved in drug trafficking. Discovered by Cuba in 1989, but that was already privileged information in the hands of the DEA, the FBI and the rest of the American special services.

Actions of that type seriously affect the ability of the country to press forward. It is as clear as a mathematical algorithm that the ability of any nation to deal with international confrontation is measured, in the first place, by its internal fortitude.

If at least Cuba could discover its corrupt officials early, the damage could be slighter.

Esteban Morales, a Cuban academician, is honorary director of the U.S. Studies Center at the University of Havana.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cuban Environmentalist Wins Award

Cuban scientist wins U.S.-based environmental prize
Mon Apr 19, 2010 8:02am BST

By Jeff Franks

HAVANA (Reuters) - A singing scientist who says the key to Cuba's agricultural future lies in its agrarian past has become the first Cuban to win a U.S.-based Goldman Environmental Prize, the world's biggest award for grassroots environmentalism.

Humberto Rios, 46, was announced as a prize winner on Monday in San Francisco along with five other activists from around the world. They will each receive $150,000, a huge sum in Cuba where the average annual salary is equivalent to $240.

Rios said the award initially was met with suspicion by his government because it came from the United States, Cuba's longtime ideological foe. But Cuban officials eventually embraced it and he hopes it contributes to improving U.S.-Cuba relations.

"I think there's a new vision, which is to cool a little bit the hostile environment," he said. "I think we have common problems -- maybe different solutions, but also common solutions," he told Reuters recently.

He will use his prize money for such things as house repairs, but some will go toward funding his work, Rios said.

The prize was begun in 1990 by philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman to encourage environmental protection.

Rios won for his work promoting a return to more traditional farming techniques focusing on seed diversity, crop rotation and the use of organic pest control and fertilizers to both increase crops and improve the communist-led island's environment.

Rios is also a musician and has found music to be a useful tool in spreading his message. At local events, he sings folk and salsa songs that promote biodiversity and good environmental practices -- "Recycle, papi, recycle" is one -- and get the farmers dancing in the fields.

Traditional farming methods fell out of favor in Cuba as agriculture, dominated by sugar production, became industrialized in the last half of the 20th century, particularly after the Soviet Union took the island under its wing following Cuba's 1959 revolution.

Flooded with pesticides and fertilizers from the Soviet bloc nations, Cuba in the 1980s became the highest-per-capita user of agrochemicals in Latin America.

At the same time, farmers, dependent on the government for seeds and supplies, had little choice in what they could grow.


When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba was stuck with an agricultural system dependent on agrochemicals it could no longer get and an environment damaged by their heavy use.

Rios, then a doctoral student in agricultural sciences, began to see positive results as farmers, out of necessity, turned to traditional ways. In the late 1990s he launched a program to encourage their broader use.

His biggest emphasis, he told Reuters in a recent interview, was to simply give farmers more seed choices and to let them, not distant bureaucrats and scientists, decide which ones to use.

He began organizing "seed fairs" in farming communities where farmers could choose from a broad selection of seeds. They were encouraged to share information on the results so that each farm became a micro-experimental station.

The key was that farmers chose seeds suited to their specific conditions, he said, instead of everyone getting the same ones.

In different regions of the island, "the criteria for seed selection are completely different," Rios said.

He said yields began doubling and tripling, and soil damaged by years of overuse and chemicals began to recuperate as crops were rotated and agrochemicals abandoned.

"When you use a diversified system, over the years it increases the amount of protein per area, the amount of vitamins per area, it diminishes the amount of work per area and above all, it increases the smiles of the people," he said.

He says 50,000 farmers are involved in his Program for Local Agricultural Innovation, which is backed by the National Institute of Agricultural Sciences, but much work remains.

Most land and agriculture is under state control in Cuba, but the island has 250,000 small farmers and 1,100 private cooperatives who, together, produce 70 percent of agricultural output on less than a third of the available land.

Cuba is dependent on imports for most of its basic foods, which drains its fragile economy and has forced President Raul Castro to put more land in private hands and -- as Rios advocates -- decentralize decision-making to local levels.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)