By Stephen Goode | [url=http://www.InsightMag.com]http://www.InsightMag.com[/url]
Frank Calzon is executive director of the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba, established in 1997 to gather and disseminate information about Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The center has grants from the National Endowment for Democracy and the Agency for International Development.
“What we try to do is to do everything we can to help the victims of oppression within Cuba,” Calzon tells Insight. The center publishes tiny editions of anticommunist classics such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm (“100 can fit easily in a suitcase,” Calzon says) that are smuggled into Cuba. The center also sends books to the island containing the speeches made by Pope John Paul II during his visit to Cuba and about the transition from dictatorship to democracy experienced in countries such as Spain and Chile and about the role of the labor movement in undermining Communist Poland.
The foundation publishes a glossy quarterly, Cuba Brief, which carries articles by leading experts on the island nation and includes such newsletters as Special Report and FYI. A second organization, Of Human Rights, which Calzon founded years ago, works out of the center’s offices to provide “humanitarian assistance to families of political prisoners in Cuba.”
Insight: What’s happening in Cuba right now?
Frank Calzon: Cuba is going through an economic crisis that really began in the 1960s but became worse in 1989 when Soviet subsidies ended. Some people blame the U.S. embargo for the shortages, but they have to answer a very basic question: Why is it that a tropical island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea has shortages of mangoes or tomatoes or vegetables of any kind?
Of course the answer is that the shortages are due to the same reason that there were huge shortages in the Soviet Union, Poland, the Czech Republic. It is the idea that a command economy and the government can control all of society, including all economic activities.
Cuba, by the way, received more assistance from the Soviet Union than some European countries received after World War II under the Marshall Plan, and yet Cuba has nothing to show for any of that. During those 30 years, the Soviets paid a high price for Cuban sugar and sold Cuban oil at a huge discount - so much so that Castro, by saving oil and reselling it, was making more money from the sale of oil in some years than from sugar.
Insight: We also hear a lot about embargo-caused shortages of vital medicines in Cuba.
FC: Castro goes around saying there’s a shortage of medicine in Cuba, a shortage, for example, of vitamin C. Well, if the farmers were allowed to grow and sell as many oranges as they could, there would be no need for Castro to be asking the world for vitamin C!
Castro continues to say that Cuban children lack medicine because of the embargo. Yet the Cuban government has an organization called Servimed. You can see what that is if you go to the Cuban government Website. You’ll see that they have lists of their hospitals and at most of them there are 22 rooms or 18 rooms or whatever that have been set aside for health tourism.
Now in these rooms there are no shortages. When a European or a South American goes to Cuba and pays dollars for an operation, he has air-conditioning and all the medicine and food that is required. Castro wants the dollars.
But if you go onto the next floor where Cuban patients are treated, you’ll find that they’re sometimes required to bring lightbulbs or sheets or pillowcases and that there is no medicine.
It is true that Castro has built clinics and hospitals. But [Fulgenico] Batista also built many hospitals - yet no one justifies the Batista dictatorship on that basis.
Insight: What else should we know about Cuba that we perhaps don’t know?
FC: Every couple of years you’ll see an article in the major newspapers when an important person goes to Cuba and Castro releases a handful of prisoners. So that makes the front page of the papers!
But I don’t remember, with the exception of the media in South Florida, seeing articles on the front pages of most U.S. newspapers saying Castro sends hundreds of thousands of people to prison or reporting on the trials of political dissidents or on the hunger strikes of political prisoners. The American people hear about the political prisoners when Castro sets them free, but one never hears when he sends them to jail.
Insight: Were you unhappy with the exchange of baseball teams and games between the United States and Cuba this year?
FC: No one can be against baseball! What’s wrong with playing ball? But here again the American people were misled because the exercise was presented as people-to-people diplomacy. This was the way the Clinton administration explained it.
I guess one has to define what the word “people” means here in Washington these days, because in Cuba the game was organized so that only those who were members of the Communist Party or what the Cuban government calls “mass organizations” were given tickets. So in order to go to the game in Cuba you had to be a supporter of the government. It’s as though only Democrats or Republicans could have attended the game when it was held in Baltimore.
Insight: Have the four decades of Castro been all bad?
FC: I’m not saying the revolution has not done a number of good things. It has. It’s true now that more Cubans read and write. The literacy rate in 1959 was very high, something like 86 percent. After 40 years, according to the Cuban government, there is almost complete literacy, which is good. But the other side of the coin is that the people go to prison for reading the wrong books or writing the wrong things. So the question is, “Is the price the Cuban people have had to pay too high?”
If you argue that the people are better off, you still have to recognize that reading books such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm or [Alexander] Solzhenitsyn’s books, let alone books about the Cuban revolution, will get you thrown in jail. A few years ago the Cuban government expelled U.S. diplomats for distributing Animal Farm. Another book that they denounced was a handbook published by the AFL-CIO on how to organize labor unions in Latin America. It was a handbook that was distributed throughout Latin America and nobody else claimed it to be subversive except the Cuban government.
Romania is an interesting example for U.S. policymakers, who ought to review it. It could be said of Romania that it was the most bloody example of what happens when the communist governments of Eastern Europe fell. But at the same time, we should remember that Romania was the one country [of Communist Eastern Europe] that had excellent trade and economic relations with the United States, and yet in that country, where there was more trade with the United States, the transition [after the fall of communism] was more bloody and had more problems than in those countries that had much less trade with the United States.
Insight: What should the United States’ Cuba policy be?
FC: The United States should link any changes in Cuba policy to changes inside Cuba. That is the opposite of what the Clinton administration is doing. Now they’re saying that regardless of what Castro does, the policy of softening the sanctions will continue. The president, for example, has allowed more air travel. Castro’s Cuba will receive millions of dollars out of that change in U.S. policy.
That money is not going to the Cuban people. That money is going to the Cuban government, and the United States is not asking for anything in return. U.S. senators go to Cuba and go through a pro forma speech about their concern for human rights. Nothing happens. There’s no bite. What they should have done is say to Mr. Castro something as simple as, “Why don’t you permit the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Cuban political prisoners?” What’s wrong with that?
Insight: We hear that increased business contacts with Cuba will help.
FC: Part of the problem with Canadian business and now with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is that they in fact become lobbies for the Castro government. Sometimes they will tell you, “If we do business with Cuba, we’ll be bringing human rights to Cuba; there will be a political opening.”
I was a little boy in Cuba in the 1950s and I don’t remember U.S. companies in Cuba having any impact on the repressive nature of the Batista regime. The business of business is business. Its business is not to get involved in the quote unquote internal affairs of other countries.
But one of the unintended consequences is that those businesses operating in Cuba today are lobbying in their own capital cities back home for a softer policy toward Cuba, simply because to speak about the rights of political prisoners and about the lack of basic freedom will cause their businesses to suffer.
BORN: Jan. 29, 1944, Havana.
EDUCATION: B.A., political science, Rutgers University; M.A., political science, Georgetown University.
FAVORITE READING: Pope John Paul II, “whose message is, `Don’t be afraid,’” and Vaclav Havel, whose book The Power of the Powerless, carries the message that “as soon as the people realize that they have all the power, the dictatorship begins to weaken and is on its way out. And I think the process has begun in Cuba, by the way. I think I’ve read everything Havel has written. Those books are very important to people in a place like Cuba.”
ON THE POPE’s CUBAN VISIT: “The Holy Father said the world should open up to Cuba and Cuba should open up to the world. Since then, the world continues to open up to Cuba, but Cuba refuses to open to the world.”