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Posted May 16, 2003 by publisher in Castro's Cuba

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Old age and a crumbling economy have not cooled Fidel Castro’s hatred of the US - or those who lean its way. Caroline Overington in Cuba investigates the ageing dictator’s fierce recent crackdown on dissidents.

Oswaldo Paya is sitting in a wooden rocking chair under a giant portrait of Jesus. As one of Cuba’s leading dissidents, and one of few not in jail, he has agreed to speak to the Herald about Castro’s recent crackdown on those opposed to Cuba’s Marxist regime, but the interview is not going well. “I’m sorry for not bringing an interpreter,” I say. “I couldn’t find anybody that would talk to you.”

And that is true. The Herald tried for days to find a Cuban willing to interpret but, as soon as they discovered that the subject would be politics, none would agree. The first person asked physically backed away, saying: “I could get in trouble.” The second initially agreed to take $US20 ($31) - a month’s wages - for doing the work, but an hour before we were to meet, she rang and said: “I think it’s not a good idea,” before quickly hanging up.

So, for more than two hours, while Paya rocks gently in his chair, we try to talk using his basic English, my appalling Spanish, and a dictionary that his 14-year-old daughter has fetched from her room.

I start with the most obvious question: “Why aren’t you in jail?” This is something that Paya, too, has been wondering about. In recent weeks, just about every other Cuban dissident has been rounded up and sent to jail for 18 to 25 years.

Those jailed include librarians who want to give Cubans access to a range of different books, journalists who want to give Cubans access to newspapers not produced by Castro’s Government and economists who want to crack open Cuba’s socialist system by allowing Cubans to own and operate businesses. Paya expected to join them. During the interview, his eyes keep moving towards the door, as if he expects it to open and police to come flooding in.

“This is the question everybody - all my friends, my family - is asking,” he says. “I don’t know the answer, but I know another question. Why are other people in jail? What have they done? They have not used violence. They have not made the threat of violence. They have simply asked for change.”

When Paya says “they”, he also means “I” because he is a leader of one of the most vocal opposition groups in Cuba. Since 1998, under a project known as Varela, he has been collecting signatures for a petition that asks Castro to allow Cubans to do what most people consider normal: join political parties, vote in multi-party elections and have access to a free media. The project received worldwide attention and Paya was invited to meet the Pope. Last year, the European Union gave him its highest human rights prize and, this year, former Czech president Vaclav Havel has nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. But in Cuba, supporters of Varela have been harassed, sacked from their jobs and thrown into jail.

“Fourteen of our supporters are among the 75 people arrested last month,” Paya says. “We have received a great - how do you say it? - knock. But the Varela project is not dead. It is not paralysed. It lives because it is supported by the people of Cuba, who do not want to live the way they do.” CUBA’s Fidel Castro is the world’s longest-serving leader. It has been 44 years since he led a bloody battle to wrench control of Cuba from the Western gangsters who used to run it and transformed the island into a Soviet-style Marxist state.

With the exception of the US, Castro has been quite successful in getting other nations, and famous people, to support his regime. But the recent crackdown on dissidents, coupled with last month’s execution by firing squad of three men who attempted to hijack a ferry and escape to America, has tested the world’s patience.

In recent weeks, long-time friends of Castro, including the Nobel literature prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, have expressed concern about the crackdown. Marquez noted that while he continues to live in Cuba, he had, in recent years, helped dissidents escape. The US writer Susan Sontag described the mass arrests as an “abuse of power”. Chilean writer Isabel Allende, whose novels are widely available in Cuba, said she “could not approve of what is happening in Cuba”, adding that human rights “must be defended everywhere”.

Formerly friendly nations, including Italy, have moved to consider new sanctions on Cuba. In Washington, the Cuba Policy Foundation, which is the premier lobby for ending the US embargo, decided to cease operations entirely, saying its goal, in the face of the crackdown, was hopeless. Amnesty International has condemned Castro, saying the shooting of the hijackers was “extremely worrying” and made worse because it came “on the heels of mass arrests, summary trials and shockingly lengthy prison terms” for dissidents.

Even Hollywood has been reduced to silent contemplation. Castro has a legendary charisma, and Hollywood stars are among his most fervent supporters. Steven Spielberg once described meeting Castro as “the most important eight hours of my life” and actors Jack Nicholson and Kevin Costner have praised the dictator. But none are speaking up now. HBO, the powerful American television network, had this month intended to show Oliver Stone’s new film about Castro, made after a three-day interview. But because it is largely sympathetic, it was shelved, with the explanation that “in light of recent developments” it was “somewhat incomplete”.

The US Government is, as ever, Castro’s most ferocious critic. The Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has described the crackdown as “the most significant act of political repression in decades” and the President, George Bush, is considering new ways to punish Castro (he will announce them on Tuesday). There is talk in Washington that Bush may end direct flights to the island or try to prevent Cuban-Americans from sending money to their families, a program that pumps $US700 million a year into the Cuban economy.

At the same time, there is much debate over what has prompted Castro to act in this way, just when it seemed that the US was considering easing its embargo and allowing more American companies to trade with Cuba and more Americans to travel there.

Brian Alexander, who was the executive director of the Cuba Policy Foundation before it disbanded, says there are three main theories to explain Castro’s actions. “One is that Castro benefits from the embargo, since he can blame all of Cuba’s economic problems on the US policy, and he was worried about recent polls that show that increasing number of Americans, including Cuban-Americans, want the embargo lifted,” Alexander says.

“There was some movement in Congress. Some people were saying that the embargo punished Cubans more than it punished Castro, and that idea was finally taking hold. But ... long-time watchers of Cuba say that Castro doesn’t want the embargo lifted, because he likes to use American aggression as a way to control the people.

“Number two is the opposite theory: that Castro grew impatient with the

slow pace of US reforms. And the third theory is that the dissident groups were growing in strength and posing a real threat to the regime. Most people would think a few poets speaking up wasn’t much of a problem, but maybe Castro wasn’t prepared to tolerate it any more, and he chose internal security over international public opinion.”

There is a fourth theory, and it comes from Castro. In a speech to the nation after the round-up of dissidents began, the Cuban leader explained that none of the dissidents had been jailed for their ideas, but for conspiring with the US to overthrow his Government. Over several hours, he said that President Bush had won the election by a handful of votes in Florida and he was therefore committed to repaying the powerful, anti-Castro Cuban-American exiles who live in Florida for their support.

“This is obvious to anyone,” Castro said, adding that Bush had appointed an enemy of Cuba, James Cason, to head the US interests section in Havana. “Everything began with the arrival in Cuba of Mr Cason,” he said, adding that the US had been paying members of the opposition and giving them access to books and the internet. “They [the dissidents] are mercenaries who betrayed their homeland,” Castro said.

Castro also blamed the US for encouraging Cubans to escape to America by hijacking planes and ferries (there have been six such hijackings in recent weeks) and said he had three of the perpetrators executed only to deter others and prevent greater loss of life.

The US does not deny - indeed, it is proud to admit - that it was helping the opposition in Cuba (although not the hijackers, which it has promised to punish).

Cason would not be interviewed by the Herald, but in a recent speech to Cuban-Americans in Miami, he said: “It’s true, the US is not a passive observer [of the growing opposition in Cuba]. After all, our goal is the rapid, peaceful transition to democracy. Yes, we gave them books, access to the internet and a place to meet. But [the dissidents] are not our representatives. They are individuals, simply attempting to exercise their rights. They represent the Cuban people, the thousands unable to speak out for themselves.”

CLAUDIA Linares is a 25-year-old Cuban girl trying to develop her skills as a journalist. She wants to write freely, so her work is never published in Cuba, only on the internet after friends email it out of the country.

On March 18, just after the war in Iraq started, Linares was home with her husband, Oswaldo Alfonso Valdes, the leader of the Democratic Labor Party in Cuba, a group that supports multi-party elections, free speech and free enterprise. “At 4pm, there was a knock on the door, and 12 Cuban police were there,” she says. “They stayed for 11 hours. They went all through the house. They took our books, our writing, our articles on Cuba. Then, at 1am, they took my husband to a prison. Now he is in jail for 18 years.”

Blanca Reyes, who is sitting next to Linares, nods quietly. Her story is similar. She is married to Raul Rivera, a writer whose articles have been published in The New York Times. He was also arrested in April and sentenced to 25 years in a prison 400 kilometres from their home.

“He is in a small cell, taking 2000 steps every day, because he has poor circulation,” Reyes said of the man friends warmly call “El Gourda”, or the Fat Man. “But he is in good spirits. He said the guards are respectful to him. But he is indignant about what has happened. This is an injustice.”

Rivera was convicted largely on the testimony of one of his oldest friends and colleagues, a journalist called Victor Baguer. It was not possible to speak to Baguer in Havana because he is on a victory tour of the island, celebrating the arrest of the 75 dissidents, which Cuba is promoting as a massive victory over US attempts to overthrow Castro. For more than 60 years - he is now 80 - Baguer pretended to be an independent journalist, deeply opposed to Castro’s control of the media. In fact, he was a spy.

In interviews with state-run Cuban newspapers, Baguer has admitted that he was a close friend of Rivera’s parents. “I consider him a friend, and I am very sad,” Baguer said of his decision to testify at the trial of a man he had known since he was a boy. “But he deserved it because he chose the road of treason.”

Cuba’s economy collapsed when the Soviet Union disintegrated and the country is now desperately poor. As a tourist, you will be guided away from this reality. Government officials meet all visitors at the airport, then take them in government-owned, air-conditioned taxis to elegant, government-owned, Spanish-era hotels in Old Havana.

Eight blocks back from Old Havana, life is very different. The Cubans here live in crumbling buildings, often without hot water. Regardless of education, each gets roughly the same monthly pay - about $20 - and rations of rice, beans, fish and chicken. In recent years, the rations have been reduced and Cubans will tell you that they do not have enough to eat. Housing, education and health care are free, but the buildings are collapsing, the schools don’t have enough books and medicine is often in short supply.

Public transport is cheap but the service is abysmal. Large trucks, called “camels” because of their unusual, high-backed shape, carry people around the suburbs of Havana like sardines in a can. Elsewhere, people make do by slowly trudging through the humidity or by riding in the backs of trucks.

In the countryside, things are even worse. On our third day in Havana, we hired a car and went to see how the workers in the mandarin fields live. We found families living in humpies with dirt floors. One mother showed us inside her home. Everything was filthy, including the bedding. Nobody had more than the clothes they were wearing, one pair of dirty shorts and a shirt. The house had only part of a sagging roof and, out the back, a hairy black pig was tethered to a tree in the hope that it might produce a litter. Curiously, like every other home in Cuba, there was an old TV, so the family could hear Castro’s speeches.

But not all Cubans live like that. As ever in Communist states, some Cubans are more equal than others. In 1993, Castro made it legal for Cubans to own US dollars. Thus, Cubans who have relatives in the US - and there are more than 700,000 Cuban-Americans - were instantly made wealthy, while everybody else stayed poor.

A thriving black market developed and the pursuit of dollars became a national obsession. Many teachers, biologists and engineers have quit their professions to take on jobs as tour guides for the tips. Others take advantage of any opportunity to ask foreigners for money. One night, walking down one of Havana’s old streets, I encountered a group of Cuban boys, all aged somewhere between five and nine, who were playing bare-chested baseball in a courtyard. It looked like a scene out of a Communist paradise: poor but happy children, playing a spirited game in the streets. As I got closer, one of the boys threw the ball to me. Entranced, I tossed it, but the batter did not strike. Instead, every child on the pitch ran towards me, shouting: “One dollar! One dollar! One dollar!”

On other days, in almost all the streets of Old Havana, I encountered Cubans using the romantic images of their culture to make a few dollars and ease the burden of their poverty. Old women dress up like peasants, in skirts with coloured petticoats, and then sit in the gutter, pretending to puff on long Cuban cigars. Look closely: they never light them, except to blacken the end. They are merely posing for amused tourists, in the hope that some might hand them a buck. In every Western bar, there are old men with 20-year-old, barely-dressed Cuban girls on their arms. In the flea market outside the main tourist hotels, young Cuban mothers carry naked babies against their chests, pleading for tourists to give them some money so they can buy milk.

Fidel Castro does not deny - how could he? - that Cuba is poor and that the people are suffering, but he has always blamed the US embargo, which prohibits trade between the two countries. Indeed, many Americans also blame the embargo for Cuba’s poverty and think the US should have engaged Cuba, like it did Vietnam and China, and let the people take care of domestic politics. The problem with this is that Cuba is free to trade with any other nation on earth. It grows sugar, oranges, tobacco and bananas and it has some oil. It is a vibrant, warm, tropical paradise and tourists love to go there. So why, really, is Cuba poor?

“The real reason?” says Brian Alexander. “Castro mismanages the economy. He’s only ever managed to make enough to feed people. The idea that the US is to blame for Cuba’s problems is just stupid. Our foundation doesn’t support the embargo. We think US companies could benefit if it was lifted. Cubans would also benefit, obviously. But the embargo isn’t why Cuba is poor.”

Perhaps Cuba is poor for the same reason Russians were poor: because free enterprise is banned.

In Havana, young men approach tourists and ask if they are looking for a meal. If they say yes, they take them home so their mothers can serve them a chicken leg, some rice and beans and a glass of rum, in exchange for $10. However, the family is not able to use the $10 to improve the restaurant, or hire a waitress, or expand the menu, or rent the place next door to set up a few more tables, because all these things are banned.

Before he went to jail last month, a leading Cuban free-market economist, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, lamented that Cuba, once so noble, had been reduced to a state with “pockets of fun, reserved only for foreigners”.

“We have become a nation of servants who sing and dance at tables for them,” Chepe said. “If you are an honest party member, you are poor. If you take your clothes off for tourists, you are rich.”

Now that Castro is 76 years old, much thought is being given, both in Cuba and in America, to how and when his reign will end. He has promised to rule until he dies, and there is no reason to think that might be soon. But what happens when he does? Who will take over and what kind of system will be put in place?

Few Cubans would be willing to give up some of the hallmarks of socialism, such as free schools and medical care.

They are proud of the Cuban culture, which is based on sharing. One Cuban told me he never worried if he didn’t have nice clothes to wear, even to a special event. “I still feel pride,” he said, “because I am not my clothes, I am the person inside.”

Even expatriates still get down on their knees and kiss the tarmac when they visit. Hardly any Cubans leave because they loathe Cuba, but because they loathe poverty and crave freedom. No Cuban would support becoming another state of America, which is what Castro says the country will become if the US gets its way. But they are also know the current system is not working.

Upon Castro’s death, his younger brother, Raoul, is likely to assume power. Few people think Raoul has Fidel’s enormous personal charm, and they wonder how he will hold the country together without putting troops on the street.

“We could be talking a new military state,” says a Cuban policy expert at the State Department in Washington. “We could be seeing a bloody uprising. But who knows?”

Oswaldo Paya does not think it will come to that. “What we are seeing, with this crackdown, is the last chapter of this system,” he says, rocking quietly in his chair.

“Many of the dissidents have been jailed, but ordinary Cubans also support change. We cannot go on like this. Nobody has enough to eat. Nobody can live. I see it like a book, and we are on the final chapter. I don’t know how many pages are left. But it is coming to its natural end.”

Paya knows that his continued support of change in Cuba puts him at risk of a long jail sentence, particularly in the current climate. “But I am not deterred,” he says. “I feel I am in God’s hands. If they come for me, to take me to the prison, I will go.

“It really makes no difference. The way we live now, all of Cuba is a prison. We do not live like human beings here. None of us are free.”

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