By ELLIOT WILSON | Barrons
An outspoken dissident argues that lifting the longstanding U.S. trade embargo would quickly undermine the Castro brothers’ power.
A proud, upright figure, Oscar Espinosa Chepe was a young guerrilla leader in Fidel Castro’s army when the rebels came out of the mountains and seized power from the corrupt Fulgencio Batista 50 years ago this January. Twice he rose high in the government, but twice he also challenged official dogma and fell from grace. Now he is a pro-American economist in Havana, living in the shadowlands of the dissident community and telling his life story.
In 1965, Chepe told Fidel Castro that his entire economic policy—collectivizing farmland, relying on Soviet foreign aid and following Marxism to the letter to ensure all Cubans were equally poor—was rubbish. Evidently in a good mood that day, Castro declined to chop off his head, choosing instead to ship off the recalcitrant young man to the west of the island, where he spent three years collecting bat dung in a cave, then shoveling manure on a pig farm. After being politically rehabilitated in the early 1970s, Chepe was let back into the political sheepfold and told to help run the country’s Sugar Ministry.
He became a diplomat and worked on economic and scientific issues for Cuba with Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Hungary, and between 1979 and 1984 he was the economic counselor at the Cuban embassy in Belgrade. But Chepe says Castro noticed him at the embassy during a trip to Belgrade in 1984, remembered him as a “troublemaker” and ordered him home at once. Chepe hasn’t been outside Cuba since. He went to work at the Central Bank of Cuba, where he headed up tourism and domestic trade, before being fired in 1996, again for questioning official economic dogma. He continued writing and studying, and for five years until 2001 he had his own radio show, “Chatting with Chepe,” heard in both Cuba and Miami. He lost the show, and his physical freedom, in one of Cuba’s periodic crackdowns on dissidents. British and American diplomatic pressure gained his release, officially on grounds of ill health, after he had served 19 months of a 20-year sentence. He was in Cuba’s very own Guantanamo Bay prison—a nastier version of the American prison of the same name.
CLEARLY CHEPE IS unrepentant, for he recently talked openly to a foreign journalist in the Comedor de Aguiar, the grandest restaurant in the grandest hotel in Havana, the Nacional. The food there is terrible, as always since the revolution, but the conversation was five-star. His second wife, Miriam, an engaging, attractive woman who speaks English more fluently than her husband, accompanied Chepe, who chomped away on oysters and a rib-eye steak.
Both Chepe and his wife ate easily and talked openly, discussing Cuba’s manifold economic and political woes. What does he think of Castro? “Fidel Castro is just an enormous ego,” says Chepe. “He sees communism not as a movement to aspire to, but as a great tool to accomplish what he wanted to achieve, which is everlasting power and, if possible, to rule the world. He isn’t ideological—he just wants the power.”
How did Castro react when he had his economic wisdom rubbished by an underling? “He didn’t yell, but he was very upset and his voice got very loud and his eyebrows very bushy indeed,” says Chepe. “He told me that I was wrong, and I told him that all I was expressing to him was what I had learned at the University of Havana. Usually people said what Castro wanted to hear. You were supposed to acquiesce, but I was just being honest to my beliefs.”
Three years spent alone among Cuba’s pigs and bats gave Chepe time to think. In the 1970s, he saw the country’s economy falter and start to shrink. Cuba had literally nothing to sell but sugar. Not even the Albanians would buy its shoddily made tractors. “Fidel Castro said we would go beyond capitalism, and we did, but we went in the wrong direction,” says Chepe. “What we got was much worse.”