"Because you can't hug a tree if you can't find one."

3/08/2008

Fidel Castro Resigns

On February 19, after 49 years in power, Fidel Castro retired from the presidency of Cuba. I have been wanting to write some kind of tribute to him. Not because I think he was perfect or he turned Cuba into some kind of Utopia. I know that there are a lot of complaints and controversies surrounding his leadership. Nevertheless, Cuba's achievements under Castro, and his historical significance, can't be denied.

Before the revolution, Cuba was a client state of the US, with an economy based on tourist dollars and export agriculture. All the wealth was concentrated in a few hands and, like other countries in the region, the majority of the population was very poor and largely illiterate. When land and other resources were nationalized, the wealthy were (naturally) disenfranchised. Education and health care, rather than being privileges of the elite, were made available to everyone. Today Cuba has almost universal literacy and more doctors per capita than the US. (Read more here.)

These issues may not seem like such a big deal to people comfortably established in (over)developed countries. To put those achievements in perspective, you have to compare Cuba to other countries in the region, like Haiti. There, illiteracy handicaps 55% of the population, and many lives are lost to diseases and infections that are preventable or can be easily and inexpensively treated elsewhere.

A lot has been written about Cuba's environmental initiatives, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the US imposed trade embargo that left Cuba with little or no access to fuel and other goods. Hundreds of thousands of bicycles were imported (from China) to help solve the transportation crisis when the flow of gasoline was cut off. With petro-chemical fertilizers and pesticides no longer available, organic urban and small-scale agriculture became the norm, enabling Cuba to feed its people despite predictions that the starving masses would overthrow Castro and beg for foreign aid to save them. And most recently, Castro has questioned the techno-fix of transforming food crops into bio-fuels to replace a dwindling global supply of oil. If the policy changes that the US hopes for don't materialize, Cuba is on its way to developing a local, sustainable economy.

The Cuban government has not been perfect. There are rumors of political prisoners and of the silencing of political dissent. But lets not hold Castro to a higher standard than we do with, say, George W. Bush. Remember that no country imprisons a higher percentage of its population than the US. And political dissent here is both actively repressed (ask any activist - or bystander - arrested at a New York demonstration during the Giuliani years) and misrepresented or ignored in the press. If a massive demonstration is happening and the mainstream media only says to avoid midtown because of traffic congestion - dissent is successfully marginalized.

Cuba, meanwhile, offers living proof that the US empire can be resisted, that there are alternatives to the corporate-controlled, neo-liberal economic model. It is a beacon to other countries in the region, and to oppressed people around the world.

7 comments:

Michael Deibert said...

Hello Rejin L,

I was interested to read your posting on the resignation of Fidel Castro after 49 years as the unelected ruler of Cuba, and I have some thoughts on it, if you will indulge me.

When you write that “before the revolution, Cuba was a client state of the US, with an economy based on tourist dollars and export agriculture,” this sentence seems, at least to me, fraught with unintended irony.

How different was it for the democratic aspirations of Cuba’s people when Cuba instead became a one-party client state of the Soviet Union from 1960 until 1991, prompting Che Guevara to famously comment, upon realizing the highly unequal and draconian nature of the economic “assistance” that the Soviet Union was providing to Cuba, that “the Communists were more capitalist that the capitalists?”

Likewise, what is the basis of Cuba’s economy today, if not tourists dollars? The Communist regime educates people and then sends them to work as prostitutes and cab drivers at the service of foreign tourists, as the noted chronicler of Latin America, Alma Guillermoprieto, observed.

When you laud Cuba’s health and education systems and ask readers to put them in perspective with other countries in the region, you chose Haiti, the most devastated economy in the Western Hemisphere, as representative of the region, which (having lived in Haiti for several years and traveled widely in Latin America) it is not.

As The Economist magazine recently noted, “in 1959 Cuba was already one of the five leading countries in Latin America on a variety of socio-economic indicators…Cuba is outranked today in the UN human-development index by democracies such as Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica, while Mexico is not far behind.”

When you write that "there are rumors of political prisoners and of the silencing of political dissent," you understate the case, to put it mildly.

A report earlier this year from Human Rights Watch (http://hrw.org/english/docs/2008/02/19/cuba18102.htm) noted the following:

“For almost five decades, Cuba has restricted nearly all avenues of political dissent. Cuban citizens have been systematically deprived of their fundamental rights to free expression, privacy, association, assembly, movement, and due process of law. Tactics for enforcing political conformity have included police warnings, surveillance, short-term detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions, criminal prosecutions, and politically motivated dismissals from employment. Cuba’s legal and institutional structures have been at the root of its rights violations. The rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement, and the press are strictly limited under Cuban law. By criminalizing enemy propaganda, the spreading of “unauthorized news,” and insult to patriotic symbols, the government curbs freedom of speech under the guise of protecting state security. The courts are not independent; they undermine the right to fair trial by restricting the right to a defense, and frequently fail to observe the few due process rights available to defendants under domestic law.”

And what of the cases of individuals such as Oscar Elias Biscet, the founder and president of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights?

As a result of peacefully advocating for democratic change in Cuba from his perspective as a physician, Biscet was expelled from the Cuban National Health System (1997), evicted from him home (1998), imprisoned (26 times in 1999), released (2002), rearrested and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment (2002, as well).

You can find out more about Dr. Biscet here:

http://www.lawtonfoundation.com/index-2.html

According the press-solidarity group Reporters sans frontières (RSF), Cuba is the world’s second biggest prison for journalists after China, repression of the press is total and there exists an atmosphere of "police violence, summonses and searches by state security agents, and repeated short-term detention."

Cubans are not allowed to criticize the one party system, to use the internet, to travel freely or to organize politically

A recent article in the New York Times - which can be read here http://www.nytimes. com/2008/ 03/06/world/ americas/ 06cuba.html? _r=1&hp&oref= slogin
- was highly instructive about the Communist regime’s continuing desire to keep Cuba’s populace cut off from the rest of the world.

Speaking to young Cubans elsewhere in the Caribbean, I must say that I detected enormous discontent and frustration with the state of affairs that has been left to them by Castro, Castro & co.

I think, this being the state of affairs, and as sharply critical as I am of many aspects of the United States, the contention that “political dissent here is both actively repressed” in comparison with Cuba simply doesn’t stand up to examination, as the existence of unfiltered, highly-critical-of-the-government blogs like yours and my own attest.

Thoughts?

Buena suerte,

MD

Rejin L said...

Michael, thanks for your thoughtful and well informed comment.
A few points in response.

My post glossed over the Soviet years both because I am not as well informed as I should be about those times, and because I am more interested in the present. In how a more independent Cuba is coping with its global isolation.

Second, I compared Cuba to Haiti not because I think Haiti is representative of the region, but because I think like a Haitian. My opinion of Cuba is shaped in part by wondering what Haiti might look like today if Papa Doc had been a communist instead of just a brutal dictator that was supported by the US. Maybe there still would have been political repression. Or, could there have been political participation by an educated and well informed population, and could that have prevented the "democratic process" of periodic elections of corrupt or ineffective governments, followed by disappointment and unrest and massive protests against the government? We'll never know, because the US has too tight a grip on Haiti, and will not tolerate the existence of another government that does not strictly follow Washington's dictates.

And that is another example of the US "managing" political dissent. Our government goes so far as to hand pick the leaders and dictate the policies of other countries. I don't think Fidel Castro ever did that.

daniel said...

Dear Michael,

Cuba's achievements in terms of quality and universal education and healthcare are outstanding even compared with the US, the most powerful and richest country in the world. As for the suppression of individual freedoms, Cuba's transgressions might very well be the proverbial straw when matched to the beam in the US's eye!

The US imprisons more of its population that any country in the world today. "More than 1 in 100 American adults are behind bars. One in nine black men, ages 20 to 34 are serving time, as are 1 in 36 adult Hispanic men," today's New York Times tells in its lead editorial entitled "Prison Nation." How many of these young men – mis-educated in separate and unequal schools, herded for years in violent jails, robbed of their basic civil rights (the right to vote, etc.) – how many would you say are real criminals, and how many are sitting in jail as members of an oppressed minority? Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have written extensively about the US prison/industrial complex. We're not even talking about Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, secret prisons, rendition and torture.

The US is not perfect but it's not a Gulag, you might say. Which is the point I thought the blog was making about Cuba. As you travel from Haiti to Kinshasa, from New York City to Mumbai, I think you will find that Bush/Cheney and their Superpower America project are the real villains in the world today, and that on balance people who oppose injustice, imperialist aggression and the destruction of our environment, look on Castro and the Cuban revolution as sources of inspiration.

Daniel Simidor

Michael Deibert said...

Hi Rejin and Daniel and thanks for your responses. Allow me to respond.

Rejin, I don’t think, with foreign (capitalist) investment and foreign tourists flooding into the country, that it is accurate to speak of Cuba’s isolation as if it were imposed from the outside, despite the onerous and stupid U.S trade embargo. The chief cause of Cuba’s isolation has been the actions of the Castro government itself, in its denial of basic liberties such as freedom of movement, freedom to information (such as the internet) and freedom of association to its own citizens. If anyone is “coping,” I would argue that it is the ordinary Cuban coping with the absurd hurdles that the one-party state has put in front of their chances to be fully-engaged citizens of the world.

From my own experience in Haiti, for its part, despite the nefarious role the U.S. (and other countries) have often played there, I believe it is far too simple to blame successive U.S. administrations alone for Haiti’s woes. Thousands of Haitians took part in the repressive apparatus set up by Duvalier, Namphy, the 1991-94 junta and later the second regime of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, at the expense of millions of their countrymen. And during Haiti’s brief interims of relative peace (the tenures of René Préval, 1996-2001 and 2006-present) I have watched Haiti’s politicians time and again behave like a bunch of clowns suffering from gwo neg syndrome, relentlessly politicking and jockeying for advantage over one another rather than attempting in any sustained way to address the legitimate desires (and desperate needs) of Haiti’s poor majority. It’s political theater at its most cynical. So I would argue that there is more than enough blame to go around for Haiti’s sad current state.

Daniel, if I read you correctly, you scoff at the price paid by Cuba’s people for 50 years of uninterrupted, totalitarian rule, but in all honesty I think this is a luxury you have precisely because it is a regime you don’t have to live under. It’s easy to look at Castro and Cuba as sources of inspiration when living in Brooklyn, quite another thing when you are born into the system that the Castro brothers have put into place on the island. The young Cubans I have spoken with in the Caribbean are not members of the Miami right-wing but rather young, educated people who almost without exception spoke in scathingly critical terms of the economic ignorance and idolatrous militarism ( to paraphrase Haiti’s Frédéric Marcelin) that have characterzed the country’s politics from 1959 until the present (and arguably long before).

Similarly, it’s exactly because Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have written searing critiques of the U.S. prison and justice system that I feel that their criticism of the dictatorship that has ruled Cuba with an iron fist for nearly 50 years should not be dismissed so lightly. When recounting the terrible price paid by Haiti’s people for the machinations of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s 2001-2004 government in Haiti, I was occasionally met with the argument that “it wasn’t as bad as Duvalier.”

So what? Is that the best people in the Caribbean should be led to expect, marginally better brutal authoritarian rule form one generation to the next? I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s what all those people died for in the 1991-1994 defacto period in Haiti, nor do I think that’s what all the principled civilian opponents of the Batista regime sacrificed their lives for during the 1952-1959 regime there. What of writers such as Reinaldo Arenas, who fought with Castro’s rebels to topple Batista and then was repeatedly imprisoned and tortured not only for being a recalcitrant intellectual but also for being gay? Or the suffering inflicted on thousands of others documented in the reports I quote above? To my own moral compass, right is right and wrong is wrong, regardless of the ideological orientation of those at the steering wheel.

As to Bush and Cheney (who I have expressed my disgust with in print numerous times), Bush has been president since 2001, while Castro has ruled Cuba since 1959.

Recently, while reading Fidel Castro's autobiography for a review in the Miami Herald, I was concurrently reading Persona Non Grata: A Memoir of Disenchantment With the Cuban Revolution by Jorge Edwards, the Chilean diplomat and author who was given the thankless task by the government of Salvador Allende of attempting to open up the first Chilean embassy in Havana in 1970. In the book, he makes much of the staged public confessions and recantations of writers like Herberto Padilla and the enormous pressure the Cuban government used to produce them, and how authoritarianism in Cuba was not an overnight process, but a gradual weakening of political and civic institutions.

I think there are some lessons there, perhaps, for principled progressives in all countries.

Kenbe fem,

Michael

daniel said...

Michael,

I’ve spoken to a few Cubans as well, some of them gay, some of them black, most of them older than your interlocutors, but not a one in government or from the privileged circles of the pre-Castro era. Naturally, as a Haitian political activist my encounters tend to be with Cubans opposed to the ever present Yankee/Gusano threat who also voice critical support for the revolution, whereas as a white American journalist who writes for the anti-Castro mainstream press you’d tend to attract another category of Cubans hostile to the Castro regime. But it goes without saying that Cuban society is much more complex and diverse than our limited experience and contacts would account for.

The point of my previous post in this thread which you have not been able to disprove was that Cuban society is no more oppressive than the US – much less so actually and more consensus-based than you would admit if we look at the socio-economic and international factors involved. The fact is that I wouldn’t mind living there, although for now I happen to be living in New York, like it or not.

Daniel Simidor

Michael Deibert said...

The people I’ve spoken to - many of them still citizens of Cuba - I met by chance, and, unlike you or myself, they lived within the system of the Castro brothers day in and day out for many years. None of them were in the government or privileged circles of the pre-Castro era. To insult them with a common epithet, as you do, speaks of disrespect for their experiences as products of the very system you champion. It’s discourteous, really. Cubans are every bit as capable of critical political thought as Haitians or, for that matter, Americans, and just because they disagree with you doesn’t give you the right to vilify them, in my view.

So far in this thread, I’ve quoted multiple reports from multiple sources - Human Rights Watch, Reporters sans frontières, the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, the New York Times, the Economist, Alma Guillermoprieto and even Che Guevara. You have responded with the statement that “Cuban society is no more oppressive than the US,” something that I think, given the evidence available to even the most critically-minded observers of the US system, no reasonable person could agree with.

I suggest that, if you haven’t already, you read Jorge Edwards’ book when you get a chance, and, when you finish, Reinaldo Arenas’ Before Night Falls. I think that they both provide interesting insights, from the perspective of insiders initially passionately sympathetic to the Cuban revolution, that you might find worthwhile.

Arenas - the son of peasant who fought with Castro to oust Batista - said on his arrival in the United States in 1980, the following:

"The difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream. And I came here to scream."

Best,

MD

janpetro said...

Viv Fidel, Mèsi Rejin

Rejin, it was a pleasure reading your post honoring Fidel. Also especially appreciate that you took the time to do this on March 8th (Jounen Fanm nan). I wanted to post this thank you note same day and after just now reading the back and forth here I am really sorry I didn't.

The simple truth is "our" side of the tracks has and should have nothing but praise for Fidel because we understand that whatever he has done has been done for the greater good of not only the Cuban people but for humanity. Those on the "other" side understand this only too well and the most honest among them readily admit that this is the reason they hate Fidel. Others though, some who even pretend to be the friends of those from whose oppression and suffering they "righteously" benefit, will try to be more sly, detached and dare I say "objective" in their lofty analyses. Depi ki lè yo te gen tan renmen nou konsa?

Fidel, with so little to work with, has done for Cuba what no other living head of state has done for their country. Further, he has shown the entire world what solidarity and humanity ought to mean.

Just as we will never apologize or explain to anyone why Desalin used a bayonette as pen and the blood of the French as ink to write our declaration of independence, so too we do not need to apologize or explain anything Fidel has done or is doing. Please allow me to paraphrase Tonton Moriso "tout sa l fè bon, tout sa l fè ap toujou bon".

fòs, kouraj, ak lanmou!
Dahoud