Despite surname, Cuba’s new Castro may upset low expectations

As professionals working closely on Cuban foreign policy and human rights, we were dismayed to read Michael Fernandez’s column “In Cuba, a self-sustaining, repressive machine (still)” 4/25. While rightly condemning the Castro regime’s violations of fundamental liberties, the piece perpetuates a series of myths about Cuba’s past and present that do more harm than good.

First, an important point of fact: Fernandez claims “the blessings of freedom” were secured for all Cubans following the elimination of slavery in the late 1800s. In principle perhaps, but hardly in practice. Students of Cuban history will recall the year 1912, when members of an independent Afro-Cuban political party were mercilessly slaughtered after putting forth a platform demanding greater freedoms. While racial exclusion in Cuba was perhaps never as clear-cut as in the United States, institutionalized forms of discrimination did exist in the pre-Castro period, and they continue to this day.

Second, the repeated suggestion that Cuban citizens today are nothing but “slaves” is profoundly troubling and counterproductive. Let us be clear. We do not deny that the Cuban people live in a repressive society in which the ability to freely determine one’s own future is constrained by an overly centralized, state-dominated economy, let alone the government’s little tolerance for open political dissent. But to dismiss as “slaves” those Cubans who work day-in and day-out under these adverse circumstances to provide for their families demeans their integrity and insults their intelligence. Fernandez creates the image of an Orwellian world, where the line between the controllers and the controlled is clear cut. Rarely in any society, and certainly not in Cuba, are power dynamics this transparent. In our experience on the island (in one case, for a period of nearly three months to conduct academic research), we rarely met a Cuban who passively accepted his or her circumstances. Though difficult, many seemed to be pushing against the system in small but important ways, whether through participation in the black market, provocative works of art or, even in some cases, demanding more of a voice in the affairs of their daily lives.

Finally, we fundamentally question Fernandez’s cursory assessment of recent reforms under the leadership of Raul Castro. Without a doubt, many of the changes that the Cuban government has implemented in recent weeks are cosmetic in nature: granting Cubans greater access to tourist facilities, permitting Cubans to purchase cell phones and other high-tech devices — all of which few Cubans will be able to afford anyhow. And of course, despite Cuba’s decision to finally sign two important international human-rights covenants this winter, violations continue, as demonstrated last week when members of the Damas de Blanco (wives of political prisoners who demand their release) were harassed and detained.

But other changes implemented, while certainly not radical, warrant significant study and attention. For instance, the Cuban government has parceled out state-owned lands to independent farmers and has decentralized distribution networks to some degree. China’s impressive transformation began with similarly small measures. As output increases, pressures may build for additional liberalization in complementary industries. Cuban officials are also initiating the important process of granting title to the residents of state-owned homes, and rumors are rampant that the free sale of housing may soon be permitted.

Raul has also, within limits, encouraged common Cuban citizens to voice their concerns with the government in hundreds of meetings held across the country by Communist Party officials. Indeed, back in February, university student Eliécer Ávila created a stir when a video surfaced on the Internet showing him stridently and courageously expressing his critiques of Cuba’s economic and political system to National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón. Before launching into his remarks, Eliécer declared that he was a “revolutionary” interested in bettering socialism. True conviction? Or rhetorical strategy to cushion the power of his comments? You be the judge. Regardless, such an exchange would have been impossible a few years ago.

Do any of these measures mean that Raul has benevolently put Cuba on the path to free markets and democracy? Of course not. But Raul does seem to have grasped that in order to maintain his power, he must, at a minimum, improve the material conditions of Cubans’ daily lives. In doing so, he runs the risk of raising not just economic but political expectations among the Cuban people beyond what he is prepared to deliver. One has to wonder, of all items, why did Raul Castro choose to liberalize the sale of cell phones, communication devices that could conceivably threaten the government’s efforts to control the flow of information? What message is he trying to send? Those with a keen interest in Cuban affairs would do well to watch these changes closely rather than dismiss them out of hand.

Michael Bustamante and Elizabeth Jordan are 2006 graduates of Yale College. Bustamante is project manager for the Brookings Institution’s initiative on “U.S. Policy Toward a Cuba in Transition” in Washington, D.C. Jordan is in charge of the Cuba portfolio at Human Rights First in New York City.


  • nacho

    Dear "professionals working closely on Cuban foreign policy and human rights":

    When was the last time you were living in Cuba as ordinary Cubans? I had many comments and notes to your article, but as a Cubam, I am outraged by how patronizing you sound.

    Why do you and the world media make such a fuss over the cosmetic changes in Cuba under Raul's rule and no one actually has questions why it took over 25 years for the Cuban goverment to comply with its own constitution (access to tourist installations)? Why does no one ask why the goverment banned cellphones for Cubans and no sells them in hard currency? Why does not one question that the Cuban goverment pays the Cubans in one currency and sells most of the other basic stuff in hard currency?

    Regarding the Avila-Alarcon video controversy you say that "such an exchange would have been impossible a few years ago" Keep in mind that ONLY after the video was seen around the world in youtube weeks after the meeting took place, did the Cuban goverment react to it!!! Had this video not made it to youtube, the Cuban goverment wouldn't have bothered talking about it

  • maria Roemer

    "But to dismiss as 'slaves' those Cubans who work day-in and day-out under these adverse circumstances to provide for their families demeans their integrity and insults their intelligence. [. . . ] In our experience on the island (in one case, for a period of nearly three months to conduct academic research), we rarely met a Cuban who passively accepted his or her circumstances. Though difficult, many seemed to be pushing against the system in small but important ways…"

    This is one of the most insulting statements about slaves I've ever read. The two of you may want to write another article explaining yourselves. Do you honestly believe African slaves "passively accepted their circumstances" and never "pushed against the system in small but important ways"?

  • authors

    Of course not, Maria. Take a look at the article we were responding to ( The terms "slave" and "enslaved" are repeated throughout the piece, not to compare the Cuban people directly with African slaves, but to infer that Cubans are totally and utterly subjugated in moral terms - that they have little or no agency over their lives, at all. Are they constrained inhumanely in their opportunities and are their basic human rights repressed? Often brutally? Yes, and that is deplorable. Nevertheless, in a country where no "formal" institution of slavery exists as such, and in which people do "push back" in the ways we describe, we felt the use of the term "enslaved" in this context denied the Cuban people the agency they deserved and was counterproductive, inflammatory, and inaccurate.

    That is not to in any way suggest that African slaves in the United States, Cuba, or elsewhere in the world ever "passively accepted their circumstances." Hardly.

    Poor choice of phrasing perhaps, as no direct comparison was intended along the lines you suggest. I think if you read the original article you'll understand our point.

  • reality-based

    My parents fled Cuba under Castro. They arrived on the shores of the US with nothing but their newly-acquired freedom.

    These so called 'professionals' are merely reciting Castro's propaganda as fact.

  • more like stupidty based

    Oh yeah, I'm sure that someone who works for Human Rights Watch is a lapdog for Castro.

    As for the infantile move of putting quotations around the word "professionals", their positions at respectable organizations pretty much define them as such. Aside from being the offspring of Cuban exiles (and, therefore, irremediably biased) what are your credentials? Who the hell are you?

  • reality-based

    "Cuban exiles" is an interesting phrase.

    My parents snuck out of the country as my perfectly-sane grandfather was being locked away in an "insane asylum" (read: prison) in 1980 for trying to flee the country (on the tails of Castro's "anyone can leave" nonsense).

    So if by "irredeemably biased" you mean "knows something beyond Castro's official line", then sure. The only reason that Raul Castro is allowing the sale of cell phones (along with Microwaves and DVD Players) because cell phones cost the equivalent of 6 months salary (and guess who sets prices in a communist country?) In other words, it's an empty gesture symbolizing nothing.

    HRW, AI, and the Red Cross have all been denied access to the country. They're essentially working off of the propaganda because they have no real inside information. In other words, I happen to know more than "professionals" do about this issue. Good day.

  • Castro's Propaganda Machine

    Once again, the discussion has reached an impasse. I'm sorry, Mike and Liz, that your noble efforts to initiate a more or less "rational" discussion about the topic has once again failed to elicit more than angry, nonsensical responses. There's just no other way to describe those intent in calling your position "patronizing" or a recital of "Castro's propaganda as fact." How pathetic.

    Also, reality-based, did you know that some of those human rights organizations you mention have repeatedly been denied access to CIA prisons outside the Unites States, especially in Iraq and Eastern Europe? So much for transparency in the free world. But maybe you should just ignore this. After all, maybe I'm just repeating Castro's anti-U.S. propaganda.

  • @#7

    This is absolutely hilarious.

    I attacked Castro for his lack of transparency. My argument was that it was impossible to tell what was going on in Cuba because human rights NGOs have been denied access.

    Your response is a bashing of the CIA's prisons in Europe.

    1) I think those prisons should be eliminated too. Freedom for thee and me.
    2) Notably, human rights organizations have not blindly stated that all is well in CIA prisons. But for whatever reason, they're willing to take the Castros at their word when they tells the world that everything is cheerful and sunshiny in Cuba.
    3) Why would you assume that all people who oppose a totalitarian dictatorship are necessarily Bush-supporting Republicans? I'm a pretty staunch democrat, just not a apologist for communist dictatorships.

  • MyNameIsRed

    Realitybased, thats a very ironic name, for someone not grounded in reality.
    Have you ever realised that US foreign policy is basically summed up as:
    "He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he is our son-of-a-bitch"

    I would rather support Fidel over the right-wing thugs propped by US imperialists.

    Just because you are a democrat doesn't mean you are somehow better than the rest. It was your guy Clinton who made China the most favored trading partner. How does that sound for your anti-communist sensibilities?

    I am a social democrat (not these pandering centre-right pansies we got here) and yes, I am ashamed at the authoritarian tendencies of Communist regimes. But back in the Soviet times, people had reliable heat, hot water, even though they had to stand up in long queues for food and no free speech. Now the poor have no heat, or hot water or food even but plenty of free speech (long as you dont bad mouth Putin - once again result of a flawed US/West policy to appease a weakening thug Yelstin)

    I don't think I want Cuba to follow in that footstep. I don't think Batista or any US propped thug could have achieved the degree of literacy and healthcare in Cuba. I am not looking forward to the day when you "exile" folks invade Cuba en masse with your cheap Coca Cola sheise.

    Just because HRW and AI dont support you exiles' hysteric propaganda doesnt mean that they feed off of Castro's propaganda

  • @#9

    I'm glad that you make the choice of security over liberty FOR the people of the Soviet Union and Cuba.

    Glad to know paternalism is alive and well on the far left.

  • to all the haters

    Listen to yourselves. You're actually defending a regime that, at its very core, DOESN'T LET PEOPLE LEAVE THE COUNTRY. You can't do this and call yourselves true liberals.