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.