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Cuba: Cold War pawn and sanctions target still fascinates


Cuba fascinates me. I first came here in 1945. Its news value then was close to nil. It showed up once a year in the business section when we learned how many millions of tons of sugar the harvest promised us. In the following years it figured more prominently in scandal sheets as Las Vegas gangsters built luxury hotels and casinos.

By my fifth visit in June 1958 it was firmly established as a hedonist’s paradise, a haven for the playboy rich, a byword for corruption, decadence and inequality.

Herbert Matthews of The New York Times reported that Havana had 50,000 prostitutes and 270 brothels. When I got into a taxi in the late 1940s, the driver had enough broken English to offer me, with ample gestures, his sister, 13 years old.

By that time, also, thanks to Matthews and a few other enterprising journalists, many had heard about 32-year-old Fidel Castro who, with the 12 survivors of a small invasion force, was waging a guerrilla war since 1956 in the Sierra Maestra. On New Year’s Day 1959, abandoned by the United States, Dictator Fulgencio Batista fled. We welcomed Castro, now a folk hero, to the Overseas Press Club of New York, where we endured what soon became his trademark, a three-hour impromptu speech.

Back in Cuba in June 1959 and again a year later, I watched the different reactions of the wealthy and the impoverished as farms over 1,000 acres and foreign enterprises were nationalized, rents drastically cut, and racial apartheid abolished. Those who, reading the signs, had salted away their wealth in Florida, started what was soon a mass exodus to Miami. The United States, at first benignly indifferent to what it assumed would simply be a brief cleansing followed by a new round of corruption, bristled at the threat to its $2 billion investment. As a few years earlier in Guatemala, it rejected the proffered long-term bonds as inadequate, severed diplomatic relations, imposed an embargo, and recruited, trained and equipped the army that ended up ignominiously at the Bay of Pigs.

To survive, Castro turned to the Soviet Union. It responded generously, buying the sugar and providing industrial equipment, technical aid and liberal credit. Cuba now became a pawn in the Cold War, leading to the threat of a nuclear holocaust in the 1962 Missile Crisis. After that was resolved by Soviet withdrawal and a U.S. commitment not to invade Cuba, we committed ourselves to a hysterical policy in which we persist to this day: Use whatever means are necessary to force Cuba to recognize our suzerainty. The CIA, as we all know, is creative. Exploding cigars, a poisoned wet suit, a poisoned pen are a few of its more than a score of assassination attempts identified by a congressional inquiry. The effort continues, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Radio and TV Marti. Saboteurs. Funds for subversive groups.

What sense does it make? A small island with 11 million people. It would fit six times into Texas with room to spare. No navy. A tiny army and air force without offensive capacity. Is this a greater threat to our survival than a communist tyranny like China with which we maintain diplomatic relations and to which we award favored nation status?

Just as the United States is fascinated, so am I. That is why in January 2002, I am back for the 12th or 13th time. A decade after the collapse of the Soviets, how high is the morale? Do people here still support the regime, or are they ready to cry uncle?

Some things are better

Some things are definitely better than half a century ago. People are taller. They have better teeth. They live longer. Both children and adults are in better physical shape. Obesity is rare. The typical Latin American division between a few ultra wealthy and many in abject poverty has disappeared. Income disparity is about one to three, a radical contrast to the United States where it is one to 100, or more.

Some things have worsened. Apart from a few major streets, the roads are potholed. Vintage automobiles, although meticulously polished and carefully maintained, need shocks. Stores and homes cry out for a coat of paint. Clothes are of inferior quality. Clothing, transport and medicines are in short supply, as are such basic food items as meat, milk, eggs and butter.

Some things are unchanged. Fresh breezes off the ocean provide a pleasant alternative to the smog that substitutes for air in most cities today. You hear a chorus of Mira (“look”), Oye (“listen”), Psst, as people greet acquaintances on crowded streets. They shout to each other. I think they must all be deaf from day-and-night-long immersion in a cacophony of competing loudspeakers spewing salsa music and vapid oratory at full blast. For once I am grateful that I can remove my hearing aids.

There are reasons for the changes. People are taller and have better teeth because of the universal availability of free medical and dental services combined with training at school in good dietary practices. These advances explain why Cubans live as long as people in the United States (79 years for women, 74 for men), and why the median age is 35 years, compared with 20 in El Salvador and other neighboring countries. An additional reason is that Cubans, unlike other Third World peoples, do not need children in order to have a caregiver in old age. Everyone has a guaranteed pension. So with access to effective reproductive services, they limit family size.

The health indices take Cuba out of the Third World category. Infant mortality, for example, is seven per thousand live births, 7.6 in the United States. For Argentina, it is 18; for Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole, 30. Universal health care takes 9.1 percent of the gross domestic product, same as in Canada.

Supporters of the regime as well as critics speak of the devastating impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, a catastrophe that revealed the Cuban regime’s surprising capacity for survival. Cuba, unlike the East European satellites on whom socialism was imposed by tanks and bayonets, is the product of a popular revolution, and the aggressive hostility of the United States has served to further strengthen its nationalistic backbone.

Also helpful were the social benefits, the high-quality universal free medicine and an education system that has produced an average of nine years of schooling. Finally, the media kept the people fully informed of what happened to the Soviet satellites when the empire collapsed. A violent change, the people believed, would reduce them to the economic level of Haiti or Nicaragua.

This does not mean that the Soviet collapse had no impact. Giulio Girardi, an expert at Vatican II and a strong supporter of the Cuban system, says the ideological impact, while less than the economic, “raised doubts about the system of certainties that underlay the political options of Cubans, first of all, the conviction of the superiority of socialism over capitalism.”

Trade with the Soviet bloc, representing 85 percent of total trade, had been conducted on preferential terms. The gross domestic product fell 40 percent in three years, with a comparable increase in the indicators of corruption, prostitution, emigration and social upheaval.

The black market grows

Centralized planning, with the state employing 95 percent of the work force, blocked a rise in productivity that might have compensated for the drastic decline in trade. Key reforms were, however, quickly introduced. State farms, 80 percent of all arable land, became cooperatives whose members were paid on the basis of productivity. Markets for agricultural produce and for service and artisan work were legalized, as was possession of U.S. dollars. The black market, a constant in Cuban life, has grown.

The content of exports changed radically. Previously sugar was the motor of the economy with close to 10 million tons exported annually, all to the Soviet bloc. Sugar is profitable only when the producer has a guaranteed market at preferential rates. Having no longer such a market, Cuba has cut production to 3 million tons. Nickel, an industry developed with Soviet aid, is doing much better. A 1994 deal with Sherrit, a Canadian firm, has increased exports from 29,000 tons to about 70,000.

Juan Váldez Paz, an economist close to the regime, told me that the macro economy by the end of the 1990s had recovered to 75 percent of the 1989 level, and will recover fully by 2003. A third of trade is now with Europe, a third with Latin America, and a third with the rest of the world. Diplomatic relations have expanded proportionately. In 1970, Mexico was the only Latin American or Caribbean country that had diplomatic relations with Cuba; now, all do except El Salvador. The recovery, however, is still inadequately reflected in nourishment, clothing, transport and medicine.

Cuba has a pharmaceutical industry, but allocation of the product has been transferred from the Ministry of Health to the Ministry of External Trade. Most of the substantial production, including state-of-the-market drugs created and patented by Cubans, is exported, leaving shortages at home. In addition, many drugs produced only in the United States, including the best treatments for AIDS, are excluded by the embargo.

The minimum wage of 125 pesos a month (about $5), together with free or almost free housing, enables everyone to survive just above starvation level. Professionals earning three or four times the minimum do only marginally better. To live comfortably, one needs dollars obtained from family members abroad or through working in tourism. So professionals take jobs as waiters and bartenders, or use their cars as taxis. Dollars are needed not only to buy gasoline, but for such essentials as clothing and many medicines.

Tourism brings with it prostitution, as it did in pre-Castro Cuba. The trade today is less open but growing. It troubles the guardians of socialist orthodoxy, as do the concomitant drug abuse and sexual diseases.

The number of hotel rooms is up in a decade from 2,000 to 30,000. Tourists come from Latin America, Canada and Western Europe. A small but growing number come from the United States through a third country in defiance of Treasury regulations that make it a crime to spend dollars in Cuba. (Journalists and researchers are exempt.)

Resistance is growing in the United States to the ban on travel, a ban many consider unconstitutional as an arbitrary restriction on citizen rights. Pressure is also coming from U.S. commercial interests. Last December food conglomerates and farmers forced approval of a $30 million sale of food. While I was in Havana a delegation of farmers, including several members of Congress, was in Cuba exploring further trade possibilities. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told the press that we must reestablish diplomatic relations for active Cuban cooperation in the wars against terrorism and drugs.

Specter was echoing Rep. William D. Delahunt, D-Mass., who the previous month had said it is time to lift the travel ban. As Cuba receives more and more investment from Canada, Mexico, Spain, England, France and Germany, U.S. industry fears that it is losing a market that once was its third most important in the world.

Wayne Smith, whom I ran into in Havana where he was leading a group of students from Johns Hopkins University, told me he expects the ban to go within 12 months. Smith follows Cuban affairs closely. He had worked at the U.S. Embassy in Havana before Castro came to power, and he returned later as Chief of Mission at what became known as the U.S. Interest Section. In 1982 he resigned from the Foreign Service because “U.S. administrations simply are unable to deal rationally with Cuba.”

Castro has been reaching out for better relations. In addition to the food purchases, he has withheld criticism of the use of the Guantanamo Bay base to house captives and has offered increased cooperation on drug trafficking and fighting terrorism. Bush appointees hostile to Cuba led by Otto Reich, a Cuban exile who is the State Department’s top policymaker for Latin America, have so far prevented any softening of policy.

Tightly controlled, incredibly dull

All Cuban domestic media of social communications, written and electronic, are tightly controlled, and all are incredibly dull. The hostile radio and TV transmissions from Radio Marti and other Florida stations are jammed. CNN’s satellite programs are not jammed. Few, however, have dishes, other than the big hotels. Some official publications, notably the quarterly Temas, are of high quality and contain considerable criticism, always without questioning the system’s socialist underpinnings.

Channels for criticism or dissent are few. People use the churches to express grievances, especially the Catholic church, which serves for many as an escape or refuge. The Protestant churches, which had benefited by the ending of the Catholic church’s privileged position, were long close to the regime. Today they are more critical. Church publications, which are not controlled, are well produced, with professional content and a wide range of views.

Small groups, political parties, human rights activists and journalists express their views in semi-clandestine leaflets. Some telephone statements to radio stations in Florida to be beamed back to Cuba.

These stations regularly broadcast claims that Cuba’s jails contained thousands of political prisoners. No statistics are available. However, Human Rights Watch, an impartial observer, insists that Cuba still imprisons dissidents and denies them access to international human rights monitors.

After considerable discussion, Wayne Smith and I reached agreement on three reasons why Castro maintains the lock on the media. He is a gallego, son of an immigrant from an area in northwest Spain whose people are reputedly as stubborn as Missouri mules. He is a patrón. In Latin America the patrón makes all decisions. The peon tips his sombrero and says “Sí, señor.And finally, Castro is a product of Jesuit education.

How has the Catholic church survived the revolution? Very well, according to both priests and laypeople. This, however, needs to be kept in perspective. In the 1930s, although 90 percent of Cubans were baptized, attendance at Sunday Mass was between 2 and 3 percent. Now, fewer than 40 percent are baptized, and attendance still hovers between 2 and 3 percent.

The country’s 11 bishops, when they thought in 1993 that the regime was about to collapse, published a very critical document. Later, particularly about the time of Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit, they softened their statements, though without changing their basic attitude.

At the time of the visit some, particularly in the United States, anticipated a destabilizing effect similar to the visit to Poland that many regard as the catalyst of the Soviet Empire’s collapse. In fact, Castro gained considerably from the visit. During the visit, the pope denounced the “oppressive economic measures -- unjust and ethically unacceptable -- imposed from outside the country.” He called for an end to the U.S. embargo on food and medicines.

No significant change, however, occurred in the mindset of Cuban Catholics. As the pastor of a Havana church told me, the overwhelming majority continue to long for a return to the church of the 1930s and ’40s. The mentality is completely pre-Vatican II. They promote Catholic trade unions and such other parallel organizations as Catholic Action and Catholic Youth. These organizations operate freely but have few members and carry little weight.

More than 40 years have passed since Fidel Castro put a U.S. gambling and prostitution backwater on the world map. The world media continue to track his movements and his statements. David Rockefeller, Jack Nicholson and Ted Turner are among the celebrities and power brokers he entertains at 3-hour banquets. He has survived several CIA-instigated assassination attempts. Now 75, he recently showed his mortality by collapsing during one of his interminable orations. But like Pope John Paul II, who is seven years his senior, he shows no sign of retiring. And his socialist experiment keeps moving along year after year.

Religion in statistics

Before Castro, Cuba’s 11 dioceses had 639 priests for a population of 5 million. Many priests left or were expelled in the early 1960s, reducing the number to some 200. Now there are 400 priests for a population of 11 million, 60 churches, 500 legally registered “house churches” and more than 1,200 not registered. Sixty percent of the priests are foreigners, from 24 countries. About 60 students study in the major seminary in Havana, and 30 in the minor seminary in Santiago de Cuba. There are 21 orders of men and 50 of women, and more than 30 Catholic publications, 20 of which are members of a union affiliated to the International Catholic Union of the Press.

Protestant churches number 900, with 1,000 pastors. There are three Protestant delegates in the National Assembly, two of them pastors widely known in the United States and Canada: Sergio Arce and Raúl Suárez. There are 5 synagogues.

Gary MacEoin first visited Cuba in 1945 as a delegate from Trinidad to a symposium on the church in Latin America at the Jesuit Colegio de Belén (where Fidel Castro was then a student). MacEoin has returned more than a dozen times. His e-mail address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 8, 2002