Cuba Today: An Interview with Samuel Farber

Conducted by Joanne Landy, Thomas Harrison and Stephen R. Shalom

[from New Politics, vol. 9, no. 3 (new series),
whole no. 35, Summer 2003]

SAMUEL FARBER was born and raised in Cuba. He is the author of Revolution and Reaction in Cuba 1933-1960 (Wesleyan University Press, 1976), Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (Polity/Verso, 1990) and Social Decay and Transformation: A View from the Left (Lexington Books, 2000). He is also a member of the editorial board of the socialist journal Against the Current.

JOANNE LANDY, THOMAS HARRISON and STEVE SHALOM are members of the NP editorial board. Transcription by Liz Walsack.


New Politics: Let's get some background on conditions inside Cuba. What kinds of political freedoms do the Cuban people have as far as freedom of expression, elections and political parties, independent trade unions and political organizations are concerned?

Samuel Farber: There are elections in Cuba, but without politics. The regime encourages the appearance of democracy without the substance of it, mainly in the form of the Poder Popular, which means "popular power" in English. The Poder Popular is a multi-level pseudo-parliament that brings together representatives from different localities.

One reason I call it a pseudo-parliament is that there is only one legal political party, the Cuban Communist Party, which is also an integral part of the state. It is a one-party state. But the party encourages a small number of people who are not members of the CCP to serve at the lower and sometimes even higher levels of the Poder Popular, for example, some Protestant church leaders. The Cuban leadership makes strategic choices of people who are important for them to have in the parliament even though they may not be CCP members. But these people are not allowed to form political parties.

NP: So there are elections for the Poder Popular?

SF: Yes, there are elections. Candidates run on officially sanctioned slates. At the lower level there is more contest. But even at the lower level there are no meaningful political choices, because the candidates have to be acceptable to the authorities and because they are not allowed to campaign except to present their political biographies to the public. In any case, people are not permitted to organize independent groups or parties.

NP: If I were nominated for this body as an independent or even as a party member for that matter, and I were to say "I want to use this election as an occasion to say the country needs a totally different attitude towards sugar cane production . . ."

SF: You wouldn't get on the slate. That's what Oswaldo Payà, a dissident who can be described as a Christian democrat, tried to do. Payà went around collecting signatures, and tried to campaign just like the constitution says he can, but he wasn't allowed to do it. By the way, there is a very good article on Cuba's pseudo-democracy by Francisco Sobrino: "Socialism, Democracy and Cuba Today," Against the Current, #94, Sept.-Nov. 2001.

NP: So what you're saying is that at the lower levels there are contested elections, not just the slate candidates. There can be two candidates, or three or four. But if you try to use that candidacy to express a coherent, alternative opinion and especially to build an organization in favor of that coherent, alternative opinion, you'll be cut out of the political system.

SF: Right. In the case of Payà the state ignored his signatures, so he was kept off the ballot.

NP: Are there unofficial political parties in Cuba?

SF: There is a multiplicity of illegal parties, of course. Literally dozens of them, and they are all illegal.

NP: What happens to people who form either an illegal political party or a political organization that stands for ideas that are outside the pale?

SF: Well, Payà himself is deeply involved in the so-called Varela project, which calls for a gradual democratization of Cuba. Until recently the regime by and large tolerated these kinds of reformers, although individual activists would routinely face harassment. Sometimes people were fired from their jobs, that kind of thing.

NP: But non-violent political dissidents weren't put in jail?

SF: Some individuals the government regarded as more provocative were given short prison terms, but the kinds of sentences that the government has recently imposed on dozens of dissidents are a throwback to a more heavy-handed policy that prevailed in the 1960s and 1970s. Generally speaking, since the mid-to-late 1970s there have been far fewer political prisoners, and those prisoners have tended to receive lighter sentences.

NP: And why was that?

SF: I suppose the government felt more secure. As was also the case in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe over time, the Cuban leadership became increasingly less reliant on executions and long prison sentences to maintain its hold on society.

NP: In the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviets used psychiatric hospitals as a means of clamping down on dissent.

SF: There was that in Cuba, too, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s.

NP: In the final years of the system in Eastern Europe it was exactly as you have described, a liberalization, although not a democratization: a loosening up, with less severe penalties, but without changing the rules of the game, without the party-state losing any of its monopoly on political power. Many people risked jail if they were politically active, but generally not ten or twenty years, but two years, or three years.

SF: Well, take the issue of traveling. There has been virtually no change in Cuba so far as the right to travel is concerned, at least from the legal point of view. But the application process has been liberalized in practice over the last 20 to 25 years. It's not that you have any more right to travel than you did before that point, but they are not as strict about excluding people. There was a time when if you were not over 65 years of age it was very difficult to leave Cuba to go anywhere at all. They still have that power, but do not exercise it to the same harsh degree as before.

NP: Are there any independent unions in Cuba, underground or above ground?

SF: The regime does not permit independent trade union activity of any kind. There are unofficial groups, such as a small affiliate of the Latin American Christian unions, but I am not aware of any concrete activities they are engaging in. Many years ago, in the Port of Havana, people had been elected to union positions and some of these people were opposition-minded, but they were repressed.

But we also have to keep in mind that the context for labor union activities in Cuba is very peculiar, because what many Cuban workers want more than anything else is to get a job in a joint venture: whether in tourism, or the telephone company, or what have you; something that is a joint venture, with a foreign investor, where there is a more solid situation, in addition to the fact that people who work for foreign investors, even though they are officially paid in pesos, often get supplementary payments in dollars under the table. Sometimes there are blackouts so you can't work because there is no energy or the inputs are missing. This is more likely to happen in the state sector, Therefore, a lot of the work in the state sector is make-work because otherwise there wouldn't be enough jobs. In this kind of environment, access to dollars and hard currency is the main issue, not working conditions. By the way, foreign investors pay the Cuban state in dollars, and then the state pays the workers in pesos. However, sometimes the state pays part of the salary in dollars, and of course there is tipping in hotels and other tourist places.

NP: Are there official, government-controlled unions?

SF: Yes, of course.

NP: Are there strikes?

SF: Not to my knowledge. The purpose of the official unions is to work with the state in negotiating wage agreements as well as running certain welfare and leisure activities. Fundamentally, these unions are no different from company unions in the capitalist countries.

NP: What about grievances on the job? Does the union ever protect or stick up for workers who were suspended?

SF: The emphasis is not on the job issue, the emphasis is on wages and benefits. The union's job is as the "negotiator," but, of course, not as an independent negotiator. From that point of view, I think that at the lower level, Poder Popular has a little more credibility than the unions do, because at the lower level Poder Popular deals with administrative and local service issues with some flexibility. So if people are looking to official institutions, they are looking more to Poder Popular than to the unions.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate the kinds of grievances people have. One of my professional friends in Cuba has a house, even though it is very decayed. In the past few years there have been some improvements in the phone system due to an influx of Italian investment. Before that, new phones were difficult to come by. But this upgrade meant that new cables and poles had to be put up. The phone company came and put a telephone pole right in the middle of my friend's garage entrance, screwing up his garage. There was nothing he could do about it; he got stuck with it. That's the kind of thing that makes people angry -- arbitrary, sheer administrative recklessness and carelessness. The authorities did not give a fig so they put a telephone pole right in the middle of his garage entrance, and now he doesn't have a place to put his very ancient and barely functioning car anymore.

Freedom of the Press

NP: What are the opportunities to publish leaflets, newsletters, magazines, newspapers, and so on?

SF: The Catholic Church is a significant but not a major publisher. For example, in western Cuba it publishes a magazine called Vitral. And the archbishopric of Havana issues a regular newsletter. So there are Catholic publications in Cuba. However, the Catholic Church hierarchy in Cuba has been very cautious in testing the limits of official tolerance. In general, in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, Catholicism has been weakly implanted and the Catholic Church in Cuba was historically heavily white, urban, and middle class. In 1957, a study was done by the Catholic Association of the University of Havana and they found that when they asked rural people "Who do you look for to help you with your problems as a peasant?" overwhelmingly the answer was "the government," while 3 percent said the Catholic Church and 4.3 percent said the Masons. More Cuban rural people looked to the Masons than to the Catholic Church! So partly for this reason the Catholic Church is very cautious, but nevertheless it is the only significant independent publisher in Cuba.

By the way, one of the reasons that the Catholic Church has become a little more open in its activities is because in 1991 the Fourth Congress of the Communist Party eliminated its prohibition on religious people joining the Party. This ended up having a significant impact on the practicing of religion -- every kind of religion -- Catholicism, Afro-Cuban religions, Protestantism, even Judaism. All of a sudden Jews came out of the woodwork and started going to the synagogues in Havana because before they didn't want to get into trouble, not because they were Jews, but because of religion. All religions benefited from this process of liberalization.

NP: What if I were an individual citizen and I wanted to mimeograph a newsletter that was critical of a particular government policy?

SF: Number one, it would be very difficult to get the facilities to do that. And number two, you would get into trouble for independent, non-sanctioned publishing activities. I gather that people who are not particularly Catholic but have some connection to the Catholic Church try to publish critical stuff in Vitral or one of those publications of the Church that are distributed typically at masses and other religious ceremonies.

NP: Are individuals in Cuba allowed to own a mimeograph machine, for example?

SF: There is state control of printing and reproduction facilities of that type. However, I know that computers, for example, can be acquired at stores that accept dollars. But right off the bat that places computers as well as paper and other supplies in the hard-to-obtain category. Some people typically use email through their workplaces, however. I email to people in Cuba, and, because my correspondents assume that there is monitoring, I am very careful about what I send to people since I don't want to get them into trouble. In reality, if you are an oppositionist and you want to get published, you would probably try to use the facilities of the Catholic Church. If you are not so much in the political opposition, but you want to issue some cultural and non-political social criticism, you would try to get involved with La Gaceta de Cuba, the official organ of the UNEAC -- the official artists and writers union or Temas, which is put out by a research center. It is possible to get some of your material in there, provided it is not a political challenge to the regime. However, both of these are elite journals read almost exclusively by social scientists, and some artists and intellectuals.

NP: But what if a bunch a people get together and pool their money and get the dollars so they can buy a computer?

SF: People can do that; I have sent money to friends in Cuba to help them buy a second-hand monitor. The question is, what do you do with a computer once you have one? The fact of the matter is that the independent journalists in Cuba who have been getting arrested were not primarily publishing stuff locally; they were sending their writings to the Miami Herald. And that's what got them into trouble.

NP: They sent it to the Herald because they wouldn't even try to publish something in Cuba? Is that what you're saying?

SF: Right, so they got into the Herald with the hopes that people in Cuba, or their relatives, would hear about it. The Herald also pays for contributions and that is a factor that cannot be ignored. It goes without saying that the Herald attracts for the most part those independent journalists whose politics are compatible with the right wing line of that newspaper. Other journalists and writers who are more liberal or social democratic will send their material to El Pais, the Spanish newspaper close to the Spanish Socialist Party, or to other publications in Spain and Latin America. But I think it's important to keep in mind the fact that at this point all the dissident groups, regardless of their political perspective, are quite small and marginal in Cuba today.

NP: My assumption is that the government justifies these restrictions by saying "Well, we have free expression. You can just publish in one of the official publications."

SF: Right.

NP: One of the questions that came up in the context of the current wave of arrests was the role of the U.S. special envoy, James Cason, who doled out money for people to buy computers and fax machines and so on. We'd like to understand the specific barriers that people are up against when they try to acquire these items themselves. Are the obstacles primarily financial, legal, harassment, or what?

SF: There is harassment, and there are also financial obstacles. People who are identified with the opposition get searched and in the process of the searches things get confiscated. It is a messy reality.

NP: But it's not 100 percent impossible for people who are oppositionists to get certain kinds of equipment themselves, so it would be possible for people to get it without taking it from Cason?

SF: Yes, but it would be difficult.

NP: Are you saying that it would be a big hassle, so it's easier to take U.S. government funds, especially if you don't have any principled objections to it?

SF: Exactly, and that's the key. The reality is that the center of gravity of the opposition, or dissidents, or whatever you want to call them, in Cuba is center-right, politically speaking. That's the reality; I don't think we should fool around about that. At best you have people who are moderately left, and that's as far as it goes. For example, Elizardo Sanchez is a moderate social democrat, and Oswaldo Payà is a Christian democrat. These are among the more moderate elements of the opposition. Across the board, they all assume that the market is a force of nature. It's not even discussed, it's taken for granted.

NP: Do any of them have principled objections to taking help from the U.S.?

SF: Well, Payà was recently quoted in the New York Times to the effect that he was not in favor of taking the U.S. government's money. But it was not clear whether he was raising a tactical or a principled objection. In the past, Elizardo Sanchez has made statements similar to those recently made by Payà.

NP: But some people from Payà's Varela Project were arrested and accused of having taken things from the U.S.

SF: And I suspect some of them did. But that does not make them spies or the equivalent of foreign registered agents any more than Communists in Western countries were spies or the same as registered agents of the Soviet Union when they accepted help from the USSR. The efforts of the Varela Project, for example, are directed toward peacefully demanding that Poder Popular provides the forum for popular grievances that it is supposed to. Payà's position is "OK, they have a set of laws in the constitution, I'm going to demand my rights within that constitution, and within the laws." This has gotten him in trouble with some right-wingers in Miami who say, "How can you acknowledge the Cuban constitution!" But that's his strategy. But make no mistake. Payà is also pro-market and the wording of the Varela Project's proposed amendments to the Cuban constitution leaves the door wide open for any kind of business investment in that country, and not just small business.

NP: Are there any socialists in Cuba?

SF: There are socialists like Haroldo Dilla, who is in the Dominican Republic now, in exile. There are a handful of politically active Cuban exiles in North America who call themselves social democrats. There are even people affiliated with the government who are in the process of searching for a solution, who may end up with genuinely socialist politics. Communism, both within the countries where it holds sway and outside of them, appeals for support on the basis of its claim to represent socialist aspirations, the ideals of the Enlightenment, and, more broadly, democratic values. Though we know that's not what Communist society is actually like, there are people both in and out of the CP structures who take these claims seriously. This is an important difference between Communism and other authoritarian or totalitarian societies. In Cuba, this explains why some people connected to the government, particularly at middle and lower levels, may come to adopt genuinely socialist politics as the regime begins to face greater and greater problems -- but unfortunately I suspect it'll be older people, since at least right now the young seem more entranced by the capitalist illusion.

NP: There are no socialist groupings?

SF: No, not to my knowledge. But there are individuals here and there, individual Trotskyists, for example.

NP: Again this is reminiscent of the process in Eastern Europe. When opposition movements first emerged, with the East German workers' uprising in 1953, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, socialist ideas and values were a critically important part of the mix. By the end of the century the center of gravity had shifted strongly both in favor of markets and in favor of the U.S. Part of the reason for this shift was that the international left was unfortunately not generally supportive of opposition movements under Soviet-style Communism. Yes, there are the various pressures coming from the world economy and from Western governments, but the left's failure to support political dissidents in places like Eastern Europe and Cuba was also an important element in delivering those East-bloc dissidents into the arms of the United States.

SF: I think that in 2003 by far the single most important element is the overwhelming predominance of U.S. power and the market. However, there is no question that the majority of the international left's identification with the Cuban government makes it unfortunately less likely that younger opponents of the Cuban government will identify with the left. And not only that, but a great majority of leftists of one kind or another identified the collapse of the Soviet Union with the collapse of socialism, period. This echoed itself in a peculiar sort of way in the Cuban government itself, because ever since the Special Period which is the period since the fall of the Soviet Union . . .

NP: Special Period?

SF: That's what they call it, the Special Period. The full name is the Special Period in Time of Peace. The Special Period began in 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and the government's ideological emphasis became much more heavily nationalist than "socialist," no question about it. There's some talk about socialism, there's talk about Marxism, but the ideological center of gravity has moved very dramatically toward left-wing nationalism.

NP: There was a Cuban slogan "within the revolution everything, outside the revolution nothing," saying that you can have free speech as long as you stay within the basic parameters . . .

SF: But that was in 1961, and that was an excuse to justify the suppression of Lunes de Revolucion, the weekly literary supplement of Revolucion, the main revolutionary newspaper. This supplement was an excellent, free wheeling leftist journal publishing just about everybody on the international left.

NP: OK, but today, what if someone said "I support the revolution, I support socialism, here's why we need to democratize it." Would that person have any more leeway than these right-of-center dissidents?

SF: Well, let's look at the case of Haroldo Dilla, who is now in the Dominican Republic. Dilla was part of the Center for the Study of Americas, a Communist Party think tank. The Center was not part of a university, and so he was not a professor, he was a researcher. As it happens, he was one of the more important researchers there. Some other people in that think- tank, like the economist Julio Carranza, one of the most important Cuban economists, began to play around with notions of market socialism, while not challenging Castro in any way whatsoever. Eventually he got into trouble, and there was concern that he and other members of the Center might even go to prison, but they didn't. The Center was dissolved and the researchers were spread out to other institutions. The hard-line party faction took over the Center's facilities, and it was revived but with a totally different staff. The people who were independent thinkers were dispersed. Haroldo stuck to his guns and what particularly got him into big trouble was that he advocated a multi-party system. I quoted him in an article for New Politics ("Cuba Today and Prospects For Change," Summer 2000). After that they expelled him from the Cuban Communist Party, and ruled that he could not leave Cuba for a period of no fewer than five years. But he was able to hustle out of that and leave Cuba. I don't know how he managed to leave. By the way, under Cuban practice the Party can restrict the movement of at least present or expelled party members. They don't even have to take the trouble to go through the judicial process.

NP: What is the nature of the Cuban regime? If it's not socialist, what is it?

SF: It's certainly not a socialist society because the working class and the rest of the population do not have democratic control over decision-making. It's one variety of what and I and others call "bureaucratic collectivism." Bureaucratic collectivist societies, where a ruling class controls property politically through its control of an undemocratic state rather than individually or privately, differ from each other, but share a basic character -- just as capitalist countries vary among themselves: Sweden is not Japan is not the United States.

NP: Is there rough economic equality in Cuba?

SF: In comparison to what? In comparison to the extremes of wealth and poverty in a number of Latin American countries, yes, there is comparative economic equality. But that doesn't mean that there are not significant and important inequalities in Cuba, within the context of the distribution of the available resources in the country. Up until recently privilege has been largely monopolized by the party bureaucracy. Today, with the growing role of semi-public, semi- private functionaries in the joint venture sector, and possibly even some private entrepreneurs, we see the addition of new privileged groups.

NP: What is the relationship of today's Castro government to the original revolution?

SF: The original revolution was a popular democratic revolution, which later evolved into a bureaucratic and undemocratic form. I personally would have wanted Cuba to go beyond the reform program of the original revolution, but in the direction of deepening democracy to extend popular control over the economy as well as the political sphere, not in the direction of dictatorship, as unfortunately happened.

Current U.S. Policy

NP: Could you say something about current trends in U.S. policy toward Cuba?

SF: First of all, it should be clear that the U.S. government continues to see Cuba as an obstacle to its imperialist control of the western hemisphere, Washington's "backyard." However, it is also true that since the collapse of the USSR, Cuba has lost a great deal of its importance in the eyes of the U.S. empire. In order to describe these new conditions, some time ago I used the analogy of the "rotten fruit falling," meaning that the U.S. intention was to maintain the blockade and let the regime fall under those pressures. Now and then they also like to shake up the tree to hasten the fruit falling. Today we might be witnessing one of those situations. An earlier example of this tree shaking was the Helms-Burton bill, approved into law in 1996, which greatly strengthened the blockade. The current administration has given a lot of thought to ways of tightening the blockade, but the measures they are contemplating are double-edged. One of the most powerful measures would be to severely restrict the remittances that Cubans in the U.S. can send to the island. It is estimated that approximately $800 million a year is sent by Cubans abroad to their relatives in Cuba. A huge bulk of that comes from the United States. Cubans in other countries also send money -- Spain, Venezuela, Mexico, and so on -- but the overwhelming majority of that money comes from the United States.

NP: How significant is $800 million?

SF: It is very significant. It is probably the second largest source of revenue for Cuba after tourism and probably as important as sugar, maybe even more so, because the sugar industry has been in crisis over the last several years. About a year or two ago the government shut down around a third of the sugar mills because the price of sugar, which had been oscillating between six and eight cents a pound, was not enough even to pay for the cost of production. Remittances from abroad and tourism are critical to the national economy. Now the Bush administration may impose other restrictions. For example, they can make it very difficult for non-Cubans to travel to Cuba. For the time being, any professional association -- doctors, professors, nurses, librarians, architects, and so on -- can organize a trip to Cuba if it relates to the conduct of professional business. Bush is likely to stop all of that and restrict traveling only to Cubans going to Cuba under the heading of humanitarian reasons.

Stopping non- Cuban visits to Cuba poses minimal political cost to the Bush administration. The more difficult and also more significant thing that they can do is restrict the flow of remittances. But this is tricky because the Cubans in the U.S. who holler and scream loudest about overthrowing the Cuban government right now are some of the same people who actually send money to relatives in Cuba. Bush may still decide to cut remittances and pay the political cost; I'm not saying he won't, but we don't know that.

NP: Would you say that there is a battle going on within the administration over Cuba that is analogous to the debates that have taken place about Iraq and Iran? That within a generally reactionary framework there is a more bellicose faction and a more moderate faction?

SF: Absolutely. These tensions are also found within the Cuban-American community. Not too far back a right-wing faction split from the already right-wing Cuban- American National Foundation (CANF). The group that left was upset about what they considered a softening up on the part of CANF. So, I suspect there is a tug of war between the various and sundry right-wing groups. They are all reactionary and pro-imperialist, I might add, but nonetheless, they have tactical differences of significance when it comes to this issue. A major difference between the Middle East and Cuba is that Cuba, notwithstanding all the recent flak, has been a decidedly lower priority for U.S. foreign policy since the early 1990s.

NP: Are the members of the administration who are most hawkish on Iraq, Iran, Syria, and North Korea the same ones who favor a more aggressive posture towards Cuba?

SF: Yes, but with two provisos: one of them is that I don't think that Wolfowitz and company are as invested in the issue of Cuba as they are in the Middle East, in part because of Israel and in part for a variety of other reasons. Another complication is the increasing interest on the part of very often right-wing Midwestern farm state Republicans in trading with Cuba. It is interesting that when Ashcroft was a senator from Missouri, before he lost his seat and was nominated Attorney General, he was careful about not going overboard on the issue of the Cuban blockade because he had a business constituency in Missouri that was very eager to sell its products there. He was still right-wing, obviously, but within that context, he tried to tone things down because of the pressures he was getting from big agriculture -- we're talking Archer Daniels Midland, and other major players in agribusiness. Many of these big companies have already done business with Cuba, under the new legislation which allows so-called humanitarian trade. When the Cubans pay in cash, as they have been doing in the last couple of years, they are able to purchase grains and other foods grown and processed in the U.S. There is no limit to that, provided it is paid in cash. Incidentally, this has created a certain amount of resentment among the Europeans because they've been trading with Cuba all along.

NP: Is there pressure from the Republican business constituency to lift the embargo altogether and allow free trade?

SF: The House recently approved a bill that would have eliminated the travel ban to Cuba. It would not have undermined the entire blockade, but it would have made a huge dent in it by facilitating tourism. The bill did not reach the Senate, but it passed the House by a substantial majority, including an important number of Midwestern Republicans. Tourism is of course Cuba's number one industry, so this would have opened a big hole.

NP: Let me put the question about the Bush administration in a more general way. Do you think we should rule out the possibility that this administration might decide to impose regime change on Cuba?

SF: Well, as we saw from Iraq nothing is impossible, and everything is possible. I think what is on the agenda right now, though, is a tightening of the blockade, which is bad enough. The canceling of remittances to Cuba, if they get to that point, would be a major blow to the Cuban economy and to ordinary Cubans. Maybe the Bush administration is ready and willing to pay the political price. By the way, that doesn't mean an automatic end of remittances; but remittances would become much more expensive because then you'd have to go through third countries. That is, it would be a bonanza for the banks in the Bahamas and Cancun and other nearby places, but it would reduce the flow of money into Cuba. That is what is on the actual agenda for at least the near future. Beyond that anything is possible.

There is, however, another form of pressure, which is to make it more difficult for Cubans to get visas to come to the U.S. In 1994, an agreement was made at the time of the last balseros, the people who come from Cuba to the U.S. on little rubber tubes. After the last balsero crisis in 1994, an immigration agreement was signed by the United States and Cuba by which the United States agreed to issue 20,000 visas a year. They are currently issuing far fewer visas than the agreement stipulates, possibly as a way of putting pressure on the Cuban government, but also because the U.S. has gotten very reactionary on the general issue of visas since September 11. So that is another element in the picture.

I find it very doubtful that the Bush administration would like to provoke another Mariel crisis -- the exodus to Florida of approximately 125,000 Cubans in the spring of 1980. It is very possible and in fact quite likely, however, that they want to increase tensions inside Cuba in order to accelerate the collapse of the government from within -- through a military coup, particularly if Castro were to die of natural causes, to give an example.

NP: Do most visas go to those with relatives in the U.S.?

SF: Most. But some of them come through something called the visa lottery. That is, people who are unrelated to Cubans living in the U.S. can apply to be put into this lottery. The visa lottery has helped many people get to the U.S. Far more applicants of course enter the lottery than the number of visas given this way, which altogether between relatives and non-relatives is supposed to be 20,000. It's not a hell of a lot of people, but many fewer than that are being allowed in right now.

NP: Why aren't the Cuban-American groups in Miami making a fuss about this?

SF: The really hardcore right-wingers are happy to see various kinds of restrictions imposed, even at the cost of hurting ordinary Cubans. Some of them believe that limiting the number of visas, for example, or cutting off the flow of remittances, are useful tools to put pressure and eventually get rid of the Cuban government.

NP: But the U.S. is currently in violation of an agreement that it previously reached?

SF: Yes, in 1994. This is also when the so-called Wet/Dry policy was put into effect. Under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, if a Cuban makes it to American territory he or she is eligible to apply for asylum. Under the 1994 Migration Agreement, if they are stopped at sea they are returned to Cuba, though if they make it to U.S. soil they are still let in. Under both Clinton and Bush Junior hundreds and hundreds of Cuban refugees have been sent back to Cuba because they didn't make it to the U.S. mainland.

The Wet/Dry Policy

NP: The term Wet/Dry refers to whether you hit land or whether you hit water. Turning back those in the water is official U.S. policy?

SF: Yes, it has been so since 1994. Once the Cuban-Americans in Miami organized a huge demonstration because the Coast Guard was literally hitting people within sight of the beach.

NP: Hitting?

SF: Actually beating people to keep them from making it to dry land. There is a contradiction at the heart of U.S. policy toward Cuban refugees. On the one hand, the U.S. government wants to use people who seek asylum as a political tool; on the other hand, they don't want mass migration. I doubt very much that even the most right-wing folks in the U.S. government want a repeat of what took place in 1980, when 125,000 Cubans came to the U.S. within a period of a few months.

NP: But the Cuban government would probably like to get rid of some people as a safety valve, and so by not letting them do that it helps destabilize the regime.

SF: It certainly builds more pressure inside the country against the government, no question about it.

NP: On the other hand, Cubans in Florida have relatives they'd like to get out of Cuba.

SF: Exactly. This is where there are contradictory pressures on both sides, if you will. And that's why the issue for Bush of stopping remittances is a tricky one and why there are divided opinions within the administration, though none of them are motivated by any love for the Cuban government, obviously. Here is also a contradiction between the individual level and the collective level. Individuals are thinking about their relatives; at the collective level, they are thinking about getting rid of Castro. They don't want to do that at the expense of having their relatives suffer. Somebody else's relatives, that's OK, but not theirs.

NP: I understand that this Wet/Dry policy had some bearing on the case of some accused or actual hijackers who made it to Florida and have not been imprisoned; the Cuban government has pointed to this as proof that U.S. policy promotes hijacking. Could you comment on this?

SF: Shortly after the recent crackdown in Cuba with the executions and arrests and so on, James Cason went on Cuban television to say that people should not try to go on their own to the U.S. and that they would be arrested and so on. The Cuban government gave him time on Cuban TV to make this announcement. The big contrast here, of course, is between the treatment of Haitians who come to Miami, who are treated like dirt, and the treatment of Cubans.

Also, on the Cuban side there is another contradiction, in that the government is happy to let 20,000 people leave each year as a safety value but on the other hand there is no right to travel in Cuba. That is, it doesn't just take a U.S. visa to get out of Cuba. Your exit has to be approved by the Cuban government. At least during the last decade, the government has eventually granted permission in most cases, but not always.

NP: So you're saying that under the Wet/Dry policy, as long as you make it to dry land -- even if you are a hijacker and have broken all kinds of international laws -- you are granted asylum. And that this kind of deal is not offered to people coming from other places, of course, such as Haiti.

SF: Right. Obviously there is a favoritism here.

NP: Do you think the U.S. is encouraging, or at least condoning, hijacking?

SF: Not officially. But there are other elements to the story. For example, state and federal courts in Florida tend to be lenient toward hijackers from Cuba as well as opponents of the Cuban regime who use violence. There is a definite bias in the Florida courts, and a tendency to go very easy on people who make it to the U.S. On the other hand, the U.S. government does not want to encourage tens of thousands of Cubans to suddenly enter the United States. They don't mind playing up individual attempts to escape but they don't want another mass exodus into the country.

NP: There are some people on the left who say there is a more or less imminent threat of a U.S. invasion of Cuba. Would you dismiss that?

SF: I don't think that's on the immediate agenda. As a longer range possibility, as I said before, anything is possible. In terms of the current plans, I have seen nothing to indicate that is the case, except for pronouncements of a clear electoral, demagogic, character, such as from Jeb Bush in Florida.

NP: They can only invade so many countries at the same time.

SF: The principal issue in this context is not how many wars they can fight at the same time, the issue is their general perspective and the significance of any particular country for their world imperial plans. Proximity plays a role here in that they do not want to promote a massive refugee crisis in Florida.

NP: But to push the argument, this administration seems extraordinarily interested in achieving a "demonstration effect" through the projection of military power in different areas of the world. In the case of Latin America, we have seen new left-leaning governments emerge, in countries like Venezuela and Brazil, and the U.S. government could conceivably go to war with the Cubans to demonstrate their reach and power. Or is it that the administration believes it can control these left-wing governments successfully using other, largely economic means? That is, why should they resort to military invasion of Cuba when the IMF seems to be all they need to keep Latin American governments in line?

SF: Look, we have to examine the evidence. There is a large amount of evidence that indicates that the groundwork for an invasion of Iraq was laid over the past few years and especially since September 11. I am thinking in particular of the strategic thinking pushed by the likes of Wolfowitz, Perle, and company. It's not like people were predicting the invasion of Iraq out of thin air; there was a solid documentary record indicating that was exactly what they were going to do. This was not a deductive exercise. I haven't seen evidence of the same kind indicating that Cuba is next in line.

But, I think we cannot minimize the fact that the measures the Bush people are contemplating are very harmful. Consider that there is a serious tourism crisis throughout the world. The combination of SARS in Asia, a world recession, war in Iraq, and 9-11: all of this has led to a serious crisis in tourism. In the case of Cuba, the events of September 11 resulted in something like a 5 percent drop in tourism, and these recent U.S. actions are potentially more threatening to the Cuban economy. If the U.S. government took the step of severely cutting remittances, combined with the decline in the tourist trade, coming, in the case of Cuba, primarily from countries such as Germany, Italy, Spain, and Canada, that would be a very serious blow to the Cuban economy.

There is a tendency for the pro-Cuba North American left to dismiss the measures the Bush administration is now likely to take as somehow unimportant, especially in contrast to an actual invasion. I think that there is a misunderstanding of just what hitting remittances to Cuba would mean. It's not just a minor item on the agenda; it is very serious stuff. Somehow these things tend to be dismissed as if the only real thing that counts is an invasion.

I also think the whole thing about an imminent invasion was manufactured by the Cuban government as a response to the larger than usual international left-wing protests against the executions and long imprisonment terms that were recently imposed against dozens of dissidents. The scale of these protests surprised me and I think it surprised the Cuban government as well. In reaction to this controversy the writer Gabriel Garcìa Màrquez declared that people who criticized the Cuban government were helping to justify a U.S. invasion. In this he was echoing the position of the Cuban government. Clearly the government would like the international left to either give it unqualified support or shut up.

Again, the measures that are being contemplated are potentially devastating to the Cuban economy. For people such as myself in the U.S. and elsewhere who are against imperialism and against violating the rights of national self-determination in Cuba and elsewhere this is the central actionable issue at hand.

NP: Could you say a little more about how the Europeans were upset about the U.S. policy of hard currency for humanitarian aid?

SF: In its broader meaning the issue is whether Cuba is using its scarce hard currency reserves to buy food from the United States and not from the Europeans, who have been trading with the Cuban government for many years. Behind that there lies another concern, which is what will happen after the blockade, when there is likely to be a surge of U.S. investment into the country.

NP: If the U.S. announced tomorrow it was totally lifting the blockade, that would mean fewer sales for European companies and that's just a matter of their market being cut into.

SF: Right.

NP: Is that all this is about?

SF: There is the question of the limited hard currency the government currently has available -- dollars, British pounds, Euros, and so on -- which is now being used to buy U.S.- made farm and food products. There has been some concern in Europe along the lines of "Hey, we've been your loyal customers for all this time. Are you forgetting about us?" I'm not going to exaggerate, it's not a huge crisis -- it's an undercurrent. Now, the fact is that the Europeans have heavily invested in Cuba. There are a number of joint ventures, often with Spanish capital. The Italians are very heavily involved in the telephone system in Cuba. The Canadians are very heavily invested in nickel; Cuba is one of the main producers of nickel in the world so the Canadians have the market on that. Israel has significant investment in Cuban citrus production. They have the biggest citrus plantation in the world in central Cuba -- the citrus plantation is a joint venture between Israeli capital and the Cuban government. In the long run there is potential tension between European capital and U.S. capital.

NP: Could you say a little about the "Cuban Five"?

SF: Yes. The Helms-Burton Act of the mid-1990s severely strengthened the embargo of Cuba, which had been somewhat liberalized in the late 1970s. It passed because President Clinton, who had originally said he would veto the bill, decided that because of Cuba's shooting down the Brothers to the Rescue plane over the strait of Florida in 1996 he would sign the bill.

The Brothers to the Rescue is a right-wing group that has given up armed combat in favor of the propaganda war. By 1996 they had already flown at least one or two unarmed missions over Cuban airspace, dropping leaflets over Havana. In this particular instance they were shot down as they were going towards Cuba, but whether they were over Cuban waters or international waters is in dispute. Following this incident, five Cuban security agents in Miami were accused of providing information to the Cuban government that led to the shooting down of the plane. The Cuban government had apparently infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue, as they had also done inside Cuba with certain opposition groups. The security agents were tried in federal court in Miami and were given heavy sentences. The case is currently under appeal in Atlanta and the appeal court hasn't yet determined whether due process was violated or not. The charge was not spying as such, but spying leading to the shooting down of this plane and the killing of the two people who were on the plane.

There was another spying case involving a Puerto Rican woman named Ana Belen Montes. She was a functionary at one of the U.S. government security agencies in Washington and she had been providing information to the Cuban government. After some plea bargaining, she was also given a heavy sentence, but the Cuban government has not said a word about it. People in Cuba don't know anything about this case and the government has not yet released any information about her.

NP: She was a spy in the traditional sense?

SF: Well, the five security agents were spies too, but against the Cuban right wing in Miami rather than the U.S. government as such. Cuba has maintained a spy network for many years, as you would expect. As a matter of fact there is a whole literary genre in Cuban literature about this kind of story, some of them based on true experience, some of them fiction, based on the actions of Cuban agents in Miami. On the one hand, the five were carrying out activities that could be considered legitimate from the point of view of Cuban self determination against aggression directly or indirectly inspired by the U.S. government. On the other hand, they are also agents of Cuban state repression. You can be sure that they would also have informed on other Cuban dissidents in Florida even if these had not been right-wing and pro-imperialist. There are also other issues that are relevant here such as whether the five agents of Cuban state security could have gotten anything like a fair trial in Miami.

Liberalization Without Democratization

NP: What has brought about the partial liberalization of the Cuban system in recent years?

SF: The economic crisis of the nineties forced the government to ease up, both politically and economically. Obviously there were economic problems since the early 1980s. In the mid 1980s Cuba suspended payments on its foreign debt. This was before the Soviet Union told the Cuban government that they were not willing to pour scarce resources into the Cuban economy by means of the so-called subsidies.

NP: Why do you say "so-called"?

SF: So-called because who establishes the "true" value of a particular commodity in the capitalist world market? How is this possible? All these things can be put in quotes. In a world dominated by the capitalist marketplace, what is the true value of anything? The world market is not a natural phenomenon, but rather it is a social arrangement based on objective realities -- the law of value and all its implications. It is a very powerful and crushing arrangement, but still a social arrangement for which there is a potential alternative social arrangement -- i.e., a democratic and international socialism. In any event, there were problems even before Gorbachev and during the early 1990s, in the Special Period, there was a major crisis in the Cuban economy which severely hit the mass of the population, particularly in the years 1992 to 1994.

When I was in Cuba in January of 2000, I was surprised by the degree to which that particular two-year period had impacted the collective consciousness of the Cuban population, regardless of point of view. I spoke to people of diverse political viewpoints, ranging from strong supporters of the regime to strong opponents of it. Everyone referred back to what they had gone through from 1992 to 1994, in terms of drastic shortages, health problems, hunger, and so on.

It was during this period that the Cuban government encouraged or at least permitted certain forms of market activity. Holding dollars, for example, was made legal in Cuba in 1993. In order to wipe out the black market the Cuban government simply began to pay whatever the market said pesos were worth and the last figure I heard was something like 20 or 22 pesos to the dollar. That has fluctuated a little bit, but usually it has been in that range. The government allowed some kinds of small private enterprises, including little family restaurants and private farms. Once a private farmer has fulfilled his quota to the state he can sell the remainder under market conditions with certain government restrictions. On the one hand, this helped to improve the consumer goods situation, particularly for people who had access to dollars, because a lot of this was sold in dollars. Anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of the Cuban population has some access to dollars -- meaning that a sizable number of people don't, which has fostered greater levels of economic and social inequality.

NP: Presumably the people who have access to dollars are mostly people who receive remittances, as well as people who work in the tourism industry.

SF: Remittances, as I've indicated, are very important. And if you work with tourists then you have a certain access to dollars in that even if your salary is in pesos your tips are likely to be in dollars or pounds or whatever. And of course taxi drivers often expect to be paid in foreign currency. I found tremendous disaffection, which is at least partially based on material factors, among many academics and professionals, because these people are less likely to have contact with the tourist industry and are therefore less likely to see dollars. This is a source of continuing discontent.

There are millions of Black people in Cuba, although nobody knows for sure how you define Black in Cuba. But the rule of thumb is that about half the population is in some sense or another Black. Black people in Cuba are much less likely to have access to dollars than other people do. There is racial discrimination in who gets hired in the tourism industry. There is a tendency to hire people with a "good appearance" who, because of the abiding impact of racism are much more likely to be white. This has created a lot of stresses in Cuban society. So the 1990s was a period when new social tensions and lines of demarcation developed inside Cuban society.

It is also possible to argue that a certain degree of liberalization was introduced in the 1990s in part because the government no longer had command of the resources to maintain its strict surveillance mechanisms. By the mid 1990s, for example, there were many districts in Havana where the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the CDRs, had effectively stopped functioning.

NP: Those are the neighborhood . . .

SF: The neighborhood watch groups. But these didn't exist anymore because people were too busy trying to earn dollars, working two or three jobs, and so on. I don't know the full story, but clearly the government's system of surveillance has deteriorated.

NP: Isn't this largely an issue of morale? If people had more enthusiasm for the regime then they would be more likely to participate in these sorts of officially sponsored monitoring groups.

SF: Absolutely. At the same time there has been a certain liberalization -- not democratization -- in the intellectual, artistic, and academic worlds. A number of specialized intellectual journals in Cuba are relatively more free-ranging. Provided they don't talk about Fidel Castro or criticize or oppose the government, they can get away with a lot more than they used to get away with.

NP: Like what?

SF: For example, Temas, which is one of the more important magazines, recently had an issue that included a wide-ranging panel discussion on the question of the marginalized people in Havana. Now they don't address systemic issues in that discussion, of course, but just discussing the subject matter at all is a new thing.

NP: This is reminiscent of what went on in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s where sociologists were allowed to examine the seamier sides of society for the first time since the inception of Communism in the country.

SF: I've been subscribing to Granma, the Communist Party daily newspaper. Ever since 1990, I've been getting it two to three weeks later in New York. A couple of months ago it stopped coming, after thirteen years of normal delivery. I called the people at the Center for Cuban Studies, where I ordered the subscription, and I said now that I have you on the phone, I was wondering if you could change my subscription to get Temas and La Gaceta de Cuba, which is, as I stated earlier, the magazine of UNEAC, the artist and writers' union in Cuba. Granma is a very dull paper, the Communist Party's official organ. It occurred to me that maybe this is the time to change to publications that at least I can get something out of. I haven't found out yet whether they will let me switch my prepaid subscription, but both Temas and La Gaceta publish things that are of interest.

NP: These signs of vitality were not always there, were they?

SF: Absolutely not. One of the things that will be interesting to see is the extent to which the recent crackdown will reverse this greater tolerance, how much it will affect the limits of speech in cultural and intellectual journals.

The crackdown itself was concentrated on whatever political opposition exists in the context of a worsening economic crisis that is perhaps linked to possible future problems in tourism. The government might be concerned that popular discontent might eventually find expression in one or more of the various and sundry opposition groups. They are also worried about more immediate forms of political disorder. In 1994, for example, there were significant riots in Havana at the high point of the economic crisis I have just described. At that time there was no connection between that and any type of political opposition. My question, and I have no evidence to prove this, is whether this recent crackdown was connected to the fear that another serious economic crisis is going to have effects that it didn't have in 1994, and that's why they are using the war on Iraq as a moment to do it. This is just a hypothesis -- I believe a reasonable one, but of course, I cannot prove this.

NP: So would it be correct to say that while in the last few years, at least up until now, magazines like Temas could publish something about a social problem that has been otherwise neglected, they cannot openly criticize the government?

SF: There is one fellow, Pedro Juan Gutierrez, a member of the National Union of Writers, who is more or less tolerated by the regime. He wrote a "dirty trilogy" about the lives of the poorest and most marginal people in Havana. He was published abroad, not in Cuba, but he is living and writing in Cuba. There is that kind of latitude for expression. To give you another example: Gaceta de Cuba, which is the organ of the National Union of Writers and Artists in Cuba, has published well-regarded exiled poets, including a right-wing Black poet named Gaston Baquero, who had been exiled in Spain ever since the revolution. He is considered by people in the know to be a very fine poet. Things of that sort would have been unthinkable in the old days. And they no longer feel the need to refer to such writers in footnotes as "Traitors to the Revolution," as used to be the case.

The Politics of the Crackdown

NP: I'd like to return to the question of James Cason and the recent crackdown. Some have said that if the Cuban government felt that what Cason was doing was so terrible then they could have simply thrown him out of the country, rather than arrest people for taking part in what some might call building civil society.

SF: The fact is that there is no freedom of the press, or freedom of speech or any of those freedoms in Cuba. That sets the context. If the government in Cuba provided facilities for democratic speech, so that individuals could engage in peaceful, political activity I would have a totally different outlook on the question of legal punishment for people who receive aid from the outside. But the fact of the matter is that those rights do not exist. The ruling Communist Party decides who should be able to publish, who can have access to a printing press and so on.

NP: You're not saying they have to provide facilities, you're saying they have to not place obstacles, right?

SF: At a bare minimum. By the way, Lenin wrote some interesting things about freedom of the press, before he was in power, which I quote in my book Before Stalinism: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Democracy (Verso 1990). He thought this thing out and he advocated that citizens' groups should be entitled to free press facilities. This could become a very real issue in Cuba, because I am not in favor of a post-Castro environment where the U.S. government and businesses, as they did in Central America, come in with millions and millions of dollars and drown out any possibility of democratic debate among the Cuban people themselves. I would support the outlawing of foreign funding if existing publishing facilities were distributed in a democratic fashion and were not monopolized by one party (or class of rich people).

Allowing for some possible exceptions here or there, these people are not spies. They are not strangers who were parachuted into Cuba from the United States. They are people who respond to Cuban conditions in ways that express one point of view. A considerable number of them are people who grew up within the system. This is not to say that I don't disagree with these people about a large number of fundamental issues; I most certainly do. In fact, many of these are people I consider to be my political opponents. But this is a question for political debate, not a police matter. The people that the Cuban government has singled out for punishment have a democratic right to peaceful, free expression.

The fact is that the Cuban government prefers to see police action replacing political debate. This is not to suggest that the content of this debate is necessarily progressive or leftist in any way. And that is a serious problem. As I have already said, the center of gravity of dissent and opposition inside Cuba is pro-capitalist and pro-U.S. There are variations of course. But there is very little disagreement about the supposed magic of the marketplace. However, that's a political issue to be debated, not a subject for police action.

NP: Does this support for the market extend into such areas as healthcare?

SF: Here's where there is a big difference between the organized opposition and the much broader range of discontented people in Cuba. Many of those who are unhappy with the system in Cuba want the famous mixed economy model, combining the market with a generous welfare state -- whereas the right-wing opposition tends to favor the American model. There is a very important magazine called Encuentro published in Madrid which recently published a long article by Carmelo Mesa-Lago, who is probably the most important Cuban economist in exile. He is by no means a right-winger, but either a social democrat or a U.S.-style liberal. His article for Encuentro concerns the situation in Cuba and among the issues he discusses is what medical system should replace the one that exists in Cuba today. Essentially what he proposes is something similar to the U.S. system -- one system for those who cannot afford it, like Medicaid, and one system for those who can afford private care. This tells you something about the shift to the right.

I was taken aback because Mesa-Lago is not a traditional right-winger by any means. But that shows what we're up against. Now, in Cuba, many independent-minded people say "we want capitalism with a well-funded medical care system as we used to have in Cuba until the 1990s." That would be their basic perspective. Obviously ever since the early 1990s the healthcare system in Cuba has deteriorated dramatically, but the mixed economy formulation still resonates for broad layers of discontented people. I am referring to people who are disillusioned with the regime and have not conceived of the possibility that socialism can mean something very different from what is upheld by the Cuban government.

NP: An ordinary Cuban, who may be very pro-U.S., pro-market, who would consider themselves right-wing or whatever, would still not want to be trapped without health care insurance, as is the reality for more than forty million people in the U.S. today. It's actually unimaginable to most people in Cuba what a free market health care system is really like.

SF: Unfortunately, they may find out.

NP: Some say that the people who have been arrested were taking money and doing Cason's bidding. What does it mean to be doing his bidding and what is the evidence that they were doing so?

SF: What Cason wanted, obviously, was to create trouble. He was making friends, building networks, and trying to put pressure on the regime. But I don't think he was giving out detailed tactical instructions to the majority of those arrested or anything like that.

NP: Do your thing, knowing that when you do your thing, it'll make trouble for the government?

SF: Yes.

NP: Well, there are claims that Cason has helped set up a political party.

SF: That's possibly quite true. But either way . . .

NP: But he wouldn't expect to run it directly himself?

SF: Again, let me emphasize the term "center of gravity." There is an entire spectrum of people who are independent and/or opposition-minded. There are people who are in the opposition who are directly tied into the U.S. Embassy and there is a much broader milieu. Cason was most likely trying to reach out to this wider community, and not just to his much smaller group of political agents. We should also have a sense of proportion and keep in mind that even this broader milieu is still small and marginal. One can guess that there might have been a couple of spies or agents among the people that the Cuban authorities arrested, but I do not know that. Nevertheless, the overall political character of those who were arrested is fairly clear: the bulk of them were arrested not for digging up information to transmit to the U.S. authorities but for their political activities.

NP: Some people say that the only alternative to the present one-party and undemocratic rule in Cuba would be brutal inequality, mass poverty, a return to conditions like those under Batista. Do you agree?

SF: As long as Cuba is not integrated into an authentically socialist global or at least regional economy, nothing that anyone does can eliminate poverty in Cuba in the foreseeable future -- regardless of what system exists. The question is whether there is a system in which people can defend themselves from exploitation and oppression by either bureaucrats or plutocrats and thus diminish poverty in the country. Only people's ability to organize democratically can give them the tools to do so.

The best thing that the people in the U.S. can do is to see that the blockade and all other forms of hostility against the Republic of Cuba cease and desist, and that normal diplomatic and economic relations are reestablished, thereby allowing maximum room for the Cuban people to make their own choices. Beyond that, we all need to work for a world in which the sharp inequality of wealth between "first world" and "third world" countries is ended, once and for all.


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Cuba Section

Contents of No. 35

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