In what ways have the Cuban people been negatively affected by the blockade?
The performance of the Cuban economy and the life circumstances of many Cubans are affected by many things. In the last few years, in the 1990s, the main effect has come from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The destruction of the Soviet Union meant that the economic assistance and the assistance of many different kinds, that Cuba received from abroad, came to an end. The life standard of people, the income of ordinary Cubans, decreased by about one-third in a period of just four years. So the main impact lowering the standard of living of Cubans in the last few years came from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Then, the two other factors, one is the way the Cuban Government has managed the economy and the other is the effect of US policy toward Cuba. Those two are also very important, but they come second and third after the impact of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, the US trade embargo, as it is called in the United States, or the US economic blockade, as it is called in Cuba, has a number of effects.
It is the tightest policy of US economic penalties or economic sanctions on any country in the world with which the United States is not at war, so it really is very tough. It makes it virtually impossible for any economic transactions between the US and Cuba except for charitable donations.
So, for example, it is illegal to export food from the United States to Cuba or to buy anything from Cuba. It is in effect illegal, there are some complicated procedures that would make it legal, but in fact there's no trade in medicine. So if a Cuban gets sick you cannot import medicine from the United States. Similarly, the same thing happens with other forms of equipment such as machinery, or instruments of various kinds, so it is a very tight embargo.
The US over the years, with very little success, but nonetheless has attempted, to prevent other countries, to discourage companies based in other countries, from trading with Cuba. The effect of that has not been to prevent trade with Cuba by other countries but to make that trade more expensive. If I am a firm in Canada or I am a firm in Singapore or I am a firm in Germany, trying to trade with Cuba, I now am afraid that the US Government will punish me. Therefore, I charge the Cuban customer more money to compensate for the risk of trading with Cuba.
So, although that other trade with third, fourth, fifth countries is not prohibited, it is expensive and it is an indirect impact of US policy.
What types of punishments has the US government been able to take against foreign firms?
If you are a merchant marine company, a shipping company, and your ships trade with Cuba, you cannot birth at US harbors for a period of months, for example. So you are denied access to the US market.
If you are an executive of Sherritt International, a Canadian mining firm, you are denied the right to visit the United States as a tourist.
There are a number of these steps, they are not very many, but they are enough to try to frighten firms, business executives, from other activities engaging in trade with Cuba.
Do you think Fidel Castro was justified in nationalizing US property?
The Cuban Government took over US firms in 1960, now a long time ago, it was a time when they took over not only US companies but any other private firms, foreign as well as Cuban.
It was the time of the birth of what was called the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban Government justified that measure in a couple of ways. One was an attempt to defend the nation against a hostile world and in particular the United States. It was describing it as if you are engaged in war. The Cuban Government also justified it as part of an attitude, an orientation toward how to run a country, that it was better if the government owned all the means of production, agriculture, industry, service, in order to plan rationally. That is what is sometimes called the ideology of Communism.
It was probably true that the Cuban Government's sense of external threat and national security warranted seizing control over the economy. It turned out to be not true that the Cuban Government was able to more effectively manage firms than they would be if ordinary citizen were able to run them. The planned economy in Cuba never worked very well. One of the problems of the last century has been that governments are often not very good at managing hot dog stands or hamburger stands.
How strongly are the American Government's decisions influenced by campaign contributions from exile groups?
The US Government's policy towards Cuba is influenced by a variety of factors, one of them is campaign contributions from Cuban-American groups in the United States.
The Cuban-American political actions committees, known also by the initials PACs, began to be organized in the early 1980s. They became very strong and very influential. The strongest of these entities influencing politics is called the Cuban-American national foundation. There are other groups, some may be working with the foundation, but are formally separate, that take a variety of stands in generating campaign contributions to members of Congress. That is clearly a major factor.
The other, most important factor is simply the legacy, the inertia, the continuity, of US policies toward Cuba; which no President of the United States for a long time has wanted to change. But yes, campaign contributions plan an important role.
How does Cuban democracy compare to politics in other Latin American countries and how does it compare to American democracy?
One way to think about democracy in Cuba more generally is to try to say clearly what one means by that word. By democracy I understand a variety of things. One is that people who govern are chosen through elections where there is a widespread right to vote and participate. And, there is clear contestation, there are at least two political parties that can compete fairly where the votes are fairly counted and where those who govern are in fact the people chosen in those elections.
By those standards, Cuba is not a democracy and has not been a democracy now since the Revolution. Cuban elections, Cuban electoral law, mandates that when you elect members of the Cuban National Assembly, what for us would be the Congress, the number of posts available is identical to the number of candidates. So your only choice is not to vote for another candidate, your only choice is to abstain, to leave a spot blank. There is no competition for office. In that sense the elections don't matter very much because ordinary citizens don't choose those who govern.
It used to be, through the 1970s and into a good part of the 1980s, most Latin American countries were governed by dictatorships. They were a different kind of regime from that of Cuba, but those who governed the country were not elected, they were not chosen in free and fair elections.
Today, for the most part, most Latin American countries have Presidents and Congresses that are elected in elections where there is wide participation and significant contestation and competition. And that is the main difference in the organization of political life between Cuba and other Latin American countries.
Another thing to be said is then, one should ask a second questions. Not just whether a country is organized as a democracy, but whether the government governs wisely, and effectively, and well, in ways that improve the living circumstances of people. And some democracies govern well and others not. There are many democratic regimes in Latin America that really are quite inept and many are quite corrupt.
Unfortunately, Cuba in the 1990s, the Cuban Government has not been very effective either. So quite apart from the question of democracy, one of the problems in Cuba in the 1990s has been the marked decline in the quality of life. At other times, particularly when Cuba still had significant economic assistance from the Soviet Union, the Cuban Government accomplished many important and very worthwhile activities.
They taught every kid to read and write, it brought about a very significant increase in the number of students enrolled in schools. Cuba today has universal literacy, everyone knows how to read and write, most children now go through school into high school and most Cubans have now had a ninth grade education.
The Cuban health care system is excellent, it has a great man medical doctors and nurses. The problem in the 1990s is suppose you get sick. You go to a doctor, the doctor is terrific, figures out what's wrong with you, prescribes the medicine, you can't buy the medicine, it doesn't exist. That is the tragedy of Cuba in the 1990s. It is not that you don't have a good physician, it's that you can't buy the prescription.
Why does the Cuban Government not allow other political parties?
The Cuban Government claims that Cuba is still almost at war with the United States. The security of the homeland, the defense of the nation, requires centralized government, national unity, the words unity in capital letters, in order to try to pool all resources.
It has the view that if there were an opposition political party acting lawfully, it would be not the party of Cubans but the party of the United States Government. That the Central Intelligence Agency or some other entities in the United States would essentially fund that opposition political party to serve the interests of the United States and not the interests of the Cuban people.
So the claim is that in order to defend the homeland and prevent this subversive activity, all other political parties, except the Communist Party of Cuba, are prohibited. I think personally that's wrong but that's the claim that they make.
How do most Cubans view Fidel Castro? Do they fear him, like him, and agree with his decisions? How do views on Mr. Castro compare with those on American presidents by the American people?
Fidel Castro is a remarkable man. He is tall by Cuban standards, he was born in 1926 and as people age they being to shrink a little bit, but he was over six feet tall and still is probably about six feet. He is heavy, so he has sort of an imposing presence, he has a large beard now speckled in gray.
He is a spectacular public speaker, interesting, thoughtful, almost seductive in the way that he speaks. He can be charming, funny, friendly. He can also be ruthless, merciless, and certainly very confident. He is a man of vision, risk-taking, and bold. He has also at times been petty, and cruel.
He is a political figure the likes of whom we probably do not have anywhere else in the world. He is extraordinarily smart, intelligent, well informed, he can also be stubborn, refuse to learn, try to block out information, almost like closing his ears and his eyes.
Cubans, therefore, over long periods of time, have had mixed emotions. I think that it is probably fair to say that at the beginning of his rule, 1959, he was wildly popular, and he remained popular for a significant period of time.
As time passed, a fair number of Cubans began to oppose him. Many of those Cubans who oppose him chose to leave the country. About 10% of those people who call themselves Cuban now live outside of Cuba. But because they emigrated, it was as if the Government exported the opposition.
Sure, they may be Cuban origin people now living in Miami or New Jersey, or whatever it may be, but they're no longer living in Cuba. By the time we get to the 1990s though, a much larger number of people, people who had been revolutionaries, had called themselves Communists, had joined forces in trying to implement and carry out the policies that Fidel Castro had advocated, came to the view that it was time for Castro to retire.
Not because they wished him ill, it's a man whom many of them still admire, but they think that his time has come to move on. That the policies that he supported are no longer working. You now have a large number of Cubans, it is very hard to tell, there are no competitive elections in Cuba, it isn't as if you have a television newsman walking up to you and saying "and what do you think of the President's performance?" It's hard to tell, but my general sense is that you now have a large number of Cubans who would prefer for Castro to step down. But it's very difficult to make that happen.
On the Missile Crisis: Had the US Government not tried to kill Mr. Castro, would he have accepted the missiles?
The US Government tried to assassinate Fidel Castro for a number of years. The first assassination plot that I know about was scheduled to take place in 1960. The last one that I know about, that was confirmed by the US Government, that there was no doubt that it happened, was in 1966.
The Cuban Government claims that assassination plots inspired by the US Government have continued since 1966, but those allegations are very hard to verify. But there's no doubt that for those half a dozen years, the United States tried to assassinate Castro.
The Missile Crisis comes in 1962, early on in this period. Castro felt that he was at war with the United States, they were trying to kill him, they were trying to overthrow his government.
The Cuban Government's decision to welcome Soviet missiles and nuclear weapons was justified, to themselves and then to the Cuban people, as an act of war. The way Castro put it was as follows. It was US policy not just to try to assassinate Castro, but also as an act of war to have what is called saturation bombing by the US air force over Cuba. His view, Castro's view, was that if they do that over what is a small country, it would be as if you dropped a nuclear weapon.
And so, given that that would have been the outcome in Cuba, that the way for Cuba to defend itself was to drop a nuclear weapon or to make it possible for the Soviets to fire a nuclear weapon the United States from Cuba. The world came closest to nuclear warfare over Cuba in 1962 than it has any time since nuclear weapons were invented in the mid 1940s.
Why did so many people leave Cuba after the Revolution?
A large number of Cubans left beginning a year and a half after the revolutionary victory, and then have been leaving Cuba in what you might call moments of immigration, episodes of immigration. Some of these moments of immigration have lasted only a few weeks, others have lasted a few years and then both the US and Cuban Governments make immigration difficult. So it looks like stops and starts of immigration. And altogether, somewhat over a million Cubans, about 10% of the population have immigrated.
They did so for many reasons. Especially at the beginning of the 1960s, many were motivated out of political disagreements. They disliked the new political system founded by Castro. Many of them had been persecuted, a number had been in prison. The feared for their lives, for their personal safety, and so they chose to emigrate.
Even from the very beginning and certainly so increasing over time, there were many people who left for the same reasons many people leave countries and move to another. Looking for a better life, more opportunities for economic advancement, better jobs, new life chances. And that is the main reason Cubans emigrate today and have done so in the 1990s.
Another set of reasons, more important in the 1960s, they still exist, but mainly historically, was religion. A significant number of Cubans who emigrated in the 1960s were religious person who felt that their capacity to express themselves in that way was repressed. The Cuban Government deported, for example, over, something like a fifth of the Roman Catholic priests in Cuba in the early 1960s. There is, even today, no resident rabbi in Cuba for Jewish high holidays; the rabbi has to come from abroad for ceremonies. So there are a number o circumstances, but religion was mainly a concern early on and less so now.
How did Human Rights under Batista compare with those in modern Cuba?
Batista was a dictator who came to power in Cuba twice. He was Cuba's strongman from 1933 to 1944 and then again from 1952 to 1958,. In the first period, the long eleven-year period, he comes to power from a military coup then gradually changes his role and becomes a civilian. He holds elections, he's elected president, and in 1944, actually holds another election, his political party loses, and he steps down.
Also in that period, from the late 1930s through 1944, Batista had a broad coalition of political parties and groups and one of Batista's allies was the Communist Party of Cuba. So, it's a very different Batista from the one that goes back to power by military coup on March 10, 1952.
That Batista, was much more rigid, did not have broad political alliances, never held a free election, had some fake elections, but never held a free competitive election, was much more corrupt and much more ruthless. The Batista police at that time tended to be very arbitrary, arrest people from the opposition, torture them in prison.
If one compares, however, the degrees of brutality, not the kind of thing that on should engage in very often, but if that's the question, the number of political prisoners under the Batista regime in the 1950s was never higher than a couple of thousand people, at the worst. The number of political prisoners in Cuba in 1965, when Fidel Castro actually gave a number, was 25,000. Chances are that in the 1960s the number of political prisoners was in fact much higher than that. So there were many more political prisoners at this moment of confrontation in the 1960s under Castro than in the 1950s under Batista.
Also in the 1960s under Castro, there was torture, torture meaning the systematic, deliberate infliction of pain by one human being on another. For the allegedly rational purpose of eliciting information, getting you to confess, or changing your behavior. Today, 1998, the number of political prisoners, depends on who your source is, who you're talking to, is not below about 400, it may be as high as 2,000. My own guess is probably closer to 500 to 600.
Torture in the physical sense, as a deliberate, routine, administrative practice, for the most part has come to an end, although you will still have instances of physical brutality, when a guard beats up on a prisoner. Particularly prisoners who are deliberately resisting the attempts by the prison authorities to get them to behave in a particular way. There is still what might be called psychological torture in Cuban prisons today.
This is a long answer to say that in terms of the number of political prisoners, the length of time for which they were held in prison, they way they were treated was worse under Fidel Castro than under Batista.
Perhaps the way to illustrate it is with one anecdote. In July 1953, Fidel Castro led an attack on the military barracks in the city of Santiago called the Moncada barracks. That was the birth of his political movement and gave him a great deal of publicity. Castro was caught, tried, imprisoned, and actually held in prison, then served only two years in prison because he then got an amnesty from Batista. For similar activities against the Castro Government, you either were shot in front of a firing squad or served in prison not less than twenty-five years. So it gives you, even as anecdote, a standard of comparison.
Would Cuba be better off if the Castro Government was no longer in power? What would the Cuban people lose and gain?
On the positive side, there are many good things that have happened in Cuba under the Fidel Castro revolutionary government. Perhaps the most important accomplishment was to give ordinary Cubans the sense that they were one people, that they had a shared sense of national purpose. A capacity to accomplish things, to work together, and to feel good and proud about being Cubans in ways that had never happened before.
There were also very impressive social accomplishments, especially with regard to education. Mass literacy, broad interest in education, significant improvements in public health, a variety of things of that sort.
Many of these accomplishments remain. Cubans really are much better educated than before, they lead healthier lives, and have a better health care system. Cubans today however, especially for the last ten years or so, have been suffering very significant hardships.
The Castro Government in the 1990s has not been demonstrated that it can get Cuba effectively out of the economic sinkhole in which it finds itself. Sure, they adopted a number of measures that have been positive, but for the most part the economic management of the Castro Government is not very effective, if Castro were not at the head of the Government, chances are that the economy would improve much more substantially.
There are a number of gains that would be realized that way. Reactivating the Cuban economy would make it possible to insure some of the educational and health care gains of the revolutionary years that are now threatened because there are not enough economic resources to pay for them. And, to make it possible for people to have the kinds of lives that they would like to enjoy and as human beings deserve.
There are likely to be, however, severe costs and risks to almost any change. There will be a lot of uncertainty, there will be people who have done relatively well under the revolutionary government who will do much less well in the future.
In most Communist countries, when there has been a transition, the moments of change which may last for a few years can be very rough. There can be increased poverty, instances of high inflation and prices, and that is probably part of Cuba's future.
Also because a lot of the social gains in Cuba in the last 30 to 40 years depended on external Soviet economic assistance, Cuba can't pay for them. It's just not possible to pay for all the things the Cuban Government now does for citizens.
For example, Cubans have a very early retirement age. You can stop working if you're a Cuban woman at the age of 55. You can stop working if you're a Cuban man at the age of 60. You'll be entitled to a full pension. You can't afford it, it's just not possible to afford it. The United States cannot afford its own pension and retirement system. Cuba is much poorer, it just can't do this.
This was feasible when you were getting a lot of external economic assistance from the former Soviet Union, it can't do it now. There are some changes which will have to take place. No matter whether Fidel Castro remains as President of Cuba or not, whether Cuba has a Communist government or not.
There are some hard changes that lie ahead. So either with Castro or without him, it will be quite a while before most Cubans are better off.
Do Communist Party members in Cuba receive any large amounts of money or any other special treatment?
Cuba has been, and remains, compared to most other countries of the world, an amazingly egalitarian country. The gap between an ordinary person and a minister of government is in many ways very narrow compared to other countries.
For example, the monthly salary of a relatively poor person in Cuba would be about 100 pesos a month. The monthly salary of one of the most powerful people in Cuba, a minister of the government, is not quite 500 pesos a month. Now that gap of 5 to 1 between a very powerful person and a person who has low power and no income is one of the narrowest in the world. In the United States, the gap between a wealthy person, after all, we have a large private economy, and a poor person is many, many times that wide.
Moreover, ordinary Cubans, just like wealthy Cubans, have many shared rights that are guaranteed by the government. Health care is paid for by the government, not by individuals. So when you go to a hospital in Cuba or to a medical doctor, you don't pay anything out of pocket.
All schools are public, there are no private schools. Even if you wanted to send your children to a private school, you cannot. And it is just as much a public school for the children of the powerful as the children of any ordinary citizen. So, when there are officers of the government or officers of the Communist Party, they do not have many more rights or many more privileges than ordinary Cubans.
That being said, yes, they do have more rights. The members of the Communist Party and members of the Government get to shop at special stores. They get to have a variety of privileges available, whether it is international travel or access to an automobile, that ordinary Cubans would not have. But in general, the inequality, between the powerful and the powerless is very narrow in Cuba. And that makes Cuba very different from most countries.
Is the American press honest in its portrayal of Cuba and especially the Cuban Government?
The US press, for the most part, reports only bad things about Cuba. There are many bad things in Cuba and they deserved to be reported, and for the most part, they are reported accurately in the press of the United States.
What the press in the United States does not report very accurately is Why is it that so many Cubans, not withstanding the tough times in the 1990s and notwithstanding the many problems in the 1990s, choose to support their government? They choose to do it for many reasons, they vary, the reasons vary from individual to individual. But for some it is continued appreciation of Fidel Castro personally. For others, it is a sense of gains from the social policies of the government, health, education, etc. For others, it is the feeling that they have participated almost in a national epic.
Meeting with each other, collaborating with each other, to accomplish things, that for a little country that is not very well off, are amazing. It even includes things that are hardly reported in the press of the United States. Although, this particular example I'm going to mention has been reported in the US.
The government of South Africa was looking for medical doctors to try to staff clinics and hospitals and serve in the rural areas. Cuba has sent several hundred medical doctors to South Africa. The idea that you would have of a poor country like Cuba being able to spare so many medical doctors because there are so many in Cuba, is amazing.
Many Cubans are proud of their Government and their country for being able to do things of this sort. To understand Cuba, and to try to think about its past and its future, requires doing what the US press doesn't do very well. This is to both focus on the things that have gone very wrong but also things that Cubans and their Government and Fidel Castro have done right.
What makes Cuba interesting, what makes it to some extent tragic, but what has an array of hope as well, is that you find a leader, a government, and a people who manage to combine and to live through contradictory aspects of life. Who manage to experience and to formulate policies that have been very successful and others that have been a catastrophe. Where outcomes have at times been exhilarating and at others damnable and cruel. All of those words fit aspects of the Cuban experience, and to understand it, one has to keep them all in mind.