Public discussion of Cuba
The lies by omission of the Cuban-American right
In my online communications with respect to Cuba, I sometimes encounter responses from Cuban-Americans that go something like this: my grandfather had his property taken by the revolution; family members of mine were killed by the revolution; and/or I have cousins languishing in prison in Cuba. As a member of a Cuban family that had to flee the island, the message continues, I know the true character of the Cuban Revolution; and you, as a person of European descent, have no idea concerning what Cuba is.
In reflecting on the caustic and divisive public discourse in the United States with respect to a number of issues, Jonathon Rauch writes there are principles that ought to guide public debate and the search for understanding. One of them is that all claims of fact have to be validated in some way, and this is often done by some social network that investigates the claim with an open mind, seeking to identify errors of fact (albeit with limitations inherent in broad cultural assumptions). He writes that “you are entitled to claim that a statement is objectively true only insofar as it is both checkable and has stood up to checking.” No one is exempt from this process; no one “gets a free pass simply because of who she is or what group she belongs to. . . . If I claim that my class or race or historically dominant status or historically oppressed status allows me to know and say things that others cannot, then I am breaking the empirical rule by exempting my views from contestability by others.”
Here we arrive to a fundamental epistemological problem with respect to the claims of family abuse and oppression by Cuban-Americans. By and large, such claims are made without details as to name, place, and circumstances, and they are being made before U.S. citizens without experience in Cuba and without possibility for verification. Indeed, the claims are made as a rhetorical devise, with awareness of their unverifiability. It is an intimidating device that stops conversation, because the listener or reader has no way of knowing if the claims are true or false, and limited or no knowledge of the Cuban social and historical context of the events; moreover, the listener would not want to appear insensitive to the suffering of a Cuban-American family. Therefore, it is a rhetorical devise that functions to give Cuban-Americans a free pass with respect to claims of fact, freeing them to pursue their political agenda without being checked by empirical observation or investigation. In effect, Cuban-Americans have claimed a special privilege to control U.S. public discourse with respect to interpretations of the meaning of the Cuban Revolution, a transcendent event of universal significance. After decades of this, misinformation and distorted understandings about Cuba are widely disseminated and internalized in the United States.
In my experience, I have often found that the claims of the Cuban-American counterrevolution with respect to Cuba distort primarily by omission. The distortion occurs through omission of facts, the inclusion of which completely change one’s view of the situation. One of my earliest experiences of this maneuver in relation to Cuba occurred in the late 1990s. As I waiting in the Miami airport for my flight to Havana, I picked up a copy of the Miami Herald, where I read of four Cuban “dissidents” being tried for their opposition to the Cuban revolution. When I arrived in Cuba, I by chance found the trail on Cuban television. A Cuban police officer was on the stand, responding to the questions of the prosecuting attorney. As I listened to the testimony of the police officer, who conducted himself in a professional and credible manner, I began to understand that the accused were being charged with planning to leave a bomb in a public place. The testimony of the police officer focused on how the police were able to foil their plans. The Miami Herald, in obscuring the detail that the Cuban attorney general was accusing the four of sabotage, presents a distorted view of what is occurring. From the Cuban perspective, the accused were not dissidents, but terrorists caught in the act. Perhaps the trial was covered on Cuban television so that the people could see for themselves what scoundrels these “dissidents” were.
The omission of relevant facts is a maneuver that is fundamental to widely accepted distortions with respect to Cuba. In 1995, during an academic interchange with Cuban academics of FLACSO-Cuba, I was absolutely astonished to learn that there are elections in Cuba, for I had been led to believe by U.S. public discourse that there was in Cuba a dictatorial regime. I spent a couple of years asking relevant questions, like how are candidates nominated, what is the participation rate, and do those elected have any authority. I ultimately would piece it all together: Cuba has developed a system of direct and indirect elections, based in neighborhood nomination assemblies, culminating the election of deputies to the National Assembly of People’s Power, the highest authority of the nation that, among other powers, elects the president.
Observing the high quality of the political leaders in Cuba and the elected leaders of the several mass organizations, I arrived to the view that the Cuban political system is in reality more democratic than the U.S. system of representative democracy. The higher democratic quality of the Cuban political system is, in my view, a consequence of its elimination of electoral political parties, political campaigns, and campaign financing; and its integration of the political process of people’s power with mass organizations, thus establishing structures for the normal and everyday expression of popular concerns. This entire structure and process of people’s power is omitted by the prevailing U.S. narrative toward Cuba, in which it is assumed that the absence in Cuba of elections between two well-financed candidates of electoral political parties means that no further discussion of the Cuban political process is needed.
Similarly, the prevailing narrative toward the Communist Party of Cuba as the only major political party omits important relevant details. The Party has functions completely different from political parties in representative democracies. The statement that there is only one political party in Cuba is misleading, if the listener thinks of political parties as they function in representative democracies. The Communist Party of Cuba is not an electoral political party; it does not put forth candidates nor participate in the electoral process. The Party is constitutionally authorized to guide and to educate, but not to decide; the decision-making process is in the hands of the elected deputies of the National Assembly of People’s Power, not the Party.
In my view, the Party is a key reason for the political stability that Cuban enjoys, and it illustrates the virtues of a vanguard political party. It is composed of the most committed citizens, selected by the Party itself. Its members discuss the emerging challenges, and what should be done, seeking to arrive to a consensus. It makes recommendations to the people and the National Assembly, which decides. The Constitution requires that the National Assembly receive the recommendations of the Party (and from mass organizations). But the Assembly is not required to accept them, and it generally modifies the recommendations. Furthermore, this Constitutional requirement that the National Assembly receive recommendations from the Party can itself be changed by elected deputies of the National Assembly, which is empowered to interpret and amend the Constitution. In Cuba at the present time, a great majority of the deputies of the National Assembly are Party members, but not all are.
The de facto control of the political process in Cuba today by the Communist Party is not constitutionally conferred; it is a result of the prestige that the Party has among the people. If the Party were to lose its prestige, it would have no legal or constitutional basis for imposing its will, because the Constitution concentrates authority in the National Assembly, whose deputies are elected by the people, in a system of direct and indirect elections based in neighborhood nomination assemblies.
What omissions might there be with respect to Cuban-American claims that family members were killed or imprisoned by the Cuban Revolution? Of course, the Cuban Revolution never was formulated as a non-violent revolution. From 1868 to 1878, and again from 1895 to 1898, Cubans raised revolutionary armies that engaged in battle the troops of Spanish colonialism. In the early 1930s, during the neocolonial Republic, armed struggles were organized in the countryside, and there were acts of urban sabotage. This history of armed struggle provided a legitimating context for the launching of a guerilla struggle by Fidel Castro and what would become the July 26 Movement, initiated but aborted in 1953, and retaken from 1956 to 1958.
But armed struggle is not synonymous with terrorism. The July 26 Movement conducted the guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra in an ethical manner. Soldiers of the army of Batista, not civilians, were engaged. When soldiers were trapped by a military maneuver of the guerrillas, they were offered the chance to surrender their weapons and to depart, rather than die in defense of a dictatorship that oppressed the people. This strategy, adopted for the practical reason that the guerrillas lacked the technical capacity to retain prisoners of war, had the consequence of inducing a widespread unwillingness to fight among the soldiers of Batista’s army. This laid the foundation for the rapid advance of the revolutionary army in late 1958, with a relatively low number of casualties. In some cases, entire brigades of Batista’s army surrendered and were incorporated into the advancing and expanding revolutionary army.
Following the triumph of the revolution on January 1, 1959, there was a national clamor for justice with respect to abuses of the people by some soldiers of the army of Batista, abuses that included assassinations, torture, and rape. Revolutionary tribunals were set up, and the people came forward to tell their stories of abusive treatment. A few of those found guilty were executed, and some were sentenced to long prison terms. But these harsh penalties were authorized by revolutionary tribunals that had been persuaded, upon hearing the testimony of the victims, that the accused were guilty of crimes that warranted such punishment, crimes that they had carried out with impunity during the Batista dictatorship.
What about the accusation that the Cuban revolution robbed property? There were indeed two forms of appropriations of the properties of Cuban nationals, but neither of them was unjust. First, there were confiscations without compensation of properties owned by Cuban nationals who had benefitted from the rampant corruption of the Batista regime; the confiscations were a response to the popular clamor for the recovery of embezzled funds. On February 28, 1959, the Revolutionary Government approved a law proposed by the Minister of the newly created Ministry for the Recuperation of Embezzled Public Funds. The Law authorized the confiscation of the properties of: Batista and his collaborators; officers of the armed forces who had participated directly in the coup d’état of March 10, 1952; ministers of the Batista government during the period 1952-1958; members of the spurious congress of 1954-58; and candidates in the sham elections of 1958. The revolutionary leadership believed that the corruption prior to the Batista dictatorship with justice also could be addressed, but doing so would cast an impractically wide net, and the focus on the corruption and brutality of the Batista regime would be sufficient to satisfy the popular outcry. Law 851 of July 6, 1960 expanded the February 28, 1959 law by including counterrevolutionary crimes and activities, which for the most part were activities that today would be described as terrorism, inasmuch as they included violence against civilians and sabotage, for the most part carried out with the support of the U.S. government. The confiscated properties have been used as public buildings, such as primary schools, day care centers, medical clinics, multiple housing units, and embassies. Members of the revolutionary government did not personally benefit from the confiscations.
Secondly, there was nationalization, with compensation, of properties that were integral to the revolutionary plan for social and economic development, and this category of compensated nationalizations had four manifestations. (1) The Agrarian Reform Law of May 17, 1959 affected both foreign and Cuban large landholders. It set the maximum quantity of land per proprietor at 406 hectares, established the value of the property at what the owners had declared in tax reports, and provided compensation in the form of bonds that would be redeemable in twenty years. The Agrarian Reform Law of 1959 is considered to this day by Cuban scholars to have been the necessary foundation for the breaking of the neocolonial relation between the United States and Cuba.
(2) On October 13, 1960, Law 891 nationalized private banks with Cuban proprietors, providing compensation in the form of bonds that would mature in fifteen years, at 2% annual interest; plus an initial cash payment. The nationalization of Cuban domestic private banks, combined with the previous nationalization of the three U.S. banks in Cuba, made possible the integration of banking functions with the unfolding economic development plan of the state. Only two Canadian banks remained in private hands.
(3) The Urban Reform Law of October 14, 1960 nationalized housing properties. The majority of urban residents were renters, and the Law mandated monthly payments to the National Bank, instead of to the proprietor, until payments accumulated to the assessed value of the house or apartment, at which time the residents were given certificates of proprietorship. The law thus converted renters into owners of their residences, under the condition that they could not sell, collect rent, or speculate with the housing unit. The law compensated the owners, with the purchase price set on the basis of the monthly rent payments and the age of the building. The proprietors received monthly payments from the National Bank of Cuba until the purchase price was reached, with the proprietor receiving each month what had previously been paid by the tenant, up to a limit of 600 pesos per month. The law also provided that funds accumulated through the Bank’s intermediary role be used for low-income housing construction. Under the terms of the Law, seventy-five percent of proprietors of rental properties were compensated; ninety-five percent of them were small proprietors. As a legacy of the Urban Reform Law, ninety percent of Cuban heads of households today are owners of their residence, without owing any debt or mortgage.
(4) Law 890, emitted by the Cuban Revolutionary Government on October 13, 1960, nationalized Cuban big industry. The Law was enacted in the context of a deteriorating relation between the Cuban Revolution and the Cuban industrial bourgeoisie, which had historic economic and social roots.
Following the triumph of the revolution, the Cuban revolutionary leadership intended to diversify the Cuban economy and to promote Cuban scientific and industrial development, liberating the nation from the peripheral role to which it had been assigned by the neocolonial world-system. Therefore, the revolutionary leadership was able to imagine a possible national economic development that included the national industrial bourgeoisie and the professional class. In accordance with this possibility, the Revolutionary Government during its first year and one-half had a cooperative and inclusive agenda with respect to the national industrial bourgeoisie, and it took no action against its class interests. Sectors of the national bourgeoisie had been part of the anti-Batista coalition, and most of the ministers of the Provisional Revolutionary Government formed in early January 1959 were lawyers with ties to the national bourgeoisie. From January through April of 1959, action had been taken against particular persons tied to the repression and corruption of the Batista regime, and reformist measures to protect employment and reduce housing rents had been adopted; but these steps did not constitute a rupture with the interests of the national bourgeoisie as a class. The Agrarian Reform Law of May 17, 1959 was a decisive step, demonstrating the political will of the Revolutionary Government to break with the neocolonial order; but even this pivotal law affected the interests of the national estate bourgeoisie, and not the national industrial bourgeoisie. More than one year later, the nationalization of U.S. properties of August 6, 1960 was an action taken by the Revolutionary Government against the interests of foreign capital; it was not directed toward the national bourgeoisie.
However, the possibility for the incorporation of the national industrial bourgeoisie in the Cuban revolutionary project was limited by the fact that the Cuban national industrial bourgeoisie was economically, politically, and ideologically weak. The Cuban national industrial bourgeoisie had been forged in the context of the U.S.-dominated neocolonial republic during the course of the twentieth century, and it therefore was a “figurehead bourgeoisie,” totally subordinated to U.S. capital. At the same time, the national industrial bourgeoisie did not clearly differentiate itself as a social class, with distinct economic interests and ideology, from the national estate bourgeoisie. As a result of these factors, in spite of the opportunity afforded by the anti-Batista political coalition and the cooperative strategy of the revolutionary leadership as it approached and attained triumph, the national industrial bourgeoisie was incapable of finding common cause with the nationalist economic measures and participating in the Cuban revolutionary quest for independent economic development.
The weakness of the Cuban national industrial bourgeoise became evident following the Agrarian Reform Law, which strengthened and solidified U.S. opposition to the Revolution. During the period of mid-1959 to mid-1960, members of the national industrial bourgeoisie emigrated and/or participated in the counterrevolution in increasing numbers. These dynamics accelerated in July and August of 1960, as the Revolutionary Government moved toward the nationalization of U.S. properties. By August 1960, the great majority of Cuban industrialists were undermining production in various ways: they channeled funds away from operating costs and production in order to export capital; they provoked labor conflicts; they abandoned management of their companies; and they financed subversive groups and engaged in illegal and counterrevolutionary activities. This conduct of undermining production was occurring in spite of the fact that consumption had increased considerably in the country, creating a stronger domestic market for national industries. In addition, the big importing companies were not cooperating; they evaded the radical restructuring of foreign commerce that that was central to the economic planning of the Revolutionary Government. It had become evident that the Cuban figurehead bourgeoisie interpreted the government’s nationalist economic measures as incompatible with its fundamental economic interests, and it was actively engaged in undermining the revolutionary project, acting in alliance with the U.S. government.
The revolutionary leadership viewed the conduct of many of the big industrial and commercial companies as creating serious obstacles to the fundamental revolutionary goal of full economic development, which required economic planning, rationalization of production, and national control of the basic industries of the country. Furthermore, the leadership took seriously the duty of the Revolutionary Government to take necessary measures that the circumstances required. Therefore, the Revolutionary Government took the decisive step of nationalizing those big industrial and commercial enterprises that had not adapted to the revolutionary reality of the country; while at the same time, offering guarantees to small and medium companies, whose interests can and ought to coincide with those of the nation.
Law 890 of October 13, 1960 nationalized 383 private companies with Cuban proprietors, including 105 sugar processing plants, 61 clothing and textile companies, 47 grocery stores, 40 food processing companies, 19 construction companies, 13 department stores, 13 maritime companies, 11 cinemas, and 8 railroad companies. The nationalized companies were assigned to appropriate ministries and departments of the government, which were given the task of designating competent functionaries responsible for the direction and administration of the companies. Article 7 of Law 890 establishes that payment of compensation to the proprietors will be an accordance with a subsequent law; and it directs the Central Planning Office to present a bill to this effect to the Council of Ministers of the Revolutionary Government as soon as possible.
For the most part, however, the national industrial bourgeoisie was not interested in compensation. They emigrated to the United States, in what they believed would be a temporary exile, expecting the government of the United States to take the necessary steps to provoke the overthrow of the Revolution and to establish a government that would respond to their interests as a figurehead bourgeoisie subordinate to and allied with U.S. interests.
What about conditions in Cuban today? It is often said of Cuba that the people are starving. I like what the Brazilian Catholic theologian Frei Bretto writes about this. He observes that if Brazilian rich persons were to go to Cuba to live, they would find it an inferno, because they would not be able to change their car every year, buy designer clothes, or travel with frequency to other countries for vacations. Brazilian middle class persons would find Cuba a purgatory, because they would have to endure lines to buy products, and they would find that a product purchased one month is not necessarily available the next. But on the other hand, if poor Brazilians without adequate nutrition, housing, land, education, or medical attention were to live in Cuba, they would find it a paradise, because everyone has basic needs provided. They would not be able to eat anything they want, but they would not go hungry.
The minority of Cubans who today are alienated from the Cuban revolution are not starving, but they are not satisfied with the low or modest material conditions in which they live. Their frame of reference is not the Brazilian poor, but the consumer societies of the North. They have been taught since the day they were born that the quality of life is defined by possibilities for making meaningful contributions to society, but they have not internalized these lessons. This phenomenon of an alienated sector shows a limitation of socialism: not everybody can be brought on board, at least not in the context of capitalist world in which consumerist values prevail, where the people are exposed everyday to the consumerist option.
The Cuban revolutionary leadership recognizes that not everybody is on board, and it thus calls upon the revolutionary government and people to strengthen the structures that ought to attend to the satisfaction of the needs of the most materially and ideological vulnerable. But it also recognizes that not everyone can be brought on board, so it has sought to strengthen the possibilities for an orderly, lawful, and safe emigration to the societies of the North, for all of those who want to try their luck. To this end, it signed a migratory agreement with the U.S. government, in which the USA agreed to issue at least 20,000 visas per year. But the U.S. government issues no more than a few thousand visas per year, and Cubans have to travel to third countries to apply for them.
The social and mainstream media have exaggerated and falsified the situation in Cuba today. There are difficulties, but there is not desperation. The protests of July 11 were of a limited scale, quickly deteriorating into vandalism as well as violence against police and against revolutionary citizens trying to constrain them. In a matter of hours, responding to the call of the Cuban president, revolutionary citizens had peacefully retaken control of the streets. There was no police repression; police used minimal force to detain persons for criminal behavior, not for peacefully protesting. The due process rights of all of the detained have been respected, with their families contacted the day of their arrest. Many have been released with the payment of a fine; others have been released pending trial. Those still detained are accused of committing more serious acts; they will be tried in accordance with the law and with full due process rights. Since July 12, the streets have been calm, visibly standing in contrast to the fake images being disseminated in the social media. The great majority of the people support the government; they understand that the present difficulties, which have been emerging in the last year and a half, have been caused by the pandemic, its effect on tourism, and Trump measures that block the Cuban government from using its own money to purchase goods from suppliers in third countries. The great majority of the people want the blockade to end, especially the Trump measures that block Cuban financial transactions with banks and companies in third countries, so that the people and the government can attend to their problems, without interference from other countries. (See “The US unconventional war against Cuba,” July 16, 2021; “Cuba defeats US interventionist plan,” July 20, 2021; and “Biden sanctions on Cuba based on false narrative,” July 27, 2021).
The Cuban Revolution is an event of intellectual, moral, and spiritual significance for humanity. Why do I say “spiritual”? Because the Cuban Revolution has gone to great lengths to ensure that every child has a school; every sick person has medical attention; every elderly person is cared for; and every person has shelter. In doing so, it acts as though it takes literally the teachings of the prophets of ancient Israel, who are never mentioned by name; teachings expressed in the pedagogical discourses of Fidel, whose sensibilities were formed by priests and brothers who were his teachers in Catholic schools. If you want, you can focus on defects, like petty corruption in the distribution of products; but if that is your focus, you will miss the essential dignity in what Cuba has done. Cubans in all ranks of life, from the humblest to the highest, have lived and experienced this dignity; and they are prepared to sacrifice to defend it. This is the source of the remarkable persistence of the Cuban revolution.
Who speaks for Cuba? There is, in the first place, the Cuban-American right. Its social base is the Cuban émigré community that took shape in Miami during the period 1959 to 1962, which was constituted almost entirely by the national bourgeoisie and the rest of the most privileged members of Cuban society, including a good part of the most qualified professionals and technicians. Its political agenda is the overthrow of the Cuban revolutionary government, with the intention of returning to Cuba and/or recovering confiscated and nationalized properties. It supports and participates in the unconventional war against Cuba.
Secondly, there is the Cuban emigration with ties to Cuba. Its social base is the post-1980 migration to the United States, which has been driven primarily by economic motives, by a desire to relocate to a nation where a higher level of material attainment is possible. Most of the post-1980 migrants and their descendants are not oriented to regime change in Cuba. Their primary desire is to maintain relations with their extended families in Cuba, sending financial support and making frequent visits. They tend to support the normalization of relations with Cuba and the end of the blockade, and with this end in mind, the Cuban government maintains relations with this sector of the Cuban-American community and with the Cuban emigration in other nations. However, as Obama demonstrated, normalization can be accomplished within the context of U.S. imperialist intentions toward Cuba and Latin America.
Thirdly, there is the voice of the Cuban revolution itself, a voice that is totally excluded from U.S. public discourse, yet it is the most important voice. I have observed that people who visit Cuba are oriented to listening to ordinary people, like taxi drivers or people in the streets. Although such informal exchanges add to understanding, we must above all listen carefully to the explanations of persons who occupy important positions in the institutions of Cuban society, because such persons have been lifted up to important positions by the process of people’s power; they have been lifted up by the people to act and speak in their name. Moreover, they are saying things that we from other countries, especially the United States, are not accustomed to hearing, having to do with the development of structures for the political empowerment and political participation of the people, the necessary role of the state in the development of the economy, and the values that ought to guide human societies. Moreover, the leaders of the Cuban Revolution have proclaimed for decades a message that has been well-received by the peoples of Latin America and the Third World, namely, that world peace and global political stability require respect for the sovereignty of nations that seek a more autonomous road; and that cooperation and mutually beneficial trade among nations are the necessary building blocks of a sustainable future for humanity.
If we were to pay attention to the voice of the Cuban revolution, perhaps the United States would be able to move beyond imperialism and defense of neocolonial interests, and toward the development, in cooperation with other nations and peoples, of a more just, democratic and sustainable world.
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I like what you say in your opening paragraph about validating sources of information. I don't think that s the expectation here, the propaganda machine from CNN to FOX and further down is so set on what needs to be the slant that it is just not worth listening to them on any matter. Of course, if is about an ideology they find threatening because it will bring some dignity to the poor, we have to squash it.