Cubanálisis El Think-Tank


                                            Dr. Antonio Morales-Pita, Chicago

Comments about the book

Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Dr. Julia E. Sweig


NOTE: The main content of this paper was discussed at DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois, on October 27th 2009, with Dr. Sweig, who made the presentation of her book “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know”, published in July 2009, Oxford University Press


In the book referred to above, Dr. Sweig assigns herself the task of answering 126 difficult questions about Cuba comprising its history from the beginning of the twentieth century up to the present time, with emphasis on the Fidel Castro’s regime period, and the relations between Cuba and the USA.


This is a huge undertaking even for Cuban scholars living in Cuba for at least thirty years after 1959, and or closely connected to their country of origin if they had to emigrate, and preferably specialized in Cuban history and in international political economy. To make the task even harder, it should be borne in mind that official information coming from Cuba is scarce and often times manipulated. On top of that, there exist different interpretations of the same historical facts among Cubans living inside and outside the island.


Therefore, I admire the effort and commitment done by Dr. Sweig, first of all in formulating so many difficult questions, and secondly in answering those on the basis of her limited experience living in Cuba, as informed in the introduction of the book, complemented by the literature she had consulted. Dr. Sweig has shown a deep commitment as scholar to have assigned herself this complex task. I congratulate her.


On the basis of being a Cuban scholar, who believed in the Revolution during thirty-two years, was directly involved in the planning of the sugar crop for twenty-five years, belonged to the first promotion of Cuban Marxist economists, and had to emigrate because – despite his two doctorates in economics done in the former Soviet Union – could not be useful to his country, and with deep respect for the author of the book referred to above, I would like to comment some of the passages that caught my attention.


At the introduction of the book on the following pages:


·   “But on this visit, I saw and felt that Cuba is a country that is moving on. And credit is due to Fidel Castro, because as much as his personality dominated the revolution and everything in Cuba for so long, what was also evident from this visit is that he has left in place an institutionalized state and government that, even if inefficient and lacking in transparency, can and does function without him.”


After 1959, Cuba has never moved on without counting on the support of the Soviet Union, Venezuela or any other country. It is a fact that, as a result of the Cuban regime’s inefficient economy, it went from being the first exporter of cane sugar in the world to being an importer of sugar.


It looks like the concept of Cuban government function is not related to results, such as the ruin of the sugar industry, agriculture, cattle ranching, and poultry industries, to have kept under rationing conditions the country during almost fifty years. Does a government that functions require repressing any opinion that differs from the political slogans, to have repressed prestigious Cuban scientists who were proposing improvement measures which were different from the Cuban leaders’ arbitrary and sometimes capricious orientations? 


Couldn’t it be considered a contradiction that on page xviii, Dr. Sweig states “Still some things have hardly changed at all:  Cuban still endure a wacky currency system and black market, a bureaucracy that gets in the way, and a state that is everywhere. Nearly everyone exerts an inordinate number of otherwise productive hours navigating around the formal structures of the state economy to resolver their daily needs. Cuba’s population remains healthy and well educated but faces a huge deficit in productive jobs, a government-controlled press and an opaque one-party political system.


Perceptions of emeritus Cuban professor Dr. Carmelo Mesa-Lago [“The Cuban Economy at the Crossroads”, June 30, 2008, Think-Tank Cubanalisis], of independent journalists inside Cuba like Oscar Espinosa Chepe or of academic persons who write at the Cubanalisis Think-Tank, lead to different conclusions about the functioning of the Cuban economy.


·  On page 44 which refers to the question:  So, did Communism mean no democracy?, it is stated that:


Fidel had promised to hold elections within two years, arguing that immediate electoral contests would serve little purpose at a time when overwhelming popular support for the revolution was readily apparent.” Later, on page 45 it is written that “Dissent was tolerated only on a limited basis, and only within the confines of officially sanctioned institutions


So, do these quoted sentences imply that Dr. Sweig’s answer to her question is that in Cuba there is no democracy? The answer to this important question is not transparent.  In my opinion it would have been more accurate to have explained why Fidel did not hold elections as promised, but there is no following up on this point.


·  On page 130 which related to the question Why didn’t the regime collapse?, Dr. Sweig states that:


It was through his [Fidel Castro’s] ubiquitous presence that many Cubans, even as some of their neighbors receded into apathy or left for good, continued to see the revolutions as a set of ideals in which they personally had a stake.”


This a very relevant and pertinent question since during the first decades after 1959 I witnessed that the Cuban people felt admiration and respect for Fidel Castro. Nonetheless, I could also witness that in the eighties and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union the Cuban people’s feeling for Fidel Castro was not support, but fear because of the reinforcement of repression as Dr. Sweig mentions on several occasions in her book.


One of the most widely-read columnist in the Spanish language, the Cuban journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner, in his recently published paper “Cincuenta años de revolución cubana” states that “the regime has not collapsed because Fidel and Raúl Castro have not allowed any room for organized discrepancy in any area of the country. No Cuban officer can express an opinion different from official versions without being removed from his position and in the best case is ostracized. The party, the administrative apparatus, the military and the police, the press, the judges, absolutely all ministries are under the Castro brothers’ absolute control.”


Given the importance of this question, it would have been very useful to have cited the specific source of the information related to the fact that “many Cubans continued to see the revolution as a set of ideals.” If this phrase expressed the opinion of the author, it would have been convenient to explain how this conclusion had been deducted.


·  On page 142 What caused the 1994 balsero refugee crisis? Dr. Sweig writes: “Not since the 1980 Mariel boatlift had public discontent been so high. That July, a group of Cubans hijacked a tugboat seven miles outside of Havana harbor.  Rather than stopping the boat and arresting the hijackers, however, the Cuban coast guard chased it down and used high-pressure fire hoses in an attempt to impede its movement, an incident that ultimately resulted in the sinking of the boat and the deaths of 41 onboard.


Later on the same page she refers to the Maleconazo in relation to which she wrote: “But it offered a palpable view of the anger and frustration pulsating through Cuba at the time. Clearly the government needed an escape valve to let off some of the steam.


Innovation and desperation carried the day. In boats at first, then in wide varieties of gloating vessels made of inner tubes, wood, and even the shells of abandoned cars, increasing numbers of Cuban balseros or “rafters” began departing for Florida, eventually by the thousands.”


In my opinion, Dr. Sweig’s words in this point could have been complemented by concluding that the reason for the crisis was the desperation of the Cuban people who could not continue bearing the Communist way of life, and accepted the possibility of dying in the sea trying to attain freedom, rather than continue living under the Castro’s regime.


·  On page 149 How did human rights fare more generally during this period? Dr. Sweig writes:


The Cuban government has offered a variety of responses to outside pressure and foreign support for internal antiregime opposition activities.  At times, the regime has infiltrated existing dissident groups; at others, authorities have simply ignored them.  Additional tactics include public attacks (conducted by state-organized jobs in what are known as actos de repudio or “acts of repudiation”) as well as more subtle forms of harassment, such as spying on dissidents themselves, their family members, and others suspected of receiving foreign government and/or Cuban exile largesses.  Yet old-fashioned jailings and mass arrests, while certainly not as frequent as say, in the early years of the revolution, did not disappear entirely.  In March of 2003, for example human rights activists were dealt on one of their most significant blows since the end of the Cold War when authorities arrested some 75 independent journalists, prodemocracy organizers, and other dissidents. In what became known as the “black spring,” Cuban officials targeted those individuals allegedly collaborating with or receiving funds from the U.S. government, Cuban American groups, and/or international organizations agitations for more democracy and human rights.  No such widespread action has occurred since.”


As a final point in the answer to this question, and as a follow up of the information contained there in, it would have been convenient to conclude that in fact human rights are not respected in Cuba, not even those of the world known Ladies in White, whose husbands or close relatives were sent to jail during the “black spring” campaign. and contain explicit proofs related to the systematic violation of human rights in Cuba.


Books and papers written by foreign scholars about Cuba, like the one I have referred to in this paper, may suggest the convenience of joint collaboration with Cuban scientists who have lived first-hand the reality of the Cuban revolution in trying to unravel the intricacies of the so called “Cuban socialism.” I would personally welcome the opportunity of writing joint papers with Dr. Sweig about the Cuban experience and its repercussion on Latin America.