Dateline: Communist Havana
Truth, or la verdad in Spanish, is a complex concept in Cuba. Everywhere, the government promises truth. However, since the Communist takeover in 1959, the truths provided have been those established and promulgated by Fidel Castro and the Communist Party.
Today, we would be hearing that version of the truth from two party officials Dr. Emilio Perez, a judge on the Supreme Court of Cuba responsible for economic and commercial issues, and Dr. Doris Santana, a professor of international public and private law. Their remarks and all questions and answers would be translated into English by our reliable guide, Luis.
Arriving in Cuba, I naively thought that all Cubans were Communists. That is not the case, however, only 10 percent of the country actually belongs to the Party at any given time. The other 90 percent simply fall under Communist control. Luis, for example, had been offered a chance to join the Party, but turned it down due the translating job he held at the time.
Justice Perez wasted little time in promising that all of what we would hear would be truth. “This is not a class. This is an interchange between you and us,” Perez said. “The topic is open. We are going to tell you the truth of our system.”
“We appreciate very very much that people from the United States want to come to Cuba. Your propaganda has been bad, but always people to people has been very good,” he added.
Cuba, like all countries in this rapidly changing age, is facing new economic challenges. Many of those problems come from “the very difficult” times when Cuba lost 85% of its trade after the Soviet Union dissembled, Perez said. The most difficult of those times came from 1990 to 1993 when Cubans faced severe shortages of virtually every item. “We are still trying to establish fair and just economic relationships after that Special Period in a Time of Peace (the name that the Cuban government gave to the years immediately after the collapse of its trade with the Soviets),” the justice said.
Now, Cuba is slowly opening up avenues to limited private ownership, a condition that hasn’t existed on the island since the Revolution. “Since 2008, we have been working on the legal framework for these activities,” which include owning houses and cars and operating selected tiny businesses, Perez said. Another recent change is allowing Cubans on the island to receive money from American relatives in the United States. Many people use those funds to augment meager government pay – a Cuban surgeon, for example, makes $18 a month under the Communist system. The economic system is further complicated by the fact that there are 2 types of currencies on the island – C.U.Cs used by tourists and pesos used by Cuban citizens.
Since 1962, the United States has had an embargo placed on trade and travel with Cuba. We were only in Cuba because the Obama administration had eased the limits on people-to-people cultural exchanges. Actually, Perez said the Cuban government was allowed to buy certain items such as food from the United States. The problem is that Cuba must pay in entirety for any food stuffs before it receives the shipment. “It is not logical to pay in advance before you have that item. It is not normal trade credit. It is a case of your farmers and businesses versus your government. We know this will change in the future,” the justice said.
Perez dismissed contentions that establishing controlled private ownership would, in essence, mark the 60-year socialist experiment in Cuba as a failure. “We are not hiding any mistakes,” Perez said. “These new actions are necessary. All the Revolution has been to go with the moments and all the moments are not the same. We have to go with life. We are not apart from the world; we are part of the world,” Perez said.
However, there is concern in some sectors that allowing American family money to be used for private business in Cuba may exacerbate race problems in Cuba, problems that the government officially deny exist. Critics’ thinking goes like this: today, in Cuba about 40 percent of the island is Euro-Cuban (white) and 60 percent of the island is Afro-Cuban (black). However,more than 85 percent of former Cuban families living in the United States are Euro-Cuban. This means that white Cubans will have more access to financial resources than black Cubans, making a now pronounced gap even wider.
Justice Perez dismissed the concern. “There is no discrimination in Cuba. It is prohibited under Article 8 of our constitution. It is legally and officially banned. Discrimination is a crime,” he said.
Communists have long had an Orwellian fascination with citing statistics and Perez attempted to employ some to support his claims. “Women receive the same salary and same opportunity as men,” he said. “65% of our scientists are women; 50% of our prosecutors; 46% of our litigators. Women are in all high positions.” Of course, it was interesting that Perez answered a charge of racial discrimination with statistics more appropriate for a gender response.
Dr. Santana, however, admitted that while discrimination was illegal, it was not always absent in Cuban society and life. “Do you discriminate or not? The idea and the morality is always behind the law,” Santana said. “We have Spanish machismo. Many of us are old and it’s not very easy to change.”
Of course, the most important change looming for Cuba is the end of 60 years years of Castro-led control. Fidel, ailing and 85, has turned most of the power over to his brother, Raul, who is 80. But even Castros can’t live forever. Soon, there will be a new leader.
“We are in the transition now from the generation that made the Revolution to the new generation. But this is not a problem we are facing. We have many well-educated leaders ready to assume the top positions at any time,” Perez said, ending our talk.
But how well had the Supreme Court Justice delivered on his promise to tell “the truth of our system?” My wife Judy had listened quietly to the entire presentation. As we stood to leaved, she leaned to me and said, “Well, that was interesting. A course in Propaganda 101.”
To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order