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The New Cuba?

A sign showing Cuban President Raúl Castro, and saying ‘May the earth tremble, compatriots!,’ Havana, Cuba, December 2014

The American novelist and historian Waldo Frank was an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban Revolution. Through three decades of writing about Latin America, he had adapted some of the central themes of the Hebrew prophets to the region that so fascinated him. He came to see Central and South America as a possible new Promised Land where all the American republics could reencounter their political roots in “the democratic Judaeo-Christian vision of the whole man.” In January 1959, when Frank was nearly seventy, he saw the triumph of the Cuban Revolution as the fulfillment of his vision. In the autumn of 1959, the Cuban government, at the behest of Fidel Castro, signed a contract with Frank to write a “biography of Cuba.” Frank would be paid $5,000. The book was entitled Cuba: Prophetic Island.

Frank portrayed what he saw as the rebirth of Cuba under Castro: division of the land, literacy campaigns, the struggle to lower the rate of infant mortality, the opening of formerly private beaches to the general public, the surge in construction of houses, industrial plants, hotels, and farm buildings. And what moved him most of all was the “embrace” between Fidel the redeemer and the Cuban people: “One could feel the sense of possession, as if the island lay really within his arms: the whole island!” For Frank, Fidel was no dictator, he was an artist of power: “Ruthlessly rejecting, selecting, finally shaping it to form.” In the face of so impressive a display of justice and creativity, Frank judged elections to be a “bothersome delay” and freedom of the press “a nuisance.”

But the story of the book ended badly for Waldo Frank. Disturbed by some criticism that he directed at the personal power that Fidel was clearly accumulating, the Cubans refused to publish it.1 When the book finally appeared under the imprint of a small left-wing New York publisher, it was savaged with ferocious reviews from both the political right and left. Isolated and embittered, Waldo Frank died in 1967.2

Frank’s overall vision was similar to that of various generations of young Latin Americans (and many of their older mentors) inspired by the example of the Cuban David defying the Yankee Goliath. Cuba’s formal adoption of communism did not lessen this wide range of support, but it gradually began to diminish as disturbing news came out of the island: the creation of work camps in 1965, Cuba’s falling into line with the Soviet satellite states in supporting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, a repression of critical writers in 1971. An exodus of 125,000 Cubans, most of them very poor, who fled to Miami by sea in 1980, further damaged the reputation of the regime.

But it took a long time for public opinion in Latin America to confront the dictatorial nature of the Cuban government. And many would never admit this reality, or else would downplay it by stressing the social achievements of the regime, especially in education and medicine, while blaming a great deal on the American embargo. Fitting into this latter category, with his book Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana, is Marc Frank, Waldo’s grandson and Cuban correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters.

Inspired by the example of his grandfather, Frank arrived in Cuba in 1984, a “tender thirty-three and a tireless crusader for social justice” (his words), and has lived there ever since. In 1995, he married a Cuban nurse, who has been Frank’s personal witness to the quality of medical services in Cuba. Living with them are their two daughters from previous marriages about whose educational experience in Cuba he writes: “Their teachers were examples of dedication, professionalism, and concern even in the hardest of times, and the curriculum was more than adequate. There was little propaganda….”

Cuban Revelations is primarily concerned with the course of the Cuban economy over the last twenty years. It begins with a brief but intense treatment of the final stages (1994–2008) of Fidel Castro’s absolute exercise of power, which ended with the illness that has limited his involvement in government ever since. In 1993, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its subsidies (a total between 1960 and 1990 of $65 billion—40 percent of which was a loan, the rest a gift), Cuba suffered an economic shock with unprecedented effects. Frank describes some of them: broken bones set without anesthesia, sales of the last few treasures that families possessed (books or jewels), necessary products disappearing from store shelves (soap, matches, sanitary pads), and the return of open prostitution. What followed was the grueling “Special Period in Times of Peace,” in which Fidel accepted some mild economic concessions like legitimizing the circulation of dollars and allowing more latitude for some kinds of occupations and activities (self-employed workers, vendors at farmers’ markets, proprietors of small family-run restaurants) prohibited since the total suppression of private enterprise in 1968.

Frank does not point to Castro’s direct responsibility for some of the effects of this 1993 crisis through his disastrous policy of “Rectification,” implemented from 1986 to 1990 as a reaction to Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, which he detested. Castro’s new policy included the expansion of rationing, the prohibition of farmers’ markets in the countryside, a decrease in self-employment, and the revival of Ché Guevara’s call for voluntary labor. These measures were directly contrary to those recently adopted by Raúl Castro. According to Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a widely respected expert on Cuban society in the United States, now an emeritus professor at the University of Pittsburgh, whose work Frank does not mention, “Rectification” may have been Fidel’s most serious and costly economic mistake because it prevented measures that might have reduced the impact of the loss of Russian aid and avoided a prolongation of the sudden and terrible suffering of the post-1993 years.3

Most significant for Frank was the absence of social unrest. The only outburst of violence protesting the hardships of the Special Period took place in the summer of 1994, along the Malecón, the seafront of Havana. According to Frank, “nothing was set ablaze here, there was no tear gas, and there were no riot police. Bused-in construction workers, some with metal rods in hand, quickly restored order.”

Finally the arrival of Fidel controlled the situation. And the government decided to permit a large-scale exodus on improvised rafts—known as “the crisis of the balseros [rafters]”—partly to relieve internal pressure and partly to move the United States toward formal immigration agreements. Frank describes the sight of the rafts as “quite spectacular,” but it was much more than that: a desperate flight in large part drawn from the most vulnerable sector of the Cuban population, the Afro-Cubans from the eastern part of the island willing to cross the perilous ninety miles to the US on rafts constructed with wooden planks, bedsheets, and worn-out tires.

So far as one can tell from talks with refugees and experts, the motives of the departing Cubans were not in most cases based on political liberty but on acute economic need. These motives are never referred to in Frank’s book. And he nowhere documents—or directly blames—the systematic and intimidating control of the state apparatus over Cuban lives, a condition that could well have inhibited the free manifestation of discontent in the Special Period or any other time. What we do hear is a long exchange between Frank and a young psychology student to whom he gave a lift while driving in the countryside. She answers his question “Do you think he [Fidel] can go on?” with “If there is going to be another, let him be just like him, with his same ideas and same personality.” Frank doesn’t think very differently. He calls Fidel “the last of the romantic revolutionary figures” of the twentieth century and even likens him to Nelson Mandela (an inapt comparison given Mandela’s commitment to genuine democracy, voting, and individual rights).

Without explaining how he arrived at the figure, Frank estimates what he calls the “Grey Zone” of the nonmilitant discontented at 30 percent. In his opinion, the cause of discontent is not the dictatorial application of the “purist ideology” he praises or the fear of repression or informers. For him, the fundamental reason is economic need. Something has gone bad, he recognizes, when a bottle of cooking oil can be worth three days’ pay. And he proposes a metaphor, that of the American “company town” and its single store where “it would take hours of work to buy a pound of beans or rice, a head of garlic, a cucumber, a single mango, or a few onions or tomatoes.”

What Frank lacks is concrete accounts of material suffering (of families or individuals) within the “company town.” For such images of extreme need and despair we have to turn to the Twitter account of the blogger Yusnaby Pérez, a young unemployed engineer who connects to the Web through a Spanish provider. He describes women and men with plastic bags in hand wandering the streets as they seek to “resolve” (resolver being a prominent verb in daily Cuban life) the problems of subsistence on a worker’s income of about twenty dollars a month, professionals without employment selling bananas or cigarette lighters on the streets, rafters heading to Miami on the often dangerous ocean.4 Cuban Revelations does not disclose that part of Cuban reality. Rather it hides it.

Frank’s Cuban Revelations makes almost no use of the extensive and solid academic analyses on modern Cuba. It is essentially a long reportage based on internal documents produced by the hermetic Cuban political apparatus as well as discussions with ordinary Cubans from many niches of society. The strength of the book lies in Frank’s detailed investigation of Raúl Castro’s reforms since his unexpected appointment to power in the summer of 2006, when a severe intestinal illness struck his brother Fidel, stripping him more and more thoroughly of his command over the society that—in all its aspects and for close to half a century—had been under his complete personal control.

Between 2007 and 2009 Raúl made some administrative changes, minor but important for Cubans, who were admitted to hotels, for instance, that had been previously reserved only for tourists. But most significant was Raúl’s handling of national and international politics, which Frank minutely reconstructs, exploring the process of reconciliation with Latin America, the Vatican, and the nations of Europe. Following a speech by Raúl and a document created by an academic committee, the 800,000 members of the Cuban Communist Party were urged to discuss the flaws of the Cuban economy. This was the signal for a discussion that lasted four years, limited—as one might expect—to the economic functioning of Cuba as a “company town” but not including its political structure and, still less, the reason for its existence.

Modest reforms carried out between 1991 and 1995 served to initiate a partial recovery but Cuba really emerged from the crisis of the 1990s only after the extravagant subsidies of Hugo Chávez began in 2000. The annual aid that Chávez provided—in petroleum, investments, and currency—came to surpass that of the Soviet Union, and by 2010 would total nearly $13 billion, 21 percent of Cuba’s GDP that year. Not surprisingly, after a journey that Frank was used to taking every year across the land, he noted the signs of an economy reanimated by Venezuelan support: Chinese electric ovens, electricity, gas, bicycles.

Janis Lewin/AFP/Getty Images
A raft being driven to a beach near Havana for an attempt to reach the US by sea during the 1994 exodus from Cuba, in which thousands were allowed to leave, September 1994

But then came the summer of 2008 with devastating natural and financial hurricanes: the hurricanes Gustav and Ike, and the worldwide financial crisis. Confronting this situation, Raúl took one step forward, applying a kind of self-criticism that is very common in the Soviet tradition. He had to save the revolution by correcting the “vices,” the “errors” into which it had descended. Suddenly, Cuba’s only newspapers—Granma and Juventud Rebelde—always the guardians of orthodoxy, started to criticize the failures of the Cuban bureaucracy. In the government’s self-diagnosis, the main problem was “attitude,” not structure or model.

In 2010, Raúl began a wave of reforms: he expanded nonstate employment (dubbed literally “on-your-ownism” or cuenta-propismo); encouraged the distribution and cultivation of idle state-owned land; and supported autonomous cooperatives in agriculture and services, as well as the freedom to buy and sell houses and cars. The country needed to find work for 1.8 million people who were to be dismissed, as superfluous employees, from 3,700 state enterprises (50 percent of which were losing money). Raúl sought to encourage a limited degree of private and cooperative production in goods and services. “Cuba is the only country in the world,” he noted, “where people can live without working.”

Frank describes the profusion in recent years of kiosks, mobile snack carts, and mom-and-pop restaurants, calling out their varied wares throughout the streets of Cuban cities, all of which he has observed in his yearly travels across the island. His visit to a now privatized taxi cooperative reveals the tensions underlying this transition. Previously the employees could “hang out…doing nothing” and even sometimes take their families to the beach during work hours, all expenses paid. But now they are expected to work. And he supplements this account with a later visit to an agricultural cooperative, revealing how the workers there were being harassed by government bureaucrats opposed to the reforms for fear of losing their jobs.

Frank believes that Cuba has already undergone an irreversible change of mentality, a movement toward discarding the creaky Soviet-style system and steadily adopting a form of mixed and decentralized economy. Carmelo Mesa-Lago—who has closely followed the progress of the present reforms (similar to those he has been recommending for four decades)—is less optimistic.5 He feels they are a move in the right direction, unprecedented for the revolutionary regime, and (with the ideological weight of Fidel out of the picture) they seem irreversible. But he argues that these reforms are far too cautious, far too slow, and already face many obstacles that severely limit their effects.

The new farmers (174,275 of them by official count) benefited from the distribution of formerly idle land but they have not been able to significantly increase production because of a host of limitations. These include the restriction of investments by the farmers themselves to 1 percent of the sixty-seven hectare parcels, thus limiting the potential for increased production within the parcels. They also include the obligation to sell most of their harvests to the state (which fixes the prices to be paid). And they face the specter of a time limit on their contracts (in ten years, the state can decide to renew or cancel them). Additionally, they face obstacles to the hiring of employees outside the family, a lack of credit and experience, and a prohibition against the free sale of basic products like meat, milk, rice, beans, potatoes, and oranges.

By the end of 2014 about 600,000 state employees (33 percent of the original goal) had been dismissed from their jobs. But there has not been enough creation of nonstate jobs to absorb those who have been fired. The independent workers called on-your-ownists are mostly peripheral employees (they have such professions as street performers, public bathroom attendants, or trimmers of palm trees). College graduates—doctors, teachers, or architects—can drive a cab but cannot privately practice the profession they have been trained for. This is a waste of the human capital created by the revolution itself. Mesa-Lago believes that the Cuban government could more closely emulate the Vietnamese or Chinese experience, where private property, freedom in hiring, and general economic liberties for individuals and companies are much more unrestricted

What would happen to Cuba if the Venezuelan economy collapses? Mesa-Lago feels that it would be a serious matter but not as catastrophic as the crisis of the 1990s. Venezuela absorbs 35 percent of Cuba’s foreign trade deficit, a considerable figure but much less than the 72 percent formerly absorbed by the USSR. The Cuban government has attributed its problems to the US embargo. Mesa-Lago has always denounced the embargo but he argues that “the fundamental cause of Cuba’s problems has been its economic policy over the past half century.” The developing relationship with the United States may improve the situation but, according to Mesa-Lago, nothing is more important than a change in the economic model, which is necessary even to preserve the social accomplishments of the regime.6

Frank says that most Cubans are dissidents, by which he means they engage in respectable dissidence “seeking change through reform and evolution of the system.” For him, they are not “dissidents,” a word he hems in with quotes to describe those he sees as “in open alliance with Washington and Miami’s political establishment which seeks regime change.” His argument frankly downgrades the legitimacy and courage of the genuine dissidents, past and present, who have risked and lost their freedom and sometimes even their lives in deeply felt and justified protest, like the dissident leader Oswaldo Payá—whose plan of internal democratization (called Proyecto Varela) attracted considerable international support. He died in an unexplained automobile accident in July 2012. (Frank ignores suspicions about his death.) Frank also fails to mention the activities of dissident Catholic groups or organizations like Unión Patriótica de Cuba or Arco Progresista, which express the views of the Afro- Cuban community increasingly estranged from the country’s mostly white leadership since the crisis of 1990s.

In a country without a legally recognized opposition, one of the most notable figures is the blogger Yoani Sánchez, expert at stripping away the doublespeak of the Cuban gerontocracy. 650,000 people follow her Twitter postings, and her blog, Generación Y, has been translated into seventeen languages.7 Frank has never met her. Cubans are not allowed to have personal Internet accounts, so no one can connect directly with Sánchez, but flash drives of blogs and writings covertly circulate and are passed from hand to hand.

Bloggers have been placed under surveillance, questioned by the authorities, and sometimes imprisoned. A specialized police unit at Havana’s airport checks for any illegal importation of computers or cell phones. Cuba had eight hundred Internet cafés in 2013 but their price is exorbitant for ordinary Cubans ($4.50 per hour) and the user has to supply the number of his identity card, his address, and the object of his Internet search.

Frank does not seem to be disturbed by control or censorship of the Internet in Cuba but rather by its slow speed. And he applies his rhetorical skills to the issue: “How can one explain that arguably the region’s most advanced nation in terms of health, education, social peace, and civil defense has the area’s worst communications?” Once again he follows the pattern of simply accepting the existence of serious problems but balancing them with a reference to the achievements of the regime, including a degree of social peace imposed by dictatorship, a word he never uses. Frank answers his rhetorical question by citing the government’s fear—justified in his opinion—that a complete opening of communications would unleash a cyberwar, a kind of Bay of Pigs invasion waged on the Internet. And Frank insists that the average Cuban blames both the government and the US embargo for the inadequate service.

This sharing of responsibility for the Cuban drama is one of Frank’s central theses, affecting not only modern communications but the very nature of the regime:

Does the Cuban Communist Party repress its opponents? Without a doubt! Does the US embargo aim at making Cubans suffer to the point where, it is hoped, they desperately topple the government? No question about it!

The attempts by the US to subvert the original Cuban Revolution certainly hastened the development of Cuba’s security and police state, but the persecution carried out by the regime against the extensive political and social opposition over more than five decades cannot simply be labeled an equivalent quid pro quo. The unjustifiable US embargo does not justify such violations of elementary human rights.

“Life is a book. We simply turned the page and moved on,” said a Vietnamese official about his country’s relationship to its former enemy, the US. It is a statement that impressed Frank and he uses it as the epigraph to a chapter of conclusions. But the words are also an invitation to amnesia, an outlook that would absolve the Castro brothers of the responsibility for their dictatorial decisions over fifty-five years, with “self-criticism” as their only limit, which is to say no limit at all.

It should be remembered that Cuba, before the revolution, produced 80 percent of its food, while today it imports the same percentage, which costs $2.5 billion annually. “Simply turning the page” would leave unanswered the question of why industrial production fell by 45 percent and sugar production by 80 percent between 1989 and 2013. It was not just the result of the embargo.

And without disparaging the considerable social accomplishments of the revolution—in education and health care particularly—it should be remembered (as even some Marxist historians have recognized) that Cuba before the revolution, despite being a country of social, regional, and ethnic inequality, with wealth skewed in favor of a relatively small proportion of the population, reflected clear social and economic progress, even under the dictatorship of Batista. It had the third-highest domestic product per capita in Latin America (surpassed only by Venezuela and Uruguay), the third-highest consumption of protein (after Argentina and Uruguay), the lowest infant mortality rate, and was already among the leading countries of Latin America in literacy (though the regime has vastly expanded health services and education). And finally, “simply turning the page” would be an incentive to ignore Fidel’s immense personal responsibility for the ruin of the Cuban economy and the effects of his lengthy personal dictatorship on generations of Cubans.

But the statement may perhaps be applied to Frank himself, who describes his grandfather as “a man both blessed and cursed with the courage to be different.” In Cuba (where he was silenced) and in the United States, Waldo Frank paid for his courage in both defending Castro while at the same time pointing to the dangers of his personal leadership. In his memoirs he noted that when he was engaged in a book on Fidel, “I could write what I wished…until my defense of Castro’s Cuba lost me that commission. The trend was wide-spread. A tide was ebbing, and I alone on the sands.”

Marc Frank does not take risks in Cuba, where he admits to applying a rule-of-thumb: “You’re nice to them and they’re nice to you.” In his first book, Cuba Looks to the Year 2000 (1993), he firmly defended the economic, political, and moral leadership of Fidel Castro and his disastrous “Rectification” policy. And in the introduction to that first book, he gives some biographical details that situate his views at the time: “[In January 1990] I had toured 20 states in the USA to talk about Cuba. I had five years in Cuba and over 1,000 articles under my belt as the Havana-based People’s Daily World Latin American correspondent.” Formerly a staunch defender of a Soviet-style system, he is now a convinced reformist. Yet beyond referring to a Bob Dylan song (“The Times They Are a-Changin’”), his general analysis of the economic reforms in Cuba does not include reflection on his own acceptance of heavy state control and then revision of his views.

Nowhere does he explicitly admit (much less document) the terrible price that generations of Cubans have paid, isolated from the world, subject to surveillance and the fear of repression, limited to the official version of the truth, and unable to exercise elementary civil liberties or to freely protest or to safely emigrate. The failure to deal with the long (and present-day) history of the Cuban people—not only of dissidents—is itself a revelation by omission. In the case of Cuba, we cannot “simply turn the page and move on.”

—Translated from the Spanish by Hank Heifetz.

This is the first of two articles on Cuba.

  1. 1

    A Spanish version of the book was finally published in Argentina: Cuba: Isla profética (Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1961).  

  2. 2

    Rafael Rojas, Fighting over Fidel: The New York Intellectuals and the Cuban Revolution (Princeton University Press, forthcoming). Rojas treats in detail the relation between Waldo Frank and the Cuban Revolution in his chapter “Naming the Hurricane.”  

  3. 3

    Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Economía y bienestar social en Cuba a comienzos del siglo XXI (Madrid: Editorial Colibrí, 2003), pp. 28–30.  

  4. 4

    El blog de Yusnaby, available at yusnaby.com. Yusnaby Pérez’s Twitter account is available at twitter.com/Yusnaby.  

  5. 5

    Carmelo Mesa-Lago, “Institutional Changes of Cuba’s Economic-Social Reforms: State and Market Roles, Progress, Hurdles, Comparisons, Monitoring and Effects,” in Richard E. Feinberg and Ted Piccone, Cuba’s Economic Change in Comparative Perspective (Latin America Initiative Brookings Institution/University of Havana, 2014).  

  6. 6

    Carmelo Mesa-Lago “Balance Económico-Social de 50 Años de Revolución en Cuba,” in América Latina Hoy, No. 52 (Universidad de Salamanca, 2009).  

  7. 7

    Yoani Sánchez, Generación Y, available at www.14ymedio.com/blogs/generacion_y/. Yoani Sánchez’s Twitter account is available at twitter.com/yoanisanchez