Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro; drawing by David Levine


Just before I left New York for Havana, at the end of February, I went to see the Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate. Shown to record crowds in Havana last year, the film is a moving and sympathetic portrait of the restricted lives of Cuban homosexuals, who have long been persecuted by the Castro regime and were interned in “rehabilitation” camps during the 1960s. Through its central character, a sensitive and cultivated homosexual leading an anxious life in Havana, the movie is critical of the government’s intolerance not just of homosexuals but of artistic freedom and of free expression in general. The fact that it had been made and shown in Havana and distributed abroad made me wonder whether Cuba was, at last, easing its strict control over free speech. Might news of glasnost, which had been kept from the Cuban public by censorship when it appeared in the Soviet Union, have reached Cuba after all?

I was part of a delegation of some seventy US book publishers, editors, and writers who went to Havana to open an exhibit of American books. Organized by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), it was the first such exhibit to be held in Cuba since the 1959 revolution and the subsequent US embargo, which prevents any commerce with Cuba.

It was my second visit to Havana; the first was with a small group from the AAP in 1991, after the revolutions in Eastern Europe, and while Soviet communism was falling apart. Soviet economic support, which for decades had helped Cuba to survive the US embargo, was coming to an end, leaving Cuba in a desperate economic situation. Castro’s response was to blame the US embargo as one way of mobilizing the Cuban people for a “special period” of deprivation and to crack down more firmly than ever on any form of dissent.

Book publishing, which is strictly state-controlled in Cuba, was one of the casualties of the economic crisis. During our 1991 visit we discovered that owing to a paper shortage hardly any books were being published. Our proposal to send an exhibit of US books to Cuba that would later be donated to the National Library was enthusiastically accepted by officials and dissidents alike.

The exhibit took four years to arrange. First, we needed approval from the US Treasury Department. Under the Trading With the Enemy Act, only diplomats and regularly employed journalists are allowed to spend money in Cuba; all others need specific licenses from the Treasury Department. Most Americans who travel to Cuba do so illegally, entering from a third country, or else they go as guests of the Cuban government and thus have no need to spend money. The Cuban government seemed hesitant about the exhibit. Finally, in December 1994, a small group from the AAP,1 after being assured that the organization would receive a US license under a provision allowing the export of “informational materials,” went to Cuba and made arrangements with the Ministry of Culture’s Instituto Cubano del Libro.

They sounded too good to be true. We would exhibit as many as ten thousand books of our own choosing in late February and early March. The exhibit would be open to the public; there would be no censorship, and among the various seminars and readings by US authors, there would be an open panel discussion on free expression, in which American and Cuban writers would take part. Cuban officials also agreed to our request that members of the US Interests Section in Havana, which serves as a surrogate US embassy in the absence of diplomatic relations, would be invited as guests to the opening ceremony; in the past, diplomats from the Interests Section were excluded from meetings between US visitors and Cuban officials. Although these conditions were not confirmed in writing, our advance party seemed confident that they were accepted in good faith. When we got there, however, we found the situation to be otherwise.

Cuba is one of the few countries in the world that refuses entry to independent human rights groups. It came as no surprise when José Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of Human Rights Watch/Americas, who applied to join our group, was excluded by the Cuban government. Learning of this, a few of us in the delegation decided to look into the human rights situation in Cuba while we were there.2

Publishers and editors from some seventy-five companies selected books and sent them to Havana, and the seventy people who decided to attend the exhibit were in an enthusiastic mood when they gathered in Nassau for the short flight to Havana. Some hoped to open new markets for books in Cuba; others looked forward to Cuba’s beaches. As we waited for takeoff in the muggy compartment of a Soviet TU-154, fanning ourselves with the plastic emergency instruction cards, we felt we might be taking part, in a small way, in a new phase of Cuban history.


More than four thousand books were exhibited in downtown Havana in the handsome Capitolio building, modeled after the US Capitol, and there was also a separate children’s book exhibit at the National Library. The selection of the books had been left to the individual publishers and the exhibit was diverse, but it was fairly tame when it came to anything that might challenge the political system in Cuba. It included, however, a few books by the exiled Cuban writers Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Heberto Padilla, and the late Reinaldo Arenas. When we arrived, the books were already on display, arranged in categories such as science and technology, fiction, and history by the Cubans who had unpacked them. Some of us brought additional books with us, a few on controversial themes, and we were pleased when the staff unquestioningly listed them and added them to the shelves.

Several hours before the afternoon’s opening ceremonies, two of the books we had brought that had been in the exhibit just before lunch were missing. One was Georgie Ann Geyer’s critical biography of Fidel Castro, Guerrilla Prince, published in 1991; the other was a prison memoir entitled Twenty Years and Forty Days: Life in a Cuban Prison, by Jorge Valls, one of the dissidents who were given long prison sentences for their early opposition to the increasingly authoritarian direction of Castro’s revolution. We also learned that another prison memoir, published by a small Wyoming press and called Leave Me My Spirit: An American’s Story of Fourteen Years in Castro’s Prisons, had never reached the shelves at all, although the publisher told us he had packed the book himself and that his other selections had been included in the exhibit. We protested to the Cuban publishing officials who were our hosts; they made vague promises that they would “look into it.”

The opening ceremonies included speeches by the minister of culture, Armando Hart, and several Cuban book publishing officials associated with the Instituto Cubano del Libro. Representing the American publishers was Nicholas Veliotes, a former US ambassador to Egypt and the current president of the AAP. He reacted swiftly when he was informed that Joseph Sullivan, the principal officer of the US Interests Section in Havana, had been stopped by security guards at the entrance to the exhibit and refused entry. Veliotes announced that he would immediately leave the ceremonies and withdraw AAP support from the exhibit if Mr. Sullivan was not admitted. A Cuban publishing official, José Robert Gasset, explained that it was a “matter of reciprocity” and that the US government was similarly inhospitable to Cuban diplomats in Washington. He would not budge, and the stalemate was broken only when Robert Gasset’s superior, Pablo Pacheco, was informed of what was happening and invited Mr. Sullivan in. It was a victory, perhaps, but it started the exhibition off on an unpleasant note.

On the following morning, when the exhibit was officially open to the public, we stood on the steps of the Capitolio and observed people being turned away by security guards because they did not have printed invitations. When we protested to our hosts that the exhibit was supposed to be open to the public, we were told that during the first few days only invited “experts” could see the exhibit, and that it would be open to others on Saturday, after most of us had left. We managed to have admitted the few people who tried to enter without invitations. In our subsequent discussions with Cubans we learned that no announcement had been made that the exhibition was open to the public. Ordinary Cubans know all too well that they are not welcome at such events. Passes to attend them are issued at workplaces to the trusted few.

More trouble was to come, this time over the panel discussion on free expression that we had planned. We were told that the open panel we had expected had been transformed into a “conversation with writers” at a closed meeting to take place at the government-controlled National Union of Writers and Artists in Cuba (UNEAC). We had attended a session at UNEAC during our first visit, and had heard some of the union officials criticize the US government for obstructing fraternal friendship between Cuban and American writers. We had no chance then to say that Cuban writers such as Cabrera Infante, Carlos Franqui, and Heberto Padilla were in exile because they opposed Cuban government policies and that other Cuban writers were serving long sentences in prison. We had hoped, in the open discussion that we had been promised, to raise the issue of government repression of independent-minded writers.


The AAP is on record as opposing the US travel embargo, and most of the members of our delegation I spoke to shared the view that the embargo is counterproductive, punitive, and demeaning to both sides. Many of us, however, did not want our objections to the embargo to be exploited for anti-American propaganda or to be used to divert attention from Cuban human rights abuses. We were wary of a closed meeting at UNEAC.

Thus when Abel Prieto, the head of UNEAC, would not agree to move the seminar to an open forum, we replied that we wanted to invite Cuban writers of our own choosing to the UNEAC meeting. He insisted on seeing, and vetting, our list. We submitted the names of some fifteen writers, many of them in fact members of UNEAC but, as one of them explained to me, “There are members, and there are members.” We told Mr. Prieto that we had already invited the people on our list and that they were coming. We later discovered that UNEAC officials had called each of them and told them not to come.

When we entered the courtyard of the UNEAC building that evening, none of the writers we had invited was to be seen. After some negotiation a US television crew working for the CBS program Sunday Morning was permitted to enter and film the event. Then the gates were shut behind us and secured with a chain and padlock. We learned the next day that five writers who had been disinvited but who attempted to come anyway were stopped by security police five blocks from the UNEAC building. One of the writers later told me that he had wanted to read aloud at the meeting the names of fourteen writers who were in prison or otherwise in trouble with the system. “I didn’t care if they arrested me after that. I just wanted to read that list.”

Prieto, with his dark, curly shoulder-length hair and casual dress, looks more like an artist than the bureaucrat he is. He can produce an ideological temper tantrum in an instant, and he did so when several of us showed our outrage at finding ourselves part of a “free expression meeting” that was held behind locked doors. Wendy Wolf of Viking Penguin, who was to have been the moderator of our illfated open panel, led with an eloquent protest against the banning of our guests. When my turn came, I compared the event to a similar meeting in Moscow in 1988 when some of us associated with Helsinki Watch brought unexpected guests to the conference table of a group that purported to be independent but in fact was working closely with the KGB.3 Prieto responded by saying that “Cuban art is free. We criticize our mistakes. This country is not like the USSR. We are a mystery…a democracy under pressure.”

As we left the meeting, the three members of the CBS crew told me that they had covered the 1988 meeting in Moscow that I had just described to Mr. Prieto. I realized, not for the first time that week, that, in trying to push back the boundaries of what was permissible, the efforts of our group recalled those of Helsinki Watch in Moscow years ago. By confronting our hosts every time they tried to put something over on us, we were showing them that we saw through their pretenses. When we did this at every opportunity in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the late 1980s, it had made a difference.

Moreover, the amount of flexibility in such confrontations is a measure of a closed system’s vulnerability. In Cuba thus far there had not been much give. Was there any real promise of change in the new face that Cuba is trying to show? This was a question that I hoped our discussions with dissidents would clarify.


We met with more than twenty activists representing nine organizations concerned with human rights, trade union organizing, or promoting independent political thought, or a combination of the three. No efforts were made to prevent our meetings, although at one point Mr. Veliotes was told by a government official that several members of our group were acting in ways that were “unconstructive.” One activist told us that there are 133 human rights groups now in Cuba. When these groups try to register in order to establish their legal status, however, they are ignored; they therefore cannot rent offices, buy equipment, have bank accounts, or hire professional staff. One organization claims to have more than 8,000 members; another was said to have 3,500.

Although the figures are imprecise, it is clear that the number of independent groups in Cuba has grown swiftly in recent years. There were hints of political differences among the groups but we had no time to explore them. Now that it has become easier to leave Cuba, some of the people who have recently joined such groups may have done so to establish their credentials for eventual political asylum in the US. One well-informed dissident estimated that out of a population of 11 million, 4 million Cubans want to leave Cuba now for economic or political reasons, or both.

In its efforts to attract European investment and to encourage tourism, the Cuban government in recent months has been trying to present a more positive image of its human rights policies. Allowing our exhibit of US books was a gesture in this direction, as was permission to make and export Strawberry and Chocolate. Ricardo Alarcon, president of the National Assembly, immediately cited this film as an example of creative freedom when we asked him about restrictions on free expression in Cuba. Abel Prieto of UNEAC did the same.

The National Assembly, we heard, may soon establish an officially approved human rights organization, a tactic once used in the former Soviet bloc to diminish the importance of independent human rights groups. The officials made much of the short visit in November 1994 by José Ayala Lasso, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who was allowed to meet with the representatives of many human rights groups and whose visit may have led to the release of a few prominent political prisoners. Ayala is, however, known for his reluctance to criticize governments publicly; the UN Human Rights Commission’s Special Rapporteur on Cuba, who has published strongly critical reports on abuses of human rights in Cuba, has never been allowed to visit the island.

The human rights activists we saw all dismissed any claims to improvement in the government’s recent human rights policies. Yet what they told us seemed to point to at least a slight easing of repression. In recent months arrests have been fewer, dissenters have been able to circulate petitions abroad, and at least one group has held a press conference for foreign reporters. Dissidents who wanted to see us were allowed to come to our hotel. They are, they told us, in touch with the US Interests Section and other embassies (but not the Russian Embassy, which discourages any contact with them), and they send information to Radio Martí.

All this could change in a minute, of course. “We are basically without any protection,” said Vladimiro Roca, a leading member, with Elizardo Sanchez, of the political group called the Democratic Socialist Current and of its human rights organization, the Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. “The government could put us all away at any time. The space we have is very small but very vital. Any day it could change. Tomorrow Castro could get sick of all this and say: ‘I don’t care about international opinion anymore.’ ” He told us that the state security forces have recently been enlarged by about 10 percent and that the government is building more prisons.

Persecution by the security police continues, often through measures short of arrest and imprisonment. The telephones of dissidents are tapped, their houses are watched, and they are subjected to punitive searches. They receive threatening phone calls, their pensions are taken away, and their children are expelled from school. They are fired from their jobs and denied the opportunity to work privately. Once unemployed, they become subject to the law against “dangerousness,” a particularly harsh device, similar to the “parasite” laws in the former Soviet Union.

Under the “dangerousness” law, people alleged to have a tendency to commit a crime—i.e., who conduct themselves in a manner deemed to “contradict socialist morality”—can be sentenced without actually having committed a criminal act. A human rights activist described to us how the law is used by the officials who are in charge of each residential district or “sector.”

There’s sector chief who knows everyone in the sector. The guy calls you in. You are not working because you were fired, and no one will hire you. He says: “What are you living on? You could get four years in prison.” …The law is used against dissidents. In fact, we have to do something to survive, everyone does. But if you are a dissident, you can be charged with things that would be accepted if you weren’t—like selling your rations on the black market.

Just about all of the activists we met had been fired from their jobs. They are summoned frequently for questioning, and they each have a file at the police station, with mug shots and reports of their interrogations. They know that the “evidence” against them has been prepared and that they can be sent away at any time. “It is easy to conceal such sentences,” we were told, “because they appear to be for common crimes.”

René Del Pozo, an activist, formerly an actor, described his brief detention in August 1994. He spent three days in a tiny police station cell with one dim light bulb. “You don’t know whether it’s night or day. There were twenty-six people, common criminals, held in a cell designed for four. We had no water; no toilet. We slept on top of each other, on excrement. There was urine everywhere. I was interrogated three times…. When you leave, you’ve lost your equilibrium… They could arrest me again, right now, when I leave this house.”

Some dissidents described the government’s staging of “acts of repudiation” in which hundreds of people surround a dissident’s house and attack it without warning, using rocks and steel bars, breaking windows, and threatening and insulting family members. Such attacks can go on for hours. We sat in Vladimiro Roca’s dining room as he described how his house had been attacked in 1992, in what he called a “pogrom.” He said that there were fewer instances of such attacks now, but that he still receives threatening phone calls.

Repression is believed to be greater outside Havana, away from the embassies and the foreign press. With transportation now hampered by severe shortages of gas, it is extremely difficult for people to come to Havana to report on abuses in the provinces. One human rights group has compiled a list of 1,308 political prisoners, including those sentenced for crimes of “dangerousness” that might, on the surface, appear to be nonpolitical. Elizardo Sanchez, one of the principal opposition figures and a social democrat who favors a mixed economy, has spent ten of the last sixteen years in prison without losing his political determination and courage. He told us that his group—the Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation—has 1,500 verified names of prisoners, and this list is incomplete. There is no way of knowing how accurate these figures are. “The only way to verify the number of prisoners is to allow human rights groups to come and investigate,” Sanchez said. “The Cuban government obviously has a lot to hide.”

Elizardo’s brother-in-law Yndamiro Restano, a poet, journalist, and leader of the social democratic Harmony Movement, is serving ten years in prison for trying to organize peaceful opposition to the government. Restano has been offered his freedom if he will emigrate, but he refuses to leave Cuba. Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, a thirty-year-old dissident sentenced to twenty years in prison for “enemy propaganda” and “sabotage,” has similarly refused to emigrate in exchange for his release.

Havana looks as if it has recently emerged from a long war. Though efforts are being made to restore the Spanish colonial architecture of the old city, many of the older buildings seem to have deteriorated beyond repair, and some have collapsed completely. We visited an apartment near Havana’s port whose windows and balcony have sweeping views of the sea. The building’s halls were unlit: we had to grope our way up the dark, putrid-smelling stairs, dodging loose electric wires hanging from the ceiling. The plumbing in the apartment was not working, nor was it in many other houses that we visited. There was no question of anyone’s offering us refreshments; everyone seemed anxious about food. Though many of the shops in Havana have closed, people still get basic rations of rice and other staples, and fresh produce is now available in farmers’ markets, which only recently became legalized. US dollars, formerly legal currency only for tourists, are now legal and the prevailing currency; access to dollars, through tourists or from relatives in exile, makes a huge difference in people’s lives. (It is ironic to read the US Treasury Department’s statement that “the basic goal of the sanctions is to isolate Cuba economically and deprive it of US dollars.”)

Until recently, electricity has been cut off for three or more hours every other evening. We talked about this with Gustavo Arcos, the head of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, who, before the revolution, was put in prison along with Castro only to be put back in prison by Castro for disagreeing with his policies. He said the blackouts are “the saddest time in my life: you can’t read, drive, go to the movies, watch TV; you must sit here in the dark.” He was alone when we met him in the small communal apartment he shares with a pensioner and a small green parrot that he has taught to dance. He spoke of the beauty of old Havana, and how its elegant façades have been allowed to crumble in the rain.

The contrast between extreme wealth and severe poverty that characterizes most Caribbean islands is not evident in Cuba. Universal education and free medical and social services are among the tangible successes of the revolution. But the failure of the economy appears to have brought hardship to virtually all Cubans, apart from the top layer of the governing elite. Arcos pointed out that before 1990 Cuba received 85 percent of its basic needs from the Soviet bloc. Then the “special period” began, “a euphemism,” he said, “for the economic crisis,” which was obviously precipitated by the end of Soviet aid. But Castro blames it entirely on the embargo, which he calls a “blockade.”

According to Vladimiro Roca, about 80 percent of government industries are paralyzed, except for electrical plants, which are functioning at 50 to 60 percent capacity, and the sugar industry, now producing about 50 percent of capacity. “The population is getting poorer and poorer,” Roca told us, “while unemployment and social tensions are growing.”

Arcos said that Castro, prompted by the Soviets, became involved in disastrous industrial experiments. “The tragedy of the experiments,” he observed, is that they are now abandoning state ownership and “returning to the same system as before the revolution.” Castro is actively seeking foreign investment, and by the end of 1994 had reportedly signed deals with many European countries for as many as 185 joint foreign ventures.4

Cuba has been described as “the Soviet Union with palm trees,” and one can readily see why, both in the forms that its repression has taken and in the economic failure that has forced it to seek a new image internationally. It would be easy to assume that Cuba will follow the same path that led the Soviet Union away from the rigid political and economic controls of communism. But that would discount the important differences between the two countries and the relationship of each with the US government.

The Soviet Union was a huge imperial state, with large Communist client states on its periphery. Cuba is a small, impoverished island that has always lived in the shadow of the United States. The Soviet Union constructed an iron curtain against imaginary enemies in order to justify its tight control over its citizens. The iron curtain around Cuba was constructed by the US government, which has for years accommodated the demands of the powerful Cuban lobby in Miami for a strict embargo and a policy of nonrecognition. The Soviets used the threat of “capitalist encirclement” to justify its military establishment and its repressive internal policies, but this phrase gradually became meaningless as contacts with the West increased. In Cuba, however, the threat of a hostile neighbor is no invention; most repressive governments fear their own exiles above all, and in Cuba’s case, those exiles are rich, vocal, close at hand, and supported by the most powerful country in the world.

The small gestures toward openness in Cuba today may be hypocritical and finely calculated, but that was to some degree true of glasnost in the Soviet Union as well. Soviet leaders blamed the “stagnation of the past” for the evils they were uncovering, and the Soviet people seized the opportunity to make sure there would be no turning back. In Cuba, however, Castro has a convenient excuse for avoiding criticism: the US government has long wanted to destroy his government.

The United States has provided Fidel Castro with something his Soviet counterparts never had: an indisputable enemy that can be blamed for every failure and used to justify tight control. “The embargo gives the government its greatest justification for all the country’s problems,” a human rights leader we met in Havana told us. “The only thing the embargo has hurt is the Cuban people.” By preventing people and ideas from reaching Cuba, the US is following a particularly self-defeating policy. Nothing could be more foolish than to prohibit the kinds of person-to-person contact with Cubans that did so much to make an opening in the Soviet iron curtain and to help to undermine the Communist system in Europe.

This Issue

April 20, 1995