I would like to share with the readers of the Havana Note this interview with Douglas Fehlen from Education-Portal.com. The direct link to the interview is at the end of the text:
Scholar Advocates for Increased Academic Partnership Between U.S. and Cuba
Jan 12, 2012
In January, President Obama lifted restrictions on academic travel to Cuba, making it easier for students to partake in educational exchanges with the island country. To get an expert's perspective on that decision, Education-Portal.com spoke with Arturo López-Levy, Ph.D. candidate and research associate at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies. López-Levy is a passionate advocate for increasing shared educational opportunities between the U.S. and Cuba.
Education-Portal.com: In a ForeignPolicy.com article, you praised President Obama's January decision to ease restrictions on academic travel to Cuba. Why do you support this policy change?For decades, the United States has maintained no formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, enforcing severe travel and trade restrictions against the country all the while. Arturo López-Levy, Ph.D. candidate and research associate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is a longtime critic of American policy toward the Caribbean nation. The University of Denver scholar believes that recent changes in American policy - including relaxed regulations on educational, cultural and religious travel - have the potential to transform the relationship between the two countries.
There is much political continuity in Raul Castro’s government, but the recent announcement that Cubans will be able to sell and buy houses and their used cars represents an important change. These are visible economic reforms with direct impacts on Cuban lives. The marketization of these assets unleashes Cuban entrepreneurial spirit and might increase the remittances received from relatives and friends abroad.
For decades, rigid communist regulation of real estate and car sales created major resentment in Cuba, but the government didn’t respond to the public's criticism. After a brief interregnum from 1984 to 1988, when Cubans could sell their houses, Fidel Castro cancelled this right arguing that it was fomenting inequalities, creating a class of intermediaries who were capitalizing on transactions, and rewarding the nouveau riche. His characteristic aversion to market mechanisms also exerted a virtual veto against the sale of automobiles acquired after 1959.
The High Holidays are the expression of the supreme Jewish belief in reconciliation and every individual’s capacity to recognize his or her mistakes and change for the better. The Cuban government should view Alan Gross’ recent statement as expressing repentance for his unconscious participation in American government sponsored regime change policies that violated Cuban sovereignty. Mr. Gross, an American Jew from Maryland, interested in civil society development was arrested in Dec. 3, 2009 by the Cuban authorities. He had gone to Cuba five times as a subcontractor of Development Alternatives Inc (DAI), a private company serving contracts awarded by the Bush Administration under the Cuba program of USAID.
The death of Cuban Defense Minister Julio Casas should remind President Raúl Castro of two things: 1) that he has limited time to replace the old guard,and 2) age and health should be key factors in the selection of possible successors. With an eye toward the Cuban Communist Party Conference scheduled for January 2012, those messages amount to a call to rejuvenate the Political Bureau (average age: 67.5) by incorporating younger leaders and seriously considering substitutes for the key positions of first and second secretaries of the Communist Party (PCC, in Spanish).
Along with José Ramón Machado Ventura, General Casas was one of the two closest leaders to Raúl Castro. From a family in the town of Bombi in eastern Cuba, Julio Casas and his brother Senén joined the anti-Batista movement before turning 20. Ever since joining the guerrilla war under Raúl Castro’s command at the second eastern front, Casas became known as a thoughtful but unconditional follower of his boss. Casas was also an inseparable part of the military group formed at the Second Front Guerrilla Headquarters in Micara, from which several of most important leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces would emerge, including current PCC Second Secretary Machado Ventura and three defense ministers following the triumph of the Revolution—Augusto Martínez Sánchez, Raúl Castro, and Julio Casas himself.
Five years after Fidel Castro’s separation from power, it is essential to examine the role that the former revolutionary leader has played in the current Cuban political system from his convalescence and retirement, and the consequences of this evolution.
The fundamental role of Fidel Castro in the Cuban political system today is two-fold: 1) In terms of government, Fidel Castro is the great counselor, to be consulted on strategic decisions or with respect to the appointment or removal of central leaders, as was the case in the termination of the political careers of his former associates Felipe Perez and Carlos Lage and in the constitution of the new Central Committee at the Sixth Congress, 2) In terms of ideology and international projection, particularly in Latin America, he is a Patriarch of the radical left, advising the new leaders, especially Hugo Chavez, and reflecting on some of the past mistakes made by this political sector (in his Reflections and interviews he has criticized discrimination against homosexuals, hostility toward the market, and Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitism that has been repeated in many of the anti-Israeli condemnations by the radical Latin American left).
There are Cuban individuals both on and off the island who are disgusted by the Castro regime and who do not want to see any reforms in Cuba, but rather hope that the deteriorating situation will galvanize discontent and provoke a rebellion. There are others in Cuba, enjoying the privileges of the Communist system, who do not want any reforms so that they can go on enjoying the status granted them due to family ties, loyalty or simply ideological opportunism. Still, there are many others who would like to see Cuba initiate orderly reforms that gradually lead to a political and economic system consistent with all human rights-- civil and political, economic, cultural and social-- enshrined in the Universal Declaration.
The principal report to the VI Congress of the Communist Party, presented by Raul Castro, points to a Cuba in which none of the three groups may be satisfied. The proposed reform program inserts economic change into single-party political continuity. This formulation implies that it is possible to advance in terms of legitimacy, freedom and welfare in some areas, while in other areas there is no progress, or even reinforcement of authoritarianism. It envisages a Cuba that might combine prosperity and joyful consumption of market-oriented economic growth with the permanence of reprehensible acts of repudiation against political dissidents.
The dilemmas of economic reform
The Central Report to the PCC Congress reflects a set of proposals generally associated with unorthodox propositions by government supporters. Positions in favor of term limits, decentralization, revaluation of the market as a development tool, separation of party and state functions, increasing the representation of women, blacks, mestizos and youth in government leadership and in favor of checks and balances between the branches of government and the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) have been present in Cuba's internal debates since the 80's.
In practice, the transition to a mixed economy model with a decentralized state and a major non-state sector, considered in the past as antithetical to the official communist ideology, has already begun. President Raul Castro has taken (some would say stolen) agendas promoted in the past by reformist groups or even opponents and has set out to implement them under the leadership of the PCC. It will be a challenge for a bureaucracy, steeped in hostility toward these very concepts, to do so.
Market oriented reforms and a reduction of the State's distributive role had already been decided. The questions put to the PCC concerned the speed, methods, sequence, scope and progression of the reforms. The report lacks clear answers. It insinuates a gradual approach by ruling out IMF-style shock therapy and sudden removal of the ration card. But there is still no overall vision or alternative economic model put forward and no discussion of the political risks that the PCC will face in implementing changes.
If, as the report states, contracts will be the "regulatory tool of interrelationships between economic actors," the government is way behind on legislation to accommodate this. There are no viable bankruptcy laws, credible legal mechanisms for dispute resolution between creditors and borrowers, or adequate consumer protection or antitrust laws.
Has the PCC adopted an economic model in which State, cooperative or private enterprises can go bust? How will the government respond when a borrower does not repay a loan? What are the rules for restructuring debt in the shortest time possible or accessing seized assets? What assets will be used as collateral when seeking credit?
For VI Congress-watchers, the weekend brought colorful images of Cuban school children cheerfully waving miniature Cuban flags, the appearance of a gleaming Granma, and the fiery sounds of salsa music blaring as Cubans marched toward the Plaza de la Revolución. While Saturday’s parade communicated a cheerful, confident, and orderly Cuba, the reality that prompted the VI Congress is a far different one.
At the core of the Congress is the Lineamientos document, a set of proposed reforms for which the government has been soliciting input since November 2010. In his two-and-a-half hour address to Congress delegates on Saturday (the text of which can be found here), President Raul Castro made his case for the reforms “in order to secure the continuity and irreversibility of Socialism as well as the economic development of the country and the improvement of the living standard of our people combined with the indispensible formation of ethical and political values.”
In the weekend’s biggest news, Castro effectively proclaimed the end of Cuba’s Castro era when he announced the introduction of term limits for high-ranking party officials. Two consecutive periods of five years and you’re out. If these new limits are applied retroactively, it could mean that Castro himself would be forced to vacate office as “soon” as 2018, leaving Cuba without a Castro at the helm for the first time in more than 50 years and definitely ushering in a new generation of political leadership in Cuba.
As soon as Raul Castro took power in 2008, speculation commenced about who would succeed him. With the 2009 ousting of Felipe Perez Roque and Carlos Lage, who, until then, had been considered the most likely candidates, the scratching of heads only become more furious. While we still lack clear indications about the identity of Castro’s successor, (new economic reform czar Marino Murillo and Secretary of the Communist Party in Santiago de Cuba, Lazaro Exposito have been mentioned as possibilities) we now have a timetable that will force these decisions to be made sooner rather than later.
Some other notable excerpts from Saturday’s speech:
Photo: Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter shakes the hands of eager schoolchildren during his historic trip to Cuba. (May 2002).
When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, 86, touches down in Havana today he will confront a situation not totally unlike his last international diplomatic outing. Replace nuclear weapons with decades of distrust, add in a failing state–run economy and an American in a communist prison, and you have the backdrop against which the thirty-ninth President of the United States enters Cuba for a brief, but potentially powerful three-day visit.
Nine years ago when Carter first visited Cuba, it marked the first time an American president had set foot on the island since Fidel Castro took power. The visit was marked by a public address, broadcast over Cuban radio (and delivered in Spanish), in which President Carter called for the end of the U.S. embargo and lauded the Cuban pro-democracy initiative, the Varela Project.
Since then, and as most Cuba watchers know, significant changes have come to Cuba with many more still on the horizon. Under President Raul Castro’s watch, Cuba has essentially sworn off the state-led economy as it has precariously existed in Cuba since Fidel Castro took power. The government has pledged to lay off approximately 500,000 state workers, and has granted 171,000 private employment licenses. Next month’s Communist Party Congress, the first to be convened in 14 years, will focus on “the fundamental decisions on updating the Cuban economic model,” and will shed light on how the government plans to reconcile market-oriented reforms with political and social norms of Cuba's communist system.
It figures that just as I get ready to take an extended leave for the next two months (during which I'll be unable to blog here as much as I'd like), U.S.-Cuban affairs would get to their most interesting - and critical - point in some time.
In recent days we've learned that April's Communist Party Congress in Cuba may not just clarify and embrace the ongoing economic overhaul, but now it will include election of new leadership - which offers the prospect that Fidel Castro will step down as party head, Raul Castro will presumably take his place, and someone else will step into the number 2 spot. Any readers want to take a gander at that one in the comments section?
And then there's what fate awaits Alan Gross, the American contractor the Wall Street Journal editorial board today suggests went on trial in Cuba for "bringing computer equipment to the island to help Cuban Jews communicate with the disapora"? It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is, even, and especially perhaps, for the media to ignore the parts of reality it cares to. Gross was allegedly delivering highly advanced and unregulated satellite communications equipment (added emphasis is mine) on behalf of a foreign, and let's face it, hostile, power. That's a big difference, particularly when we know that droves of American Jews visit the island every year to connect and make generous donations, resulting in community amenities like a computer lab.
The WSJ may in fact be absolutely right that the Cuban government is "terrified of the internet," but questioning the motives behind the application of a law in another country doesn't give you the right to expect that law to be disregarded because you believe your motives to be on a higher order.
The trial in Cuba against USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, which will begin on March 4, presents an opportunity for the Cuban government to both demonstrate the legitimate basis for nationalist defense against U.S. interventionist policy and its good will towards the millions of potential American travelers to Cuba.
By the end of the trial, it should be clear that U.S. travelers to Cuba have nothing to fear if they keep a healthy distance from regime change programs and that Washington and Havana would both gain from dismantling hostile attitudes.
The trial serves three Cuban government purposes: