One afternoon a couple weeks ago, on the first floor of the towering FOCSA building in downtown Havana, Ted Henken (a professor and chair of the Black and Hispanic Studies Department at the City University of New York) was waiting for me, along with my Havana Times colleague Erasmo Calzadilla.
After the exchange of greetings with Professor Henken, who I was meeting personally for the first time, we headed over to the Laurent Café, a recently started paladar (private restaurant) marked by its exquisite design and comfort. Situated on the penthouse of a building there on M Street in the Vedado district, it reminds one of something straight out of the 1950s.
After a few beers and a snack, the three of us began discussing what it means for Erasmo and me to collaborate with the online magazine Havana Times, as well as our opinions on possible directions of the country based on agreements coming out of the recently concluded Sixth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party.
The conversation unfolded in an engaging and warm atmosphere because Professor Henken turned out to be a frank and open person. He proved to be especially expert on the situation in Cuba, which he has studied thoroughly. We could see that he had been sensitized to the capacity Cubans have developed to adapt to and to even live with dignity in conditions that are almost always adverse.
Dr. Henken’s attraction for the Cuban people is such that his blog is named “El Yuma,” a good-natured nickname used by Cubans to refer to foreigners like himself.
As we all opened up, Ted talked about the aim of the interview with us: he wants to write a book that captures the feelings of Cuban bloggers, including everyone from those who are the most critical of the revolution to its most faithful apologists.
According to him, his work couldn’t be published without representing Havana Times because “the online perspective that it has of Cuban reality is very interesting. According to him, since its creation the site has somehow succeeded — not without considerable effort — at moving away from extreme positions from one slant or the other.” For him this makes it an attractive site in Cuban cyberspace.
Ted asked us to question him about whatever we wanted and so we did. Likewise, we asked for nothing less; and with all the freedom that characterizes us, we responded to his question when we were asked about our political directions. Erasmo then identified himself as being in favor of socialism and I explained that I was a follower of liberal thought.
Ted spoke about his leftist sympathies, which he had arrived at more through Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. than through Marx and Engels. He also told us how younger Americans today are beginning to conceive of the United States as a country that doesn’t necessarily have to hold world economic and political hegemony.
He asserted that many American youth feel a spirit of dialogue such that perhaps in a not-so-distant future it will be possible for the US government to begin considering its international relations under conditions of equality – at least with “emerging” nations such China, India, Russia and Brazil.
He also asked about our expectations pertaining to the “Guidelines” [the reform plan coming out of the Sixth Congress] for the coun try’s new economic strategy. Erasmo responded that while he had few, in the end he had. I said that I didn’t have any expectations. For me that document was a palliative strategy for addressing the nation’s problems, an insufficient initiative for solving the crisis. In my opinion the guidelines are making the stratification of Cuban society official, which they can be noted in an obvious manner on at least three levels.
On one level will be the many millions of dollars in investments that will benefit only a small number of citizens (mega investments at the Mariel Port in collaboration with Brazilian capital, golf courses, etc.
Then there is another middle level with more discreet investments (in stores that sell in hard currency, medium-sized companies with foreign collaboration, etc.). While this strata includes the participation of another sector of the population, not as concentrated as the first one, it continues to act in an exclusionary manner.
And at the third level is the “kiosk economy,” which is understood as the one in which almost the entire Cuban population participates. Here taxes are at a rate of 50 percent on profits against all businesses with income of more than $2,013 dollars annually – despite this making for a miserable wage in this or any other country in the world. This last level has job descriptions such as: matchbox fillers and palm tree frond pruners.
Although the question most highlighted in the “Guidelines,” as I see it, is the limited or non-existent possibility for social mobility afforded to anyone who finds themselves at the lowest economic level. Also, something that mustn’t be overlooked is the non-existence of even a single guideline that ensures transparency in the process.
Erasmo and I are not naïve, and though what we spoke about with Henken was only our opinions on various issues, we know perfectly well that when meeting with a foreigner to talk about our opinion of cyberspace and the country, in the eyes of “powerful and dogmatic” individuals, we could possibly be committing a crime.
Given this, it matters little to those who want to hurt us over what we’ve said concerning what is — I repeat — only and exclusively our opinions on the matter. This somehow turns us into defenseless and punishable citizens in the face of “vibrant” state socialism.
It’s also worth clarifying that obviously we felt fear when we learned that Cuban State Security had alerted Professor Henken only moments before he left the country, saying something like: “This it will be your last time in Cuba.”
Ourselves, even more vulnerable than Ted, we continue to remain open to dialogues like this — at our own peril and risk — as they don’t imply imposing and are encounters where our opinions are respected at every moment. At the same time, we reject and are at odds with what happened to Professor Henken.