Cuba Symposium Tackled Tough Issues

By Dawn Gable

Plenary Session: "The United States and Cuba: Is a Normal Relationship Possible?" left to right: Richard Feinberg, Robert Pastor, Jorge I. Domínguez. Photo: David Garten

HAVANA TIMES, April 8 — Last week hundreds of scholars gathered at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center  to share their Cuba related research and projects;  to discuss the island’s current affairs, history and future; and to enjoy each other’s anecdotes about their travels to the country where most US citizens are still forbidden to go.

The more than 50 panels covered a wide range of topics such as literature, biotechnology, race and gender, the colonial period, José Martí, social theory, religion, the diaspora, and tourism. To browse through or read the more than 200 papers presented at the Cuba Futures event, check the Bildner Center website from time to time where they will all be published eventually. The following is just a peek at some of the event highlights which addressed US-Cuba relations, the Cuban economy, humanitarian assistance, and digital media and included intimate discussions with legends of Cuban literature and Latin Jazz.


Opening night plenary featured Robert Pastor, U.S. national security advisor on Latin America and the Caribbean during the Carter administration, who led the first secret negotiations with the Cuban government after diplomatic ties were severed in the early 60’s. Pastor had just returned from accompanying President Carter on his second trip to the island where they met with both of the Castro brothers. Recalling what the elder brother told him decades ago, “US policy is to wait for me to die and I do not intend to cooperate,” Pastor implied that Fidel’s health is at least stable saying that “Fidel does not seem any more likely to cooperate now than he did then.”

Robert Pastor. Photo: Dawn Gable

Pastor shared that President Carter would be submitting a written report about his visit to both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. While he listed several positive steps made by the Obama administration to improve relations between the countries, he was clear they were insufficient, specifically mentioning Obama’s refusal to take a position on bills that would have lifted the travel ban outright and facilitated agricultural sales to Cuba.

He also denounced the fact that the current administration continues the “democracy programs” that led to the arrest of Alan Gross, who he admitted was in violation of Cuban law regardless of any details and who he hopes “doesn’t have to serve as long as the Cuban Five have here in US prisons, which has been 13 years.”

Regarding the eminent economic reforms, Pastor opined that Raul “wants to hand to the next generation an economy that works.” But he said it was not clear if changes in the Cuban system will impact US-Cuba relations because of the symbolism of the embargo to Cuban-Americans, 55% of whom think the sanctions should remain even while 77% of them admit the embargo doesn’t work. When asked by Mauricio Font, the chief organizer of the symposium, whether or not Cuban Americans are really driving US policy, he responded affirmatively reminding the audience of the tiny number of Florida votes that delivered Bush II to power in 2000. However, he conceded two other major factors: Cuba is low priority, so politicians don’t want to waste political capital on the issue and the “physical existence of the original sinners” Fidel and Raul.

To close, Palmer recited a quote by George Washington that could apply to both Cuba and the US: The nation which indulges toward another a habitual hatred … is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity … which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.


Cuban Economy Study Center panel. Photo: Dawn Gable

Thanks to modest adjustments in regulations made by the Obama administration, several Cuban scholars were able to travel to the US and participate in the symposium unlike in past editions. On the panel “Cuban Perspectives on the Cuban Economy”, four economists from the University of Havana think-tank Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana (Cuban Economy Study Center, CEEM) discussed various aspects of the Cuban economy.

Pavel Vidal assured that Cuba is gradually emerging from the recent crisis despite limited convertibility of the Cuban peso (CUC), noting, for example, that by mid-2010 Cuba had paid 2/3 of its frozen bank accounts.  He painted a modestly optimistic future looking forward to institutional reforms, the expansion of contracted Cuban medical services to Algeria and Angola, and the realization of megaprojects such as the construction of a modern port at Mariel and oil refineries in Cienfuegos and Matanzas.

Camila Piñero. Photo: Dawn Gable

Everleny Pérez discussed the process of updating the Cuban economic model framed by the new economic guidelines released to the public late last year. In particular, he pointed out the lack of emphasis on micro-credits as well as contradictions in the document that will need to be addressed in the upcoming 6th Party Congress (April 16-19). Armando Nova described the guidelines as laying out “what” needs to be done, but now the “how” has to be worked out.

Camila Piñeiro provided a look at the non-state sector that is expected to spike over the coming half decade from around 500 thousand individuals participating in non-state economic activities in 2010 to 1.8 million non-state enterprises in 2015. New opportunities include leasing taxis, barber chairs, restaurants, night clubs, etc.; forming agricultural cooperatives; and licensing individuals to hire a small workforce.

When asked if the new market reforms are contradictory to the principles of the revolution, Vidal cautioned not to “confuse the market with capitalism.” Piñeiro explained that the new and unique model will reinforce the socialist notion that personal interests are indivisible from those of the community by decentralizing the collection and use of taxes and incentivizing social forms of production such as cooperatives.

In another panel on the economy, Emily Morris, formerly of the Economist Intelligence Unit, mentioned her talks with economists and decision-makers on the island and related that most Cubans don’t understand how profound the reforms are going to be and that the next couple of years are going to be very risky and bumpy. Vidal agreed explaining that the economic reforms will create winners and losers so the system will have to be able to support the losers. It will be the Party’s task to instill faith in the people that the changes are in the best interests of everyone in the long run.


Everleny Pérez expressed his concern for micro-financing again when he asked a panel of US based NGO’s when they might be updating their assistance approach to include offering micro-credits. After Caritas Cubanas, Fundacion Amistad, and Acceso shared with the audience the numerous important humanitarian aid shipments, projects and delegations to Cuba they have sponsored over the years, they assured that they are pursuing such programs, but are stalled waiting for the new US regulations to be published first and then the Cuban government will have to accept.

Ben Rodriguez, representing the Cuban Artist Fund talked about the difficulties NGO’s face due to constantly shifting US policy, the apprehension of philanthropists to get involved with Cuba projects because of the “murky regulations,” and the obstacles to partnering with third country or international entities because of the Helms-Burton Act.


Ted Henken moderated the Digital Dilemma’s panel and brought to the audience’s attention several  pertinent developments: the Venezuelan fiber optics cable is set to go live this summer; Cuban opposition blogs are no longer blocked from being accessed inside Cuba; the “leaked” MINIT video in which a cyber security official gives a lecture on the cyber war being waged by the US against Cuba; the new TV mini-series “Cuba’s reasons”, a recent episode of which took aim at a few Cuban bloggers, and the video response “Citizen’s reasons” by Yoani Sanchez and others.


Cuban author Leonardo Padura. Foto: David Garten

Havana Times editor Circles Robinson opened the panel discussion on Cuba’s blogosphere by telling the story of how the site, which has some 20 contributors, came into being and discussing a bit about the composition, workings, and evolution of the collective and the project. He said presenting a cross section of opinions and offering some proposals for change is a strong feature of the online publication. He assured that after some initial hassles the many diary writers of Havana Times continue to write unabated. Robinson said that some Cuban readers have expressed fear of visiting the site from work computers. Luckily the publication offers a Spanish language email version that works around this issue.

Investigative blogger Tracy Eaton of Along the Malecón introduced his other blogging venture, the Cuba Money Project, where he follows the money involved in carrying out US policy toward Cuba, which he totals at around $98 million in the past 4 years. To put that number into perspective, according to Eaton, the US only provided $600,000 in hurricane aid to Cuba in 2008, a year of devastating storms, while the State Department has earmarked $30 million for internet for internet freedom projects this year in Cuba and other countries. As an example of the types of projects that receive these funds, Eaton exposed the initiative of Stephanie Rudat, author of “Effective Tools and Strategy: Kicking it Up a Notch in Cuba and Beyond,”  whose company receives State Department funding and is organizing a meeting in Panama this month called {think}CUBA which “will convene select leaders in activism for human rights and democratic freedoms outside of Cuba to become educated ambassadors of movements working toward democratizing and empowering Cubans.”

Vision Comun, a youth community media project in the Eastern town of El Cobre, was presented by Diana Coryat of the University of Massachusetts. In 2007, she donated a camera and some basic equipment to a group of young people and taught a 3 day workshop on documentary making. When she returned a year later, she found that they had “gone wild” and made several videos. Now they offer regular community screenings of their work and hold an annual 3 day film festival.

Another community and participatory media screened clips of their work in a special session. TV Serrana began in 1993 in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains in the far eastern province of Granma as a cooperative effort of UNESCO, the Cuban government, the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), and the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT). Over the years the children of farmers who were trained by TVS have produced hundreds of documentaries many of which are broadcast on national television; some of these productions have received awards in national and international film festivals. TVS filmmaker Carlos Rodriguez is currently touring the US with 21 films.  For more information check out TV Serrana’s website.


Special events included a conversation with Leonardo Padura, one of Cuba’s leading writers who in addition to his famous crime and historic novels, is known for his written reviews of literature and music, investigative journalism, and screenplays. In a lively exchange with the audience, Padura explained the different techniques of character development when dealing with fictional, as opposed to historical characters. He mused over how many people ask him for updates on the lives of his fictional characters as if they were real people.

Arturo O'Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble. Photo: Dawn Gable

Latin jazz enthusiasts were treated to an on opening night performance by the Arturo O’Farrill Afro Latin Latin Jazz Ensemble, which included two of his sons Adam and Zack; two Cuban born and trained musicians, Yosvany and Yunior Terry; and Roland Guerrero, an internationally renowned Latin Jazz artist who played with, among numerous others, the Cuban musical legend Chico O’Farrill, the father of Arturo.

To bring the symposium full circle Arturo and others returned on closing night to discuss the Havana-New Orleans historical connection and the role of music in cultural diplomacy. During Ned Sublette’s animated and humorous tracing of various rhythms through history, he emphasized that Havana was the first great music center in the hemisphere and that Cuba mounted the second radio tower on the entire continent. Panelists agreed that among their students and understudies, those of Cuban heritage are much more knowledgeable about the history and development of music, which they concurred, is essential for a true jazz performer. Arturo clarified that there are not Cuban musicians and Cuban American musicians as “we all share the same roots.”


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