Between Two Cubans: One Here, the Other There (Part II)

Photo by Janis Wilkens

HAVANA TIMES, August 24 — HT reader Julio de la Yncera and HT writer Erasmo Calzadilla —both Cubans— live on opposite sides of the Florida Straight.

Yncera sees many merits in the system of government in the United States where he has lived for some 20 years and is highly critical of the Castro government.  Calzadilla has his reservations about the northern power and would like to see some major changes in Cuba’s system.

Both are concerned about the future of Cuba and would like to see greater citizen participation in the country’s decision making bodies and the economy.

Here is part two of their conversation.

See part one of this interview

Julio de la Yncera: You mention in one of your responses that you know of a group of people with political aspirations who you call the libertarian left.  Can you explain more about what they propose?

Erasmo Calzadilla:  It’s great that you asked me that because earlier I said something that might not have been clear. I mentioned that the libertarian socialists were not represented in the National Assembly, but I don’t really know if they want to be.  They may prefer to subvert the whole system of representative democracy.

I call libertarian socialists those who believe that socialism is not in contradiction with individual freedom, and that it can be obtained through the cooperative system. Their references are generally from Marx (and other Marxist authors) and anarchism. I don’t believe that I’m lying when I affirm that according to their way of seeing things, Statism (or whatever you want to call what we are experiencing on the island) is an absurdity and a social illness that must be cured by the people themselves, not by some leading specialist in social pathologies. What must be socialized, distributed, etc. are not social services – but power. Previously I ranted about socialism, but after hearing their ideas I liked them, and I’ve been moving closer to them.

Julio de la Yncera: I’ve seen in articles HavanaTimes in which several writers also speak about the Observatorio Critico (Critical Observatory).  I have the impression that it is a group dedicated to environmental protection . Can you tell us about the activities that they carry out and what difficulties they’ve run into in the tasks that they propose?

Erasmo Calzadilla: The Critical Observatory is a network of independent individuals or members of projects, and as a network it ultimately has no hierarchy. It unites us around the desire to do things for ourselves, without requesting permission from anybody.  We especially engage in community activities, which can be quite varied (and not just ecological).

Plaza of the Revolution. Photo by Yander Zamora

We like to see people from our neighborhoods participate in our initiatives and to become empowered from them.  These eventually become their projects and they begin to feel the great and wonderful feeling of what it is to be part of a community and to work together for it.  We are not opposed to institutional efforts, but institutions are often opposed to us; this seems to be out of distrust and because the way we do things is very different.

For example, some friends and I plant trees in my neighborhood; others organize activities with children, and there’s one person who has a movie club where they discuss spiritual questions, and another person has a library of books on anarchist and libertarian issues.  We all feel part of the same “thing,” but we maintain our independence.  We hope that people bring us their ideas, but —most of all— we invite everyone to participate.

Julio de la Yncera:  Fidel Castro spoke somewhere about the “battle of ideas.” Despite the fact that you and I have some ideas that are perhaps different, I also believe that we agree on many things. I believe, for example, that we both want the best for Cuba, though we perhaps differ in the method. This is why I wouldn’t call this dialogue or conversation that we’re having a “battle” of ideas. Do you believe our conversation is what the former president had in mind?

Erasmo Calzadilla: I don’t know what the former president had in mind when he came up with that, assuming it was indeed he who did.  If we can judge by what has been occurring in the ideological environment in the official Cuban press (those that he controls), I don’t believe there’s a battle of ideas – it’s more like an orphan of ideas.

For there to be a true clash of ideas, one would have to leave hollow slogans behind, to avoid the demonization of people with opposing opinions, to also allow these to be expressed – otherwise it’s like swinging wildly at the air.  In a dispute between ideas, one would not know beforehand which side would emerge victorious under the judgment of reason.  There would be neither insult nor obfuscation, because ideas are usually serene and they contest each other with ethics and equanimity.  Battles of ideas are infrequent in the political arena.

In terms of battling itself, this doesn’t bother me at all. I believe that peace and alliances are as good as battles.  In this aggressive world in which we live, one frequently hears speeches that either subtly or explicitly multiply the identity of others by zero.  To survive, it’s necessary to be as sharp as in war so as to avoid innocently repeating the discourse of those who care very little about us..

Julio de la Yncera:  As you know, I stay abreast of what’s happening in Cuba.  What recently caught my attention were two opposing points of view with regard to health care in Cuba.

On one side was the article “It Never Would Have Happened in Cuba,” published in Havana Times and written by Yusimi Rodriguez, and on the other side two very different articles: “In the Hospital,” written in a blog by Claudia a young woman in Cuba; and another, “Sicko: The Cuban Version,”   in a blog written by someone who is not Cuban but has visited the island.

It seemed to me that the contrasting opinions regarding the Cuban health care system were divergent enough to make me ask myself: Which of them is telling the truth?

Erasmo Calzadilla: Yusimi talks about how the medical care in Cuba is free and everyone has access to it.  The other two describe how the Cuban health system is a disaster.  However, I believe both sides are right.  It’s also necessary to pay attention to the examples that were chosen. I have a recent one that contradicts both, but also confirms them.  It has to do with the mother of a friend was admitted into Calixto Garcia Hospital, where her room had little to do with Claudia’s description.  However, my friend had to go through a lot to finally get her mother admitted.  According to her, it was said this was because the hospital beds are rented out…like in a hotel.  I can only wonder if that’s true?

What’s more, I have studied (from here in Cuba) the health care systems of dollar-poor countries, and I believe that —comparatively— it’s a great thing that has been achieved here. International health authorities have recognized this.  And all of this is thanks to whom?  It’s because of all those who have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice for medical care.  It’s thanks to the so many nameless heroes this country possesses.

Now at what price this has been accomplished is a thornier issue.

Julio de la Yncera: Have you had opportunity to read Yoani Sanchez’s blog or those of other Cubans overseas?  If so, what’s your opinion of what they write?

Erasmo Calzadilla: I’ve read some. I like the way they write and also like what they say.  Why?  Because, despite the violence they deal with, they don’t respond in the same manner.  They defend the right to have different opinions and to dissent from official policies.  I appreciate their calls for freedom, democracy and respect for human rights, and for their criticism of a senile system that sucks the life out of us.  Also, they don’t make abusive appeals based on principles, values or other absolutes. I also think they represent a large segment of the youth of my generation.

Yesterday's Rain. Photo: Leandro Valdes

Some of their critics believe that their attacks or criticisms of the regime are done from a posture that at least doesn’t interfere with the hegemonic centers of international power, agents of the most terrible injustices and that are desirous of making this country theirs, as they have done to other nations.  I have my doubts about this. I haven’t read them enough to be a judge of such serious issues.

Julio de la Yncera: A real distinction exists between individuals who make up the government and the people of Cuba. In practical terms, some individuals can do things that many people can’t; people are limited to obeying the laws dictated by those individuals.  I know that in Cuba it’s said that this is a government of the people.  Do you believe this is the way it really is?  Do you believe that all segments of the Cuban population are represented in Cuba’s left Stalinist government?  And if you do believe that, then how do you explain the incarceration of dissidents or ordinary people like me?

Erasmo Calzadilla: Julio, I don’t know why you’re asking me this.  You’ve read my diary entries posted here on Havana Times. You know how I think. I don’t believe that this is a government of the people, although it’s a complex issue because many people think it’s fine that the commandants command and they obey.  I don’t know how many, or if it’s a majority or a minority.

Many Cubans don’t feel represented by the government.  I believe this is the viewpoint of the libertarian left (which is a redundancy: the left is libertarian or else it’s not left.  That’s why I don’t agree with calling this system a “left Stalinist” one, because it’s not libertarian therefore it’s not left. Can there also be Stalinism of the left?  That could only apply if there were a libertarian Stalinism).

I can speak about this movement because I know it a little better, but how many more are there?  The form of choosing our representatives (only at the neighborhood level and through “mass organizations”) impedes any group of people with common interests that are different from “the historical leaders” from coming to have representatives in a municipal, provincial or the national assembly.

Julio de la Yncera: I find it anti-democratic that the press and information in Cuba is totally controlled by the Cuban government.  Does it seem fair to you that the Cuban regime monopolizes the means of information dissemination?

Erasmo Calzadilla:  No, of course not. I don’t find it fair that someone controls the information that another person consumes.  What’s most comical is that they even censor Telesur, which is produced by the same friends of the “Revolution.”

For the rest, you have to keep in mind that there exist other means apart from the official media sources through which information circulates.  For example, communication by word of mouth or computer flash drives, etc. is not “totally controlled,” as you say.  Havana Times is an example of this.  There are many other people working extremely hard to maintain active, horizontal and non-censored communication.

Julio de la Yncera: I believe that a very harmful habit exists among the Cuban elite of not recognizing the errors they committed and continue committing.  I’ve noticed that sometimes they look to place the blame for those errors elsewhere.  One of the countries almost always pointed at is the United States.  I’d say that most of the economic difficulties faced by Cuba are blamed on what in Cuba they call the US blockade of the island.  What do you think about this?

Erasmo Calzadilla: I think the same as you.  Those who have always been in power hardly ever recognize their errors, or they do it in their own way.  But I’m not so concerned about what they do.  Whenever a person or clique installs themselves in power outside of popular control, even if they work wonders, even if they’re the best government in the world, they are committing a grave error.  I also believe that the US government is co-responsible for the extreme postures assumed by the big bosses here on the island; and that they have done this on purpose, without caring about the terrible consequences suffered by the people.

The truth cannot be blockaded. Photo: Yosvanny Deya

The blockade?  Clearly it’s partially to blame for the economic difficulties; another part I attribute to you-know-who, and the other part to ourselves, we Cubans, who —even when we wanted to—  have not known how to shake ourselves free of the horseman and send him far away.

Julio de la Yncera: It has been noted that disparate medical services exist in Cuba: one for the general population, another for military personnel, a separate one for the leaders and yet another one for foreigners.  I understand that the doctors who treat these last three groups are specially selected and of a higher quality than those who attend to the general population.  Do you think this is fair?

Erasmo Calzadilla: No, I don’t find it fair.  In the case of the military, they shouldn’t have hospitals, stores, wages or vacation resorts that are different from those of the rest of country’s people.  The intention of these privileges is to maintain a core of the faithful – people who are well-trained, armed and ready to support the government’s positions.  Nor are the other privileges that you mention fair.

When Fidel became ill [in July 2006], I would have liked it if they had treated him at the Julio Trigo, the hospital that treats people in my community (the one they call the “Coppelia ice cream parlor,” because you go in warm and come out cold).  I would have been thrilled had he gone into any one of the several hospitals located on the periphery of Havana.  This isn’t because I hoped he would die or because I thought he would finally see how things really functioned and then send in a contingent to fix them. Likewise, it was not so he would have to “cook in his own sauce,” though that might not have been a bad idea.  But instead, so he would have received the same treatment as any other Cuban, and by doing set a good example.

Julio de la Yncera: A couple of years ago, now-famous videos were released over the Internet in which questions were posed by Cuban university student Eliecer Avila to Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the National Assembly (Cuba’s parliament).  Among his questions, Avila asked: “I don’t want to die without going to the place where Che fell in Bolivia.  If I devote all my life to raising garlic, and let’s say I save 30,000 Cuban pesos —which can be converted into say $1,000 US— and I want to go there with my children to where Che fell, is that a viable option?”

The answer that Alarcon gave I’ll summarize as this: Before the revolution in Cuba, not everyone had opportunities to travel either.  He explained that he had never gone to the Varadero beach resort or to the Tropicana night club as a youth.  Later on he admitted that he came from a family that was a little bit off than a working class family, that they were descendants of the aristocracy of the town of Camaguey, but that he had never set foot in the Tropicana.  He explained that his father didn’t have the money to pay for it.

Subsequently he said “If everybody, the six billion residents of this planet, could travel to wherever they wanted, the air traffic jams around the planet would be enormous.  Those who travel are really a minority.”

I would like to know your opinion of the exchange between Alarcon and Avila.  Do you think Alarcon responded to the question correctly?  How would you have answered Avila’s question? And further, why do Cubans need permits to enter and leave Cuba?

Erasmo Calzadilla: I found Alarcon’s answers to Avila’s questions ridiculous.  And to think that this man is, has been and will be the president of the National Assembly for years to come!  What’s more, he’s pointed to as being some kind of sage!

Notwithstanding, I have a certain degree of appreciation for his intention and his words. Generally those who are dollar-poor cannot travel, and there are vast numbers of dollar-poor people around the world, the majority in fact.  In this country a principle of egalitarianism has been pursued: if one person cannot do something, then no one will be allowed to do it (I’m referring to the general population).  This method has been partially effective in detaining the deepening of social differences, though a crude and severe technique for serving justice.

However it would be necessary to evaluate which is more socially unjust and harmful – this method, or the idea that only those who have money should have access to certain services?  And how could we measure this?  I believe that the best thing would be to put the matter before the people’s consideration so that they would be the ones who decide on all the questions that concern them.

Alarcon’s response should have been: “Fine, Mr. Avila, this concern will be evaluated in the National Assembly.”  But Alarcon is unable to assume that impartial role characteristic of a judge or one worthy of a wise man because he, as a member of the governing elite, believes himself to have direct access to the truth.  He believes that his mission —more than representing the people— is that of convincing them.

Julio de la Yncera: Erasmo, thank you for the time answering my questions.  It’s been a pleasure to talk with you. Like many in the diaspora, I have great hopes that Cuba leaves the utopia in which it is stuck, and I believe that this change can come from all us if we want it and if we push a little bit.

5 thoughts on “Between Two Cubans: One Here, the Other There (Part II)

  • Well, I’ve held back for days, not jumping too soon into this very interesting interview, which I think is valuable. Now however I’ve just got to put in my two-cents worth–briefly.

    There are two general forms of socialism in which a serious, transformational socialist party holds state power. One is state monopoly socialism, like in Cuba.

    The other does not exist yet in any country, so it is as yet a theoretical construct. One might call it libertarian socialism, because it is certainly that, but we call it modern cooperative socialism, to distinguish it from the socialist vision of the old cooperators, and also the mess that occurred in Guyana. In this theoretical system private property and the market would be utilized for socialist construction.

    It also might be called non-state monopoly socialism. Whatever it might be called, it would maintain socialist state power in Cuba, but government would only participate partially in ownership of the means of production. Nor would it administer these means, for this would be left up to the cooperative workers who would own the Mondragon-type corporations directly.

    At the same time the so-called small entrepreneurial class, on the land and in the service sector, etc., would be allowed to develop and serve the people.

    It’s the program we are presenting to the U.S. people for a Cooperative Republic, and we hope to win their support within ten years.

  • Incredible dialogue gang. You come from a spectacular culture and as an Irishman who has known
    so many Cuban’s, I pray you one day can live together in your beautiful country. The Irish also had
    separation in the past but now unification is no longer a dream. Twenty years ago, that would have
    been unheard of. I am one who prays often and do so every day to see Cuba become the
    number one country in the southern hemisphere. Pax to you and your families.
    Brian Mack

  • Thank you both for articulating vital points on the nature of democracy and power. My hope is that Cuba will be able to navigate past the failed policies of a command economy and, likewise, the alienatinon caused by a top-down political structure. Without an infusion of true economic and political democracy, from below, I am afraid the Revolution will wind up in the same dust-bin as the French, the Mexican and the Russian Revolutions before it. As Rousseau said: “Everywhere, man yearns to be free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” As true now as two-and-a-half centuries ago, although in the U.S. and Western Europe these “chains” are now more metaphoric, our bondage more cleverly hidden.

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