By Yusimi Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES – When I thought about interviewing Tobias and Stefan, two young Germans from the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) who were in Cuba on a visit, I expected that they would see Cuba as a mirror of what might have been their own future and express their joy at the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This event, after all, had brought them into one of the greatest economies in Europe, and made them part of a democratic society where they’re free to express their ideas, join any political party and even to oppose the government.
In fact, their vision of our two countries and of democracy turned out to be quite different than what I expected. Both are activists in the German Communist Youth and both say that we only hear about the negative side of the extinct German Democratic Republic.
Tobias has been a member of the German Communist Youth for five years. In 2013, that organization created a Solidarity Brigade with Cuba and at the end of 2014 he came here to spend seven months. His parents were born in the ex-GDR and still live in the same area, which is now part of a unified Germany.
Did your parents sympathize with the communist regime?
Tobias: Yes, but they weren’t members of the Party. When the Wall fell, they were happy, since they could finally see their family members who lived on the other side. Later, they lost their jobs. Before the fall, both had jobs and they had a house. As a child, I had to change schools several times because my parents would move to find work. My parents developed more sympathy for the GDR than what they had previously felt. They wanted the old system back, so they could have their lives back.
HT: Would you say that you joined the German Communist Youth as a result of your parents’ experiences?
Tobias: I grew up in the poorest part of Germany where one fourth of the people are unemployed. There are a lot of Nazis and racists there, and I would confront them. The environment also interested me so I joined the Green Party for a time: the left has always attracted me.
HT: But the Greens and leftist groups are one thing, and communism is another. After being a committed member of the left and the Green Party, why did you join the Communist Youth?
Tobias: I studied the different parties and organizations: those of the left and also the Greens. Even though they say that they’re in favor of the workers and all that, they don’t attack the essence of the system, which is where all of the problems stem from.
HT: What does the German Communist Party propose?
Tobias: Defeating Capitalism through a Revolution, like in Cuba. For that reason, the German Communist Party – the former KPD (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) – was outlawed in West Germany. Another Communist Party, the one of today (DPK), was founded. That party decided to put aside the armed struggle and violent means in order to protect it from being prohibited.
HT: How then could they destroy the system?
Tobias: First of all, you have to win over a majority of the people. We have to have large demonstrations in which a lot of people participate. Right now in Frankfurt, the heart of European capitalism, there are large demonstrations against the banks. The protesters aren’t only communists, but many share those ideas. Even though they’re not communist demonstrations – they’re demonstrating against the people’s poverty, the bank bailouts – the police react with a great deal of violence.
HT: So you think they could come to power and change the system through elections?
Tobias: I don’t believe that’s possible. There’s a lot of violence against the leftist demonstrators, in contrast to the demonstrations from the right; for example, the police protect the skinheads when they come out. The majority of people will have to decide to reject the system and struggle to change it.
HT: With violence?
Tobias: In a peaceful manner. However, the police are attacking our demonstrations, and I’ve suffered this in my own flesh. You have to defend yourself. When the Communist Party grows, they’ll look for a way to outlaw it. Currently there’s a very small membership so it’s not represented in Parliament. You need a minimum of 5% of the vote to go to Parliament and we only have 0.3%. The German State makes it very difficult for people in the Party; if you’re a member, you can’t work as a teacher for the State.
In the beginning, Tobias’ friend Stefan limited himself to interpreting and didn’t want me to take pictures of him. Eventually, though, he told me his story, which was very different from that of Tobias. His parents don’t come from the former East Germany and they didn’t lose their jobs in the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, his economic situation is pretty comfortable.
HT: Why would you want to change a system that isn’t harming you?
Stefan: I’ve been an activist in the German Communist Party since 2013, mostly through the activities of “Cuba Sí”. But back in 2006 I had already participated in some student demonstrations in my city, because they wanted to establish a school enrollment fee. Many pre-university and university students held protests. We were able to change public opinion, and the enrollment fee that had already been introduced was eliminated. That’s how I began to become politically active, although politics had always interested me. My family isn’t rich, but we’re comfortable, we never lacked for the necessities. I never feared that my parents would lose their jobs. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but we belonged to the bourgeoisie.
If your family was economically comfortable, why were you fighting against paying for enrollment?
Stefan: I wasn’t fighting only for myself. I realized that it would be unjust – a good student whose parents were poor couldn’t study. But the most important event in my political awakening was that after graduating from high school I went to Ghana for my social service work, thinking that I could help fix the world. I worked on a project constructing solar heaters for the people there. This counted as my civil service, an alternative to doing my military service. These are projects where you do civil service work for Germany; they can also be out of the country, like help in the development of other countries. I think that the year in Ghana formed my character. I noted the privileges that my passport gave me when it says “Stefan, etc., white, blond hair, blue eyes”, though all of that is mere chance.
I still have friends there that have grave needs. At times they’ve written to me in Germany asking for help with very basic needs. I belong to the perhaps 5% of the world who lives well, materially speaking. I realized that if I want to help better the world it’s not enough to send a little money, make some heaters; it has to be through political work. It’s not enough that an engineer makes a great discovery in his field. When you analyze things profoundly, you figure this out – at least, that’s my opinion. I reached this awareness through Cuba and through friends. That’s why I joined the Communist Youth.
HT: So Cuba is your ideal?
Unanimous reply of “NO.”
Tobias: Cuba isn’t paradise, but it’s the only socialist country in the world. Because of that, it’s very important for all of the movements around the world. It’s an example, maybe not the best, but it demonstrates that not only capitalism exists, and that socialism can work.
HT: From your point of view, what do you see of socialism in Cuba?
Tobias: The planned economy, the free health and education services, that’s very important.
HT: If they’re free, how do you suppose that they’re paid for? The money to finance them must come from somewhere.
Tobias: From tourism, from doctors in other countries, naturally from the country’s workers, from the Cuban people.
HT: So we do pay for it in some way?
Tobias: Naturally, but that’s the difference. In Germany the workers work and work, but the money that they generate and that the companies earn ends up in private bank accounts. Of course, they’re paid a salary, but everything is being privatized. There’s something like nine hundred thousand millionaires in Germany. On the other hand, there are a lot of poor people like my parents who’ve worked their whole lives, up to sixty hours a week, sometimes holding down two jobs at the same time.
HT: Don’t you think that the changes taking place in Cuba are leading our country in that same direction?
Tobias: I hope not. The changes are dangerous, but necessary: the blockade is very strong.
HT: I’m not referring to the latest events in the relationship between Cuba and the United States, because at any rate the blockade still continues, but to the fact that the State has given up controlling many things. There are more and more private businesses, foreign investment is broadening…
Tobias: I can see that those changes are real and that it’s a problem. However, the Cuban State has always had very little money. They realized that more than two million people in Cuba weren’t working productively.
HT: And isn’t it possible that the cause was having the State control everything?
Tobias: Yes. That’s why it’s a new intent to save socialism, but with small private businesses.
Stefan: I think that they weren’t working efficiently because they didn’t have an adequate means of production to work with. In order to improve the standard of living, you have to renew the means of production and find areas of the economy where Cuba can, in fact, generate an income in hard currency
Tobias: Also with the modernization, many jobs that were being carried out illegally became legal ones.
HT: But weren’t they illegal in the first place because the state had an interest in controlling everything?
Tobias: Yes. But in that way, some people were working only for themselves and not for all of society. That’s not the idea of socialism, but to generate an income that can be shared among everybody.
Stefan: I believe that the problem in Cuba and in general is that the government didn’t get the people to understand the idea of Marxism and Socialism and the social project here, which doesn’t intend to exploit people but to distribute the resources in the best way. Many Cubans feel exploited. They wonder why they are working so hard for 400 pesos in the national currency. They think that someone is getting rich from their work, as happens in capitalism. I don’t know what the annual balance sheet of the Cuban State might look like, but I’m sure that the country’s income is not being privatized like in many capitalist countries with more resources than this.
HT: Have you noted the social differences that exist in Cuba and that they’re growing deeper?
Tobias: Yes, and that’s a problem, but you have to look at the causes. There are many people who receive money from their family members in the United States. That’s not a socialist problem. There are also people who work in tourism, and if a foreigner gives them a lot of money they can even live without working for a few months. That’s not the fault of the Cuban State, nor is it their objective for some to have more than others.
Stefan: Many people have commented that party functionaries or military officers have privileges – maybe not in the form of money, but in merchandise or other things – a case of beer, for example, that they can transport in their car. Having a car in Cuba is also a privilege, because you can transport people, earn yourself some money. I don’t know how much a high ranking military officer earns, but I’m sure that it’s more than 500 Cuban pesos (equivalent to 20 US dollars).
Tobias: Also, the retired teachers, for example, can continue working and receive a salary in addition to their pension.
HT: Do you know what a pension here will buy you?
Tobias: Very little, I believe.
HT: That’s not only the case for those who are retired. The salaries of active workers and of professionals with a great deal of responsibilities in their workplaces also cover almost nothing.
Tobias: That’s why it’s very important that Cuba receive a lot of money, and, in turn, that’s why the modernization of the economy is crucial. It’s a problem, but the changes are necessary.
HT: What do you think about the lack of freedom of expression and of the press in Cuba, the existence of only one political party; is that what the Communists in Germany aspire to if they achieve power?
Tobias: I believe that there is freedom of expression here. I’ve spoken with a lot of critical people who express themselves openly. Also there are blogs such as Havana Times, Diario de Cuba. People don’t go to jail for writing in them.
HT: I haven’t been arrested, but many people have gone to jail for exercising independent journalism. Also, the media that you’ve mentioned is on the Internet. I can’t start a printed newspaper here in my country. All of the television channels belong to the State; you can’t legally found a political party. In the capitalist Germany that you criticize, your political party is legal. Here, a non-communist youth organization, or even another organization of Communist youth wouldn’t be legal. Another Communist party wouldn’t be legal. The idea exists that all of the opposition in Cuba is pro-capitalist, but there’s a lot of opposition on the left and from the socialists. That’s not legal either.
Tobias: It seems logical to me that it wouldn’t be allowed, as in my country it’s logical that they wouldn’t allow a party such as ours.
Stefan: The violence against leftist demonstrators, especially against the communists, indicates that that’s not going to be accepted, and that if the party grows they’re going to outlaw it. Also, the media engages in a lot of negative publicity, so that people are afraid of communism. When they speak of the GDR in any part of the media, they speak badly of it.
Tobias: There’s no way to obtain a radio station, because there’s no money.
Stefan: In my country you can do anything with money.
HT: That is, if you had the money you could obtain a radio station. Here, in Cuba, not even with money.
Tobias: When the party was larger, it was outlawed. In Germany, there’s another communist party called the German Marxist Leninist Party. It’s a small party, but they have a lot of money. However, they’re not allowed to present anything on television.
Stefan: In Germany you can found a party, as long as it’s a party that supports capitalism, that’s not going against the system. All of the parties that are in Parliament support capitalism. There are Social Democrats, Neoliberals, even leftist parties, but all of them support the system. In the German democracy, the people can vote for a party that will govern for four years, but they can’t make the laws or elect the President. There are no official grassroots organizations; no women’s organizations, no workers’ organizations.
HT: In Cuba those organizations were created from above, by the government. Or at least they respond to those interests, even if they existed before. There can’t be any other organization of women, nor any other labor union, for example.
Tobias: But you have the right to join a mass organization and to express your doubts.
HT: Any organization, no; the ones that the government created.
Tobias: True, but I don’t see that as a problem. You can change the organizations from below.
HT: Those organizations were created to respond to the interests of the government.
Tobias: My first impression is that I don’t like it, but I’d want to know the reasons.
It’s a little difficult to explain that it’s not just about being a person who’s a good neighbour, without a criminal background or a history of anti-social behavior. You can be the most respectable person in the world and not be in sympathy with the regime and thus not belong to the CDR. That makes you ineligible to be a professor in higher education or to work in tourism.
Tobias: I repeat that I don’t like it, but I can understand that it’s important that those who work in tourism be honest people because there’s a lot of money there.
HT: You can be honest without sympathizing with the government. Or do you believe that only those who sympathize with the government are honest?
Tobias: By my way of thinking, the ideal State is that which embodies society’s interests and so I can’t separate the interests of the State from those of society.
HT: But society is one thing, and the state is another, and the government is another. Here the problem is that we think that the government, the party and the people are all the same thing, and that’s erroneous.
Stefan: But what’s the difference between the party and the government?
HT: Here, none. There’s one sole party that’s the governing body, and it controls all of society, which has been absorbed into the State. But in reality, I can work in favor of society without sympathizing with the government. In your country, you’re opposed to capitalism, but that doesn’t mean you would steal if you began to work in a factory.
Tobias: Yes, but I’m definitely going to work against the interests of the factory owners and in favor of the interests of the workers, of the people.
Stefan: I worked for the owner of a small food stand. It was a case of exploitation right out of one of Marx’s books: the boss up above, smoking, fooling around, and me in the kitchen sweating. I could pretty well calculate his profits – generated by my work – and they were quite high, but he paid me a very low salary. So, I stole from him.
HT: (to Stefan) What do you think about the lack of political freedom in Cuba?
Stefan: I think that for a long time feedback was lacking. There was no communication from the government to the people, nor from the people to the government. It was sad that so many people went to prison for expressing their ideas, but I can’t judge this because I don’t know much about these cases. But the people also fell into a kind of political resignation. There were no discussions like the one we’re having now. I’d like to see this kind of thing on Cuban television. I think that the country’s leaders don’t have anything to hide and that they’re right, they can explain what they intend to do here and what capitalism is, but in a public debate. They have a lot to gain and very little to lose.
Tobias: That’s already under development. You can comment at the Granma site and on the Internet. It’s a problem that for a long time debate didn’t exist, but I believe that they’re heading in the right direction.
Stefan: It concerns me that the people are so apolitical, especially the young people, that they don’t feel that politics is part of their lives.
HT: Don’t you think this is because the people feel they have no options? Here, if you don’t feel represented by the Communist Party because you’re not a communist, you don’t have the option of affiliating with some other party.
Tobias: Only 80% of the government are Party members. You can get to Parliament and make your proposals without belonging to the Party. For example, if in your neighborhood CDR you are proposed as a candidate and they vote for you and they later elect you in other elections, you can get to the National Assembly.
HT: If you belong to the CDR. What if you don’t sympathize with the government nor belong to the CDR?
Tobias: Why would someone not want to belong to the CDR, or to a mass organization if they wanted to change something?
HT: Because you can’t create any, except for those created by the government.
Tobias: The government already represents the people. Why would you want to create something outside of that? I can’t see the need.
HT: It’s not about you seeing it, but about the fact that whoever does feel this need should have the right to do so. There are other political parties here, but they’re illegal.
Tobias: But if you have the possibility of expressing your ideas in the mass organizations that exist, why create one illegally?
Stefan: It’s as if in Germany, a person who could go to Parliament via any of the parties that existed, wanted to start a new one. What for?
HT: So why belong to the German Communist Party if you can get to Parliament via the other parties and the communist one isn’t in Parliament?
Tobias: You can’t compare capitalism and socialism that way; in capitalism the interests of only the few are represented. In socialism they truly seek to represent the majority of the people. The five parties in Germany represent the interests of large corporations that earn millions of Euros every year. You don’t have the least possibility of becoming part of the government and making changes. Here, with ten thousand signatures, any proposal can reach Parliament.
I try to tell them about what happened in 2002, when the now deceased Oswaldo Payá collected the necessary signatures (more than ten thousand) under the auspices of the Cuban Constitution that they praised so highly, to introduce changes in the legislation. The reaction of the government was that Referendum for Irreversible Socialism. The referendum didn’t consist in anonymously marking a box on a ballot like in the elections. Instead, the presidents of each CDR went house to house collecting the signature of each resident. The fact is that the majority of the jobs at that time were state jobs, and a letter of recommendation from the CDR was a condition for entering into many sectors. This represented a strong pressure for many Cubans. I’m among those who signed out of fear of losing my job as a university professor.
Explaining this to Tobias and Stefan is difficult. They don’t know who Oswaldo Payá was, like many Cubans. They look skeptically at me, but both are convinced of one thing: even if what I say is certain, despite all of its problems, Cuba has more democratic potential than Germany.