Cuba, a Reporter and the Scaffold

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

HAVANA TIMES, March 7 — I read with interest the article by Fernando Ravsberg, the BBC correspondent in Havana, about the announcement by the Cuban Government of another a “Nation and Emigration Conference.”

Unlike other reports by this acute commentator on the national situation, I think this article was, in a word, limp.

The art of journalism is a difficult to exercise when one must satisfy an audience that is too varied: the corporate heads of a large news network, unsophisticated functionaries of an ideological party apparatus and readers eager to learn something different – along with our own history, which always adds some nostalgia).

It’s very difficult to want to satisfy everyone at the same time without sacrificing sound judgment in the process. This was an article that proved this.

I will start by highlighting its greatest truth: it demonstrated the deplorable effect that an argument can have that organizes everything into two sides — the good and the bad, the hardliners and the liberals, collaborators and confrontationists — from which you get two overly-simplistic caricatures in a very complex political scenario.

On one of these sides, protected in an envelope of blessings, is situated Cuban-American businessperson Carlos Saladrigas; while in the other, the negative side of the story, was placed me, based on a very particular reading of my article How Can I Get on Raul’s Cuba Train?).

Obviously I cannot speak for anyone except myself, but I’m afraid that my friend Saladrigas isn’t very comfortable with the statement by Ravsberg that, “It would be enough for the Cuban government to give authorization to people like Carlos Saladrigas to go ahead with the plans they have wanted to realize for some time now” – meaning to invest prosaically.

I believe that (and I owe this observation to my friend Javier Figueroa) Cubans will not be able to think of the future with clarity and optimism until we overcome this binary atavism which has dominated us for centuries. Hopefully people like Ravsberg can help us.

The logic of Ravsberg, however, is abusively simple: There’s a process of change that leads to a better place (“the massive release of prisoners, the commutation of death sentences, the authorization of self-employment and the end of many absurd prohibitions”), and some Western governments and the Catholic Church have taken note of this, which obviously puts them on the good side.

Among these changes appeared the “decisive” step made by Raul Castro when he acknowledged that most emigrants were patriotic and supportive. This involved, says Ravsberg, genuine openness toward Cubans who live abroad. Following that logic, we should acknowledge this and be thankful for it.

But in exchange for such flexibility, the champions of change who Ravsberg exalts only receive “the whip of the most radical exiles,” among whom I am obviously included, which demonstrates that either Ravsberg doesn’t understand what I’m saying or doesn’t know what a radical exile is.

I am focusing my argument on four aspects:

Firstly, I never said that I won’t participate. It would be stupid to distract the attention of readers by taking a position before receiving an invitation that doesn’t exist and that clearly will not be offered. It would be vain to believe that I could be a representative of something and I should be invited to something.

What I said is that participation for any emigrant — exiled or not — poses a very complicated dilemma (never a reason for stigmatization) because it implies being part of a manipulated, exclusionary and discriminatory banquet. What’s more, the Cuban government is not indicating — based on their discourse and their organization and selection criteria — a willingness to change.

This conference involves the selection by the Cuban government of a few respectful and perfectly aligned courtiers who will have to accept a unilaterally decided upon agenda in which the government assumes itself to represent the nation and the invited guests as an external body called emigrants.

Ravsberg has every right to write and publish that this is what he likes. But that doesn’t make him credible, because it makes no sense to say that there is a desire for positive change. Thinking in Hegelian terms, there is some quantity but very little quality.

The change that emigrants should demand and that the Cuban government should assume is the return of citizenship rights to emigrants, including the right of return – temporarily or permanently.

The day it does that we will be catching up with Haiti, Nepal and Mali – nothing more, nothing less. Even if we agree that these involve gradual changes, it’s also necessary to understand that there must be an explicit commitment and a clear agenda about these changes.

The Cuban government can do much less than that. It can, for example, lower the hefty fees charged for consular services, eliminate some exclusions that exist today and extend by a few weeks the length of permitted foreign stays.

And all this is positive because it makes life easier for Cubans on both sides. But none of this indicates a change: it’s simply less of the same. Our rights would continue to be violated. And yes, I agree with Ravsberg, it’s not necessary to have a farcical meeting with emigrants who feel respect for Raul Castro.

The second question relates to the economy. Ravsberg obviously knows sufficiently little about economics not to understand the role played by remittances from emigrants. These sustain a very large share of mass consumption and the government, and constitute the investments made by Cuban-Americans.

He knows very little about how the capital of Chinese living overseas was involved in that country’s economic takeoff. And he knows even less about the precariousness of the Cuban economy, probably because he lives among an elite stratum and is thereby prevented from knowing how ordinary Cubans live. His optimism seems out of step even with the viewpoints of Cuba’s technicians and academics.

Not only does he not know, but it appears he doesn’t know how to read. In many parts of my article I emphasized the political-economic reason that motivates the inclusion of Cuban-American entrepreneurs. This obviously involves money/capital, but also all of the managerial know-how and political capabilities that include the possibility of forming an anti-embargo lobby in America.

In this effort the Cuban government has attempted and succeeded at working with producers from the Midwest and US ports on the Gulf of Mexico. But these efforts will not be able to function decisively until it enlists the political and economic forces of the Cuban community in Florida.

I’m afraid that if there is no lifting of the blockade/embargo by the next administration, some larger investments in the Cuban economy — particularly the production and service complex on the north coast between Mariel and Varadero — will have a very modest impact. This will not only be obtained alone from buying wheat from Kansas or pumping oil from the Gulf.

Thirdly, another confusion generated by Ravsberg is when he asserts that I am saying that the Cuban state is not a legitimate representation of the nation. Actually what I said is that “it’s difficult to recognize the Cuban state as a legitimate representation of the nation.” The problem is that legitimacy is not a measurable status but a matter of perception.

Legitimacy is the acceptance of something by someone, and I assume that a part of the Cuban population that believes that the Cuban State is legitimate by its origin or its performance. I have friends who think it is.

But it’s hard to argue in favor of this belief (my friends know this, so they end up stuttering or resorting to tautological syllogisms) when there are no regular mechanisms that allow for a minority to become the majority, for the government to be changed or for the state itself to be modified.

Cubans have no such opportunities, and that’s what I am referring to. And of course the fact that the government itself has taken on the responsibility for narrowing its national base, by marginalizing, repressing or banishing the discontent. Previously it didn’t recognize minorities, and now it doesn’t even recognize the probably dissatisfied majority.

But in terms of sheer political realism, if that state — whose legitimacy is placed in quotation marks — decided to start a national dialogue, it would therefore have to be considered a legitimate and decisive part of the scenario.

But until the government expresses the will to discuss and agree, it is leaving to its partisans — totally of partially — the by no means laudable task of extolling its virtues and unilaterally applauding any scheme that reeks of an opening, which is what Ravsberg is evidently doing.

Lastly, Ravsberg asserts that between state and emigrants an exchange (presumably symmetrical) of offenses and blows took place that justifies their excesses, which to me seems to be an eerily official affirmation.

The overwhelming majority of emigrants and exiles have nothing to do with acts of violence that, according to Ravsberg, explain the expropriation of rights that has occurred. Nor do they support those acts. Therefore, nothing can legally or morally justify how the Cuban government has treated the emigrant community.

The explanation that Ravsberg avoids, which is the main factor that currently acts as a prod of hatred among Cubans, of separation and resentment, is the set of repressive policies and the expropriation of citizens’ rights that is practiced by the government of the island against all Cubans – those living on the island and those abroad.

And to avoid this fundamental fact, Fernando Ravsberg inevitably (surely with the best intentions) is placing himself among those who are propping up the scaffold.
*A Havana Times translation of the original published by