Una pelea cubana contra los demonios (A Cuban Fight Against Demons)

15 Oct
Francisco de Goya, The Inquisition Tribunal

Francisco de Goya, The Inquisition Tribunal

“I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”

- Carl Sagan

Set against the backdrop of 17th-century colonial Cuba, the dark and riveting film Una pelea cubana contra los demonios or “A Cuban Fight Against Demons” (1972), tells the story of the inhabitants of San Juan de Los Remedios, one of the original Spanish settlements established on the island. The film, which is directed by one of Cuba’s most revered filmmakers, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, deals with one of the most interesting and schizophrenic events in Cuba’s history. Plagued by pirate attacks and a local priest who is convinced that the town of Remedios is possessed by demons, a number of families pack up and abandon the seaside town for less favorable and isolated location in the interior of the island.

The events portrayed in the film take place in the village of San Juan del Cayo de los Remedios, located on the coast of Cuba’s north central region. Due to its location, the town of Remedios was a center for illegal trade with foreigners. At the time, the Spanish crown had a restrictive and backward mercantilist policy forbidding its colonies from trading with non-Catholic Europeans. French Huguenots and Englishmen were considered heretics by the Roman Catholic Church and engaging in commerce with them was considered a sin. But ignoring the directives of the Spanish crown and the Catholic Church, the inhabitants of the town disregarded the prohibitions on trade with foreigners and carried on anyways. Although the illicit and clandestine trade was an affront to the doctrine of the Church, the inhabitants of Remedios didn’t seem to mind – they were growing rich. Occasionally, due to the illicit nature of the commercial activity and the inability of resorting to local courts, disputes often escalated to violence and the town was repeatedly attacked by pirates when differences arose between local smugglers centered in the town and their illicit French and English business partners.

It was in this context that Catholic priest and Commissioner of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, José González de la Cruz (portrayed as Father Manuel in the film) arrived in Remedios from Havana sometime around 1657. Fearful of the spread of heretical ideas from exposure to outsiders, Father González almost immediately began a spirited and messianic campaign against locals suspected of dealing with heretics and even advocated for the relocation of the town and its inhabitants to another location closer to the interior of the island. In a report to the Spanish authorities in Havana, Father González even claimed that he had exorcised 800,000 demons in the small town of 613 inhabitants between 1657 and 1659. Father González was convinced that contact with heretics was slowly degrading the moral and spiritual fiber of the inhabitants of Remedios.

In the film, the town leaders are skeptical of abandoning the seaside location of the town with its access to the sea in exchange for the isolated and barren inland location suggested by Father González. But ultimately, through a mixture of fear-mongering and messianic determination, Father González was successful in convincing the inhabitants of Remedios of their impending existential and spiritual doom if they did not immediately abandon the demon-haunted town and the illicit trade with heretics that had made them so prosperous. Gripped by religious hysteria and trapped in an atmosphere of guilt and religious ignorance, a large contingent of the town’s inhabitants finally decided to abandon the demon-haunted town for another location in the interior of the island and began an exodus in 1689.

They would go on to found the village of Santa Clara, today Cuba’s fifth largest city.

Although the film was intended to tell the true story of the events that led to the abandonment of the town of Remedios in 1689, it also serves as a wider metaphor for the demons that have haunted Cuban society since the founding of the first colonial settlements by Europeans in the 16th century. Similar in nature to the craze that gripped the town of Salem in New England – the story of what occurred in the town of Remedios in late 17th century serves as a metaphor for the demons that plague modern Cuba – messianic ideology, totalitarianism, isolationist economic policies and an atmosphere of fear.

Although Cuba gained its independence from Spain in 1898 and experience a long and prosperous revival from 1902 to 1952 during the years of its democracy, the island is once again under the grip of a religious-totalitarian ideology, a mercantilist-Stalinist economic policy, and a culture of fear that has served to isolate Cuba from the world. Where Cuba had Catholicism in the 17th century to inspire guilt and feelings of spiritual doom, today it has Communism and a state-directed war against individuals who seek individual personal achievement and the creation of wealth. Where illicit trade with foreigners in the 17th century was prohibited by mercantilist Spanish policies, today it is curtailed by a Stalinist-style centralized economy and its prohibitions against almost all forms of independent and private commercial activity. Where 17th century Cuba had a Catholic doctrine that created an all-encompassing everyday reality that revolved around the theme of God against Satan, today it has Communism – with its all-encompassing ideology that frames everything around the duality of Communism versus Capitalism, of Rich versus Poor, America (Satan) against Cuba (Good).

Cuba remains an island gripped by fear of demons. It remains an island gripped by an obsession with the memory of its paranoid and fearful past. In the end, we have replaced one set of demons for another. One type of religious fundamentalism and ignorance with another. One false savior for another.

13 Points: A Socio-Economic Plan for Reform in Cuba

21 Sep
Havana at night.

Havana at night.

One of the hottest topics of conversation about Cuba seems to be the series of “reforms” implemented in the last couple of years by Fidel Castro’s younger brother Raul Castro. From allowing Cubans to finally buy and sell cars, to allowing them to work independent of the state in one of 181 different occupations allowed by the government, there is a general sense that things are “changing” on the island. But just how far have these reforms gone? Is Cuba really making an effort to liberalize its economy and allow for greater freedoms?

It wasn’t long ago that Cuba’s government recently approved its new Foreign Investment Law, but already the verdict seems to be out: Cuba has struggled to attract investment despite reforms. And despite bold predictions of growth by the government – the island managed only a mere 0.6% growth in the first half of 2014 – far below official estimates. The Heritage Foundation, alongside The Wall Street Journal recently released its Index of Economic Freedom, which ranks countries around the world based on a series of factors. Despite recent reforms, Cuba ranks 177th out of 178 countries. Only North Korea had more restrictions on economic activity.

So why exactly is Cuba struggling so mightily to stimulate its economy and spur growth?

Aside from the realities of the American embargo on trade with the island, Cubans refer to something known colloquially in Cuba as the internal embargo. The internal embargo refers to the government’s draconian control of its own economy and its stringent Soviet-style restrictions on personal freedom. Interestingly enough, despite the embargo the United States is still Cuba’s fifth largest trading partner. The truth is that the Communist government’s restrictions on economic and business activity would work to hinder economic activity even if the embargo didn’t exist.

So aside from the embargo, what can Cuba do if it was serious about reform? In a recent article, Cuban economist Pedro Campos listed a number of economic reforms that the state could undertake to truly put Cuba squarely on the path to prosperity. But I believe that we can go even farther.

Here, a socio-economic program for true reform in Cuba:

Economic Reforms

1. Removal of internal restrictions on the movement of people and goods within Cuba. As things currently stand, people within Cuba are not allowed to freely trade goods and products from one province to another. These restrictions distort prices and increase costs for average citizens. A coffee grower in the mountains of Eastern Cuba should be able to sell his product in the streets of Havana.

2. Removal of draconian import and export restrictions and tariffs. The state currently holds a monopoly on foreign trade in the island and Cubans who want to start their own businesses are prohibited from freely buying and selling goods with buyers and sellers outside the country. This increases costs, contributes to scarcity of goods, and restricts economic growth.

3. Removal of all restrictions on Cubans’ ability to work privately and to form their own businesses independent of the state. As it stands, the Cuban government has a very limited list of 181 professions of which Cubans are allowed to work in. This list includes such antiquated (and almost 18th-century-like) and limited professions as “shoe cleaner” and “plumber.” Doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, technicians and other ordinary citizens should be able to freely contract their work and services.

4. Allow for the creation of business associations such as corporations and sociedades anonimas by ordinary Cubans. These entities would have the power to raise capital, form contracts, begin projects, own property, and have limited liability for their owners and associates. As things currently stand, ordinary Cubans are only allowed to work independent of the state if they obtain “licenses.” Only the state is allowed to own and operate business enterprises. Cubans with licenses to work independently are not independent private sole-proprietorships in the true sense of the word – they are legally merely independent contractors working for the state. These licenses do not grant their owners the same rights that they would have as owners and managers of independent business associations such as would be the case with a corporations or other privately-owned business associations.

5. Removal of restrictions on foreign investment. Cuba’s new Foreign Investment Law released a few months ago, although a step in the right direction, does nothing to help capital reach the hands of ordinary Cubans. Foreign investment is only allowed in state-owned enterprises. Investment, loans, and capital transfers to ordinary Cuban citizens is not allowed. A ordinary Cuban launching his own business is not allowed a business loan from his relatives in Madrid or Miami.

6. Removal of restrictions on the accumulation of wealth and property and an easement of restrictions on the sale and alienation of property. Stringent and rigid rules prohibit the accumulation of wealth and property by ordinary Cubans on the island. These artificial and unnecessary restrictions limit the participation of ordinary citizens in any sort of meaningful economic activity. Cubans before 1959 could freely sell and transfer property. Why can’t Cubans in 2014? The free transferability of property is one of the basic tenets of a truly free economy and should be a basic right open to all Cubans.

7. A reduction of the extremely high tax rate on individual business activity. One of the least spoken about aspects of the government’s recent reforms has been how the high tax burden (sometimes as high as 50% for some businesses) has led many independent businesses to close down. With such a high tax burden, barriers to entry into the economy remain high for the ordinary Cuban citizen. Those with access to remittances (and thus dollars) from abroad have an unequal advantage.

8. Elimination of the double currency. Cuba is one of the few (if not the only) countries in the world with a double currency. Tourists, travelers, and foreigners who do business in Cuba all do business with the Convertible peso, a currency that is pegged to the dollar. Ordinary Cubans are paid in the National Peso, a currency that is on average twenty five times less valuable than the convertible peso. As things currently stand, the double currency creates a country of haves and have-nots – those (such as those who work in the tourism business, prostitutes, and those who receive remittances) who have access to dollars and convertible pesos – and everyone else.

Socio-Civic Reforms

1. Freedom of expression. It is no secret that economic and personal freedoms go hand-in-hand. Cubans who wish to conduct business, or advertise their business, or criticize government inefficiency, corruption or policy should be able to voice their opinion freely without being subject to police harassment, arbitrary detention, jail time, or exile (or worse).

2. Freedom of the press. The facilitation of communication between citizens should not be a monopoly of the state. Currently, all forms of media – television, newspapers and radio are in the hands of the state. Cubans should be able to form their own independent newspapers and mediums of communication. This facilitates commercial advertising, national dialogue, and promotes the creation of a healthy and well-informed body politic.

3. Separation of powers. The devolution of powers from the highly centralized government to municipalities and provinces and the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government are essential if Cuba ever hopes to truly create a society that is based on the rule of law. Cuba’s Communist 1976 Constitution concentrates most of its power in the hands of a few decision-makers at the very top.

4. The removal of the ban against political parties that are not the Communist Party of Cuba. The motto of the Cuban Revolution is “Everything within the Revolution, nothing outside of it.” A truly free and plural society has many voices. These voices are sometimes directly at odds with each other. There are workers, there are peasants, there are capitalists, there are merchants, there are entrepreneurs, there are social activists, there are communists, there are anarchists, there are conservatives and there are liberals – free societies are a complex agglomeration of different people – all trying to speak at once. Our government should be a reflection of the will of an entire nation – not of one single political party.

5. The removal of restrictions on access to the Internet. The Cuban government currently restricts its citizens’ access to the internet. The Internet, perhaps one of the greatest tools for communication, commerce, and dialogue in the history of humankind, is something that only 2% of Cubans have access to. Access is generally limited to those with connections in the government or those who have familial or outside connections with friends or relatives abroad. Even then, access is restricted to a limited state-controlled intranet. It’s about time that Cuba join the modern world.

These and a whole series of other reforms are just some examples of basic reforms that the Cuban government could undertake if it were truly interested in starting the path towards increased prosperity. The path to economic growth and increased personal freedoms is not a secret one.

Until then, the “reforms” were are seeing in Cuba are only cosmetic half-hearted attempts to appease and maintain control. If Raul Castro and his Politburo really want change to arrive in Cuba, they know where to begin.

Until then, you should remain skeptical about talk of “reform” in the island.

Dollars, dollars and more dollars

26 Jul

Havana Then and Now

[On the left, Cuba during its capitalist years, and on the right, under communism]

 “If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose–because it contains all the others–the fact that they were the people who created the phrase ‘to make money.’ No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity–to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted or obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created. The words ‘to make money’ hold the essence of human morality.”

- Ayn Rand

One of the things about Cuba that fascinates foreigners and travelers the most is the island’s large collection of old and antique American cars.  The association between Cuba and old cars is so strong that you are hard-pressed to find pictures of the island before eventually running into a picture of an old Chevy, Ford, or Buick – left over from the days when Cuba was awash with American influence.

It wasn’t always this way. Cuba wasn’t always awash with old cars. Those cars were new once. Cuba was a major importer of American cars until the Revolution in 1959, when Castro came to power and put the island on a collision course with the United States. A large part of the island’s middle and upper classes left in an exodus that continues to this day. Although Cuba’s government has rejected capitalism and all of its values – Cuba’s cars are a reminder that the island once looked to the United States as a source of inspiration and culture.

Before the Revolution, Cuban culture looked not to Spain or Latin America for inspiration – but to the United States. Art Deco architecture, American cars, modernism and everything American was celebrated.

In 1900, Cuba became the first country in Latin America to have an automobile. Cuba was also the place where the first woman in Latin America drove an automobile – Renée Méndez Cape. In 1950, it became the second country in the world to transmit television after the United States. In 1958, it became the second country in the world to transmit color television, also after the United States. As if though it weren’t enough to be in love with American culture, Cubans were also fierce proponents of capitalism and the entrepreneurial spirit.

But with the country’s rejection of capitalism and all of its values, Cuba today is only known not for its modernism and progressivism, but for its old cars, its cigars, decayed buildings and octogenerian dictators. The island’s decline is directly related to its rejection of capitalism.

In Cuba, it is illegal for citizens to accumulate wealth. The accumulation of wealth is considered an economic crime – one that can result in fines, jail and political harassment. Equality is imposed, and no one is allowed to be wealthy.

Venezuela, another country who’s government has rejected capitalism in favor of socialism, is finding itself in what may eventually be a similar situation. This car-crazed country’s automobile industry, once the third largest in South America, has seen its car production output drop by 80% in the last few years.

A lack of dollars and capital, and the government’s increased control of the economy has forced many car manufacturers in Venezuela to drastically cut production. The drop in production is directly related to its government’s animosity towards the profit motive and the idea of making money. In addition to placing limits on the amount of profits that corporations can make, the government frequently expropriates and nationalizes private property – creating an environment that discourages investment in the economy.

President Nicolas Maduro and his socialist Chavista government take any opportunity to demonize anyone who dares to create wealth. The government recently fined General Motors Venezuela after accusing it of selling overpriced car parts. “The only things that these little managers want is dollars, dollars and more dollars,” President Maduro said.

Ever since the first automobile arrived in Caracas in 1904, automobiles have become ingrained in Venezuelan culture. But ever since Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, made the government the only source of greenbacks (dollars) in an attempt to control more and more of the economy, car manufacturers are finding it increasingly difficult to find the dollars they need to finance their operations.

Many Venezuelan car manufacturers now find themselves in survival mode. Once South America’s third largest car manufacturer – Venezuela finds itself in a precarious situation. Venezuela’s Chavista government has rejected capitalism and has demonized the profit-motive as evil. Making money is bourgeois and immoral. This is reflected in the government’s treatment of its private sector and anyone who has a business or wants to make any money. Such people are fascists and Imperialists. The result of this attitude towards entrepreneurship and economic liberty? Economic decline.  

Will Venezuela end up like Cuba? In the future, if nothing changes and Venezuela’s car industry disappears – will tourists and adventurers go to Venezuela to gaze at its collection of antique American cars?

Only time will tell. But one thing is certain – if Venezuela continues along the path it is going – its car manufacturing plants and factories will shut down and Venezuelans will have to learn to live with their parents, and then grandparents’ cars. Just like in Cuba.

Because when making money is a crime, when dollars cease to be the way that men deal with each other… well, we know what happens then.

As Ayn Rand eloquently wrote in her novel, Atlas Shrugged“Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to be the tool by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of men. Blood, whips and guns–or dollars. Take your choice–there is no other–and your time is running out.”

Cuba Libre is dead

21 Jul

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From the moment that Carlos Manuel de Céspedes fired the first shot against Spanish colonialism in 1868, exile has been a recurring theme in Cuban society. Just as the first generation of exiles left Cuba to find refuge in the United States in the 1870s, José Martí’s exile in New York City in the 1880s and ’90s set the stage for Cuba’s Second (and final) War of Independence. Exiles again would play a prominent role in the resistance against the short but violent tyranny of Gerardo Machado in the late ’20s and early ’30s.

And then there is the present generation of exiles. The generation that overthrew the short dictatorship of Batista only to replace it with that of Fidel Castro. Cubans have always found their refuge against tyranny outside of Cuba. The island’s history is colored with dozens of patriots, heroes, adventurers and others who found refuge in exile – a refuge which later gave them the strength to launch a new fight to free the island from abroad.

When the first exiles began to flee Castro’s communist dictatorship in the 1960s, many proclaimed that they would return. They promised to continue the fight from abroad.

More than fifty years have passed and nothing has changed. What happened to this fight we said we would continue?

Our current exilic generation has lasted longer than any other. More than fifty years have passed since Cuba fell under Fidel Castro’s communist tyranny – and no amount of effort from Cuba’s exiled population has managed to unseat the Castros. No amount of protests, no amount of trade sanctions, no amount of international condemnation – no amount of anything. Thousands have died and millions have been forced to leave the island. Fidel Castro has achieved what no man before him had done – the subjugation and enslavement of Cuban society. And he has done it well.

Where are our generation’s leaders? Perhaps the greatest of Fidel Castro’s victories has been his systematic destruction and subjugation of our collective will to resist – our will to continue to fight – and to take what belongs to us – our human dignity. He has made us apathetic and numb to our condition. Those of us in the island only care about the next chance to escape, while those of us abroad have chosen to forget – to forget that our country is still in chains. Maybe things will change by themselves.

Cuba is Castro and Castro is Cuba. Just as Hitler was burned into the German consciousness, so too has Castro burned himself into Cuba’s collective memory.

Has Cuban society, in and outside the island, accepted its subjugation?

With every revolution and social movement around the world that takes place, all I can think about is Cuba. While we celebrate our past, and the men and women who risked everything by coming back to fight, we sit waiting. We wait for the tyrant who has taken our human dignity to die a comfortable death in the safety of his own bed.

What would our ancestors say about us?

There is only one thing. Cuba Libre is dead. And it is your fault.

Girón

17 Apr

Bay of Pigs

For famous men have the whole earth as their memorial. It is not only the inscriptions on their graves in their own country that mark them out; no, in foreign lands also, not in any visible form but in people’s hearts, their memory abides and grows. It is for you to try to be like them. Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.

- Pericles

It was fifty-three years ago today, on April 17, 1961, that exiled Cuban patriots landed on the shores of their homeland in an attempt to liberate Cuba from the tyranny of Fidel Castro. Their betrayal on the shores of the Bay of Pigs and the resulting fifty-five year dictatorship that was allowed to continue will forever remain a stain on Cuba’s history. Although the story of the Bay of Pigs ultimately ended in tragedy for the exiles who aimed to liberate their homeland, it is important to remember the selfless act of courage that moved the men of Brigade 2506 to return to liberate Cuba.

Operation Zapata (the code-name for the invasion) called for the landing of 1,400 Cuban exiles on the shores of southern Cuba. The plan was simple – land 1,400 highly trained Cuban exiles, supported by air cover, tanks and heavy weaponry to join what was then a growing rebellion against Castro’s rule in the mountains of Central Cuba. The end goal was the overthrow of Castro’s increasingly oppressive and authoritarian dictatorship.  Before the invasion was to take place, the U.S. Airforce would carry out a series of airstrikes that would knock out the small Cuban airforce and allow the small detachment of exiles to use their superior training and weaponry to land and establish a beachhead.

The plan however, would be undermined, not by military catastrophe, but by an executive decision in Washington. As the men of Brigade 2506 approached the beaches of Cuba at midnight on April 16-17, they were unaware that John F. Kennedy had scuttled plans to provide the small exile force with the promised air support that they would need to hold off the numerically larger Cuban army. The rest was history.

In the ensuing days, the better trained and heavily armed small exile force was slowly overwhelmed by the numerically larger Cuban army. As a result of the cancellation of the majority of the airstrikes, the small Cuban airforce remained intact – and its remaining jets sunk the ships that carried much of the Brigade’s heavy weaponry. With the loss of their heavy weaponry and much of their extra ammunition, the invading force was left to fight with the equipment it had managed to land ashore the night before. For three full days, the smaller but better trained exile fiercely held off the much larger Cuban army and resisted wave after wave of attacks. Outnumbered ten-to-one, the exiles inflicted casualties at a rate of thirty-to-one against Castro’s larger but undisciplined army. Ultimately however, they were doomed by removal of the promised air cover and the loss of their equipment offshore. After resisting the fierce and relentless attack of Castro’s larger army, the exiles eventually succumbed when the full weight of Castro’s artillery and Soviet-equipped tank battalions arrived.

Over fifty years later, Cuban society remains under the dictatorship of the Castro family. Millions of Cubans have abandoned the island and thousands have lost their lives resisting the island’s dictatorial regime. Cuba’s economy is shattered by decades of failed economic policy and central planning and Cuban society is fractured.

The Cuban-American community never forgot how Kennedy betrayed them and the cause of Cuban liberty on the beaches of Playa Girón. To the Castro regime in Cuba – the invasion proved to be a Godsend, a victory that further entrenched his nascent totalitarian regime. To the people of Cuba and to the cause of Cuban liberty – it was a defeat that doomed Cuba and its people to the yoke of a half-century of dictatorship. 

Although April 17th marks a dark date in Cuba’s history – the heroic and lonely struggle of the men who fought at Playa Girón will ensure that the memory of the men of Brigade 2506 will remain enshrined in the pantheon of Cuba’s greatest patriots and in the heart of freedom-loving Cubans forever.

 

Cuba’s New Foreign Investment Law: The Economics of Apartheid

8 Apr

The Caribbean Unity oil tanker enters the port in Havana
“Money, says the proverb, makes money. When you have a little, it is often easier to get more. The great difficulty is to get that little.”

- Adam Smith

A lot of the recent news regarding Cuba has focused on the Cuban government’s passage of the new Foreign Investment Law (Ley de Inversión Extranjera). Proponents say that the new law eases restrictions and liberalizes rules on investment in the island. Some argue that the new law signals a new willingness by the Cuban government to embrace market reforms while others have even begun calling for an end to the embargo – pointing out that the Foreign Investment Law promises to finally allow investment and money to trickle down to average Cubans. But what does the Foreign Investment Law actually do, who does it benefit, and who does it leave out?

While the Cuban regime has allowed foreign direct investment from abroad since 1995, the government has been very cautious about allowing foreign companies to have any significant investment in the island. As a result of the economic crisis of the early 1990s resulting from the loss of the Soviet Union and its massive subsidies, the government was forced to undergo economic reforms to keep the country afloat. Even these reforms were timid however. Foreign investors starting enterprises in Cuba were allowed a maximum 49% ownership interest in their operations, ensuring that the government kept a tight grip on business activity. In addition to the restrictions on ownership and control of enterprises, taxes on profits were also extremely high. Laws and regulations restricting the free transfer of profits or dividends from the island also ensured that investors were usually dissuaded from investing in Cuba, further dampening the investment climate.

In this regard, the new Foreign Investment law makes some improvements. Under the new law, foreign investors are no longer restricted to a 49% ownership interest in their ventures – meaning that foreigners are now allowed to establish 100% foreign-owned companies on the island. In this regard, foreigners have even more rights than Cuban citizens living in the island, who are not allowed to open their own independent ventures – but are only allowed “licenses” to work independently (but legally still for the state). In an attempt to encourage more investment, the new law also lowers the tax burden on many foreign-owned companies – especially joint ventures, whose tax burdens are lowered from 30% to 15%. It even offers an eight year exemption from taxes for new ventures and lifts many of the restrictions on the free transfer of profits and dividends, allowing investors to take more of their money out of Cuba. Compared to the sky-high tax rates imposed on average Cubans who have licenses to work privately, the rates are extremely generous.

But although the new foreign investment law is an improvement on the previous 1995 law, it fails to fix many of the issues that have historically made Cuba such a poor location for investment and also does nothing to ensure that FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) benefits average Cubans. The new law ensures that many of the benefits of foreign direct investment do not reach the most important part of the Cuban economy – the still-nascent private sector. Worse still, the new rules create a sort of “economic apartheid” between Cubans and foreigners in which foreigners are treated better than Cuban citizens, and that ensures that nearly all of the economic benefits of the new law are gained by the state-owned monopolies and foreign ventures. Average Cubans and private businesses get almost nothing out of the new legislation.

Can an average Cuban who owns his own small business get a loan from his relatives in Spain? Or how about a new business owner who needs to invest money to buy a new truck to move goods from the countryside to the city? How about the new shopkeeper who would like to receive a loan to finance his new store? Can a small private restaurant owner get money from his relatives in Miami?

The short answer to all of these questions is “no.” The new Foreign Investment Law restricts investment to state-owned conglomerates and restricts investors from investing in private businesses. This means that the still-infant Cuban private sector will reap none of the rewards of foreign direct investment. Since almost the entire Cuban economy is state-owned, this ensures that most of the benefits of foreign direct investment go to the generals and Communist party officials who have been appointed to run the state-owned conglomerates, which effectively operate as state-owned monopolies. The tiny Communist elite stand to reap almost all the benefits of the new investment law.

Considering the Cuban government’s poor history of paying back creditors – investors should also have reason to fear investment in Cuba. Cuba still has very limited property guarantees, and foreign investors should remain wary of Law 890, which gives the government the express right to nationalize property without compensation. Although the United States is the only country with an embargo on Cuba, there is a reason few investors choose to invest their money in the island.

In addition to restricting investment to only state-owned ventures, the new law also forces foreign companies to hire their workers through the State Employment Agency – which controls and sets wages for workers. Ironically, in a country that likes to proclaim itself a “Workers’ Paradise,” the new law proclaims that “the payment of the workforce will be negotiated only between the employing entity and the foreign capital company.” This means that Cuban workers will only get state-controlled wages (the equivalent of $20 a month) and also ensures that only the most loyal, fervent Communists have access to jobs with foreign companies. It also ensures that foreign companies will be able to exploit Cuban workers for very low wages. In effect, the new law is one of the most anti-Cuban, anti-nationalistic laws ever passed in the entire history of the Republic.

The recent changes have done nothing to change the Communist Constitution’s restrictions on the creation of wealth by private individuals. Pursuant to the “Rules Established by the Communist Party’s Sixth Congress,”  Cuban law still prohibits the “concentration of wealth” and stipulates that “private and corporate persons will be prohibited from accumulating capital.” In other words, it’s illegal for people to accumulate any wealth or capital in Cuba. Persons violating the law will receive a visit from the “Economic Police” and face possible jail sentences. The only other country in the world with similar laws is North Korea. It’s no wonder then that Cuba ranks almost dead last in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom at 177th (only North Korea ranks lower, at 178).

Cuba’s new Foreign Investment Law does nothing to change the old and artificial restrictions that have kept the Cuban economy in the Middle Ages. Until the law ensures that foreign direct investment can actually reach ordinary Cubans in the private sector – it will never result in the sort of economic benefits that will help the island emerge from its half-century economic crisis. Until Cuba lifts restrictions on capital formation, decriminalizes the creation of wealth by private individuals, and abandons its Soviet-style economic model, the Cuban economy will continue to lag behind the rest of the world.

Other communist countries like China and Vietnam long ago lifted restrictions on private business and allowed individuals to accumulate wealth and receive investment from abroad. The Cuban government (and potential foreign investors) should take note.

Petro-diplomacy and cheap oil: Why Latin American leaders are silent on the violence in Venezuela

25 Feb

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“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

- Martin Luther King, Jr.

A violent crackdown on student protests has suddenly focused much of the world’s attention on Venezuela. Famous for making headlines for the antics of its late president Hugo Chavez, these days Venezuela is making headlines for more sinister reasons – namely, the violent wave of repression that the government has used to quell the protests that have gripped the country for the past two weeks. What began as a protest by university students against the rising tide of violent crime, runaway inflation and the shortage of basic goods and foodstuffs due to the economy’s increasingly moribund state has turned into a country-wide pogrom by the Nicolas Maduro’s chavista government and the National Guard. The largely student-led protests spread to other sectors of Venezuelan society when the Guardia Nacional Bolivariana (GNB), or National Guard, opened fire and killed three students in a matter of days. What was initially an ordinary protest ballooned into a countrywide protest that now includes vast swathes of Venezuelan society.

Nicolas Maduro and the chavistas have responded by unleashing the National Guard, the National Police and armed paramilitary gangs known as the Tupamaros on the populace. The Tupamaros, described by the chavista government as “workers collectives” are little more than armed thugs loosely controlled by the government who roam the streets of Caracas and other cities with near impunity. Tanks, armed troops and motorized units have been allowed to take the streets and open fire on the protesters in an attempt to silence the opposition. As a result, the number of dead and wounded has multiplied exponentially. Meanwhile, the country’s media, largely controlled by the government, has been either shut down, or prohibited from reporting on the violence. Twitter and the Internet have been shut down in certain areas. Foreign journalists have been thrown out. As the mother of a student who was killed with a bullet to the head said, “They are fighting ideas with bullets.” Different sources and reports have even confirmed the arrival of foreign Cuban commando brigades, experts in riot control, to help the Venezuelan government in its crackdown. The Cuban dictatorship, a long-time ally of Venezuela’s chavista government, has landed elite anti-riot commando brigades – the notorious Avispas Negras (Black Wasps) – to aid Maduro’s government in the repression of his own people.

Venezuela is currently experiencing its worst bout of violence since 1989 as government has unleashed armed soldiers, police and tanks to repress unarmed protests.

Venezuela is currently experiencing its worst bout of violence since 1989 as government has unleashed armed soldiers, police and tanks to repress unarmed protests.

And how has the international community responded? How have Latin American leaders and more importantly, the Organization of American States acted in the face of this crisis? With silence and complicity. Sometimes even with support. Only the strongest democracies in the region, Chile and Costa Rica, have condemned the violence in Venezuela. 

The events in Venezuela are an interesting example of the hypocrisy of Latin American leaders and their alleged “respect” for democracy and the rule of law. This was not the sort of response that we saw in 2009 from the OAS and Latin American leaders when left-wing Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was thrown out of office by a military coup. When the Honduran Army, on orders from the Honduran Supreme Court ousted President Manuel Zelaya and sent him into exile on June 28th, 2009, Latin American leaders reacted with outrage and were quick to condemn the coup. The coup was prompted by Zelaya’s violation of the constitution through his attempt to hold an illegal and unauthorized referendum to rewrite the constitution to allow for indefinite reelection. After Zelaya refused to comply with court orders to cease, the Honduran Supreme Court issued a warrant for his arrest. When Zelaya refused to submit to the order, Honduran soldiers detained him and instead of bringing him to trial, put him on a military airplane to Costa Rica. There were no deaths, but the military broke the law when, instead of bringing him to trial, mounted him on a plane into exile.

The OAS, invoking the Inter-American Democratic Charter, reacted quickly and expelled Honduras from the organization. The quick reaction by the OAS and the wider Latin American community was seen by many as a sign that Latin America had finally grown up. Coups and anti-democratic actions would no longer stand unaddressed in the region. But this begs the question – where is the same concern for democracy and the rule of law when it comes to the case of Venezuela? What is the difference? Why the silence? If the bloodless ouster of Honduran leftist Manuel Zelaya prompted the harsh rebuke of the international community – why hasn’t the Venezuelan government’s violent and brutal crackdown on the Venezuelan people not prompted a similar response?

When the Honduran military ousted Zelaya in 2009, the OAS and Latin American leaders responded with outrage. Where is the similar outrage to the violence in Venezuela?

When the Honduran military ousted Zelaya in 2009, the OAS and Latin American leaders responded with outrage. Where is the similar outrage to the violence in Venezuela?

Ever since the arrival of Hugo Chavez and his socialist chavista government, Venezuela has been engaging in what many have called “petro-diplomacy.” In exchange for the loyalty and support of foreign governments Venezuela has funded and supported various left-wing governments across Latin America. It has used the largest oil reserves in the world to spread its influence and Socialist left wing ideology across the region to ensure that it has allies in times of crisis. Venezuela has supported the dictatorial regime of the Castros in Cuba with critical oil supplies it needs in order to survive. It has also supplied Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua with much needed economic aid and preferential oil deals. This strategy has been employed not just in Cuba and Nicaragua but in numerous other countries, including Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina among others. Even the relatively progressive government of Uruguay has not been free of the influence of Venezuela’s black gold. The Venezuelan government has used its petroleum and the promise of cheap oil deals to influence Latin American international relations and to win supporters to its side. Oil explains the willing complicity of regional governments to the violence in Venezuela.

Petro-diplomacy explains the schizophrenic and bi-polar responses by Latin American leaders when it comes to the situations in Honduras and Venezuela. Venezuela’s chavista government has been able to use its oil to win the support and loyalty of many governments in the region. It explains how the OAS and its members expelled Honduras in 2009 for a military coup against its leftist leader Manuel Zelaya against an affront to democracy, and then proceeded, only a few months later, to hold a vote allowing Cuba, the only non-democratic dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere, to return to the OAS. After much attention, Cuba actually declined the invitation to return.

The reaction of many governments in the region to the crisis in Venezuela should come as no surprise to the astute observer. It is no surprise that they have either openly come out in support of the government’s violent crackdown or remained silent in the face of the violence.  If you want to decipher the mystery of the hypocrisy of Latin American leaders and the OAS, you only need to look at the sweet oil deals that they have been receiving from Venezuela’s chavista government.

Latin American leaders like to speak the language of democracy and the rule of law – but they do not practice it. When they remain silent in the face of the violence in Venezuela they are as culpable as Nicolas Maduro’s government. They have traded their ideals and principles for their own economic interests – and in the process they have abandoned their Latin American brothers.

Race, Blackness and the Soul of Cuba

20 Jan
Afro-Cubans

Afro-Cubans: Celia Cruz, Ibrahim Ferrer, Beny More, and Antonio Maceo.

The black race, all of a sudden, found itself in a strange social condition – in slavery, without fatherland, without family, without a society of its own.

- Fernando Ortiz, Cuban anthropologist

It is often said that Cuba is both the most Spanish and the most African of the Latin American countries. A country that abolished slavery in 1886 and only won its independence from Spain in 1898 – Cuba is an interesting enigma that confounds the outside observer with contradictory messages about itself. A true exploration of “Cubanicity” and Cuban culture is incomplete without an exploration of the Spanish and African cultures that fused to create what is today known as Cuban culture. The island is as marked by the culture of Spanish gaitanos and Spanish immigrants as it is by the secrecy and mystery of the Afro-Cuban ñañigos and their secret Abakuá society. But Cuba’s African heritage is a heritage that is often ignored, or worse, hidden away – an embarrassing trace of Cuba’s relationship with Africa.

Afro-Cubans first came to Cuba through the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Over 600,000 Africans were transported across the sea to the island to work in Cuba’s lucrative sugar, coffee and tobacco plantations. After the Haitian Revolution expelled the French from Saint Domingue, Cuba became the world’s largest producer of sugar. But the economic boom and the prosperity that was brought to the island was built on the backs of African slaves. As anthropologist Fernando Ortiz said, “The black race, all of a sudden, found itself in a strange social condition – in slavery, without fatherland, without family, without a society of its own.” Soon the slaves began to reinvent their culture again- this time in Cuba. By the 1830s and 1840s, Cuba had imported so many slaves that the black population briefly became the majority. Combining elements of their African homelands with native Spanish and creole traditions, Afro-Cubans began to add the final ingredients to what would come to be known as Cuban culture.

A Painting by Wilfredo Lam

Since colonial times Cuba has had an uneasy relationship with its black origins. It dates back to the days of the Haitian Revolution, when the slaves in Saint Domingue overthrew their French masters and established a black Republic. Cuba’s white planter class remained ever fearful of a repeat occurrence on their island. But in a twist of fate, Afro-Cubans would later come to play a pivotal role in the success of Cuba’s independence movement. In 1868, when Carlos Manuel De Cespedes, a white planter and intellectual, first made the proclamation that Cuba would be free from Spain, he freed his slaves and told them that all Cubans would be brothers in a newly liberated Cuba. Soon, white and black Cubans were fighting side by side against the Spanish to liberate the island. The struggle to free Cuba was cut short however – De Cespedes was killed in an ambush in 1874 and the war ended four years later in 1878. But when Cuba launched its Second War of Independence in 1895, this time led by Jose Marti, Afro-Cubans once again rushed to join the cause for independence. One of the greatest commanders in the struggle was Antonio Maceo – an Afro-Cuban and veteran of the first war for independence. Other commanders such as Quintin Bandera and over half of the freedom fighters in the rebel army were Afro-Cuban. Although Maceo died in 1896, he and many other Afro-Cuban leaders were integral in the success of the independence movement.

Yet after the war, Afro-Cubans remained marginalized in society. White society in Cuba was always uneasy about the prospect of black generals and armed black revolutionaries participating in the Independence struggle. Many feared that Cuba’s black veterans and generals would one day unite to establish a “black Republic.” The fear of Cuba transforming itself into “another Haiti” was always on the mind of Cuba’s white elite. Although Afro-Cubans had participated in large numbers during the War for Independence, conditions in Cuba remained poor for blacks on the island, and many of the old Afro-Cuban veterans of the Independence war wanted to see real change. After the American intervention in the Spanish American War of 1898 finally ousted the Spanish, Cuba was finally free. But freedom came with conditions – conditions like the Platt Amendment – which stipulated that the United States would have the right to intervene in Cuban affairs if it believed that public safety or American interests were endangered on the island. Between 1898 and 1902, the American occupation government also began to implement American-style segregationist policies in Cuba. When the American occupation reorganized the Cuban army, it began by segregating the previously mixed Cuban army into white and black units. Blacks were rarely placed in positions of command. Similarly, in the newly organized government bureaucracies blacks were often excluded. The racist policies were quickly embraced by the largely white Cuban elite that ran the country. Many black generals and leaders soon became disappointed that the promise of an equal and just Cuban society, as Marti had envisioned it, had not been realized.

In response, two Afro-Cuban leaders, Evaristo Estenoz and Pedro Ivonnet formed the Independent Party of Color in 1908 to represent the interests of ordinary Afro-Cubans. But when the Independent Party of Color began to take away votes from the ruling Liberal Party, the government of Jose Miguel Gomez enforced the Morua law. The Morua law was a law that banned the creation of any party on the basis of color. Although largely masked as a progressive law meant to protect blacks from the formation of white-only parties, the Morua law was actually a law designed to keep blacks from organizing themselves into their own political organizations. When the Morua law was invoked by President Jose Miguel Gomez, banning the party from the government, the followers of Estenoz and Ivonnet took up arms in the mountains of Eastern Cuba. The ensuing struggle would later come to be known as the Race War of 1912. It marked one of the darkest periods in Cuba’s history and was a low point in race relations on the island.

Led by General Monteagudo, the Cuban army, with the support of U.S. Marines, marched into Eastern Cuba and began an all-out war to crush the guerrilla movement led by Estenoz and Ivonnet. Soon however, the war devolved from a hunt for the rebel army into an all-out lynching of blacks in the Eastern half of the island. Thousands of Afro-Cubans and blacks were systematically killed in a frenzy of racist violence. By the end of the brief war, over 5,000 Afro-Cubans had been killed. After the conflict, Afro-Cuban culture entered a dark age, in which it was publicly marginalized and hidden. Afro-Cuban culture and music became “vulgar” and any expression of Cuba as anything other than a Caribbean extension of Europe became taboo. After the Race War of 1912, the Cuban government even began a program of encouraging white immigration from Spain and Europe to further “whiten” Cuban society. Actively seeking immigration from Europe, Cuba would attempt to bury its African past by drowning itself with white immigrants from the Iberian peninsula. Over 1 million immigrants would come to Cuba from Spain between 1900 and 1930.

Racism in Cuba. On the left, an Afro-Cuban is depicted in negatively against a white Cuban. On the left: In the wake of the 1912 Race War, the press often made caricatures of the rebellion's two leaders - Pedro Ivonnet and Evaristo Estenoz. Here, a white Cuban soldier and a U.S. Marine are playing "football" with the heads of Estenoz and Ivonnet.

Racism in Cuba. On the left, an Afro-Cuban is depicted with ape-like features next to a white Cuban. On the right: In the wake of the 1912 Race War, the press often made caricatures of the rebellion’s two black leaders – Pedro Ivonnet and Evaristo Estenoz. Here, a white Cuban soldier and a U.S. Marine are playing “football” with the heads of Estenoz and Ivonnet.

It was only in the 1920s that a group of white and black Cuban intellectuals began to push for the recognition of Cuba’s African roots. Afrocubanismo became the name of a movement by both white and black artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals to explore and celebrate Cuba’s African roots. Recognizing and celebrating the African roots of Cuban music, art and culture, intellectuals, writers and artists such as Nicolas Guillen, Alejo Carpentier, Wilfredo Lam and Fernando Ortiz led the way to a new-found acceptance of Afro-Cuban culture. In fact, it was during this time that the famous anthropologist and social scientist Fernando Ortiz first termed the word transculturation to describe the blending of Spanish and African cultures to form a unique Cuban culture. In 1925, President Gerardo Machado, the epitome of the tropical island’s white elite, even invited an Afro-Cuban band to perform at one of his parties after winning the presidency. In the twenty years that followed, Afro-Cuban culture experienced a renaissance and finally came to be accepted as an integral part of Cuban identity. Cuban music was dominated by Afro-Cuban singers and performers such as Celia Cruz. Beny More, Compay Segundo, and Ibrahim Ferrer and Afro-Cuban themes began to be widely celebrated in art and literature. Today, Cuban music is unrecognizable without its African elements and the countless Afro-Cuban artists that have contributed to the genre. From Celia Cruz to Beny More to the cast of the Buena Vista Social Club – Cuban music is indelibly marked by Afro-Cuban influences.

Buena Vista Social Club

Buena Vista Social Club, an album featuring numerous Afro-Cuban artists became a world-wide hit in 2003 and reignited an interest for Cuban music around the world.

But racial inequality persisted in Republican Cuba. When Fidel Castro’s Revolution came to power in 1959, there still existed two Cubas – one affluent and largely white, and one poor and largely black. Castro promised to end the racial and economic inequality that had plagued Cuban society. The Revolution brought a lot of changes that benefited Afro-Cubans on the island. Social conditions for the poorest Cubans improved and access to healthcare, schooling and electricity were extended to many. At one point Fidel Castro even proclaimed that “racism had ended in Cuba.” Advances however, came at a cost. With advances in racial equality came an implicit agreement that Cubans would not speak openly about racism. Racism, a thing of the past, could not openly be discussed in Castro’s new Cuba – speaking about racial issues became taboo because any criticism of Cuban society became a criticism of the regime.

After the collapse of the USSR and the Soviet bloc however, Cuba entered into an economic depression that saw the contraction of more than half of its economy. Castro’s Revolution had been dependent on generous amounts of Soviet aid and money to support his Revolution’s social programs – so when those disappeared, the Revolution’s gains were quickly erased and the house of cards collapsed. Racism, previously hidden and unseen, began once again to reappear. As Cubans on the island became more and more dependent on remittances from relatives abroad, inequality began to grow between the largely white population with relatives (and access to remittances) abroad, and the largely black population without access to remittances. To make things worse, since Castro had proclaimed that “racism had ended,” raising concerns about racism in Cuba and contradicting the Comandante’s proclamation that Cuba was a racial paradise was likely to get someone unwanted attention from the secret police – a critique of Cuban society became equivalent to a critique of the Revolution, and a critique of the Revolution was unacceptable in Castro’s Cuba. Attempts by several Afro-Cuban dissidents to raise objections about the Communist regime’s blind eye to the problems of ordinary black Cubans have fallen on deaf ears or invited official condemnation and censorship. In recent years, several dissidents of Afro-Cuban descent such as Oscar Elias Biscet and Guillermo Farinas have led the way in the fight to restore democracy on the island. The government however, still proclaims that racism is nonexistent in socialist Cuba.

It was not long ago that Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013. Mandela, a tireless fighter for the rights of blacks in apartheid South Africa, was a close friend of Fidel Castro, who had been a key ally of South Africa’s Black Liberation movements in the 1970s and 1980s. Although Raul Castro was present at the funeral, it was President Barack Obama’s words that carried the most weight when he said:

“For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger, and disease; run-down schools, and few prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.

We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality.”
Some observers wondered whether Obama’s message was intended for Castro – a man who claims to stand for liberty, equality and justice abroad – but who brutally has repressed criticism and dissent at home. For Cuba’s current regime, racism is something that cannot be spoken of – since Fidel Castro’s proclamation that “racism has ended in Cuba” it has become taboo to speak openly about the persistence of racism in Cuban society. But racial inequality and racist attitudes still persist in the island and the problem became even more pronounced in the last two decades as economic conditions have worsened the gap between white and black Cubans. In Castro’s Cuba, where freedom of speech and the press have been exterminated, the problem of racism and racial inequality has been ignored for too long. It is time for us to ask ourselves the question: Has racism really ended in Cuba? Has Cuba really embraced Jose Marti’s inclusive vision of a “Cuba by all, for the good of all?”As those of us in exile come to celebrate Martin Luther Jr. Day in the United States, we need to ask ourselves the question: Has Cuban society truly eliminated racism, racial inequality and really come to accept its African roots?

Caribbean Dictators, Rómulo Betancourt, and the Dream of Venezuelan Democracy

16 Jan

Betancourt and Castro

Tell Fidel Castro, that when Venezuela needed liberators, she did not import them, she birthed them.”

- Rómulo Betancourt

On January 8, 1959, days after the overthrow of the Batista regime in Cuba on January 1, 1959, Castro and his band of revolutionaries rolled into Havana to a heroes’ welcome. After a seven-year struggle against the entrenched dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Cuban society greeted Fidel Castro as a liberator. The support and enthusiasm for the young attorney-turned-revolutionary who promised to restore Cuban democracy, restore the 1940 constitution and return Cuba to normalcy is difficult to describe.

Shortly after his arrival in Havana on the heels of his successful Revolution, Castro, who had been transformed into a sort of celebrity-hero in Latin America and around the world, decided to make his first official foreign visit to a country that had been through a similar struggle against a long-entrenched dictator – Venezuela.

Venezuela in 1959 was a country that had just barely begun its experiment with democracy. Long dominated by the rule of caudillos, military strongmen and generals – Venezuela was a country that was just beginning to shake off decades of military rule. Just a year earlier, on January 23, 1958, a civilian-military coup overthrew the long-running dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, the man that had led a military junta that had been in power since 1948. It was only a year earlier, in 1958, that Venezuela had elected Rómulo Betancourt as its new democratic leader.

Venezuela had briefly experienced civilian democratic rule for a few years between 1945 and 1948. In the early 1940s, led by the political party Acción Democrática (Democratic Action) and its leader Rómulo Betancourt, Venezuelan civil society began a movement that eventually led to the overthrow of dictator Isaías Medina Angarita on October 18, 1945. The civilian-military coalition that followed established a civilian-led government with Rómulo Betancourt as its provisional president. As president, Betancourt implemented a series of social reforms, instituted universal suffrage, and implemented a system for securing tax revenues from the country’s oil industry. In 1948, the provisional government held its first elections which saw the election of Democratic Action candidate Rómulo Gallegos in what is considered Venezuela’s first legitimate democratic election. A mere nine months later however, the military, which was unhappy with its place in the new Venezuela, staged a coup d’etat that broke the democratic cycle and instituted in its place a military junta led by General Marcos Pérez Jiménez.

So when Castro arrived in Caracas on January 23, 1959, he was greeted by a country that had also just recently overthrown its own dictator. Throngs of Venezuelans greeted Castro as a fellow liberator – a brother-in-arms in the struggle against Latin American dictatorship. So moved was he by the enthusiastic welcome that he proclaimed in a speech broadcast to the Venezuelan people, “I was more moved when I entered Caracas than I was when I entered Havana, because here I was alone.” Shortly after his arrival however, Castro visited the man who was now Venezuela’s new president – Rómulo Betancourt.

Betancourt and Fidel

The meeting did not go well. Betancourt was immediately suspicious of the young revolutionary’s intentions. During their brief encounter, Castro asked Betancourt to extend Cuba access to Venezuela’s oil reserves on mere credit. Betancourt, ever the nationalist, refused and insisted that Venezuelan oil was not to be gifted – if Cuba wanted Venezuela’s oil, it would have to purchase it. When Castro insisted that Venezuela should extend oil and petroleum to Cuba on credit, Betancourt responded “Venezuela does not give away its oil, it sells it.” The meeting between the two leaders could not have been more awkward and the young Caribbean revolutionary left with a bad taste in his mouth.

In the years that followed, Castro’s regime in Cuba took a turn for the worse. Unlike Betancourt’s government which eventually held elections and passed the torch to a democratically elected successor, Castro held on to power. As Castro turned authoritarian, relations with Venezuela soured. Castro’s government was even discovered to have supported and funded a short-lived left wing guerrilla movement in Venezuela in the early 1960s. After this incident, Venezuela broke relations with Cuba. Betancourt, a man who had faced exile on several occasions and who fought all of his life against dictators, was a man of principle. His administration adopted what came to be known as the Betancourt Doctrine. His administration had a particular view of foreign policy and insisted that Venezuela, a democratic country, would have no diplomatic relations with dictators. On several occasions this invited the ire of both right-wing and left-wing dictators. Aside from the Cuban-supported left wing guerrillas, Betancourt survived an assassination attempt orchestrated by the right-wing dictator of the Dominican Republic Rafael Trujillo.

Betancourt would come to be known as the Father of Venezuelan Democracy. A fierce nationalist and a man of principle with a deep-seated sense of morality – he is one of Venezuela’s most revered leaders. On March 13, 1964 he peacefully handed power down to the next democratically elected president, Raúl Leoni in what was the first peaceful transition of power from one democratically elected leader to another in Venezuela’s history. He was later given a position as Senator-for-life, an honor bestowed upon all subsequent Venezuelan presidents. After his retirement from political life, Betancourt spent his final days writing, preferring to spend time away from the public spotlight. Spending his final days with his wife, Dr. Renee Hartmann, he died on September 28, 1981.

It would be interesting to see what Rómulo Betancourt would think of today’s Venezuela. With the rise to power of Hugo Chávez in 1998 and the movement of Venezuela into the Cuban political orbit, Fidel Castro got he had coveted for so many years – access to cheap Venezuelan oil. What Castro could not achieve through the funding of a left-wing guerrilla group he got through the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998. Venezuela, first through the socialist administration of Hugo Chavez and now under Nicolás Maduro, sends hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil to Cuba on the cheap in exchange for access to Cuban doctors. Castro had to wait, but it seems that he got his wish after all – even if he was forty years late. The lifeline of Venezuelan oil is believed by many to be the difference between total economic collapse and the survival of Cuba’s Communist regime. Venezuelan democracy and society have also become fractured. Intense divisions characterize Venezuelan society and the golden days of Venezuelan democracy are long gone. The chavista  government, while claiming to stand for the interests of all Venezuelans – has divided them more than ever and the Venezuelan economy is in shambles. Crime and street violence are rampant.

"Romulo... great spirits never die."

“Romulo… great spirits never die.”

As the anniversary of the establishment of Venezuela’s democracy and Castro’s first visit to Caracas on January 23 approaches, it is time for Venezuelans to think about what the father of their democracy would have thought about the current state of affairs in Venezuela. What would Rómulo Betancourt think about today’s Venezuela?

Capablanca: The “Human Chess Machine” – Cuba’s Great Chess Champion

18 Nov
World Chess Champion  1921-1927

World Chess Champion 1921-1927

“I have known many chess players, but only one chess genius: Capablanca.”

- Emanuel Lasker, World Chess Champion 1894-1921

An exciting event is currently underway in the world of chess – the World Chess Championship. Pitted against one another are current champion Viswanathan Anand of India and the young Magnus Carlsen of Norway. The 22-year-old Carlsen, a natural at the game of chess, currently holds a two game, 4.5 – 2.5 lead against the experienced veteran Anand through eight games in a championship match that for many signals a change of the guard in the world of chess. Although the illustrious Anand has held the crown since 2007 and has defended it against multiple challengers, Carlsen has been ranked No. 1 since January 2010. Carlsen, who currently leads by two games (with only five games remaining), stands poised to capture the last accomplishment still missing from his impressive resume – the title of World Chess Champion. Widely seen as the best player in chess over the last few years, the Norwegian seems poised to capture the crown.

But another important date in the history of chess is approaching. November 19th marks the birth of one of the greatest players the game of chess has ever had – the great Cuban champion Jose Raul Capablanca. Carlsen’s seemingly unstoppable march to the world chess championship seems especially fitting near the birthday of one of chess’ greatest players when we consider the number of times that the young Carlsen has been compared to Capablanca and some of the other chess greats.

When we think of great chess champions we often think of Bobby Fischer and the many great Soviet chess players – Karpov, Botvinnik, Tal, and Kasparov. But in that great pantheon of chess kings stands a man born in the island of Cuba – one of the greatest chess players ever to play the game. Born in Havana on November 19th, 1888, Jose Raul Capablanca was the second son of a Spanish army officer stationed on the island. At a young age Capablanca learned how to play chess by watching his father. It was said that at age four Capablanca pointed out an illegal move his father had made and proceeded to defeat him twice on the chessboard. At age eight he began to play chess at the Havana Chess Club where he further developed his skills in the game. A child prodigy, Capablanca continued his meteoric rise when in 1901 at age 12 he narrowly defeated Cuban champion Juan Corzo in a match in Havana.

In 1905 he passed the entrance exam for Columbia University and eventually moved to New York to study chemical engineering. It was in New York, playing in the Manhattan Chess Club were he was exposed to some of the great American and European chess players. He began to play in tournaments and in 1909 he even played U.S. champion Frank Marshall, the man who had unsuccessfully challenged the then-world champion Emanuel Lasker only a year earlier. He won 8 wins to 1.

Eventually the amazing results of Capablanca in strong tournaments like San Sebastian (1911) propelled him into the conversation as a contender for the world championship. He challenged then-champion Emanuel Lasker, the great German master, but due to difficulties in coming to an agreement on the terms of the match, a match was not arranged. A challenge was further postponed with the start of the First World War. Meanwhile, Capablanca began to dominate the chess world – winning the New York 1913 tournament and dominating in others.

Finally in 1921, after years of waiting for a shot against Lasker, Capablanca was given his chance to fight for the crown. The match was held in Havana. By 1921, Capablanca had become a giant in the world of chess and had not lost a match in serious play since 1916. It was in Havana where the Cuban won four games to Lasker’s none and became only the third world chess champion since the World Chess Championship started in 1886. It was during this time that Capablanca came to be known as the “human chess machine” for his exceptional and masterful skill at the chessboard. Between 1916 and 1924, Capablanca did not lose a single chess game. He played and bested many of the then-greatest figures of the chess world – Rubinstein, Nimzowitsch, Tarkower, Marshall, and others. Many began to think that Capablanca was unbeatable at the chessboard. It was only during the 1924 New York tournament that Richard Reti shocked the world and finally defeated Capablanca in a masterful game, concluding the Cuban’s streak of undefeated tournament play.

Capablanca, far right, next to Akiba Rubinstein, center (1914).

Capablanca gained an aura of invincibility during his reign as world chess champion and was especially known for his patient positional play, mastery at blitz games, and unmatched endgame play. During the years between 1911 and well into the 1920s, Capablanca had few, if any, rivals at the chessboard. But challengers did arise. One of Capablanca’s most bitter rivals was a man by the name of Alexander Alekhine. Although Alekhine had never defeated Capablanca in the many matches the two had waged on the chessboard, the Russian player had registered strong showings at several chess tournaments and secured second place in the New York 1927 Tournament, giving him the opportunity to challenge Capablanca to a match for the world championship in Buenos Aires.

The chess match between Capablanca and Alekhine was expected to be an easy victory for the seasoned and seemingly invincible Capablanca. The first to win six games would hold the title of world champion. However, in a long and arduous battle of attrition between the two chess greats lasting 34 games, it was Alekhine who shocked the chess world and pulled off an upset, winning 6-3 over Capablanca. Alekhine had come prepared and had endlessly studied Capablanca’s games in an attempt to win the match. His endless preparation paid off in the improbable victory.

After the loss of the world championship, Capablanca continued to play chess at a high level. After the upset, he played even better in the hopes of earning the chance of challenging Alekhine for a rematch and a chance to regain the title. He won first place at Hastings in 1929 and New York in 1931. But Alekhine would not grant Capablanca a rematch – some say the Russian feared a rematch against the reinvigorated Capablanca. As a result, Capablanca retired from chess, disillusioned by the inability to regain his title.

In 1934, Capablanca met Olga Chagodaeva, who would become his second wife and fell deeply in love. She encouraged Capablanca to return to chess. Full of new energy and resolve, Capablanca decided he would make a return to the world of chess. At Moscow (1936) and Nottingham (1936) Capablanca returned to the top of the chess world and defeated the field of strong players to win first place in both tournaments. It was at Nottingham where he finally faced his old rival Alekhine – the man who had denied him a rematch for the title. In a brilliant game reminiscent of his old days, Capablanca earned his redemption and defeated Alekhine.

Alekhine still never granted Capablanca the rematch that many thought he deserved. Eventually, old age and declining health caught up on the old Cuban champion. At the AVRO tournament in the Netherlands in 1938, his high blood pressure led him to an eighth place finish. Although he competed and finished well in other tournaments – it was clear by that time that his greatest days were behind him.

On March 7, 1942, Capablanca was observing a chess game and chatting with friends at the Manhattan Chess Club in New York, when he asked for help removing his coat, and collapsed shortly afterward. He suffered a stroke and was taken to Mount Sinai, where he died the next morning.  The chess world mourned his death and even his bitter rival Alekhine wrote in a tribute to Capablanca: “… Capablanca was snatched from the chess world much too soon. With his death, we have lost a very great chess genius whose like we shall never see again.”

As we watch the current bout in the world chess championship between Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen and enjoy watching the meteoric rise of what seems to be yet another great chess champion in the young Carlsen – let us remember the man who the young Carlsen is so often compared to – Jose Raul Capablanca, the “Human Chess Machine.”

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