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.”

The Restoration of the Capitol – Cuba’s Monument to Democracy

23 Sep

Images of El Capitolio

One of the most iconic buildings in Havana is El Capitolio (The Capitol), the elegant and former home of the Cuban Congress for thirty years from 1929 to 1959 during the island’s Republican era. The Capitolio was built between 1926 and 1929 during the administration of President Gerardo Machado (1925-1933). It was during Machado’s term that the famous National Highway and many other national monuments were constructed. In 1926, in the midst of the country’s growth, it was decided that the country needed a proper place in which to house its Congress. Cuba was to have a Capitol building that would represent the elegance and vision of the new country – a building that could portray Cuba as a shining new republic – one with its own splendid monuments and sumptuous palaces.

Construction of the Capitol began in 1926 and was finally completed in 1929. The architects whose vision was chosen for the design of what would be the future home of Cuba’ Parliament were Raúl Otero and Eugenio Rayneri Piedra. The new building would have a neoclassical design that borrowed elements from the U.S. Capitol building and the Pantheon in Paris. Its purpose was to portray the optimism, confidence and elegance of the new democracy.

Flanking the steps leading to the entrance of the building were to be two huge bronze statues designed by Italian sculptor Angelo Zanelli, the renowned designer of the statues in the Monument to Vittorio Emmanuelle II in Rome. The two statues flanking the steps leading to the entrance were to represent the values of the Republic. To the left was Work (El Trabajo) and to the right The Tutelary Virtue (La Virtud Tutelar). In the inner chamber of the main hall encased in the floor was to be a huge 25 carat diamond, which marked Kilometer Zero of Cuba’s National Highway.

Inside the Capitolio and under the beautiful cupola is the elegant and aristocratic beauty of the Statue of the Republic (La Estatua de la República). The statue, also by Zanelli, was cast in bronze in Rome in three pieces and assembled inside the building after its arrival in Cuba. Towering an entire 49 feet in height, covered in 22 carat gold and weighing some 49 tons, it was the second largest indoor statue in the world at the time (today it is the third largest) after only the Great Buddha in Nara, Japan. The beautiful elegance of the La Estatua de la República in the form of Athena – the goddess of Athenian democracy – dominates the interior chamber under the cupola. It was under the watchful eye of the Cuban Athena that the elected representatives of the people’s will were to conduct their business of governing the new democracy.

President Gerardo Machado is remembered for many things in Cuba. He is remembered as a great builder and was initially the island’s most popular President. But after his second term in office Machado turned authoritarian and made an attempt to hold on to power. After a period of civil unrest and finally a nationwide strike, he was finally ousted in 1933 in Cuba’s first great revolution. Ironically, the father of the Capitolio, the greatest manifestation of Cuban democratic ideals, was the first man who attempted to end Cuban democracy.

Twenty years later in 1959, a new Revolution rocked the small island Republic. After the end of Fulgencio Batista’s seven-year rule, Fidel Castro and his rebel army entered Havana victorious. Within months they suspended the Cuban parliament and moved the Cuban legislature from El Capitolio – a building that the new regime saw as an icon of the country’s bourgeois past. In order to destroy the bourgeois past, it would be necessary to dismantle its icons. Where Machado and Batista had failed, Castro succeeded and the dream of Cuban democracy was stamped out under the brutal repression of the new Communist regime. Machado and Batista’s amateurish and short dictatorships paled in comparison to the repression and Machiavellian control exacted by Fidel Castro’s tyranny.

The Cuban legislature would not meet in the building for over fifty years. The elegant Capitolio was left to languish and the great statue of La Republica was not to see the elected representatives of the people in its halls for more than half a century. The new National Assembly was to be housed in a functional brown brick, wood and carpet 1970s-style convention center that invokes none of the grandeur and elegance of the old Capitol. In 1973, to add insult to injury, dictator Fidel Castro took the huge diamond that marked Kilometer Zero for himself and replaced it with a fake replica. Over the years the tropical elements – the rain, the hurricanes and the humidity – were to take their toll on the elegant Capitolio. The building fell into disrepair and its facades faded. Bats even began to make the inner chambers of the Capitol their home – their feces bleaching the interior walls of the once elegant building. The Capitolio was to be punished for what it represented and left to languish.

Only recently this year, at the insistence of Raul Castro, have efforts begun for the restoration of El Capitolio so that it can once again house the Cuban legislature – the unicameral National Assembly dominated by the Communist party, the only recognized political entity on the island. Raul Castro, in his effort to reform the country and give it a face-lift, has proclaimed that the Capitol will once again house the Cuban legislature. The city’s historian Eusebio Leal, a veteran of countless restoration projects in the city and an energetic crusader and defender of the city’s heritage, has been tasked with leading the effort to restore the building to its former glory.

One wonders whether the Statue of the Republic, the Cuban Athena, will greet the new inhabitants with the respect it afforded the representatives of the old Cuban republic. Whether the current Communist National Assembly, a selected list of Communist party officials of the only recognized party in Cuba, can ever honor the spirit, meaning and democratic ideals behind the statue of La Republica is questionable. She has been waiting for democracy to return for more than fifty years.

But her wait will not be over until El Capitolio once again houses the Congress of a democratic Cuba – the elected representatives of the people and not simply the representatives of the party. She will continue to wait in chains as she has for more than half a century of tyranny. Although the new National Assembly will return to fill the halls of the Capitol, La Estatua de la República will continue to wait, and the restoration of the Capitolio will not be complete, until the day when neither dictators, nor parties, nor ideologies rule the destiny of Cuba.

Sin café, no hay país

16 Sep

Cuban Coffee

As a popular Cuban saying goes, “sin azúcar, no hay país” – without sugar, there is no country. The old saying harks back to the days when the Cuban sugar industry, for a long time the largest producer of sugar in the world, was the dominant economic force in the island. But just as inextricably linked to Cuban identity is the dark, aromatic and caffeine charged cafe cubano. There is arguably no other type of coffee that is so inextricably linked with its country’s  culture as Cuban coffee is with Cuba. What is Cuban culture without Cuban coffee? Perhaps a more accurate phrase would be – sin café, no hay país.

A true islander enjoys several cups of strong Cuban espresso a day and a true Cuban restaurant or cafeteria cannot lay claim to being authentic without offering Cuban coffee. After a meal, it is common for patrons to ask for a cup of espresso. Restaurants often serve the coffee with a glass of water. Serious drinkers drink the coffee – but refuse the water afterwards to allow the strong taste of coffee to remain.

Yet the Cuban coffee industry has seen a decline in production of over 90 percent over the last few years. The island’s last coffee harvest netted an insignificant amount of less than 4,000 tonnes of coffee – in stark contrast to the over 60,000 tonnes produced per year at the height of production between 1956 and 1960. By comparison, Venezuela, the twentieth ranked coffee producer in 2011, produced 60,000 tons. What accounts for this dramatic decline in production? The Cuban government announced recently that it plans to increase the production of coffee in the island. But the drastic decline of the coffee industry in a country of coffee drinkers is puzzling.

Coffee was first introduced to Cuba by Jose Antonio Gelabert in 1748. Initially, the coffee industry did not take off and production remained low as the majority of the world’s coffee was supplied by the neighboring French colony of Saint-Domingue. However, in 1791, a slave revolution broke out in Saint-Domingue (now known as Haiti) that resulted in the expulsion of the French from the colony and precipitated the collapse of the country’s coffee industry. A large number of the French colonists subsequently fled to New Orleans, but another sizable number decided to reestablish themselves in eastern Cuba. Their mastery and expertise was soon applied in Cuba and the Cuban coffee industry filled the void and boomed.

Side by side with the country’s sugar boom, coffee became a major industry and source of wealth for the island. Although new producers in Colombia, Brazil and other countries later emerged, coffee remained an important industry in the island.

With the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the coffee industry was nationalized and slowly began to decline. The nationalization of coffee farms and the exile of plantation owners led to the gradual collapse of the industry. The Communist regime imposed harsh restrictions on the free market and prohibited the sale of coffee to anyone except the government – forcing growers to sell their coffee to the government at extremely low prices. This resulted in many coffee growers abandoning their harvests.  By 2012, the coffee industry yielded the poorest harvest in over a century.

My family once had a coffee plantation in the mountains of eastern Cuba. To this day, the valley in the mountains still retains the old family name and is known as Ceiba de Beatón after the Beatónes – the part of the family that owned the plantation. Since the revolution, the now-abandoned plantation has been reclaimed by marabú and thick jungle.

In a country of coffee drinkers, the Cuban government has managed to destroy a once vibrant coffee industry. As the old joke goes, “What happens when Communism arrives in the desert? – At first nothing – but eventually there will be a shortage of sand.”

Roberto Carcassés: One Man Against the State

14 Sep

Roberto Carcassés

“In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act”

George Orwell

When the party-controlled airwaves began transmitting the nationally televised live broadcast of Cuban musicians they had no reason to entertain the thought that anyone would go off-script. The live broadcast of musicians was dedicated to the cause of the remaining four members of the “Cuban Five.” The “Cuban Five” were five Cuban intelligence officers convicted in the United States of conspiracy to commit espionage, and attempting to infiltrate U.S. Southern Command. The imprisonment of the five agents has been a cause célèbre in the Cuban state-controlled media and is a common subject of state propaganda. The concert was meant to be a musical protest directed at the “Imperialist United States” – the root of all evil according to the Cuban government.

When Roberto Carcassés, looking every part the free-spirited musician, came on the air, he began to sing Cubanos por el mundo (Cubans Around the World). Dressed in a white shirt and pants, the curly-haired Carcassés was supposed to sing about non-political themes. In Cuba, artists and musicians are not supposed to talk, much less sing, about politics. As planned, the 41-year-old Jazz pianist came on the air and began to sing Cubanos por el mundo. But then he did something that party-controlled TV stations don’t always approve of – he began to improvise.

“We want our brothers (the four agents) to return…. but we also want many other things,” sang Carcassés. “I want to remind you that I’ve always wanted….” and the crowd joined in singing to the familiar words of Cubanos por el mundo.

But what Carcassés sang next was not on script.

“I want to remind you that I’ve always wanted… free access to information, to have my own opinion” he improvised. “I want to elect my President by direct vote and not through other ways. I don’t want to hear about militants and dissidents, I want to hear about Cubans – all of us with the same rights – an end to the embargo and to our self imposed blockade (referring to the information blockade on the island).”

Carcassés spoke those words to a live national audience and for those few minutes – he was a free man. But in a country where the Communist party has a monopoly on the media and a monopoly on the transmission of reality – breaking script is a dangerous exercise.

Roberto Carcassés will likely never sing on national television again. Unlike many Cuban artists and musicians who prefer to remain silent and avoid making political statements that can endanger their careers, Carcassés chose to speak out, and for that, he is guilty of the greatest crime in Cuba – the crime of speaking the truth. The crime of having your own opinion. The crime of singing out of script.

UPDATE 9.15.2013: The state-controlled Institute of Music has banned Roberto Carcassés “indefinitely” from performing in any official events for his open criticism of the government in front of a live national audience.

The British Capture of Havana and its relation to Albermarle Street in Washington, D.C.

13 Aug

800px-British_fleet_entering_Havana

Today, August 13th is a special date in Cuban history. It marks several famous (and infamous) events in the long and eventful history of the island. Most widely known, the date marks the day when dictator Fidel Castro was born in Biran, Cuba in 1926. However, August 13th also marks the day when, in 1762, a British expeditionary force captured Havana from the Spanish during the Seven Years’ War.

Both events are watershed moments in the history of the Caribbean island. One marked the city’s capture by a foreign force, and its subsequent meteoric rise into the world’s market – the other marks the beginning of what would eventually turn out to be the life of the world’s longest-reigning dictator. Both are important turning points, but one – the older and more unknown – merits its mention for the great impact it had on the island’s development.

When, in 1761, Charles III of Spain decided to enter the Seven Years’ War on the side of France against the British, the British crown immediately began preparations to launch an expeditionary force to capture Havana. Havana in 1762 was then the third largest city in the Americas behind only Mexico City and Lima, Peru – and ahead of Boston and New York. The city was one of the richest, most important and most heavily fortified cities in the Caribbean and the Americas. All ships bound for Spain stopped in the great trade hub of Havana before embarking on their final voyages back to the peninsula. The city’s large and protected bay was considered one of the finest harbors in the Americas and was also one of the Spanish navy’s most important shipbuilding outposts – the quality of Cuban timber and wood being one of the best for the construction of first-rate ships-of-the-line.

Protected by the two imposing fortresses, the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro and the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta - Havana would be a difficult prize. The defense of El Morro in particular had been designed by the great Italian military architect Juan Bautista Antonelli. In the over 200 years of the city’s existence, the Spanish crown had fortified its most important trade outpost in the Americas to prevent its capture by the other rival European powers. The city had withstood attacks by the English, Dutch and French privateers on several occasions and was considered almost impossible to capture. The last time and only time the city had been captured was when it had fallen into the hands of the French pirate Jacques de Sores in 1555 when the port was still in its infancy- an occurrence that the Spanish crown wanted to ensure would not repeat itself.

Current D.C. residents might think that these events have little to do with Washington D.C. except for the fact that in command of the British expeditionary force was none other than George Keppel – the 3rd Earl of Albermarle and namesake of Albermarle Street. The expedition was one of the British navy’s most ambitious and largest amphibious operations ever carried out in the Americas. It consisted of 22 ships of the line, 24 lesser warships,  and 168 other vessels, carrying some 14,000 seamen and marines in addition to another 3,000 sailors and 12,800 regular troops. They were to be opposed by the smaller but dug-in Spanish garrison of the city numbering around 10,000 sailors, soldiers, marines and militia.

On their arrival to Havana, the British met the obstinate defenses prepared by the Spaniards and their commander Juan de Prado.  The British navy’s repeated attempts to force its way into the bay were repulsed by the guns of the two Spanish fortresses, El Morro and La Punta. The Spanish had also laid a boom chain to prevent entry of ships into the harbor. Realizing the impossibility of meeting the Spanish defense head on, the British commander immediately turned to a new approach – to capture the fortresses guarding the harbor’s entry by land. Landing to the east of the city, British forces approached and fought their way to the outskirts of the city and laid siege to El Morro.

The Spanish defenders tenaciously defended El Morro from the besieging forces. Eventually yellow fever broke out among the invaders and many of the British solders began to die of disease. Hurricane season was also fast approaching. The Earl of Albermarle was in a race against time. With British forces tired from months of siege and plagued by yellow fever, reinforcements finally arrived from the North American colonies and the British launched a final assault that finally punctured the fortress’ defenses on July 30. El Morro was finally captured on July 31st.  A few days later, on August 13th, having lost the commanding heights overlooking the city guarded by El Morro, the proud but defeated Spanish forces and their commander Juan de Prado finally conceded their inferior position and surrendered the city.

The capture of Havana was a serious blow to the Spanish in the war. When peace was finally made in 1763, the British returned the city to the Spanish in exchange for all of Florida, the island of Minorca and Gibraltar – so valuable was the port city to the Spanish crown.

But the one year occupation of the city left indelible marks on the history, economy and culture of the island. Havana under the control of the British was finally introduced into the world market and began trade with the North American colonies for the first time. The island’s opening to the world exposed it to new ideas about trade, the Enlightenment, free markets, and capitalism. When Spain regained its valuable port city, its inhabitants clamored for an end of the restrictive mercantilist policies that had defined Spanish colonial policy for centuries. Cuba’s merchant and business classes had tasted capitalism.

The Cuban sugar economy took off after 1762. Sugar mills and the plantation system took off after the brief British occupation. Although rooted and driven by slavery, the sugar economy led to the creation of Cuba’s first railroads and fueled its first efforts towards industrialization. Before 1762, Cuba had mostly been a tobacco and cattle ranching colony with very little exports. Forty years later, when the Haitian revolution destroyed the sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue in the island of Hispaniola, the world economy lost 90% of its sugar supply – a void that Cuba quickly filled, becoming the world’s largest sugar producer, Cuba would hold that position until the 1960s -when the Cuban revolution’s nationalization schemes led to a collapse of the sugar economy.

To this day, the great fortress of El Morro overlooking the entrance to the bay of Havana, fires a cannon shot at 9:00 PM. The cannon shot is a tradition that runs far back to the time when the red-coated British soldiers fired a cannon blast every night at 9:00 PM to mark the curfew imposed on the city’s inhabitants.

The next time you walk down Albermarle Street in Washington D.C. – think about Cuba and the story of the British capture of Havana.

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Cuba: Politics, Diaspora, Current Events, and History

Generación Y - Yoani Sánchez

Cuba: Politics, Diaspora, Current Events, and History

Cuba: Politics, Diaspora, Current Events, and History

Sarvodaya

Cuba: Politics, Diaspora, Current Events, and History

Aristocracia

Cuba: Politics, Diaspora, Current Events, and History

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