More glasnost, less perestroika
Maciej Zurowski interviews Circles Robinson of 'Havana Times', a web magazine that features critical writing from Cuba
Ever imagined a post-revolutionary scenario where Socialist Worker becomes the only widely available source of information? Well - that vision is very much a reality in Cuba, where Granma, the organ of the Communist Party since 1965, relentlessly hammers home the central committee’s line with little regard for discussion, controversy or stimulating thought. Fidel Castro’s increasingly surrealistic editorials might lift Granma a notch above the drabness that plagues its cousins Trabajadores and Juventud Rebelde, but many would argue that the paper’s relationship with the truth is ambivalent at best.
Publications that serve the cultural needs of the country’s intelligentsia do contain some critical thought. Cine Cubano, for instance, is a glossy film magazine that takes the liberty of castigating the “artistic straitjacket of socialist realism”, while enriching its reviews and discussion pieces with eclectic quotations, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Slavoj Zizek. But beyond the three officially approved national dailies, there has been a distinct lack of critical everyday reporting and analysis of Cuba’s political, economic and social spheres throughout the country’s 50-odd year revolutionary history.
In 2008, a group of Cuban residents founded Havana Times, an internet magazine that prides itself on “open-minded writing from Cuba”. A Cuban news and opinions website that neither consists of sycophantic Castro apologetics nor of its mirror image - the rabid anti-communism peddled by Florida-based Cuban exiles - will come as a surprise to many. Broadly socialist in its outlook and critically supportive of the revolution, it gives a voice to those who are not content to let untouchable leaders do the thinking.
As we interview the editor of Havana Times, Circles Robinson, a wind of change is blowing through Cuba, though hardly the wind of progress. Raúl Castro has announced massive layoffs, employing rhetoric that eerily echoes David Cameron’s talk of a ‘big society’, while paying limp lip service to the paternalistic ‘socialism’ of the past. Meanwhile, foreign investors have been touting Cuba as a potential new emerging market for some time. Against the background of growing class divides and a bureaucratic Communist Party (redefined as the “party of the Cuban nation” rather than a “party of the working class” since 1991), it is high time that Cuban workers began the fight for independent political organisation to defend and advance their interests.
In our interview with Circles Robinson, we spoke about the Havana Times project, the imminent changes in Cuban society, and the Cuban revolution more broadly.
Please tell us in brief the story of Havana Times. I understand that you used publish it from mainland Cuba, but have emigrated to Nicaragua more recently. What were the reasons for your move?
Havana Times began in Cuba when I, a US citizen, was still working at ESTI, the Cuban government’s official translation and interpretation agency. My job was to translate and revise materials for the official Cuban online media into English. As a member of the Cuban Journalists Association (UPEC), I took part in numerous meetings and workshops to discuss the status of Cuban journalism and ways to improve its credibility at home and abroad, as well as its visibility.
After taking part in the July 2008 UPEC Congress as a voting delegate and studying my notes of what had been discussed, plus certain recommendations the Communist Party had not long before given the Cuban media, I decided to start Havana Times (HT). The idea actually dated back about three years, but it finally seemed like the right moment to launch the website. For nine months I edited the site from Havana. Really, that was an ideal situation despite the slow internet connections in Cuba.
Subsequently, I had a major conflict at work resulting from some of my co-workers and myself openly questioning the unethical conduct of our immediate boss. To get me to support his behaviour he threatened to make a case against me using Havana Times and the fact that I had started it “without permission”, though this was done in my free time. In the end, they simply refused to renew my yearly work contract. While no reason was given, I never felt that HT was the main issue in this.
Since my residency in Cuba was dependent on the job, I was given a month’s notice to leave the country. My family is from Nicaragua and I had lived there for many years before coming to Cuba, so we decided to return there. My commitment to the site remained firm, and having a decent internet connection helps in keeping it updated on schedule. I have returned to Cuba three times for a few weeks each since leaving in June 2009. During those stays I was able to update the site and meet with the HT writers with no problem.
Is it risky for those who live in Cuba to write for Havana Times?
After initial pressure placed on two HT writers, the contributors have thus far been able to continue without further problems. State security has questioned some of them for matters more related to their environmental or community activism, although the topic of HT has been present.
Information about Cuba falls into two main categories. You get bourgeois anti-communist sources on the one hand, and uncritical pro-Castro websites on the other. Because Havana Times is neither, I suspect that both friends and enemies of the Castro regime are wary of it.
Your suspicion is correct. Extremists on either side don’t like the site. I’ve been accused of being a senior Cuban government agent on the one extreme and attacked for having stopped supporting the Cuban revolution on the other. As an online publication I am trying to promote a combination of conventional and new-style reporting, as well as commentary that reflects critical support for the Cuban revolution, which is not necessarily synonymous with its leaders.
This involves seasoned writers and people from different walks of life who want to share their opinions. We try to present a balance and let the readers make up their minds on the different issues. We try to present different aspects of the situation in Cuba, breaking away from both the official monologue and the ill-intentioned imperial discourse.
Though the extremists criticise us, I truly believe that most people who visit Cuba will find their perceptions and observations more closely reflected in Havana Times than in any of the other online publications at this time.
When I visited Cuba, most young people I spoke to had a low opinion of Fidel Castro, while at the same time holding Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in very high esteem. Do you feel that there is continuity between Che’s and Fidel’s politics, or do you think they had radically different visions?
Che’s life in Cuba was during the time of great feats: the toppling of Batista, turning the country’s institutions upside down and starting over, and the most intense attempt by the US to destroy the young revolution. It was a time when most youths in Cuba were inspired and more than willing to give their best to forge a country radically different from that of the past. Che was/is seen as a symbol of that period, and as a selfless hero and visionary. The study of his politics takes a distant back seat and the complexities of his thought and vision are not required reading. I think that he continues to be seen in a favourable light.
Fidel, on the other hand, has been in the driver’s seat for over 50 years. Young Cubans are bombarded with his past and present speeches and writings, which are cited like others would cite from the Bible. He carries with him the weight of both the good and bad decisions made over that long period, and many young people put greater emphasis on the latter since they did not experience the former. A large percentage of young people in today’s Cuba do not feel positive about their present and much less the future. This is a huge difference from their counterparts in the 60s. Therefore, I would agree that Fidel, while publicly receiving massive support, is not quite as popular these days in private - especially among the youth.
Working class people in Cuba have been subsidising the country’s bureaucracy for decades. Their efforts have received little reward, and since the 90s their salaries have been insufficient to meet even basic needs. Raúl Castro has said this in different words, and the economic changes occurring in the country today are supposedly geared to reversing the situation.
Some claim that the Cuban revolution was not genuinely socialist because a minority of guerrillas substituted themselves for the working class. What is your view - can socialism be passed down to the working class from above?
Socialism is power in the hands of the people themselves. I personally do not believe that socialism can be achieved through intermediaries. And time has proven, not only in Cuba, that supposedly ‘short-term intermediaries’ do not end up seeing themselves as short-term and are prone to entrench themselves at the expense of the working class.
Apparently, one million public sector workers will be dismissed over the next one or two years. What are your thoughts about the economic liberalisation - is this only a temporary measure comparable to Lenin’s New Economic Policy, or is it the end of Cuba’s socialist project?
The mass layoffs are the kind of move that makes a company’s share values shoot up on stock markets. President Castro and his lieutenants are telling people that unlike the liberalisation measures taken in the early to mid-90s, which were touted as being temporary, this time they are designed to remain in place.
The government and party have even summoned the main workers’ confederation, the CTC, to be the main supporter of the layoffs and the main persuaders of working class people that such a move is positive for the revolution and for a socialist Cuba.
What can Cuban workers do to defend themselves?
With the leadership of the only trade union in Cuba totally behind the layoffs and reforms, I would say that workers have been left orphaned without any defence. The CTC leadership has for a long time advocated government policies as the best way to defend workers’ rights. The notion that a given government/party policy might be ill-advised is almost never considered.
A great example is that just two years ago the CTC was given the task of convincing workers that it was a good idea to raise the retirement age by five years (for men to 65 and for women to 60). The justification was the ageing of Cuban society and the need for people to stay on the job longer due to a lack of workforce replacements. Now, two years later, the same government and its main advocate are saying there are inflated payrolls with huge numbers of excess workers who need to be laid off as soon as possible.
This does not mean that new forms of worker defence will not emerge, but at this time it is hard to predict.
Likewise, allowing greater opportunities for self-employment and a limited number of small businesses that can hire non-family labour make sense, as the government concentrates on the major industries where there are plenty of problems to resolve.
Nonetheless, if this shift is to succeed, the people who embark on a livelihood outside the state payroll will need assistance for their start-up investments and stocked wholesale markets where they can buy at reasonable prices the products they need. The government says some cooperative businesses will be allowed, but a law that regulates such activity is still forthcoming.
There are those who blame Raúl Castro personally and consider him a traitor to ‘socialism’. Others say that all nationalist-socialist countries inevitably end this way. Our writer, James Turley, concluded in a recent article that “at the end of the day, socialism in one country is socialism in one country - however long it takes, it will only end in tears”. Which view do you agree with? Is it possible for Cuba to be socialist in a capitalist world?
Highly centralised, top-down state-socialism has proven a failure in the long run, while capitalism - despite its longevity - has bred inequality and exploitation and the destruction of our planet. I personally think that Cuba needs to work toward a form of socialism ‘from below’, one that its people consciously decide upon and participate in. Attempting to incorporate aspects from other countries and being creative in both new policies and untried ‘old’, truly socialist ones is where I see most hope.
What are your thoughts on Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian movement - do you think the Venezuelan connection and Chávez’s oil might save Cuba’s economy?
Venezuela and Chávez’s Bolivarian movement is another very different scenario. I have only been there for two weeks in 2006, so I do not have the practical day-to-day experience that I have had in Cuba and Nicaragua. I do support the effort to spread some of the national wealth around to benefit social and economic programmes for the majority population. At the same time, I also have my reservations about too much authoritarianism. There is a tendency to speak in a monologue of absolute truths that sometimes prove false, or to speak in half-truths.
As to Venezuelan oil and the Cuban connection, the big danger for Cuba would be if Chávez loses the next presidential election or something was to happen to him. I remember during the 2002 coup attempt, the first statement by the de facto president, Pedro Carmona, was that not one more drop of Venezuelan oil would be sent to Cuba.
Such an event would be a huge economic blow to Cuba, just like when the Soviet Union folded or maybe worse. Remember, Cuba pays for much of the oil through in-kind professionals who work in Venezuela. If it had to purchase the same oil products elsewhere, it would be on a cash basis and the country is already saddled with a tremendous debt and liquidity crisis.
When I visited Cuba, I noticed some evidently wealthy Cubans, especially in certain parts of Havana, and striking poverty in other parts. Although the official unemployment rate in Cuba is only 4%, it looked as if half of Havana was jobless. The streets were crowded with jineteros (hustlers) attempting to latch on to the tourist industry by selling black-market cigars, rum or drugs. Prostitution was widespread near hotels and tourist-frequented restaurants. What I saw looked like a class society with vast differences of wealth. Is this a development that only began with the advent of tourism? And do you think that the introduction of the convertible peso (the ‘CUC economy’) was a mistake?
I think the downside of the tourist industry, as well as the allowing of family remittances from abroad, has played a big role in the inequalities that you saw.
Years before coming to live in Cuba, I was always impressed with the revolution’s ability to survive the exceedingly difficult times of the early to mid-90s - far more difficult than the early 30s in the USA, for example. One of the possible reasons for survival was implementing the dollar economy (only more recently it became CUC-based), allowing joint ventures to obtain investment capital, as well as turning to foreign tourism to generate revenue. So I would not call it a mistake. The Cuban economy did lift itself up from the ashes. However, the lasting mid-term effects of what was supposed to be a short-term survival strategy have proved quite demoralising to most Cubans. Many of the HT contributors write about the growing inequality in the country.
Do high-ranking Communist Party officials accumulate personal wealth in a way comparable to politicians in capitalist countries?
That is a difficult one to answer, since there is no real investigative journalism allowed in Cuba. What one can say is that numerous high-ranking officials have been dismissed in the last few years for unexplained reasons, although many people believe these were related to corruption, influence trafficking and other types of malfeasance. The details have never been made public and the Cuban press is not allowed to delve into the issue.
One of your guest writers, college student Daisy Valera, wrote an article about Leon Trotsky. Do you think that Trotsky’s ideas might offer a way out of Cuba’s political and economic crisis?
I would say that the writer believes that Trotsky’s ideas should be studied by Cuban students, especially his critique of bureaucratic, non-participatory socialism. She thinks they may find some solutions or ways of implementing socialism that differ from the course taken thus far by the Cuban leadership.
I would like to quote from the words of the late Celia Hart from an interview in which she answers the question: Why does Trotsky’s theoretical contribution seem so important to you?
“In Cuba anti-Stalinist feeling has always existed, because people thought that communism was the Stalinism of the Communist Party. And the Communist Party was one of the last to join the revolution ... But, when Fidel announced in 1961 the socialist character of the Cuban revolution, people said: ‘If Fidel is a communist, you can sign me up too’.
“I always felt that there was something missing in my thinking about the revolution. That’s what I’ve found through reading Trotsky: I discovered that social justice and individual freedom were not contradictory and that we weren’t condemned to choose between them, that socialism could only be built by walking on both feet.”
Trotskyists hold the view that countries such as Cuba are ‘deformed’ or ‘degenerated’ workers’ states. They advocate a political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy, but keep the planned economy intact. But there are no avenues in bureaucratic socialist countries through which workers might organise such a political revolution. What do you feel must be done in order to establish workers’ power in Cuba?
The Cuban revolution has achieved much in terms of social justice and a sense of some rights. A sustained push for real participation in a more horizontal decision-making process in the workplace and community, the acceptance and encouragement of critical thought, outlets for freedom of expression and space for new forms of organisation would go a long way to creating the conditions necessary for workers to take the reins of their workplaces and the country.
As the “historical leaders” are now well into their late 70s and 80s and a bureaucratic administrative mechanism is well in place to the exclusion of democratic participation by workers, my greatest concern is that we will see a repeat of what occurred in eastern Europe ... that we will see the repeat of history.
Can you tell us if there exists any workplace democracy? Are Cuban workers involved in planning and decision-making? And what rights do workers have when in dispute with the company leadership?
Cuban workers are rarely involved in planning and decision-making. They are informed of centralised planning and decisions made from above, but their voices are rarely taken into account. From what I could see at places where I worked, and in those of friends and colleagues, Cuban workers are pretty much defenceless in disputes with the administration.
The union usually takes the company position against the worker. There are cumbersome channels to appeal, but the success rate is very slim and the worker is usually told by friends or family that it is not worth the trouble to protest with the deck stacked against them. Without support from the union, the worker is pretty helpless to defend what he/she believes is an injustice.
Can workers express their opinions about company matters without the fear of being disciplined?
I myself was surprised that my boss routinely sat in on our union meetings in our office. Workers in most workplaces are extremely cautious about expressing their opinions on company matters if they differ from the party/management/union line. Time has told them they could be the victims of reprisals or have their opportunities for advancement cut short.
Is it easy for the management to sack workers?
It used to be more difficult to fire a worker and if that occurred the government was committed to finding them another job. Today, with the coming massive layoffs, that will no longer be the case. Fear of getting fired has become a new reality for Cuban workers.
Castro apologists outside Cuba are enthusiastic about the democratic election system, whereby Cuban workers stand their own candidates. What can you tell us about this?
The Cuban electoral system looks far better on paper than it does in practice. Virtually no campaigning is permitted: the posting of candidate résumés is as far as it goes. Moreover, candidates have to go through an initial party screening process that is seldom discussed.
How much influence do the elected candidates have over government policies?
Those who are finally elected have relatively little influence on policies and in the case of the nation’s parliament the 600-plus legislators meet for only two very brief sessions a year, during which time they are presented with figures and explanations by the different ministers and the top leaders. Many appear to simply go along with what is put forward out of trust in the revolutionary government.
There is the widespread belief that the Cuban bureaucracy is a lot less repressive towards its people than was the case in countries such as the USSR, Poland, East Germany and China. What can you tell us about the levels of political repression?
I never had the opportunity to visit the USSR, China or the eastern European countries before or after their change of systems. I did recently have a long conversation with a Romanian acquaintance who has travelled to Cuba many times. To her, the controls and repression that existed in her country were far greater than what she sees in Cuba. We agreed that this may be one of the reasons that the revolution and its leaders have survived such difficult times.
The rest is pretty much common knowledge ... Cuba is a one-party state with official-only media (except for cracks in the internet blogosphere) and a highly vertical decision-making apparatus increasingly dominated by ageing, white, military men. Those who do not support the party or who question decisions by the leaders do not have much public space in society. The level of repression depends on how vocal an individual is. Speaking out at work, school or in neighbourhood meetings or trying to organise a group that differs from the official line can lead to reprisals at work and even affect the families of the individuals involved.
Do you think that Cuban Marxists should work inside the Communist Party of Cuba or organise outside it?
I think Cuban Marxists should do both. For some, depending on their positions and sphere of influence, the best thing they can do is to work from within. Others, whose space has been cut from under them, are better off expressing themselves and organising outside the party.
To what degree is there freedom of expression within the Communist Party?
I was never a party member, so I am not an expert on the freedom of expression within it. What friends and colleagues have told me is that dissenting opinions and the questioning of the top leaders’ ideas or policies is not well received.
I noticed that bookshops in Cuba were packed with Fidel and ‘Che’ anthologies, as well as José Martí and Napoleon Bonaparte biographies - but the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin were nowhere to be seen. I wonder if young people study Marxist theory at school. Or is socialist consciousness in Cuba limited to nationalism and following infallible leaders?
Yes, students are required to study Marxist-Leninist theory, but it is taught from the old Soviet manuals that go in one ear and out the other. The lack of debate or diversity of ideas makes these classes totally boring for most students. I think your last question says it all.
Poland, where I am originally from, had a very bad experience with ‘socialism’. The Communist Party was widely perceived as a party of bureaucrats and liars - arrogant and patronising at best, tyrannical and corrupt at worst. The long-term effect is such that the majority of Poles will not touch anything that resembles socialism in any shape or form - even though the turn to free-market capitalism did not do the country any good. Can you see the same happening in Cuba, or would Cubans choose socialism today?
I would like to give you an analogy from Nicaragua, which like Cuba used a rationing system during its attempt to move toward socialism in the 80s, when it too was under a blockade from the United States. Statistics show that most of the country’s very low-income majority received more basic foods from the ration system than they can buy today on the open market. However, if you ask people if they would prefer to go back to rationing, the vast majority would say no.
After 20 years of especially hard times, I believe many Cubans are at best either tired of hardship - even if it is blamed on the blockade and US aggression - or they do not believe in the system’s ability to solve the country’s serious problems in food, housing, transportation, wages, etc.
The question of what would happen in a hypothetical vote on socialism today I prefer not to answer because a discussion on ‘What is socialism today?’ would need to happen first and involve the population. Socialism is far vaguer, since there are few examples and maybe none that apply to Cuba and its characteristics. Likewise, many of the Cubans I know are aware that not all of the countries that embraced capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall are exactly thriving.
Finally, could you tell us what role you would like Havana Times to play in Cuban society and what developments in Cuba you would like to support with the publication of your paper?
Havana Times is an effort to present some of the many different facets that make up the Cuban reality. We give a voice to people usually excluded from the existing media, as well as those wanting to put forth proposals for progressive change. There is also room for those supporting existing policies.
I believe that Cuba, as a country that has invested heavily in tourism, needs media outlets that can serve the information needs of visitors, potential visitors, people following the developments in the country from around the world, as well as locals. We are trying to fill a portion of that void.
Those writing for HT also want the publication to play a role in the debate over where Cuba is today and how the country can move forward out of its present state of stagnation and ‘institutional sclerosis’.
I strongly feel that over the years Cubans have shown a great ability to rebound from difficult situations. It is a society with a generally well educated population and we want to give them a sounding board for their descriptions of daily life and their constructive ideas on making it better.
- Then again, Cuba always stood out among bureaucratic socialist countries for its rich and diverse visual arts. Though Cuban artists have never been put in a stylistic “straitjacket of socialist realism”, there are however certain limitations to their freedom: “There is freedom of artistic creation as long as its content is not contrary to the revolution,” states the constitution of the Republic of Cuba in chapter 5: ‘Education and culture’.