The Cuba Conundrum

“What is Fidel doing?” asks a Mexican American who has supported the Cuban revolution for decades.

While US bombs and Cruise Missiles rained down on Iraqis and Bradley fighting vehicles blew away their opponents and lots of civilians, the Cuban government tried 75 “dissidents” and sentenced them to long terms.

While US forces occupied Iraq and soldiers fired into crowds at Mosul, killing 10 and wounding 100, the Cuban government arrested several boat hijackers, summarily tried them and executed three of them.

As a result of these two separate, yet judgmentally connected actions, Cuba has lost more progressive intellectual friends than it has since the infamous 1971 case of Heberto Padilla, the Cuban poet detained for 38 days for something he wrote, said, thought or who knows?

On April 14, Nobel Prize winning novelist Jose Saramago of Portugal wrote an open letter in El Pais. “Cuba has won no victory by executing these three men, but it has lost my confidence, damaged my hopes, robbed me of my illusions.”

Eduardo Galeano, the soul of Latin American resistance, wrote in the April 18, La Jornada that “Cuba hurts,” describing his feeling over the jailing of people for their ideas and lightning application of the death penalty.

When Cuba executed the boat jackers on April 11, I felt the kind of pain Galeano referred to. I cannot justify the death penalty. I cannot invent reasons for its swift application.

Some US leftists joined others around the world in petitions criticizing Cuba’s actions and in the April 20 Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times the prestigious Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes reiterated his opposition to Cuba’s undemocratic government–while opposing Bush at the same time. We should assume that most of the people on the left who have recently criticized Cuba have done so for noble motives. For many honest progressive and revolutionaries, Cuba has represented one of the few sources of hope, even at those times when Cuban leaders made judgments that we disagreed with.

Because of the extraordinary accomplishments of the Cuban revolution, including its leading role in affirming the mostly forgotten UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, every progressive worth a salt has invested some part of his or her soul in that process.

What Cuba has yet to do in the two separate causes (arrests and executions) is present the pertinent facts and reasons for arresting and condemning people whose organizations it had penetrated and controlled and explain why it had to execute with lightning speed the boat-jackers.

Similarly, those quick to condemn Cuba might study more carefully the facts of the cases as well. The “dissidents,” who defined themselves as economists, journalists and human rights activists did not face trial for expressing dissenting opinions–at least not formally. The Cuban government accused them of working with and taking money (or gifts and services) from the US Government in order, in the words of Cuba’s Ambassador to Canada, “to destabilize the country, undermine and destroy Cuba’s Constitutional order, its Government, its independence and its Socialist society.”

Yes, Cuba has made it illegal to work with the United States to subvert the Cuban government. Having affirmed that right of self defense, as would any state in the world, Cuba should present all the necessary facts and analysis. We know that US diplomats openly promoted the weakening of the Cuban government. James Cason, the head of the US Interest Section in Havana organized Cuban citizens–and paid them small sums or gave them gifts and services–to promote “dissidence.”

So what’s new? For forty four plus years, Washington has tried every criminal method short of direct US military invasion to destroy Cuba’s revolution. The US government has wreaked havoc on Cuba’s social and economic order and Cubans have every right to suspect the US government of the most malicious motives.

But why did the Cuban government bother to arrest and prosecute people whose actions they monitored so closely? State security agents had not only infiltrated, but had actually set up some of the “dissident” organizations. The infiltrators had not only won the trust of Cason, but had gained access to the US Interest Section and to the homes of the leading US diplomats. So why bust these people whose national following did not amount to any significant public, whose internal reputation was a joke, and whose political coherence depended on handouts from the US government–or on ideas generated by Cuban agents, some of whose opinion pieces appeared in the Miami Herald?

Cuba has not answered this question. I can imagine, however, that Cuban leaders might claim that after Iraq, the imperialists now possess the will to try to crush any country. And members of the policy elite have stated that they do not consider Cuba off limits for military attack.

Suppose, six months before the 2004 elections, the US economy remains stalled and Republican planners decide that Bush needs another “win.” Given the enthusiasm of the Castro-hating Florida Cubans for such an idea, Bush might well make the island his target — if he saw even a shred of vulnerability in Cuba’s defenses.

For example, the 10,000 plus Cubans who signed a US-backed “Varela Project” petition demanding basic reforms could become a dangerous symbol under such conditions. Did Fidel fear that Washington would take the veneer of “dissident” success as a sign of the revolution’s weakness and then pursue a military course to provoke Cuban leaders to surface twelve of the agents they had masterfully planted inside the “dissident” organizations?

“See, 10,000 signatures collected in a totalitarian state. In addition to their biological weapons, we now have evidence of deep-seated discontent,” Bush might say as a prelude to whipping up invasion spirit. After all, he used such exaggerations to prepare the public for the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, Cuban officials may have feared that the “dissidents”–no matter how well penetrated — could convert themselves into at least a symbolic “fifth column” on the island, while Washington tightened the embargo and travel ban to create outside pressure on Cuba’s weak economy.

Also, buying “dissidents” with small amounts of money could end up corrupting a less manageable sector, enough perhaps to offer orchestrated TV cameras images of crowds welcoming US marines.

Cuban leaders must have sensed some overt threat before taking such drastic steps. A new migration crisis that Bush could use as a pretext that Cuba was encroaching on US national security? A military provocation around Guantanamo? I await the revelation of the facts.

Those in Washington who know the island’s realities would discourage such aggressive plans. But suppose Fidel worried that the Bushies might believe in their own inventions? Fantasies that Cubans are defiantly rising in the thousands–as one hears on some of the hysterical shows on Miami radio — could well lead to calls for serious invasion scenarios.

In addition, high level US officials and Radio Marti have for months repeated the baseless charge that Cuba has bio-terrorism weapons and harbors terrorists. Indeed, in Miami, where anti-Castro terrorists walk proudly down the streets or sit with the President on his platform, pro-war demonstrators carried placards equating Fidel with Saddam Hussein. Given the success of Bush’s spin linking Saddam to 9/11, who knows what polls would show about percentages of gullible Americans falling for propaganda that promoted “the invasion of Cuba as a way of securing the US homeland.”

So, it’s possible that Cuba’s jailing and harsh sentencing of “dissidents” and executing of hijackers derives from military crisis not normal political thinking. As a result of the lessons taught by the sentences of the “dissidents” and the hijackers, Cubans will less likely accept gifts from dubious sources.

If this analysis is correct, will Cubans try to repair the political damage done in their military mode? Perhaps, they might make public the basis for their actions rather than repeat accusations and demand blind solidarity. Such revelations would hardly justify their use of the death penalty, but at least it would help explain their behavior to bewildered comrades throughout the world.

Many left critics of the procedural issues surrounding the “dissidents” case have not properly informed themselves of the intricacies of Cuba’s legal system. For example, most of the accused did have the right to choose their lawyers or received court appointed defense if they did not make a choice. They did know exactly what charges Cuba leveled against them. Cuba did not hold secret trials. Indeed, the relatives of the accused and other observers sat through the proceedings.

Yes, in accordance with Cuban law, the “dissidents” received summary trials. But this does not automatically deprive them of their procedural rights. The Cuban defense lawyers work with the prosecutors on the indictment and if there are holes, the defense lawyers inform the judges, who should then dismiss the cases. The Napoleonic-Spanish system! The government had airtight cases that the accused had taken money, goods and services from the arch enemy of Cuba and had performed anti government acts ­writing, speaking and publishing–that the US government promoted.

But to dismiss the 75 as simply traitors hardly suffices. Military thinking produces absolutes that in turn leads to a serious political downside. As Galeano indicates, by trying and condemning them, Cuba turned “groups which openly worked from James Cason’s house, the representative of Bush’s interests in Havana, into martyrs of freedom of expression.” Indeed, as Cuba’s security agents testified, with no refutation from the United States, Cason actually established a political party (the youth section of Miami-based Carlos Alberto Montaner’s Liberal Cuban Party. In fact, some of the “dissident” money came from sources like Montaner, who received grants from US government agencies).

By bagging these pathetic people Galeano concludes that the “Cuban authorities have paid homage to them, and have granted them the prestige that prohibited thoughts acquire.” The Uruguayan writer continues. “This `democratic opposition’ has nothing to do with the genuine expectations of honest Cubans. If the revolution hadn’t done it the favor of repressing it, and if in Cuba there was full freedom of press and of opinion, this so-called dissidence would disqualify itself. And it would get the punishment it deserves, the chastisement of loneliness, for its notorious nostalgia of colonial times in a country which has chosen the way of national dignity.”

Even those defending the actions fail to answer the criticism. In the April 12, La Jiribilla Angel Guerra refers to “the Bush doctrine of `preemptive war’ and the preparations for aggression against Iraq, justified with any lie and invoking the right of the United State to bring about “regime change” wherever and whenever it considered it necessary. Why not in Cuba, which after all appears on all the inquisitional lists of the State Department, among them the list of countries that sponsor terrorism and, of course, the countries that systematically violate human rights?”

Guerra also cites “the Miami mafia, leading a mobilized mob last Sunday in support of the intervention against Baghdad, which raised the cry, ‘Iraq today, Cuba tomorrow.’ Four words that reveal exactly the purpose that today determines their actions as well as those of their satellites on the Island, even if they disguise themselves as independent journalists or human rights defenders.”

“The issue would not deserve any comment,” Guerra continues, “if it were not for the extraordinary influence the terrorist group in Miami has in defining Washington’s political agenda toward the Island.”

“These events are not fortuitous,” he concludes, “but are the product of Bush administration complicity with the Miami mafia, determined to fish in troubled waters.”

Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, Cuba’s Ambassador to Canada, wrote in the April 10 Globe and Mail that Cuba’s critics employed “double standards.” True, but this does not address what Cuba did. If Cuba’s behavior derived from security fears, then Cuban officials should confront that issue and explain their actions accordingly.

He points correctly in his letter to “abuses of Afghans, Arabs and citizens from different countries detained in Guantanamo base in Cuba. No secret military trial like the ones established in the United States has been nor can be carried out in Cuba. There do not exist thousands of detainees still ignorant of the charges against them and whose names have not been released in totality, as is happening in the United States since September 11, 2001. None of the individuals tried in Cuba have been submitted to solitary confinement, to psychological torture or cruel separation from their families like the five Cuban unjustly suffering prison in the United States.”

True, but most of the leftists critics strongly opposed US procedural violations in the very cases he cited. US officials reach new heights of hypocrisy when they try to smear Cuba’s human rights record. Can one conceive of a more gross human rights violation than waging aggressive war?

Or compare the trials of the “dissidents” to that of the five Cubans tried and sentenced in Florida (the five had infiltrated US-based anti-Castro terrorist groups because the FBI did not stop their terrorism. The government charged them with espionage and sentenced them to long terms) and you’ll conclude that Cuba offered more procedural rights than the US did. As Fernandez de Cossio asserts, the five “are still waiting to read over 50 per cent of the documentation used to incriminate them because it was declared secret.”

Critics on the left do not question Cuba’s right to protect itself from the US monster. Most of the leftist signatories to the protest letters would agree that the United States has all but shredded international law and the UN in its latest criminal capers in Iraq.

But the Cuban government didn’t adequately explain its rationale; indeed, it practically shouted at its critical friends and enemies alike with shrillness, as if everyone should understand what no one explained.

In so behaving, it handed its enemies the public relations chance of a decade: Cuba imprisons its dissenters and summarily executes people. As Galeano wrote “freedom and justice march together or they don’t march.”

In 1960, when I first visited Cuba, I felt that the revolutionary spirit had changed my life, provided me with reason and inspiration to seek justice. I agree with Galeano that over the decades “the revolution has lost the wind of spontaneity and freshness that has driven her from the start. I say it with pain. Cuba hurts.”

Yet, after forty plus years, I still look to the island as a place from which superior, not inferior forms of human behavior will arise. I dismiss the puerile criticisms of Cuba from US government hacks who have made careers of creating dictators in the third world, and who possess the moral authority of a flea.

Speaking of moral fleas, George “Death Penalty” Bush as Governor of Texas celebrated 152 executions. He can teach a “how to do it” course on that subject. So Cuba rightfully dismisses W’s judgments, but it should not dismiss as enemies those progressives who felt appalled over the execution of the boat-jackers. They are appealing to Cuba’s conscience. Can the death penalty coexist with a moral socialism? The critics may have signed petitions without possessing the necessary facts, but that in and of itself is not sufficient reason to deride honest people who abhor the death penalty and question trials of people whose crimes consisted of writing and speaking–no matter in whose interest or that they took money.

George W. Bush’s name may engrave itself in history’s pages as the first fascist president. Fidel Castro has already entered the history books as the man who led the Cuban people from the marginality of informal US colonial status to a heroic role in world history. The Cuban Revolution has made its mark. It has no reason–no matter how real the threat — to turn its back on friends and supporters who criticize specific actions from principled positions.

Cuba may well be a viable target of the Bush fascists. In such circumstances, shouldn’t revolutionary Cubans maintain dialogue with honest progressives who disagree with jailing “dissidents” and carrying out the death penalty? And shouldn’t the progressives keep their lines open as well?

SAUL LANDAU’s film IRAQ: VOICES FROM THE STREETS is distributed by Cinema Guild, 800-723-5522. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He can be reached at:


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.