The historic meeting between President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba at the Summit of the Americas in Panama over the weekend could be interpreted as a steppingstone toward the end of U.S. subversion and economic warfare relentlessly carried out since the success of the Cuban revolution 55 years ago. But it is questionable whether President Obama intends to transform relations, treating the government of Cuba as a sovereign equal and recognizing their right to choose different political and economic models, or merely to continue the same decades-old policy with a more palatable sales pitch – the way he has done with drones and extrajudicial surveillance. U.S. media, however, appear to have fully embraced the propaganda line that Washington is acting in the best interests of the Cuban people to liberate them from political repression. The New York Times weighed in the day before the Summit by claiming that most Cubans identify not with the sociopolitical goals advanced by their country’s government, but rather with those supported by Washington.
In an editorial titled “Cuban Expectations in a New Era” (4/7/2015), the New York Times advances the proposition that engagement between the two governments will lead to Cuba’s integration (at least partially) into the global capitalist economy. This in turn will create increased financial prosperity as Cuba grows its private sector and turns away from the failed model the government has imposed since the start of the revolution.
The New York Times portrays the Cuban government as intransigent, stubbornly holding its citizens back from the inevitable progress that would result from aligning itself with Washington. The Times claims that the Cuban government maintains a “historically tight grip on Cuban society.”
The responsibility for Cuba’s financial woes is placed squarely on the country’s government. The Times claims “the Obama administration’s gamble on engaging with Cuba has made it increasingly hard for [Cuba’s] leaders to blame their economic problems and isolation on the United States.”They fail to mention that the embargo against Cuba cost the country $3.9 billion in foreign trade last year, bringing the inflation-adjusted total to $1.1 trillion. The embargo is still directly harming the Cuban economy and public health sector. The administrative measures implemented by Obama will provide, at most, minor relief. Extraterritorial provisions of the Helms-Burton Act that prevent Cuba from trading with third countries remain firmly in place. But the Times seems to believe the Cuban government is doing nothing more than making excuses when they complain about the devastating affects of the embargo on their economy and their population.
In her study “Unexpected Cuba,” economist Emily Morris rejects the argument that Cuba’s leaders have damaged their country’s economic performance and put its social progress at risk by failing to adopt capitalist reforms like privatization and liberalization.
“The problem with this account is that reality has conspicuously failed to comply with its predictions,” Morris writes. “Although Cuba faced exceptionally severe conditions – it suffered the worst exogenous shock of any of the Soviet-bloc members and, thanks to the long-standing US trade embargo, has confronted a uniquely hostile international environment – its economy has performed in line with the other ex-Comecon countries, ranking thirteenth out of the 27 for which the World Bank has full data.”
The New York Times argues that the Cuban dissidents attending sideline events at the Panama Summit deserve to have regional leaders “amplify their voices.” They claim that such dissidents “have struggled for years to be heard in their own country, where those critical of the Communist system have faced repression.”
There is no evidence presented that the dissidents have struggled in Cuba because they have been repressed, rather than having struggled because most of the population simply does not agree with their ideas or sympathize with them.
That the majority of the Cuban people share the dissidents’ political views is a bold claim. People familiar with Cuba have reached the opposite conclusion. Victor Rodriguez, a professor in the Ethnic Studies department of California State University Long Beach, recently returned from a visit to Cuba and had a different outlook.
“I spoke with at least 50 Cubans of all ages and walks of life,” he said. “Themes were that sovereignty, health care, and education are non-negotiable.” Rodriguez said that Cubans did have complaints about their system, with many stressing the need for higher salaries.
But the three areas he cites as resoundingly popular are the most basic hallmarks of the revolution. If Cuba were to abandon its socialist economic system – either willingly or under pressure from the United States – these would be the first areas to be sacrificed on the neoliberal altar. Dozens of countries in the global South from Africa, Latin America to Asia that now find themselves in the vice grip of suffocating debt can surely attest to this fact.
It is worth examining who are the voices that the New York Times claim deserve to be amplified. Among the “dissidents” are Guillermo Fariñas and Manuel Cuesta Morúa. Fariñas had fought in Angola against the racist South African apartheid regime and had supported Cuba’s revolutionary movement until a sudden change, observes Salim Lamrani, a French professor who specializes in Cuba-USA relations.
“It was only in 2003 that Fariñas made a 180 degree ideological switch and turned his back on the ideas he had defended in years past,” Lamrani writes. Contrary to representation in Western media, Fariñas had been sentenced to prison for crimes such as assaulting a woman as well as an old man who had to have his spleen removed because of his injuries. Lamrani notes that Fariñas was admittedly financed by the US Interests Section in Havana. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fariñas became an outspoken critic of the Castro regime. Yet he was still permitted to speak freely with foreign media. His decision to outspokenly express his political views, which happen to coincide with those of the interests that finance him, has rewarded him handsomely.
“Guillermo Fariñas has chosen, as have those Cuban dissidents sensationalized by the western press, to live off his dissident activities, which offer undeniable financial opportunities and a standard of living much higher than other Cubans living in a context marked by economic difficulties and material scarcity,” Lamrani writes.
Cuesta Morúa is likewise a dissident who considers the Cuban revolution an abject failure, and who downplays any U.S. responsibility for the economic conditions Cuba faces.
Unlike dissidents in the United States, who cannot start a political organization or journalistic enterprise without concerning themselves with how it will impact their ability to pay for health care, a mortgage, food for their family, and education, dissidents in Cuba do not have any of these worries. They enjoy a robust safety net that covers every single citizen, regardless of their view of the Cuban political system.
Many Cubans in attendance at the Summit in Panama had a different view of the dissidents than that espoused by the New York Times. They referred to the dissidents as mercenaries because of their financial links to a hostile foreign regime and coziness with anti-Castro exiles such as Luis Posada Carriles, the “Cuban bin Laden,” who has been implicated in numerous terrorist activities including the downing of a civilian airplane and a string of hotel bombings in Havana.
The Cuban Web site Juventud Rebelde reported that the Cuban delegation, which represents more than 2,000 associations and Non-Governmental Organizations from the island, denounced the presence of people who are paid by interests seeking to destabilize Cuban society and the Cuban government.
Liaena Hernandez Martinez, of the National Committee of the Federation of Cuban Women, which represents more than 4 million Cubans said that: “For the Cuba dignified and sovereign that has resisted more than five decades of blockade it is inadmissible that people are here of such low moral character.”
The Times predictably aligns itself on the side of the U.S. government regarding their opinion of the true political aspirations of Cuban people. The idea that the U.S. is a disinterested observer nudging the Cuban government in the direction of greater democracy and human rights is nothing but pure propaganda, contradicted by more than half a century of history. The U.S. has always been the aggressor against Cuba, coercing it to become a neo-colony that could be exploited by the U.S. military and corporate interests. This was true from the time the U.S. forced Cuba to implement Platt amendment that granted the Americans control of Guantanamo Bay until the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista was ousted in 1959.
It should be no surprise that the U.S. government and corporations like the New York Times still presumptuously attempt to delegitimize the Cuban revolution and pretend that Cuban politics are best understood and articulated by those either outside Cuba or in their service as paid agents. The notion that a population can create a socioeconomic system representing the will of its people that starkly rejects the Washington Consensus is simply unthinkable. They are forced to pretend that an opposition manufactured and financed from abroad is representative of the population as a whole. It may take another 55 years to understand this is simply not the case.