Hello! This is guest blogger Jake Levin. By way of background, I’m a senior Macaulay Honors College student studying political science and philosophy at Brooklyn College, and I recently returned from a month spent studying abroad in Havana, Cuba. I took Spanish courses at the University of Havana and conducted independent research on the social, political, and economic influencers on the relationship between the two nations. It was wonderful to gain an on-the-ground sense of the conflict, and to hear Cuban diplomats and citizens (among others) present their perspectives on their “imperial neighbor to the north.” In lieu of Professor Tomkiewicz’s usual writing on the actual climate, I will provide a brief introduction to the political climate in Havana, Cuba and here in the US. I hope to provide another blog post in the near future detailing the Havana/Miami/Washington triangle that orchestrates US policies toward Cuba.
While there are a number of insights I think can only develop after having spent time on the island, I would like to preface my comments with a disclaimer: I am a white, American man who spent a significant amount of time in a foreign country with a program administered by other white Americans. I did live with a Cuban family, but my perspective is still that of someone with only decent Spanish and an outsider’s lens on Cuban culture. I will make all attempts not to speak for a country or an entire population. If I do make assertions that are broad or unfair, please forgive me. I represent a dominant racial group that in Cuba receives an advantage much like whites in America; it’s fascinatingly tragic, but let’s set aside the topic of race in Cuba for another post.
It is frequently said that Cuba is a country of contradictions. Perhaps what impressed and confused me most about my time there was the political acumen and participatory interest of its citizens. Most Cubans I met were interested and invested in outcomes, policies, and governance. Yes, there is one dominant political party, and yes, the vast majority of elected officials are members of that party. Yes, political opposition is routinely silenced, and yes, the gravest of human rights injustices involve political prisoners, and the absence of freedom of information, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression.
The first major and open demonstration of political opposition since the revolution happened in 2005. Still, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the average Cuban election sees more than 95% participation. These are non-mandatory, and there is little evidence that there are repercussions for citizens who choose not to vote. The process is conducted in a town-hall nominating format, with municipal candidates presenting their credentials to their constituents and voters approving or denying them in nominating assemblies. Provincial candidates go through multiple vetting rounds at the local level. Political scientists and philosophers have debated the democratic or non-democratic nature of the political process for decades – while likely not a system of which John Dewey would approve, it is a form of democracy. The omniscient hand of Castro’s regime controls the message and limits political diversity, but candidates do work for their constituents fixing potholes and the like. My host family showed us the phone listing for their local representative’s office, and mentioned that they can call at any time if they’re having an issue. When I asked my host father if there was any information posted regarding the office’s hours or who is best to contact for which issue, he shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “You call, and maybe someone answers.”
Despite the appearance of participatory democracy, the internal political situation regarding dissident activity is dire. According to Human Rights Watch’s 2015 World Report, the curtailed press freedoms make it difficult to quantify just how many political prisoners are currently jailed.
On Political Prisoners:
Even after the conditional release of dozens of political prisoners in December 2014, dozens more remain in Cuban prisons according to local human rights groups. These groups estimate that there are more political prisoners whose cases they cannot document because the government prevents independent national or international human rights groups from accessing its prisons.
Cubans who criticize the government continue to face the threat of criminal prosecution. They do not benefit from due process guarantees, such as the right to fair and public hearings by a competent and impartial tribunal. In practice, courts are “subordinated” to the executive and legislative branches, denying meaningful judicial independence.
On Freedom of Expression:
The government controls all media outlets in Cuba and tightly restricts access to outside information, severely limiting the right to freedom of expression. Only a very small fraction of Cubans are able to read independent websites and blogs because of the high cost of, and limited access to, the Internet. While people in cities like Havana, Santiago de Cuba, or Santa Clara have access to the Internet, people in more rural areas are not able to go online.
A May 2013 government decree directed at expanding Internet access stipulates that the Internet cannot be used for activities that undermine “public security, the integrity, the economy, independence, and national security” of Cuba—broadly worded conditions that could be used against government critics.
A small number of independent journalists and bloggers manage to write articles for websites or blogs, or publish tweets. Yet those who publish information considered critical of the government are sometimes subject to smear campaigns, attacks, and arbitrary arrests, as are artists and academics who demand greater freedoms.
In May 2013, the director of the government-run Casa de las Americas cultural institute, Roberto Zurbano, published an article in the New York Times highlighting persistent inequality and prejudice affecting Afro-Cubans. He was subsequently attacked in the government-controlled press and demoted to a lesser job at the institute.
This is one of the major sticking points in the US-Cuba relationship. The US decries the oppression of speech and expression, while Cuba retorts with figures of our high incarceration rates and lack of political agency for minorities and persons of color. Some reports say there has been an uptick in the number of arrests and assaults of dissidents since relations began normalizing. Still, the government (who seeks to keep it quiet) disputes the veracity of this data. They claim it’s a plot by the CIA – they have good precedent for thinking that– to malign the Cuban government. I think American commercial interests are too strong to allow this oppression – however tragic – to stop the opening of flights and commerce on the island. It will be fascinating to see what happens when direct mail service and other amenities resume on the island. Will dissidents begin communicating more regularly with American human rights groups?
When it comes to international politics – and specifically US politics – Cubans are informed and alert. We were sitting around the dinner table one evening and the conversation moved to American politics. I asked what they knew about congress, Cuban-related legislation, and the 2016 Presidential election. I naively thought I would be schooling them, and didn’t expect much. My host “dad” quickly named Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, and listed specific sections of the Cuban Adjustment Act, the Toricelli Act (1992), and the Helms-Burton Act (1996) that he found especially offensive. These are key people and pieces of legislation that have enforced or enhanced the embargo (or, to Cubans, “the blockade”) against the island. My host resented much of the older, dissident community in Miami, and was well aware of the strong Cuban-American lobby. “If Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio get elected President, it would be devastating for Cuba,” he said. I responded, “Cuba isn’t the only thing that would be devastated.” He smiled and shook his head in agreement.
Here’s a moment where I reflected on the value of travel and study abroad. Until this point, I hadn’t had the opportunity to spend much time with citizens of other countries, and (ashamedly) had very low expectations for them. I shouldn’t have been, but I was blown away. I know plenty of Americans who couldn’t name a single member of congress or a piece of legislation passed in the last century.
Perhaps the Cubans’ knowledge is due to their national media being controlled by the state. Perhaps it’s a result of the Cuban government’s agenda to vilify their neighbor to the north, which emerges from a long history of American presence on the island. Their war for independence concluded at the same time Americans began quartering soldiers and sailors at Guantánamo Bay. I would encourage you to read about the Platt Amendment, as well as the history of the US and Spain in Cuba. At a congressional hearing in August of 1960, Ambassador Earl T. Smith famously said, “Senator, let me explain to you that the United States, until the advent of Castro, was so overwhelmingly influential in Cuba that the American Ambassador was the second most important man in Cuba; sometimes even more important than the President.”
I don’t think it’s surprising that a small island country that has been handed off between global superpowers has a citizenry engaged in the political process. Internet access is increasing (for the wealthy and privileged), an international music festival is being planned for the first time in Havana to increase tourism and cultural exchange, and visits from high-ranking members of the US government like the Secretary of Commerce and Secretary of Transportation have occurred or will occur in the next few months. President Obama is planning to visit this spring, which would make him the first sitting president to visit the island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Progress is slow and contradictory; some reports say the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs takes months to respond to American diplomatic communications.
What you learn living in another country is more valuable than any academic study. The closeness I felt with Cubans as they shared their language, opinions, interests, distastes, distrusts, fears, creativity, and ideas for their future was powerful.
This post is mostly a collection of thoughts and connections regarding the political climate in Cuba and the US; it is far from complete and amounts to a very rudimentary analysis of a complex and nuanced situation. I encourage Professor Tomkiewicz’s readers to follow Cuban-US relations closely, as they will continue to evolve extensively over the next decade.