Salim Lamrani interviewed Miguel Barnet for The Huffington Post. For the complete report follow the link below.
Salim Lamrani: Miguel Barnet, more than a half of century after the triumph of the Revolution of 1959, Cuba is at a crossroad. Could you tell us something about the process of updating the economic model launched by President Raul Castro in 2010? What are its root causes and prospects?
Miguel Barnet: In the beginning we were a bit too dogmatic in our conception of socialism. We feared the emergence of a middle class, rich and ostentatious. We needed to control the means of production and the relations of production. All of this is quite legitimate, but it is time to find alternative routes – always socialist – perhaps usufruct, as the country will never sell its land and never lose control of its strategic resources. It is unthinkable that the Cuban Revolution might sell its land at auction. This is something sacred for all Cubans. But I think there has been some stagnation in our society and we are in the process of addressing this problem. I am happy about this turn of events because we need to adapt to the pace of our times. The correlation of forces is different today. While there is no more Cold War, there is a lukewarm war with the United States that prevents us from developing as we would like.
So updating the economic model is truly a breakthrough for all Cubans. From a theoretical point of view, the lineamientos (guidelines) have been very well designed, notably by our number one economist, Marino Murillo. I participated in the Party Conference, especially in the meetings that concerned culture. The challenge, however, lies in the implementation of the new economic regulations, but I think we are on the right path.
SL: Could you give us a concrete example?
MB: Certain enterprises need to change their structure. For example, the food industry must go through a radical change because it is not possible that the Revolution, which has been so generous with regard to education, public health, culture and social security, should take charge of restaurants, bars and other food outlets. I have always defended the existence of private family restaurants, known as paladars in Cuba. I am convinced that this type of secondary economy should not be controlled by the state. The State may reserve to itself the right to administer certain iconic businesses, whether historic hotels or restaurants, because they are part of the national heritage. But with regard to small enterprises, they should be managed by well-intentioned people who simply rent a space, buy products and pay taxes.
In order to allow this to happen, we needed to create a wholesale market [something that in fact occurred on December 20, 2013]. We recognize that the investment is considerable. Although this is truly the key point of our new business model, it is at the same time our Achilles heel. Still, it is essential to our development. As Raúl Castro said, we follow this path “without haste, but without pause” (sin prisa pero sin pausa). Our reforms are quite positive and respond to the idea of building a “socialism of the twenty-first century”. We often speak of cultural, ethnic or sexual diversity. But economic diversity is important as well. It is primordial that all Cubans come to grips with these economic issues with seriousness, diligence and discipline so that they may become the principal actors within this renewal.
We are not a rich country. We are basically an agricultural country. At the triumph of the Revolution we were pretentious enough to try to become an industrialized nation. Our ambition was not crowned with success, but we nevertheless managed to develop world class medical, pharmaceutical and biotechnological industries. All of this has been achieved despite the very real obstacles that the United States economic blockade imposes upon us; something that since 1960 has cost us hundreds of billions of dollars.
SL: What about culture?
MB: The new Cuban business model also relates directly to the spiritual life of the people, to our culture. This is an absolute necessity and something of primordial important if we are to ensure the development of the nation. It is undeniable that spiritual values have strengthened the base of the Cuban Revolution.
Culture must always be subsidized by the state. Libraries, books, music, art education, film, must all be state subsidized because they promote the cultural policies of the nation. We can accept contradictions in economic policies, but surely not in cultural policies.
Recall that our illustrious personages, our national heroes, were not only great warriors, great politicians, but also men and women of culture. José Martí, our national poet, united two generations: that of 1868 and that of 1895. These were generations that witnessed two terrible fratricidal wars that eventually led to independence. Fidel Castro, the historic leader of the Revolution, is a man of great culture, a thinker of the first order, who has helped to build a new Latin America, one that is emancipated and unequivocally independent.
In terms of culture, it is imperative not to submit to economic considerations. Culture does not have to be profit-making. Its role is much higher. Whenever economic considerations are introduced into the cultural arena, we fall into the trap of mass culture, the culture of banality, the culture of mediocrity, of violence, of pornography, etc. We must pay close attention to that. In order to ensure that their output may be of excellent quality, theaters and cinemas should enjoy the support of the state. We have always defended this principle. If we do not compromise on this fundamental principle, we are saved. However, if culture falls into the hands of private entrepreneurs, it will be permanently lost. This must be avoided at all cost and, in fact, the new model of society that we propose preserves the cultural sector and its core values.
SL: Some stress that the space reserved for critical debate in Cuba is rather limited. How do you analyze it?
MB: I invite these critics to attend meetings where profound discussions occur. For example, the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) is a laboratory for debate, a forum where all viewpoints are represented. There is a real diversity of opinion within the UNEAC. We organize panel discussions continually throughout the year. Our National Assembly is a hotbed of debate each time it meets. Sometimes we are critical, other times, hypercritical, but we never fall into the trap of indifference or indolence.
All Cuban cultural centers are open to critical debate and reserve space for it. Catauro, the journal that I lead, is one example among others. We have covered the most controversial issues.
SL: For example?
MB: We have addressed such issues as poverty, marginal neighborhoods, internal migration, sexuality and racism. We have even discussed raising livestock and the sugar industry, which has been dismantled. All of these topics are discussed without any taboos, despite their sensitive nature. And I am speaking only of our publication.
Also take the journal Temas, which is extraordinarily rich and organizes debates every Thursday. There are also regular debates at the National Library and, indeed, all across the country.
Why are we debating so much? The role of artists and intellectuals is to create and reflection is fundamental if we are to accomplish our function. Debate is good, healthy and legitimate, whether the themes it treats are cultural or political. We want to build a more democratic socialism, one that is more open, more participatory, and in order to do this debate is essential.
I am a supporter of debate. My role as president of the UNEAC and president of the Fernando Ortiz Foundation is to stimulate debate and the exchange of ideas.
SL: The Fernando Ortiz Foundation was one of the first institutions to address the theme of race in Cuba.
MB: We initiated one of the first debates on this subject in Cuba, under the title of “integration and racism.” It is inconceivable that racial prejudice might exist within socialism and discrimination based on race even more so.
In terms of sexuality and sexual diversity, Mariela Castro’s organization, CINESEX, is doing a great job. Cuba is one of the most advanced countries in terms of gender equality. No one in Cuba need be ashamed of being gay any longer.
SL: Different types of prejudice persist nonetheless.
MB: There are still lingering prejudices toward sexual diversity, just as unfortunately some racist prejudices persist. But we cannot say that in Cuba there is racial discrimination. I experienced racism and I have dedicated much of my life to combating it, and not just in my poetry, El Cimarron, or my writings. I have dedicated my life to it and I have thoroughly studied the issue. I can tell you that it is wrong to say that in Cuba there is racism.
It is true that there is still a residue of racial prejudice that has not been eliminated by the measures taken since 1959. The first and fiercest opponent of racism was Fidel Castro who, after the triumph of revolution took the first concrete steps toward eliminating it by opening the beaches, social clubs and schools to all Cubans. Blacks and mulattos did not have access to these facilities before 1959. There were private beaches for whites in Cuba. I remember this perfectly well. There were virtually no black doctors. Whites had their own clubs where blacks were excluded. Blacks had to found their own clubs, one of which was the famous Club Atenas, where Fernando Ortiz gave keynote lectures. There was a policy of racial segregation. That was Cuban reality before the Revolution!
The Revolution was not made for blacks or for whites, but for the humble and without doubt, among the most humble was the black population. There was no real integration such as we have now. Today, the President of the Cuban Parliament, Esteban Lazo, is black. Mercedes López Acea Lázara, the secretary of the Cuban Communist Party in the province of Havana, the largest province in the country, is a black woman. She is also Vice President of the State Council.
SL: Do you think that the criticism levied on the subject of racism is overstated?
MB: I must admit that it hurts me to hear it said that there is heightened racism in Cuba, because it is simply not the truth. I repeat, racial prejudices still persist and cannot be eliminated in the blink of an eye, because they are deeply rooted in the collective memory and the subjectivity of each of us. But, this problem can be solved through education, starting within the family itself, and then in primary school through university. The fight against racial prejudice is first of all a family responsibility, then that of the educational system. We must conduct a ceaseless struggle against this prejudice so that no one can be discriminated against because of the color of his or her skin.
Blacks have made an extraordinary contribution to Cuban culture. Fernando Ortiz was my master. There is no better person than him to promote Cuba’s African heritage in its purest and most legitimate dimension. I am a disciple and servant of his work. Ortiz was white, yet he fought the fierce and criminal racism of his era.
SL: What are the measures taken against discrimination in the cultural world?
MB: I think that discrimination and prejudice of any kind, whether directed at blacks, women or homosexuals, is culturally atavistic. We must always be ashamed of it and fight it with all of our strength. In order to do this within the UNEAC we have created the José Antonio Aponte Commission against discrimination and racism. Aponte was a black man of great prestige. He was a draftsman and a carpenter who, following the example of Bolivar, organized the slave uprising of 1812. Along with his comrades in arms he was decapitated and his head paraded through Havana for having dared to challenge the Spanish empire.
There are also people who exploit the racial issue. This is certainly a part of the ideological war waged against us by the United States. In the United States, there is still racial compartmentalization, even if there are black figures in politics, in the cultural sector or in sport. There is still segregation that separates whites from blacks. In Cuba, we will never create exclusively black organizations, for example. This would only exacerbate racism and discrimination. José Martí said that we are all Cubans, regardless of the color of our skin. Being Cuban is far more important that being white, black or mulatto, especially in a revolutionary process like ours, a socialist process where no discrimination whatsoever should exist. One should reflect deeply on these issues and not sow the seeds of discord and division among Cubans.
SL: Do dissidents have the opportunity to speak out in Cuba?
MB: All Cubans are free to express themselves. Don’t our dissidents have their own blogs? Are they not constantly active on the Internet? Are they not granted more space in the Western press than me, even though I am the president of UNEAC, even though my books are translated into more than twenty languages, even though my book Biografía de un cimarrón is available internationally in 70 different editions? I invite you to compare the media space granted Cuban dissidents in the international press with that accorded to all members of the UNEAC, the group that represents the world of culture, knowledge and creation in Cuba. Opponents are ten, twenty, thirty times, more present than we are in the Western press. They are absolutely everywhere. They express themselves freely and travel around the world, all expenses paid, on tours worthy of heads of state. I will mention no one, but you know who I mean. Just read the press. If tomorrow I attempt to publish an article in the New York Times, this will be a very difficult task. However, some of our opponents publish regularly in newspapers around the world.
SL: Do you think that there is bias in the media?
MB: In the 1980s, when my books were published in Spain by the Alfaguara publishing house, I was constantly asked for comments by the press. Now look at what has happened to a newspaper like El País, which reserves its pages to dissidents and states that whoever chooses to live in Cuba is either a coward, a sheep, or in error. They claim that those who support the Cuban Revolution – and this includes me – are either stupid or opportunistic. Now I do not think that Nicolás Guillén, Alejo Carpentier or Leonardo Padura are either cowards, sheep, or opportunists. On the contrary, I am very proud to support the Cuban Revolution, which was radical at the outset. I am very proud to have been born in Cuba.
SL: Do you support criticism, even that emanating from sectors of the opposition?
MB: I respect diversity of opinion and I believe that an intelligent and serious opposition is necessary to the dynamics of the revolutionary process, because criticism is always constructive. On the other hand, I have no respect for people who are financed by a foreign power, who receive money from the diplomatic representatives of the United States here in Havana for the purpose of establishing a program of subversion and who then travel around the world claiming that they are prosecuted and discriminated against in Cuba. These remarks of mine are hardly controversial. All of this information is public and publicly recognized by the government of the United States. Washington admits that it finances the Cuban opposition for purposes of “regime change.” This program is enshrined in such legislation as the Torricelli Act of 1992, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 or the reports of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba in 2004 and 2006. Again, this is all public and known to all.
SL: You say that opponents can express themselves freely. Yet they are not present in the National Assembly.
MB: To be present in Parliament, you must earn the trust of voters. Nothing prevents these dissidents from standing as candidates. Why do they not do so? Because they have no popular base. The Cuban people reject those who are in the pay of a foreign nation. Our independence cost us dearly and a lot of blood has been shed to achieve it. Many honest Cubans have sacrificed for it, and are worthy of the greatest of all virtues: that of “feeling useful”, as José Martí said. You cannot get into the National Assembly by spinning lies or by treachery. Scoundrels do not have a place there. You cannot profit for your own sake from the contradictions of the revolution.
I respect critical dissent that helps to create, to construct and to build for a better future. I have great respect for those who are trying to build a more democratic and participatory socialism. I have no respect for those who want the restoration of capitalism in Cuba. We do not want or need a consumer society.
SL: It is often said that Cuba is still led by the historic generation that made the revolution and the country is thus dominated by a “gerontocracy.”
MB: It is always useful to compare the rhetoric, the dominant discourse, with factual reality. I invite the people who say this to go to Cuba and see the average age of the secretaries of the Communist Party in each of the five provinces of the country. It is less than 50. In the National Assembly, the average age is 48, even taking into account that there are among these deputies elected members of the historic generation who are now more than 80 years old. This means that there are many young members. There are also many women MPs, almost half.
I believe in the generation that will take over from the historic generation. I believe in this kind of democracy, in a participatory democracy. The reform project we talked about was discussed everywhere. Issues that concern me, particularly culture and society, ware debated in my neighborhood, in the Fernando Ortiz Foundation, in UNEAC and at the National Assembly. I say – and these are measured comments – that there is more democracy in Cuba than in the United States and in many Western countries. Some will accuse me of exaggerating, but I am convinced of this. It does not mean of course that we have created a perfect society, far from it. We have our problems, our shortcomings and our contradictions, all of which we are trying to resolve. But we want to resolve them by ourselves, without foreign interference.
SL: You believe that Cuban society is more democratic than that of the United States?
MB: Absolutely. Here, there are no children in the streets, abandoned to their fate. There are no older people without the security of a social support network. It is true that salaries are low, but the most vulnerable are not left to fend for themselves as is the case in most of the countries that attempt to teach us lessons.
SL: What is the importance of culture for Cuba?
MB: Let me tell you a story. Following the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, we experienced an economic crisis such as we had never seen before. We found ourselves alone, abandoned by all, delivered to our fate. There was nothing to eat in the country. We all suffered from hunger. At a meeting of the UNEAC, amidst all of these difficulties and shortages, Fidel Castro said: “The first thing that must be saved is culture.” He knew perfectly well that culture would safeguard the values required for sustainability. Culture strengthens you in every battle, especially in a battle like ours, an endless struggle against a United States that refuses to accept a sovereign Cuba.
SL: In the West, in Europe and the United States, whenever one mentions Cuba, the issue of human rights immediately arises. What do you say to those who stigmatize Cuba on this subject?
MB: I would say there is no freedom without justice and without social equality. The most important right is the right to life. Life without health, without education is a life without culture, a life that is not worth living. I will say no more.
SL: How is Fidel Castro and how does he use his time?
MB: I think Fidel Castro is in good health given the circumstances. He dedicates his time to writing, and I believe that his thoughts have great political depth. The different volumes he has published constitute a master class for politicians and intellectuals. I consider myself a Marxist, and I am in favor of dialectical and historical materialism, because without class struggle, it is impossible to interpret history. I became a revolutionary through the speeches and actions of Fidel Castro. I was prepared to go to live in the United States, to work there at a university, but finally, I stayed. I had my contradictions from the beginning. I have a poem entitled “Revolution” that says: “Entre tú y yo hay un montón de contradicciones que se juntan para hacer de mí el sobresaltado que se humedece la frente y te edifica” [Between you and me many contradictions come together to make of me the exalted one who with dampened brow enlightens you.] I do not deny my own contradictions and we have all lived in the midst of these contradictions. But for my part, they have strengthened and enriched me.
Fidel is a man who is very attached to people. I remember his speech on climate change in 1991 in Brazil, and the dangers it represents for us. What insight! He was ahead of his time. We are in the process of destroying our planet. At a recent meeting I had with him, I was deeply affected by his interest in nature and ecology. He has studied both thoroughly and he cares deeply about the future of the human race. He is a great humanist. Whenever I have the privilege of being with him, I like to listen to him because he is a moral giant. That is why another giant, Chávez, considered Fidel to be a father figure and followed his example when he achieved integration of the Americas through the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas), thereby placing Latin America on the highest of pedestals. Thanks to the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro, Latin America has changed its destiny. Fidel Castro is one of the greats of this continent, someone who occupies a place alongside Bolívar and Martí. The only difference is that he is alive. What a privilege to live in the era of Fidel Castro!
SL: How do you explain the presence of Raúl Castro in power? Some speak of nepotism.
MB: Raúl Castro is not President of Cuba because of his relationship to his brother, Fidel Castro, but rather because his presidency has historical legitimacy and also because he was elected. Raúl I know because I frequently encounter him in the National Assembly or at meetings of the Party Committee. If Fidel’s Cuba, with all its complexities and problems, is tattooed on his body and on his heart, it is exactly the same for Raúl Castro. He is absolutely aware of all of the country’s problems, whether societal or economic. Raúl deserves all possible accolades. Do you know what Raúl’s middle name is?
MB: His full name is Raúl Modesto. I think that middle name suits him very well, because he has been modest throughout the revolutionary process. He demonstrates every day that he deserves his position. He is very close to Fidel, as he has been throughout his life, whether at the Moncada, in the Sierra Maestra or after the triumph of the Revolution.
SL: Let’s talk about relations with the United States. Is Cuba willing to normalize relations with Washington?
MB: Cuba is ready and prepared for normalization. The Cuban people have a political consciousness that has been developed through our experiences. We have had many strikes against us for half a century and we have suffered many disappointments. Our relationship with the United States has been complex since the days of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The United States had always been intent upon seizing Cuba and the entire continent. When they realized that this was impossible because Latin America had produced such men as Miranda and Bolivar, they fell back on a more modest goal, that of seizing Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.
But Cuba had its own warriors capable of making the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. Our heroes burned their own homes and properties and took up arms against Spain. But the United States destroyed our dream of independence with its intervention in 1898 and the imposition of the Platt Amendment (on the Cuban constitution), actions that allowed them to dominate us. Moreover, the criminal blockade imposed on us by Washington for half a century now is a way of subjecting us to its insatiable desire for domination. It is a way of imposing perpetual obstacles to our economic development. But it is also a way for them to feel present in Cuba, because the United States has never accepted having lost control of our country in 1959. They want to impose their hegemonic power, they want to strangle us.
Cuba has always been disposed to dialogue and negotiation. As people we are close to each other, we are brothers. U.S. culture has always had a great influence in Cuba. Jazz was born in the United States, but it is also Caribbean. Jazz is a process of transculturation and a hybridization of Caribbean rhythms and genres. We have contributed to the development of Latin jazz. Thanks to these influences, we never fell into the trap of schematism, or into that horrid thing called socialist realism.
The American people and particularly its artists have a lot of respect for us, but the U.S. government does not respect the dignity of the Cuban people. Our people have been defiled and humiliated by the interventions of the United States throughout our history. Cuban separatists who had fought for more than 30 years against the Spaniards were prevented from entering Santiago de Cuba by the U.S. Army in 1898. This affront will be forever etched in the memory of our people.
SL: Let’s talk now about the case of the five Cuban agents imprisoned in the United States since 1998 for infiltrating violent Cuban exile groups. One of them, René González, was released in October 2011 after having served his sentence. A second, Fernando González, was also released in February 2014. Do you think a political solution can be found in this case?
MB: The Five, as we call them here in Cuba, are very dear to the Cuban cause. They are held close to the hearts of more than 11 million Cubans. We have repeatedly called for their release because they are innocent. They were sentenced for fighting against terrorism, for preventing attacks against our country. I would remind you that since the triumph of the Revolution, 3,478 Cubans have died because of terrorist attacks carried out by the CIA and Cuban exiles. I hope that a political solution will be found quickly.
SL: Is Cuba willing to make a humanitarian gesture in the case of Alan Gross, a U.S. State Department employee who has been jailed in Havana since 2009 and is serving a 15-year sentence in prison for providing material support to the opposition?
MB: I cannot answer this question because it is not my role to do so. But, from a personal point of view — and this is only my opinion – that were the United States to liberate the Cuban Five, Alan Gross would return home immediately. I speak as Miguel Barnet, not on behalf of the nation.
SL: What kind of relationship does Cuba want with the United States?
MB: We want a relationship with the United States, but on equal terms, a relationship of reciprocity and non-interference in internal affairs. Our independence has required many sacrifices of us. Many good and noble women and men have lost their lives for the freedom of our country. We are not therefore disposed to negotiating our sovereignty. We do not want relations based on submission, asymmetry or inequality. We wish to live with dignity and we are not ready to give it up.
The United States is unable to understand our idiosyncrasies. I had the privilege of going to the Institute for International Relations and I remember my meeting in New York with William Rogers, who had served as Secretary of State under Nixon, that is to say, he has been their minister of foreign affairs. We hit it off well and he invited me to lunch. He asked me where I had learned to speak English. I told him that I had studied the language in Cuba, but that I had also lived in the United States. “Then why do you live in Cuba?” he asked. “For the same reason that leads you to live in the United States, because I was born in Cuba,” I replied. “But are there not too many problems there?” he insisted. “No more than here. You know this better than me because you were Secretary of State. And this is not to mention the problems you have created worldwide,” I retorted. I then asked why successive U.S. administrations had failed to understand the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro, while we had only wanted normal relations. You know what he said?
SL: What did he say?
MB: He told me verbatim: “It is because we are used to dealing with losers and Fidel Castro is a winner.” I thanked him and I think that this was the deepest, most profound political reply that I have ever received concerning the conflict between Cuba and the United States.
SL: How do you see Cuba’s future?
MB: I do not have a crystal ball, but I see the future of Cuba as I would like it to be, with young people making the necessary changes and building a more egalitarian and democratic socialism. I strongly believe in the youth who, for the most part, are revolutionary. You need only give them the opportunity and the space and they will create their own way. I’ve always been very optimistic, despite all the blows that life has dealt us, and I am happy to live in Cuba.
For the original report go to http://www.huffingtonpost.com/salim-lamrani/a-conversation-with-migue_b_5532818.html