Published Sunday, September 29, 1996, in the Miami Herald.

20 QUESTIONS ABOUT CUBA

Carlos Alberto Montaner, born in Havana in 1943, left Cuba in 1961, served in the U.S. Army, earned a master's degree in Spanish and Latin American literature from the University of Miami and then taught at Interamerican University in San Juan, Puerto Rico. An author of 13 books and a weekly newspaper column, Montaner, who lives in Madrid, is founder and president of the Cuban Liberal Union. His article is excerpted from his book, Cuba: The Country of 13 Million Hostages, published this year by the Liberal International in London.

1. What was Cuba really like immediately before the revolution?

On the political front it was a corrupt dictatorship repudiated by the majority of the population. On March 10, 1952, Gen. Fulgencio Batista led a military coup that overthrew Carlos Prio Socarras, the constitutional president. The resulting illegitimate government, which perpetrated numerous crimes, lasted until the small hours of Jan. 1, 1959, when Castro took over from Batista and became Cuba's ``strong man.'' On the economic scene the situation was much more promising. After 1940 the country went through a period of growth that placed it (along with Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Puerto Rico) among Latin America's most developed countries. Ginsburg's Atlas of the World Economy, published at the time, gave Cuba a 22nd-place ranking among 122 nations examined. The per-capita income of Cubans in 1953 was similar to that of the Italians. As for social order, the picture was also positive. Eighty percent of the population was literate -- very high for the period -- and health indicators were comparable with those of a developed country. The best proof of living conditions in Cuba at the time is the fact that the island received a net of European immigrants. Spaniards and -- to a lesser degree -- Italians often emigrated to the island in search of a better life. In 1959 the Cuban embassy's archives in Rome had 11,000 applications from Italian peasants and workers willing to move to Cuba.

2. Was the island an American brothel?

It was neither a brothel nor a gambling dive. There were half a dozen casinos in Havana and the country had a very low incidence of venereal disease. This demonstrates that it could not have been anybody's brothel. Nevertheless, like any old and busy seaport, the capital had its ``red light district'' similar to (although smaller than) the one in Barcelona. American tourism, on the other hand, tended to be a family affair. Whereas prostitution was a phenomenon similar to that found in all Latin American societies, with most of the ``clients'' Cubans themselves. Curiously -- as we are told by correspondents and travelers -- today the island has in fact become a grand brothel for foreigners who participate (like in Thailand) in sexual tourism, taking advantage of the country's destitution.

3. To what extent did the United States control the country's economy?

Up to 14 percent of investments, mainly in sugar, mining, communications and finance, were in American hands. Nevertheless, from the '30s onward the influence of American capital tended to fall in favor of local capital. During that period some 50 sugar mills changed from American to Cuban hands and by 1958 the latter controlled two-thirds of the industry. Cubans achieved a 61 percent stake in private banking at the time, up from hardly 23 percent in 1939.

4. Did the strong American opposition to the revolution's reforms force Castro to side with the U.S.S.R. and the Communists?

This is not what Castro says. What he usually explains -- he did so before Spanish television cameras -- is that he had been a Marxist-Leninist since his days in the Sierra Maestra fighting Batista but that ``he didn't admit it, so as not to frighten the Cuban people.'' According to Castro, U.S. hostility accelerated the confrontation that was inevitable within the context of the Cold War.

5. What was the cause of the American embargo against Castro's government?

It was due to the confiscation of American property in the early '60s without compensation. The estimated value of these confiscations was $800 million. There can be no doubt that the embargo was a political measure aimed at weakening Castro's regime.

6. What is involved in the American embargo?

In essence it is an executive order forbidding U.S. companies and subsidiaries to trade with Cuba and not allowing citizens to spend money on the island without U.S. Treasury Department authorization. There are other less important provisions, such as the prohibition on ships docking at American ports within six months of having anchored at a Cuban port.

7. Does the American embargo substantially affect Cuba?

Not in the way that is popularly perceived. Cuba can in fact buy any American product it needs. This can be corroborated by any tourist who visits a ``diploshop'' or a good hotel. Cuba usually buys in Panama, Venezuela, Canada, Colombia or the Dominican Republic. And then again, nearly every other country trades freely with Cuba. Cuba's main Western trading partners are precisely some of Washington's closest allies: Canada, Spain, France, Venezuela, etc. There is no product Cuba cannot buy abroad (provided it has the foreign currency to pay for it), nor is there any Cuban export product that cannot find its way into international markets (provided it is of good quality and attractively priced). The U.S. embargo affected Cuba in the '60s because the country's industrial machinery had come from the United States. In the '70s Castro proclaimed the total defeat of imperialism as far as the embargo was concerned when in 1973 the entire stock of industrial vehicles was of Eastern bloc manufacture.

8. If the embargo does not affect Castro, why doesn't Washington lift it? In the end, Cuba is no more than a small Caribbean country that doesn't pose a threat to the United States.

In essence, the U.S. embargo is not lifted because the Cuban-American community (2 million if we count exiles and their descendants) mainly living in South Florida and New Jersey is opposed to such a measure. And neither of the two main political parties (Republicans or Democrats) are willing to risk offending the Cuban vote. The embargo is thus kept in place by inertia. The policy has been in place since the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations and leaders at the White House or Capitol Hill view more risk in changing it than in keeping it. On the other hand, Cuba is not a small and insignificant Caribbean island. It is as big as Austria and Switzerland combined and it did maintain an army of thousands of soldiers in Africa for more than 15 years.

9. If it isn't because of the American embargo, why is hunger so rife in the country?

For two reasons. First, the disappearance of the Soviet subsidy. The countries of the Eastern bloc -- especially the Soviet Union -- bought sugar at inflated prices and sold oil to Cuba on credit or at unrealistically low prices. They even gave the island three million tons of crude oil free of charge annually that Cuba could re-export. That subsidy was calculated at more than $5 billion per year, according to figures provided by historian Irina Zorina of the Russian Academy of Science. The second reason is the inefficient system of production, aggravated by the dependence and distortions created by trade with the U.S.S.R. at highly advantageous conditions for Cuba. This explains why the country imported more than half the food it consumed and gradually reduced the volume of trade with the West. In 1970 trade between Cuba and Eastern Europe represented 60 percent of the island's foreign trade. In 1991 it had reached 85 percent. At market prices Cuba's exports hardly reach $1.7 billion, while it must import goods worth more than $8 billion. Apart from this, the country (which hasn't met its foreign debt obligations since 1986) owes some $9 billion to the West and hardly anyone in the world is prepared to offer any fresh credit terms.

10. Nevertheless, Castro's government claims to have made great achievements in the fields of education and health.

And they are true . . . up to a point. It is true that today the country has an extensive network of schools and numerous health centers. Yet these are not a result of any increase in the country's wealth but rather because of the Soviet subsidy. The current problem is how to keep this structure intact while the country, with a population of 11 million, exports less than Costa Rica ($3.5 billion) and 60 percent of its industrial capacity is paralyzed due to lack of electric power, spare parts and raw materials.

11. But, in any case, Cuba is better than Haiti or other Third World nations

. . . Cuba is, in effect, better than Haiti but it should be compared with the countries it measured up against in 1958. For example, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica or Spain. Nearly 40 years after the revolution, Cuba is infinitely worse off than any of those countries. Puerto Rico, also a Caribbean island, received an enormous subsidy from a foreign power. But with only three million population, it exports 10 times what Cuba exports and in the last three decades it has changed from a sugar-exporting country into an industrialized nation.

12. Is there any way out of this economic crisis?

None . . . at least not until the country's system is changed. Isolated because of its political model, creditless, deep in debt, with no foreign currency reserves, without oil, the most reasonable prediction is that the country's economy will only worsen. It will produce less and less because it will have fewer and fewer resources to import and fewer of the raw materials needed for production.

13. In these circumstances, how does Castro hang on to power?

Because there's nobody left in the country who can rebel. The regime's capacity for repression is enormous. The political police number nearly 100,000 agents. The army has around 350,000. The Communist Party and civil servants total a million. Other paramilitary groups can stop any public demonstration of popular dissent. The most effective are the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and, more recently, the Rapid Reaction Brigades, mobs organized to frighten the population or to beat up dissidents in the streets or even inside their own homes.

14. Are there many political prisoners?

Tens of thousands if we include those who are sent to prison for attempting to escape by boat or those who are jailed for buying and selling food on the black market to survive. There are 3,000 if we only count as political prisoners those who have been sentenced for crimes against ``the stability of the State.'' In any case the country's total number of prisoners -- political and common -- has been estimated at a quarter of a million people. This figure is four times higher than the corresponding figure in Spain, although Spain has four times the population of Cuba.

15. Are people tortured in prison?

Of course. This is what Amnesty International, the U.N. Human Rights Commission, the Organization of American States and numerous other respected organizations assure us. It is what we are told by the victims themselves whenever they can speak about their experiences. Torture is not carried out using electric shocks but with other techniques learned from the KGB. When they are in detention it is quite common for the accused to be deprived of sleep. Another torture consists of confining the prisoner to a cell without any seat and with the floor covered in an inch of water while a strong draft of cold air keeps the prisoner frozen. The intention is to get them to confess without marking the body. The Havana detention center where most tortures take place is known as Villa Marista, and the ``technical'' director of this specialty is Col. Blanco Oropesa. Once the accused are sentenced and imprisoned, the beatings are frequent. When they are punished, it is not unusual to place the prisoners in a sort of coffin (they call them gavetas, the Spanish word for drawers) in which they cannot move. They are kept like that for weeks at a time. Predictably, the food leaves much to be desired to the point that deficiency diseases abound (beriberi, pellagra, scurvy).

16. Is it true that Castro's government was involved in drug trafficking?

No doubt about it. The connections with the drug trade were detailed in two recently published books, one by Pulitzer Prize-winner Andres Oppenheimer [of The Miami Herald], Castro's Final Hour, and The Law of the Privateer by Jorge Masetti, a former agent of the Cuban Ministry of the Interior. The connection between Castro's government and drug traffickers started during the '70s and it didn't end even with the execution of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa and Col. Antonio de la Guardia by a firing squad in a much-publicized 1989 trial.

17. Does Castro's government really have connections with overseas terrorists?

For many years Castro himself proclaimed ``the right of the revolution'' to participate in ``internationalist'' struggles. Links with nearly all existing or defunct Western terrorist and guerrilla groups dating as far back as the '60s spring from those comments. They include the Spanish ETA, the Salvadoran FLMN, the Uruguayan Tupamaros, the Chilean Miricos, etc. As recently as the summer of 1993, Castro refused to call on his Colombian comrades of the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (National Liberation Army) to surrender their weapons. There are numerous Latin American terrorists currently living in Cuba, along with Spaniards who have been mixed with international criminals. Among them, American money launderer and swindler Robert Vesco [who was recently sentenced to 13 years in prison for economic crimes by a Cuban court]. All of these groups were comfortably settled in Cuba for many years and they perpetrated numerous crimes alongside the Cuban intelligence and counterintelligence services, especially kidnappings and robberies of banks and financial institutions that would bring them many millions of dollars. Nevertheless, economic hardship and the end of the communist project in the world has meant that Castroism has been obliged to abandon international revolutionary violence, although loyalty to old comrades is maintained for those who know they have an extradition-proof refuge in the island.

18. What is the true level of Castro's popularity?

Although there is no doubt that we are dealing with a charismatic leader, it is difficult for a ruler to maintain his popularity after over three and a half decades of dictatorship and a prolonged decline in citizens' living standards. There are no people on Earth who would continue to support a government under these circumstances. Nevertheless, the acid test of the level of rejection can only be measured when free and fair multi-party elections are held.

19. But they do have some kind of elections in Cuba and don't the results reflect support for Castro?

They are single-party elections in which the opposition is totally intimidated. When some independent people have tried to participate as candidates they were beaten or threatened. It happened, for example, to known dissidents Oswaldo Paya and Elizardo Sanchez.

20. How will Castroism end?

Nobody can be sure of the how, but it does seem that the regime, after proclaiming on numerous occasions between 1989 and 1992 that ``the island will sink into the sea before abandoning Marxist-Leninism,'' is willing to forget the communist model and substitute it with a strange combination of capitalism and communism, in which the Cubans living on the island are the only ones who can never become the owners of the means of production. Nevertheless, the economic change that Castro's government is trying to promote does not include the necessary political reform. This is what is called the Chinese variation. In any case, the existence of Castroism is only explained within the context of the Cold War and it is certain that it will not be able to survive the end to that chapter of history.

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1996 The Miami Herald.