The Great Cuba Debate:

By Holly Ackerman | 1997-05-01 12:00:00

I want to thank the editor of Peace Magazine for the opportunity to reply to 12 letters received in response to my recent articles on Cuba. Smith and Valleau, Joseph, Lorch, Simpson and Lydiard all wrote on one or more of the same three themes. (1) Since 1959, the Cuban government has greatly improved the distribution of health and education benefits on the island. (2) There are worse human rights violators in the world than Cuba. (3) The United States has pursued a wrong-headed Cuba policy of embargo, CIA plots and infringement on traditional international standards of trade and sovereignty. I have no quarrel with any of these general points.

I part company with this group, however, when they reason that Cuba should be above criticism because of these factors or that I am required to write about them. My articles dealt with cultural patterns, changes in exile and with Helms-Burton and the Cuban response-not with the Cuban social welfare system. The human rights issue, which they minimize or reject, is small and unimportant only so long as you are not the one being jailed for your thoughts, robbed of a means to subsist, and tormented. There is no political or social issue for which we rank the cases and proceed from top to bottom. Those who know about human rights abuses in Cuba advocate for the victims. Indeed, a group as prestigious as Amnesty International recently threw its weight behind deploring Cuba's violations by giving a Cuban activist, Eduardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, its highest award. It isn't necessary to begin appeals for Cuban prisoners by saying that there are more of them in Peru.

I am also aware that some (but not all) of these authors are among a small group who tried to prevent the publication of my second article, harassing and insulting the editor, and even threatening to block Peace Magazine's main source of funding. This is the same slope toward totalitarianism that the Cuban leadership slid down in reasoning that the U.S. threat and a sense of leftist solidarity should permit them to banish rights of popular assembly, press, dissent and travel without criticism. Such Stalinist tactics are common in Havana but they surprise me in Toronto. Metta Spencer is to be congratulated for withstanding this pressure and for fostering open debate.

There is a significant error in fact in the letter from Smith and Valleau, who argue that the Cuban government met international legal standards in regard to the taking and settlement of property owned by non-Cuban nationals and that the U.S. refused to accept these standards. They cite U.N. resolutions against the U.S. embargo and Cuban Act 851 of 1960 as legal authority for their claim. They are misinformed.

The terms "intervention, nationalization, expropriation, and confiscation" have specific meanings under international law. Nationalization is a process by which property is taken by the state without a prior agreement on compensation to the owners but with the intent to make prompt, adequate, and effective compensation to all owners. Cuba did pass a nationalization law that met legal standards to seize the properties but then failed to meet any reasonable standard of settlement. The U.N. does not endorse the Cuban handling of seized property.

When a state nationalizes and then discriminates among owners, making selective settlement primarily for purposes of promoting its own solvency and trade, it is in violation of international norms and standards. This is the pattern of Cuban settlement and it has been declared so in U.S., Latin American, and European rulings. The first Cuban settlement was with Switzerland and was negotiated to obtain banking privileges. Each settlement, in turn, has had an immediate and related negotiation regarding benefits for Cuban trade or finance. Some states recently settled for pennies on the dollar-not from altruism but because of lucrative trading arrangements. Ironically, their ability to negotiate such favorable terms results from the U.S. embargo.

Smith and Valleau are also wrong about the terms offered U.S. owners. They were offered bonds that were to be paid off from a fund of money derived from an increase in the size and an improvement in the terms of the U.S. sugar quota. This was offered when the quota was being reduced and was clearly going to be abandoned. This sham offering fails to meet a reasonable test of the concept of effective payment. No sane owner would accept such a deal and no one did.

In the initial post-1959 expropriations of agricultural lands, some Cuban nationals did accept bonds. They were never paid and some were never even issued bond certificates. By 1968, the Cuban government gave up all pretense of making compensation to Cuban nationals and confiscated all the remaining small businesses in one clean sweep.

Finally, Cuba did not intend to meet any existing standard of compensation. During the 1980s Fidel Castro presented the debt renegade status of Cuba as a hemispheric strategy for toppling the international system of banking and finance. His plan was for Third World states to refuse payment of all foreign debt and to confiscate important foreign owned assets as a means to collapse the banking system and collectively negotiate new terms for commodity payments, international loans, etc. It would have worked if even three or four major nations had joined Cuba. During this period, Castro bragged about having intentionally done the U.S. owners out of their property and of intending to do the entire system out of a lot more.

A second group of letters raises more nuanced and well-reasoned objections to my articles. I share Don Willmott's concern for methodological rigor. In my recent research on Cuban rafters, I devote an entire chapter to these issues and am familiar with the latest methods for collecting and interpreting this sort of data, and with its limits and problems. My interviews and surveys of refugees were designed with this in mind.

However, when Willmott suggests that my citizenship and my research findings preclude an ability to accurately perceive Cuban reality, either in exile or on the island, he takes the kind of cheap shot that inflames ethnic conflicts everywhere and has no place in peacemaking. I suspect he, like Smith and Valleau, has disqualified me because I disagree with him, not because of my citizenship. The single largest impediment to knowing the collective thoughts and preferences of the Cuban people on the island is the lack of any democratic means of expression, combined with the continued use of neighborhood thought police. None of us, of whatever national origin, can move past speculation on the issue of relative support for the Castro regime until the Cuban people are allowed a political choice. I resist Dr. Willmott's notion that I might as well turn out the light and go home because I was born in the U.S.

John Kirk makes a series of well-argued points and I disagree with him only slightly and on just two issues. He distorts what I am saying about change in Miami. I made no claim to "sweeping democratic changes" nor do I claim that they are permanent or well consolidated changes. As I said, the changes have been gradual but are significant for the prevention of violence and the promotion of national reconciliation. Misperception and stereotyping of adversaries is a key ingredient in the exacerbation of conflict within divided nations. In the case of Cuba, mutual misperception and mutual stereotyping between the exile and the island have been pronounced. Keeping current with changes on both sides is vital to those who want to promote reconciliation.

Dr. Kirk points out that Ninoska Perez has not changed. I agree. But others have. Ramón Saul Sánchez (a former member of Omega-7 who served eight years in a U.S. prison for attempting to assassinate Fidel Castro in N.Y.C.) has disavowed violent activity and has become a force for nonviolent action, bringing hundreds of followers with him and attracting hundreds more who had been politically removed. Mujer Cubana, a group that avoided political activity when violence was more pronounced, has drawn hundreds of Cuban women into nonviolent activism. An alliance of young Cubans has formed to encourage political participation by second generation Cuban-Americans. There are others. My point is, transition is occurring and should be noted. The emerging groups are in touch with the need for dialogue, recognition that people on the island must chose their own destinies, concern for the well-being of friends and relatives in Cuba, and direct knowledge of the harm that armed struggle would cause. To ignore or stereotype these groups feeds the potential for negative outcomes and strengthens hardliners on both sides.

Finally, saying that I need to distance myself from the "Miami perspective" argues against scholarly research on a significant and politically relevant portion of the Cuban nation. Having studied and worked in Coral Gables, I am no more an open and uncritical channel of some imaginary, unitary Miami view than is Dr. Kirk an uncritical observer of the Canadian corporations dealing in Cuba for whom he is a paid consultant.

The unspoken issue that underlies many of these letters is coming to terms with the failure of socialism. It is painful to face, particularly for those who have a rigorous ideological orientation. Widening the scope of solutions and participants in dialogue is fundamental. I hope Peace Magazine will continue to provide a forum for this process.

Holly Ackerman is a professor of social work and Latin American studies at Tulane University, New Orleans. She previously lived and worked in southern Florida.

Peace Magazine May-June 1997

Peace Magazine May-June 1997, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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