Letters: The Great Cuba Debate

Refugees an inadequate research resource

Last month's article by Holly Ackerman is not the kind of balanced assessment which can serve well as a basis for peacemaking.

During the '50s and '60s, I was a member of the (U.S.) Social Science Research Council's Committee on Contemporary China. We had a long series of mini-conferences where we not only presented substantive papers but also had long discussions about research methodology: how does a person committed to truth get a fair picture of what's happening within a country when only a few favored outsiders can visit there and when a huge amount of information is given out by, or sought out from, the continuing stream of refugees?

Most of us concluded that it is impossible to get a balanced picture from refugees. We identified a variety of reasons why even well-meaning, tolerant, and observant refugees do not have or do not give a "whole truth" picture of the country they have fled; and often give a very distorted one.

Holly Ackerman's article convinced me that her heart is in the right place, favoring peaceful reconciliation. But her evidence does not take into account the nature of political asylum and the multiple motivations of refugees. Visitors to Cuba, she says, have been charmed by the people there, but it seems that she herself has been charmed by those who chose to leave. Of course they are nice, generous people. Most people are, especially toward those with whom they identify.

I am not saying that the stories of refugees are necessarily false or irrelevant. They are part of the picture. But what we really need to know is how widespread in Cuba are the experiences and attitudes reported by the refugees. Because of her nationality, her association with and sympathy for anti-Castro Cubans, and her own attitudes, I don't think Holly Ackerman would be in a position to find this out even on visits to Cuba.

Let's balance her view with another article, written by a well-informed and fair-minded person from a neutral country (Canada?) who has lived in Cuba for a considerable time.

Don Willmott, Toronto, ON

Article on Cuba Biased

In my opinion, both the style and the contents of Holly Ackerman's biased article did absolutely nothing to promote "middle ground" or further Cuban national dialogue. By using terms such as "clearly unworthy ancestors" and "worthy but ineffective ancestors" what was she trying to accomplish? Is the use of exploitative language helpful in getting people to communicate.

Who invented the Myths? Her friends in Florida? The supporting examples were very selective, and relevant statistics incomplete.

Informed readers know that in any war there are "good guys" and "bad guys" on both sides of the battlefield. Exalting the virtues of the U.S./Cubans in Florida and not giving a complete, balanced account (including documented subversive activities) destroys the author's credibility.

I was amazed and repulsed that Peace Magazine would publish such an inflammatory article. I thought Our Readers Write PEACE.

J. Lydiard, Vancouver, BC

Work with, not against, Cuba

Many readers must have been startled to find the editorial of Peace Magazine listing, among four governments whose human rights violations need protesting, just one from the western hemisphere, Cuba. Isn't this disproportionate? By what measure do Cuba's hundreds of political prisoners constitute a violation more flagrant than the repression in several other Latin American countries, where governments have imprisoned or murdered a hundred times as many? Can anyone set so much higher a standard of morality for Cuba?

Yes. I can.

Each political prisoner in Cuba, each infringement of freedom and democracy in Cuba, wounds me.

Cuba has achieved the most egalitarian society in the hemisphere, with the highest literacy rate and one of the lowest infant mortality rates. It didn't do it by accident, nor (pace Holly Ack- erman) did it merely draw on intrinsic cultural charm. Cuba set out to build socialism, worked hard and consciously at it for decades, and in some measure succeeded, becoming a model justly admired by all of us who face the increasingly desperate task of resisting the international plutocracy. It did this under the same leadership you rightly blame for ill-treating dissidents.

It is extremely urgent to act for a freer society in Cuba. The urgency is not only for the Cubans but for all the hemisphere. It is urgent for the sake of preserving Cuban independence of the juggernaut. The Guatemalan democracy was overrun by the juggernaut's mercenaries in 1953, Dominican democracy in 1965, Chilean democracy in 1973. Cuba is one of the few holdouts of resistance, and the most defiant. Defence of democracy demands reinforcing its resistance, helping it overcome the U.S. campaign of economic strangulation, and, within this relationship of solidarity, working for free speech and toleration of dissent.

Your editorial snidely attributes the Canadian government's unwillingness to impose sanctions on Cuba to "lucrative trade." If you dismiss all opposition to the blockade under the same imputation of greed, that is slander. The Venceremos Brigades were not profiteers. Granted, our opposition to the Helms-Burton Act puts us in alliance with a few Canadians who are turning an honest capitalist buck (if there is such a thing). But if we're worrying about the allies we make on this issue, how do you feel about crusading for Cubans' or anyone else's freedoms in alliance with Jesse Helms?

Chandler Davis, Toronto, ON

After the dictatorship

Holly Ackerman is to be congratulated upon bringing to light the complexity and diversity of the political and ethnic situation existing among Cuban exiles in the United States and between them and their relatives in Cuba. She makes it clear that Clinton's signature of the Helms-Burton bill (H-B) was a political blunder in that the Act will have serious consequences for U.S. international affairs and be a liability for Clinton.

The fact that the Monroe doctrine isn't mentioned in connection with H-B made me feel that Ackerman's articles suffer from the standard fault in U.S. political science, the inability to understand what U.S. actions look like from outside the United States. It seems that the whole world looks different when viewed from within that country.

The widespread support of Canadians for a regime in Cuba that has successfully resisted the full consequences of the Monroe doctrine will doubtless be aired in Peace Magazine following Ackerman's articles. But note: the success of the Cuban revolution is only partial, as the system has lacked a central element needed in human enterprises, that of incentive. At least that was true until a few years ago when a degree of private enterprise was allowed. Human beings rarely match the high standards of self-denial set for themselves by such giants as Lenin, and when such leaders impose their ideals on others, they need to offer more in the way of personal rewards than Cubans have been receiving.

All human political institutions are more or less corrupt. In Cuba an essential element of corruption lies in Castro's hanging onto power, instead of gradually relinquishing it. We've wit- nessed what happened following the death of a successful Strong Man in Yugoslavia. Cuba does not resemble Yugoslavia closely, but Castro's sudden passage would create a vacuum and a danger of collapse with the loss of the remarkable gains of the revolution.

Derek Paul, Toronto, ON

Cuba tops in economic and social rights

Peace, peace, but there is no peace, at least not in the editorial in the Jan/Feb issue of Peace Magazine. The masthead declares "Peace Magazine favors multilateral disarmament and, within that broad context, takes no editorial position."

Yet, an editorial declares "though Canadians enjoy great democracy at home, they are not always prepared to defend it as a principle of justice." It derides the Canadian government's "constructive engagement" (a willingness to talk with, instead of only talking about) as code for "lucrative trade." In challenging Canadian trade with Cuba, the editorial is, in practice, demanding that Canada conform to U.S. policy on Cuba, a policy widely condemned even within the U.S. itself. Canada has a right to its own policies.

I do not propose to enumerate all my objections to the editorial or to wonder why the editor chose to set the framework for the issue with a U.S. Coast Guard cover photo. These fade into insignificance when compared with the callous, even cruel, disregard for the important social and economic rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Cuba fulfills these provisions more generously than nearly all (perhaps actually all) other countries. Its universal, free and excellent health services have raised Cuban longevity to that of Canada and have reduced infant mortality below that of Canada. No other developing country comes even close. Education is free at all levels, university included. Literacy is universal. These human rights all result from the revolution. Moreover, they are shared generously with others, such as the nearly 14,000 child victims of the Chernobyl catastrophe who have received free medical treatment in Cuba, and other developing countries.

They have been achieved despite unrelenting, intensifying U.S. economic and political warfare, and U.S.- sponsored military activities. This warfare against Cuba has expanded into frightening challenges to the sovereignty of other nations, Canada included. Extra-territorial legislation, such as the Torricelli and Helms-Burton Acts, openly seeks to bludgeon the rest of the world into accepting the U.S. policy against Cuba, and so denies other countries their sovereign rights.

This has aroused world-wide condemnation. The U.N. has repeatedly condemned U.S. policy on Cuba most recently by a margin of 137-3. The Organization of American States voted unanimously, except for the U.S. itself, on this point. The E.U. has appealed to international tribunals to protect its rights against U.S. actions.

The U.S. authorities have not confined themselves to such pressures, despicable as they are. They have added to them countless piratical acts, including numerous assassination attempts against Castro, massive propaganda broadcasts over illegal TV stations and the financing of opposition groups.

U.S. policy would destroy Cuba's human rights to health, education and development, all of which are enshrined in official U.N. documents. It would reduce Cuba to the subservience (to theU.S.) of pre-Castro days.

It is to Canada's glory, in defending its own sovereignty against unprecedented U.S. arrogance, that it refuses to join the U.S. government in isolating Cuba and destroying its social accomplishments. In this Canada is not alone, as U.N., E.U., OAS and other national governments' actions demonstrate.

In working with Cuba, the Canadian government and people, contrary to the snide editorial comments, are in fact defending human rights, the right to self- determination, sovereignty and independence.

Lee Lorch, North York, ON

Human rights and external threats

I wish to raise a few points in connection with the editorial and the article by Holly Ackerman in the Jan/Feb issue. With regard to the charge that there are human rights abuses in Cuba, I suppose that there is some truth to such assertions, but Cuba is faced with a very severe external threat from the U.S., aimed at bringing about the collapse of the existing government. This action is illegal under international law which forbids sanctions or blockades imposed for ideological reasons.

When countries face external threats, human rights are frequent casualties. Canada imprisoned its citizens of Japanese ancestry during WWII, and the charges against Cuba are of a minor nature compared to the massive human rights infractions imposed on Americans during the McCarthy era.

Ed Simpson, Apsley, ON

Cuban accomplishments ignored in article

"Searching for Middle Ground: Cuba's Chronic Dilemma" is an extreme disappointment. The middle ground that Ackerman is allegedly searching for stretches no further than the restriction of the worst of the Helms-Burton Act.

In the article she produces three current myths to justify her simplistic image of Cuban political consciousness, the good guy/ bad guy syndrome. These myths do more credit to a street artist with the three-nut trick than to an assistant professor using proper research methods. If the good and the bad of Cuban life is going to be discussed, where is the record of achievements-the elimination of illiteracy, effective full-employment, the accessibility of a national health service, the provision of basic social services-that the Cuban government has made since 1959. Ackerman dragged in the lack of some freedoms that we have grown used to, like a multiplicity of newspapers or the ability to throw out governments after four or five years, but tell that to the Canadian unemployed, to the welfare moms, or to the homeless, and the likely response would be a blunt "So what?"

I do not claim to be an authority on Cuba, but over the years I have traveled the length and breadth of the island and seen its people and government in many guises. I suppose that the charm of the Cuban people (mentioned as Myth #3) overwhelmed the critical cap- acity of myself, and of the other million or so tourists who visit Cuba every year, because nowhere and at no time is there sensed anything like a political resistance to the regime which Ackerman presumes to be festering just beneath the charm. I have heard many complaints but isn't that natural for an ebullient and confident people determined to proceed on a socialist course despite all the obstacles?

This article does not deserve the support of your otherwise excellent magazine. It is poorly researched, desperately thought-out and totally useless as an instrument in finding the middle ground that the title so hopefully proclaims. Moreover, it must have been a sad day for your editorial board when a Canadian author could not be found to comment on Cuban affairs, especially at a time when Can- adian/Cuban relations have never been so promising.

Philip Joseph, Don Mills, ON

Cuba needs civil society

One of my fundamental beliefs has come to be that everything is always more complex than it appears. I had to move from seeing the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua as admirably enlightened, towards understanding the heavy strands of corruption in it. I had, like many Canadians, immensely admired the achievements of the Cuban Revolution. Then after a while, Cuban nationals I knew began to tell me what it was really like. People who had suffered under Batista, sacrificed and worked for the Revolution, described the desperate disillusionment of living a stifled life, existing with fear and mistrust of those around. They watched the nation's achievements fall apart under arrogant mismanagement, exacerbated by the embargo, feeling helpless to act.

I became peripherally involved with trying to uncover the facts around a young Cuban neurologist, trained in Canada, now in prison, possibly for life. I was told he was a dissident nailed on a trumped-up assassination charge. In Havana at dinner, my hosts closed the windows lest the neighbors disapprove of the food on the table. More than anything, their feeling of despair and helplessness affected me as we spoke of possible futures for Havana.

Holly Ackerman's articles were good. They focused on the complex motivations and clusterings of the Cuban exile community and of the Cuban nationals and on the poor human rights situation in Cuba. (The Amnesty International 1996 report makes miserable reading.) She uncovered ugly aspects of the Helms-Burton law unknown to me, and the risks of the Cuban response causing a greater squeeze on press freedom. I need all this to understand a complex situation better.

Best of all, she writes of th development, out of enormous courage, of the beginnings of a civil society in Cuba. The informal ties between Cubans and the centre and left clusterings of the exile community may also have the potential to ease Cuba's future. After some years of sharing my Cuban friends' despair and helplessness in relation to their country, I see a glimmer of hope, and wonder how I might contribute to it.

The time to foster the growth of civil society would seem to be now, so it has a chance to mature before Castro's death and Cuba's inevitable transition. This seems to me a precondition for a nonviolent transition to a nation which, one hopes, will retain its admirable determination to set its own course and treat its people with equity, but will also allow them to participate in their government and to dissent freely.

Joanna Santa Barbara, Hamilton, ON

Cuban-canadian response

I have just read the letter by Jean Smith and John Valleau in the March/April issue of Peace Magazine.

North American idealists have not ceased to think of Cuba, even after 38 years of a repressive dictatorship there, as the sanctified realization of their dreams. But only when they have answered satisfactorily the simple question below will they have the right to talk about Cuba and the suffering of its betrayed people, which Fidel Castro has sagaciously blamed on the United States embargo:

"Are you willing to sacrifice your comfort in Canada and leave for Cuba (without any Western hard currency, please!) to live like the majority of the population, on a food ration book?" If you say "yes," I have no choice but to take my hat off.

A. Perez, Toronto, ON

Human rights inseparable from peace

About twenty years ago a famous lady wrote an article criticizing an even more famous politician for the shortcomings of his political approach. The lady blamed her opponent for betraying the old devoted friends of her country. Probably, she admitted, they are not great in promoting human rights in their states, but their merits are indisputable: their economic policies are right, they are loyal allies of our country, and-what is even more important-they are bitter enemies of our major ideological opponents.

The author was Jeane Kirkpatrick. The politician against whom she argued was President Carter, who denounced the American politics of double standards practiced by his predecessors. In her analysis, the devoted friends of the Americans were a number of Latin American juntas whose bloody practices were widely condemned around the world.

The letter of Jean Smith and John Valleau revived the old controversy that was abandoned at the end of the Cold War: Do successful social and economic changes and a "true ideology" justify the lack of political freedom and the abuse of human rights? (I deliberately avoid discussing the scale and quality of socio-economic changes in Cuba.)

I doubt that Smith and Valleau want to be associated with Kirkpatrick, but they do employ her logic in their argument. It is true that Batista's dictatorship was disgusting, that the U.S. policy toward Cuba was strategically irrational and even helped Castro to strengthen his regime. Do these facts exempt the Cuban authorities from the duty to observe human rights? Do they excuse the absence of democratic institutions and the gross violation of political rights and freedoms?

"It's better to be healthy and wealthy than poor and sick." People laugh at this joke for different reasons-some because it is so self- evident, others because they believe the combinations absurd. Our authors seem to assume that it is not possible to be healthy and wealthy, or for Cubans to enjoy both democracy and social services. Some Western peace activists used the same argument as a basis for protecting the Soviet regime from criticism and denouncing the value of Soviet dissent. Yet today even faithful Communist politicians reassure their electorates that there is no way back to the Brezhnev or Stalin era. That shows how much the Soviet regime was appreciated by its citizens.

Many who place human rights and political freedoms in the former USSR or contemporary Cuba or China at the bottom of their priorities prove sensitive to any attempt to restrict these rights and freedoms in their own countries. Do they think that what is considered essential in their own countries is of less value to Cubans, Russians, and Chinese? Do they suppose that all Cubans, Russians, and Chinese enjoy imprisonment and a lack of political freedom?

In perceiving the "other" we always have to avoid the following fallacies: (a) viewing our own cultural values and habits as universal and compulsory for everybody (such as making the whole world wear jeans and eat cereal for breakfast) or (b) overestimating cultural diversity and regarding torture as part of the other's national cultural tradition.

Years before the Universal Declaration was adopted, the Russian poetess Marina Tsvetaeva wrote about her friend, poet M. Voloshin: "He saved a White from a Red and a Red from a White; or rather a White from the Reds and a Red from the Whites: a Human Being from the gang." I do not know a better definition of the essence of human rights and am happy that Peace Magazine maintains a high commitment to these rights (both the editorial and Ackerman's articles prove this) and views them as inseparable from peace issues.

D. Zisserman-Brodsky, Toronto, ON

Peace Magazine May-June 1997

Peace Magazine May-June 1997, page 5. Some rights reserved.

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