Circles Robinson Online

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Location: Havana, Cuba

is a blog to give a fresh angle on a fascinating and beautiful Caribbean Island country that, despite being relatively small and with only 11 million people, has been a major player in American and world politics for a half century. I also suggest you try

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Havana Times History, Policies & Perspectives (Video)

In this video interview I try to give some answers on a wide range of questions about the Havana Times web publication I edit. These include its origins and history over the first 11 years, the change from an all Cuba site to include Nicaragua, funding, the different sections, policies, and future perspectives.

The interview was recorded in September 2019 and is just being posted. That is why there is no reference to the Covid-19 pandemic. I hope you find it useful to understand our effort.

Much thanks to Ken Alexander, Alixe Cannell and Sheyla Hirshon for making it possible.  

Here is the link to see the interview:

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Cuban Migrant Crisis on Stage One

By Circles Robinson

HAVANA TIMES (Nov. 24) — On Tuesday the foreign ministers of eleven countries including all of Central America plus Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Cuba, meet in the capital of El Salvador to try to find a solution to the Cuban migrant crisis affecting all the nations on the route from Ecuador north to the United States.

Over three thousand Cubans are now stuck in Costa Rica, most in temporary shelters, with transit visas giving them free passage to the Nicaraguan border, but that country has barricaded up its border to the Cubans using riot police and the army to keep them out.

The Cubans, who often sell their homes and possessions to pay people traffickers and make the dangerous trip, land legally in Ecuador, which is the only country on the continent with open doors to the islanders as they do not require a visa. Then they move by land or water through jungles, plains and mountains trying to make the over three thousand mile journey to the United States.

These same Cubans, most refused a visa to visit the US when requested at the US embassy in Havana, will be warmly welcomed by immigration officials under the Cuban Adjustment Act if they reach a US border post. If they don’t make it, that’s their tough luck.

According to the Obama administration, there is no current intention to repeal the Adjustment Act. The law provides Cubans a work permit, financial assistance and a fast track to permanent residency, which no other nationality receives in mass.

The Act, passed in 1966, is a holdover of the Cold War that couples with the more than half-century economic and financial embargo still imposed on the island.

While the strange bedfellows of the Cuban Government and hardline anti-Castro exiles, including presidential hopefull Marco Rubio, want the law repealed or deeply modified, the status quo inertia appears to be considerably stronger going into an election year.

Why Leave Cuba?

The Communist Party’s economic reforms in Cuba have not reached the vast majority of the working population, apart from a small new class of prosperous business owners, some artists and athletes, and a segment of the population working in the tourism industry.

Likewise, increased tourism and self-employment without wholesale markets or import licenses, have only exasperated the shortages of many products faced by consumers.

Many young Cubans, both university educated professionals and those with a lower educational level, aspire to immigrate to another country since their vision of the future in Cuba remains grim.

The island’s aging population is in part due to a large number of Cuban women not wanting to have children until they have a financial situation that will allow them and their partners to have private living quarters and buy basic consumer products. Emigration is seen as the only way they can ever reach these goals and have a family.

The meeting today of the foreign ministers in San Salvador seeks to resolve the situation of the growing number of Cubans on the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border and also address the general situation of illegal migration in Central America.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why Cuba’s Elections Draw Little Interest

By Circles Robinson

HAVANA TIMES — This coming February 3, Cuba will hold one of its every-five-year parliamentary elections. It’s a process that goes almost unnoticed and there are reasons why.

Cuban officials often wonder out loud why their parliamentary elections are barely mentioned in the foreign press. I want to share some of the reasons why the process to elect provincial and national legislators draws so little interest on the island and virtually none abroad.

The top reason for the lackluster balloting is that no issues are discussed by the candidates, who are not allowed to campaign.

The candidates are only permitted to post resumes/synopses of their adult life. Voters are asked to cast their ballot for them because they were selected by nomination committees as the most qualified to support the central government’s policies and programs.

Voters have no idea if the candidate has any priorities or new strategies for dealing with the problems and concerns of the citizenry, whether they approve of all government policies 100 percent or if they have any criticisms.

Here’s the punch line: For 612 seats in the National Assembly of People’s Power there are 612 preselected candidates.  For the different Provincial Assemblies of People Power there are a total of 1,269 candidates for 1,269 seats.

Then the National Assembly members will elect a Council of State including the president of the country and several vice presidents.

Voting itself is very easy. Registration is automatic for all citizens 16 or over and over 90 percent of the population routinely vote, which is voluntary, but many believe that those who don’t participate could face future reprisals.

Supporters of the Cuban electoral process often cite the abhorrent million-billion dollar US campaigns as the justification for going to the other extreme and not allowing any campaigning or fundraising in Cuba.
Billboard: Vote for our ideas and our values. 

The concept of a paid politician is absent in Cuba and even the national parliament representatives derive no financial compensation for their civic work, which usually involves two brief three or four day sessions a year.

Since virtually all decisions are made as executive orders by the Council of Ministers, the parliament is relegated to rubber stamping decisions already made and sometimes already implemented.

Virtually all votes are unanimous and any debates among the members are held behind closed doors. Even an abstention is highly rare. This is to say 612 deputies routinely agree with every executive order passed by the Council of Ministers

Seen as a strength by most of the Party leadership, this type of unity doesn’t wash with a growing segment of the Cuban population, especially its youth, who in turn are apathetic to the process – even if they vote so as to not attract attention.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Hugo Chavez Battles for Life in Cuba

By Circles Robinson

HAVANA TIMES — Twenty four days since his last operation to extract cancerous cells, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez “has the same fighting spirit, of strength, with his usual energy and confidence,” said VP Nicolas Maduro upon returning from Cuba to the South American country on Thursday.

HT archives photo of an athletic Chavez.  Photo: Caridad
Out of the public eye since the December 11th operation in Havana, with no recorded messages broadcast, Chavez has suffered a setback in his recovery process “having confronted complications as a result of a serious lung infection,” informed the Venezuelan government on Friday.

“The infection has caused a situation of breathing insufficiency that has required Chavez maintain a strict medical treatment,” added the press release that did not state whether Chavez was using any life support equipment.

No mention has been made by the Venezuelan authorities as to the success of the operation in Chavez’ battle against cancer or the course of action to follow when the respiratory crisis is resolved.

“The government of Venezuela reiterates its confidence in Chavez’ medical team, which maintains an ongoing monitoring of the evolution of the patient and has acted with the utmost thoroughness with each difficulty presented,” said the press statement.

Maduro sharply criticized the Venezuelan opposition for their speculation as to the true state of Chavez’ health calling it a right-wing necrophilia, “when they long for a disastrous announcement.”

He noted that Chavez’s vital signs are stable despite the respiratory problems “that have affected him seriously”.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

HT Editor’s Recent Trip to Cuba

Plus Year End Greetings from HT

By Circles Robinson, editor

HAVANA TIMES — Our publication is now in its fifth year, and every six months I try to go to Havana to meet with the writers, see friends and take in some of the cultural calendar.

In December, HT held its meeting with over 20 contributing writers and photographers in attendance. With everyone bringing something to eat or drink, we always have a light lunch first and then get down to discussing the publication.

One of the main topics this time was fantasizing the possibilities of what we could do when Internet arrives in Cuba for the general population.

Our goal is to operate more as a collective for decision-making; divide up responsibilities for different sections of the site; and institute writer participation in the comments on the different posts as well as on the social networks.

The current Internet situation in Cuba is actually worse for our writers and readers now than it was a couple of years ago. Some of the workplaces that do have access, albeit excruciatingly slow, either block HT on their servers or let their employees know that they’d be wise not to visit it.

E-mail, the main way our articles are distributed, is still difficult for many Cubans. About half of our contributing writers do not even have their own account and must receive correspondence and send their work from someone else’s account. Many still do not have their own computer, which also makes writing difficult.

However despite the limitations, which are a fact of daily life for most Cubans, people continue writing with enthusiasm and contributing to our publication and would be in a position to do so more often if the operating environment were better.

Personally I believe the Internet will arrive when there is a political will for that to happen, something that has clearly not been the case to date. It could happen tomorrow or in five or ten years, but the cost of isolation is growing fast.

I say this because the Cuban government has proven in the past that when it wants to invest in an important field it can do it with or without the US embargo that tries to hinder any advances in the country’s economy.

In the fields of bio-technology and medicine, Cuba has made major investments and recorded major achievements and advances that are recognized worldwide and in the markets, as well as in its cultural industry. If the leadership made it a priority to get the population out of the dark ages in terms of information technology, led by the Internet, I believe they could surely do so.

Many people thought that Internet access was going to improve to some extent, either directly or indirectly, if the fiber optic cable laid from Venezuela to Cuba nearly two years ago actually went into use domestically, even if only at workplaces and educational institutions.

However, from what people know second hand, corrupt officials effectively sabotaged the effort. For some reason, the details of what happened have never been made public, similar to other major scandals uncovered by the Comptroller’s office but hushed up in the official Cuban media.

As editor of the publication, I restated our policy of being a site that, in addition to our news and photo feature coverage, attempts to reflect the diversity of opinions held by Cubans about their country on a wide range of issues and topics.

I reaffirmed that HT is not a political party, opposition group or movement. Instead, we are an online publication where all positions except highly disrespectful, sexist, racist or homophobic comments are
welcome as we try to facilitate a healthy debate on the different issues facing the country.

In concluding I want to wish all of our readers a very Happy New Year for 2013.

Havana Times -

Sunday, September 30, 2012

An Online Reflection of Cuba

Dmitri Prieto interviews Havana Times editor Circles Robinson
Havana coastline photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES — I was sitting with a group of friends (students and teachers) on the grass at the former Institute of Sciences and Nuclear Technologies (today INSTEC), at Havana’s old “Finca de los Molinos” estate.”  This was at the end of 2008.

Out of the blue, one of the guys there remarked, “I’m writing for the website of an American who lives in Cuba.”  I remembered reeling back dumfounded by that contradictory comment:  An American? in Cuba?   The words immediately brought to my mind a conspiratorial backdrop that smacked of geopolitical confrontation, espionage and ideologies hopelessly at odds.

“This American works at ESTI (the Cuban translation agency),” he explained.  “The website began not very long ago.  The guy’s pulling together a team where each person will write a blog.”  That made it both clearer and stranger at the same time.  To cap it off, he added, “The group of bloggers should have the same number of men as women.  A gender balance thing.”

The name Circles Robinson isn’t very well known in Cuba, but he’s the editor of one of the most popular online news sites on Cuba that has hit the web.  It’s the burgeoning Havana Times online publication, administered today from another ALBA country (Nicaragua). These writings are reaching an ever wider audience in Cuba, by on-line connection for the few or by e-mail for the rest.

It is an online medium where diaries of ordinary Cubans coexist with rigorous reports from correspondents with the Cuban-accredited Inter Press Service agency (IPS), as well as with analytical articles and the opinions of recognized experts; it also publishes interviews and excellent photographs.

Sharing a Deeper Look at Cuba
This project of Circles Robinson succeeds, perhaps without intending to, in sharing with non-Cubans an in-depth vision of Cuba: our “Cuba profunda.”  When we walk down the street or look out our windows, we’re usually able to perceive the countless details that served as inspiration for people like Don Fernando, Lezama, Dulce Maria, Oscar Hurtado or Victor Fowler in their multiple inquiries about the experiential spirituality of our country.

Viñales, Pinar del Rio. Photo: Caridad

And what can one say about the symbols that fill our minds?  For me, the exceptional merit of Havana Times is that it allows people from other countries to share in the signs and symbols of current “Cubania” without these being denigrated as “folkloric” or converted into “pasto para turistas” (tourist fodder).

Clearly this is only the personal opinion of a regular contributor to the publication, but I can bear witness: my own perception of “me and my circumstances” in Cuba has been attaining greater clarity since I began writing for the site.  Through writings and photographs, Havana Times graphically reveals a Cuba that is neither hell nor heaven, though certainly a place where it’s possible to live and share one’s life.

It’s an Internet site whose main characters are, for the most part, people “like everybody else”: workers, students, self-employed, professionals, artists and writers.  The Havana Times collective is like a family.  Its subtitle in English, “Open-minded writing from Cuba,” means just that.  Having an open mind is to distance oneself from the same old boring monotones that have been so justly criticized, as well as from tiresome polarized aggressiveness…  It’s an invitation to dialogue in a Cuba where many Cubas fit.

A palpably uncomfortable journalism 

Despite this, the site has never tried to duck controversy.  In a recent polemical post, a leftist blogger (from the group “Bloggers Cuba”) compared Robinson to none less than Charles Dana, the editor of the New York newspaper that published Marx and Marti.  Perhaps it’s an exaggerated praise, but let’s remember too that bloggers suspicious of anyone who promotes questioning and divergent thinking abound on the Cuban web.

Havana Times is a formidable source of information and debate that has covered subjects ranging from a (failed) expedition to the biggest garbage dump in the Cuban capital, to incidents related to a professor who lost his job in a conflict with the administration, the complex problems of transgenic crop cultivation, domestic violence and the life of the imprisoned “Cuban Five” in the United States.

It is a type of journalism that’s uncomfortable for many, generated by people who for the most part are not trained as journalists (and among these “amateurs,” by the way, is the editor himself).

However, speaking of “uncomfortable journalism” – isn’t that what many of us want, for the good of Cuba?  Because of that, Havana Times has started to become a part of Cuban reality, part of the complex processes of change that are now occurring.  It’s one of those X rays machines with which our society — finally! — can look at its insides.

Filled with a desire to unravel the “intrigue” shrouding the subject in question (“Who is Circles Robinson?”), I requested an interview from him, aware of how controversial this would be.  Circles, who is already a friend of many of us, kindly agreed to allow me to share this dialogue in the pages of Espacio Laical, a publication of the Catholic Church of Cuba.  At this point, we’ll ask him to speak in his own words:

Circles Robinson in Cojimar with his grandson Axel Karim.

Who is Circles Robinson and how did you come to live in Cuba?  What was your occupation on the island before starting up Havana Times

Generations ago my family were immigrants to the United States from Rumania and Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, and I was born and raised in Los Angeles.  However the formative experiences of my life took place very distant from that atmosphere: in a small town in the old US West and in Latin America, where I’ve spent most of my adult life.

Since 1982 I’ve lived outside of my country — in Spain, Nicaragua and Cuba — working in everything from agriculture, cooperatives and tourism, to international relations and translation, but with a recurrent link to journalism and small publications.

My interest in Latin America began when I left the US for the first time, in 1972, dodging the military draft during the Vietnam War.   In Colombia, where I lived for two years, I became somewhat aware of the effect of US policy on the continent.  This culminated with my sensing — albeit from a distance — the repercussions of the military coup in Chile against Allende on September 11, 1973.

I also experienced the Colombian people’s warmth, the value they placed on family, their stories and mysteries, and the food.  From all this came my preference for living in Latin America.

Ultimately I won in the draft lottery, a sort of sinister Bingo-like drawing that the US Army employed for recruiting youths into its war machine.   At that time the service was obligatory, but some of the men would never have to serve due to their numbers in the lottery being too high.   I was one of them, so I could return to the United States, which I did in 1974, without having to wait for the amnesty given by Carter in 1977.

I went to live in a small town, Bisbee, Arizona, previously a copper mining town on the Mexican border.  There I worked for the local radio station, published a newspaper, learned a little something about typography and managed a small food cooperative.   Local political activism (and some degree of solidarity with the FMLN in El Salvador and the FSLN in Nicaragua) characterized my years in this town as part of a group that sought a “better world,” though on a smaller scale.

After leaving the US permanently in 1982, I first lived to the south of Granada, Spain, working in agriculture and participating in a small cooperative.

At the end of ‘84, in the face of threats by recently re-elected president Ronald Reagan to invade Nicaragua, I decided to contribute my grain of sand working in coffee plantations in that country, also as a way to understand the Nicaraguan Revolution.  I picked coffee with a large brigade of “nica” teachers and another smaller contingent from a Nicaraguan Christian base community.

Circles, kneeling, when he managed the Bisbee, Arizona Food Co-op in 1976.

After 17 years in Nicaragua, experiencing the revolution and its subsequent debacle (1990), I went to live in Cuba at the end of 2001.  I was hired by the Prensa Latina news agency as a translator/reviser of their English service.  From the beginning I established lots of contacts with the journalists and I concerned myself with trying to make the materials that I revised communicate a little more, a little better, to the readers abroad.

Along with my wife, daughter and grandson, I lived in Tarara (on the far eastside of Havana) because this was where PL offered housing for its technicians at that time.  It was a beautiful place right off the beach, but it was also far from the city and that meant hours of daily waiting for buses or hitchhiking.

At that time my wife worked as a volunteer for two “Transformation Workshops” (Spanish: Talleres de Transformacion) in the Havana neighborhoods of Atares and El Canal.   My daughter studied for a year at the National Art School (ENA) before beginning her studies (paid for by us) at the faculty of Audiovisual
Media at the Superior Institute of Art (ISA).   My little grandson began his first daycare center once he learned how to walk, a month after arriving in Cuba.  As a result of all this, I had the opportunity to become aware of Cuban life from several perspectives.

In mid-2004 I accepted an offer to work in the same capacity for other Cuban online media, but from a new office called On-line Translation based out of the national translation/interpretation office (ESTI).  My family’s housing situation was decisive in that decision.   As such, we moved into an apartment recently vacated by another foreign translator.  It was located in Miramar near the Karl Marx Theater, and half a block from my daughter’s university campus.

At ESTI, given our involvement with the Cuban press, the small staff that worked for On-line Translation formed a chapter of the “Cuban Journalists Association” (UPEC).   I also began to write a personal blog at the end of 2005, partly in response to a suggestion from UPEC to its members.

In the following years I participated in the training of translators and webmasters on how to improve their pages in English.  I drafted a report and presented it in meetings convened by the PCC for the staffs of digital media organizations in different provinces.  As a member of UPEC and representing our chapter, I began to participate in meetings that were convened annually for journalists of the written press.

Discussions around the deficiencies in the content and scope of the Cuban press were constant among my close colleagues.  In 2007 an internal directive on the media was issued from the Politburo of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC).  Among other things it spoke of the need to reflect the reality of the country in news reporting – something I found highly encouraging and motivating.

I participated as a full delegate (with voting rights) in the UPEC Congress in July 2008.  The topic of how to improve the press was raised there by numbers of people from the media, particularly the youth. 
Nonetheless the discussions failed to produce any concrete changes, and after leaving the conference we returned to the same old thing, the same static routine – something that created only frustration for me.

Havana sunrise. Photo: Caridad

How was Havana Times created?   

A little later, I decided to begin a webpage as my contribution to putting into practice the type of media that I thought — and still think — should exist for the national public and for foreign readers interested in Cuba.  It was more than clear to me that the Cuban media utterly failed to reflect the country’s daily life – in the streets, on the job and in homes.  Problems were practically absent, as were the rich diversity of opinions on any issue.

I felt that my personal blog had reached its end, and I wanted to do something with more reach and involving more people.

Our motto in English “Open-minded writing from Cuba” means “Cuba sin prejuicios” in Spanish. With so many media sources demonizing everything that has to do with the Cuban Revolution and its leaders on the one hand, and the monologue of the official Cuban media with its message that “everything’s almost perfect in Cuba and the rest of the world is evil,” on the other, there was a great need for a media that didn’t weigh in from either of those extremes.

I already had several experiences in the field of publishing.   I had published a biweekly newspaper in the town where I lived in Arizona and years later I published a monthly magazine in English for the main farmer’s organization of Nicaragua.   It was Nicaragua from a campesino perspective.

But HT was not only my idea: two other people — a Cuban and an African-American — have been indispensable parts of the creation and continuation of the project from the beginning.

I owe a great deal of thanks to my family for the support that I’ve received in financing the project.   I’ve always thought that self-financing would be the sole way to carry out the effort without making it vulnerable to criticisms of being directly or indirectly sustained by the omnipresent “enemy.” Fortunately, the costs of the initiative are modest.   That’s one of the big advantages of online work.

Over a three month period we created the design, sought our initial writers and began accumulating photos.   We received HT’s banner photo just a few days before going online.  Start-up wasn’t easy because many of the people we approached were working for government entities or studying; and writing a for non-official Internet press entity isn’t looked upon very well by many supervisors, professors and party functionaries.

We opted for a simple but attractive design, with lots of photos – that’s one of the strengths of HT.   In the beginning the publication only came out in English, focusing on non-Spanish-speaking readers interested in Cuba, be it for tourism, study or whatever.   This was consistent with my job as a foreign technician working for the online English language media in Cuba.

Among the goals was to present different situations experienced in the country and the wide diversity of opinions, showing the beauty and achievements as well as the blemishes and real problems.   In short, we were aiming to show the country in the flesh, a country like others but different at the same time.

We launched into cyberspace in mid-October of 2008, and I took on the challenge of working my regular day job with ESTI and publishing HT in my free time.  It was an exhausting pace involving 14-16 hour days sitting in front of the computer.   Also, though we had planned to update the page once or twice a week, the site quickly evolved into a daily online publication due to the quantity of material we received and the speed made possible by technology.

Two months after its start-up we officially presented the site at the UPEC headquarters before the directors of that organization and representatives of a number of Cuban media.

Tell us how your previous experiences influenced the concept and style of your new online magazine?   

There were many Cubans who experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp first hand while studying or undergoing training in those countries.   I myself didn’t experience Eastern Europe first hand, but I did witness the painful collapse of the revolution in Nicaragua.  It was like seeing the closing of a great window of opportunity — for creativity and for learning from other efforts, for improving — all shut in a single motion.  I still feel the pain even today.

For me the Nicaraguan Revolution was like Cuba’s, another David vs. Goliath story with great freshness and hope, but which gradually began to extinguish.

The economic blockade that Nicaragua suffered, like Cuba, and the war (also sponsored by the US) played a significant role.   However for me the reversal was due to the loss of revolutionary ethics, self-adulation by the senior leadership, a triumphalist monologue, the lack of controls and economic mismanagement, the lack of substantive participation by the people in decision making, plus the gradual distancing of the leadership from the base and their believing themselves to be eternally in power, all of which led to the crushing electoral debacle of February 25, 1990.

After the hurricanes. Photo: Caridad

After that disaster I stayed, working seven more years for the campesino organization UNAG, the counterpart to Cuba’s ANAP and which included the cooperative movement.  During that time I, like many other people, tried to figure out what had happened, still dreaming of another chance to transform the world into something different…where people, social justice, collective well-being and nature were more important than capital, and where people would reflect on their errors instead of repeating them.

Going to Cuba a decade later was an opportunity for me to see how it might have been if Nicaragua’s revolution has lasted 40 years instead of just 10… what would have been its achievements, its strengths as well as its problems and weak points?  Nicaragua was not a copy of Cuba but it was influenced by its big brother in many aspects.  

By living in Cuba I realized how much the Nicaraguan Revolution meant to Cubans at a personal level, for each individual.  What had happened was very painful for them too.

With respect to the media, I remember that Salman Rushdie in his book on Nicaragua (The Jaguar Smile) wrote that the Sandinista party’s newspaper (Barricada) was the worst he’d ever seen.

At that time — finding myself in the middle of the war and accepting the leaders’ arguments concerning the need to restrict information and criticism for the sake of unity — I didn’t agree with anything Rushdie said.  Later I did come to concur with him.  It was in fact a terrible newspaper that minimized the capacity of people to assess information and to reach their own conclusions.

In Cuba I found a fascinating country with major achievements as a society but one with enormous cumulative problems.   The investment that had been made over half a century to promote culture was evident, and being in the capital I was able to enjoy the fruits of those advances.

Collectively, the press, radio and TV were something altogether different though.  It was a return to the Barricada.  What I found in the Cuban media was that same monologue: asserting possession of the absolute truth while omitting information, misusing statistics and claiming a false unity, not to mention the constant stream of triumphalism.   In short, what current president Raul Castro describes as “the boring press.”

We wanted to do something different with HT, something where ordinary people had a voice, not only leaders and recognized intellectuals.   We also intended to include the work of experienced journalists and photographers along with reports and commentaries.

The goal has been to reflect the range of realities and challenges faced in the country.  Hence, our “diaries” section was born.  In this section are the personal logs of our bloggers, who come from a wide variety of fields and have an equally broad range of opinions and beliefs/ideologies.

How is Havana Times different from other similar media?  And what do they share?   

I don’t think there’s really anything similar with the great majority of the young writers living in Cuba.  Perhaps the closest things in format are Cubaencuentro and Diario de Cuba.    Although technically we’re just one more of the thousand-plus websites written about Cuba, we opted from the beginning for a format that was more like an online newspaper, and this has worked for us.

At one single site we have the voices of 15 people writing their blogs in the first person; in addition there are reports, commentaries and photo features by veterans as well as novices to the trade.   We also reproduce materials from the IPS news agency, which has racked up more than 30 years of reporting from Cuba.

Photo by Caridad.

With respect to the content, I believe that several elements distinguish us: the diversity of opinions and styles, ranging from intellectual analyses to very simple and direct styles; our not being rigid extremists and not being the mouthpiece of any party, organization, institution or movement.  

We cover and comment on issues concerning the economy as well as sports, culture etc.  It’s simply a publication that looks for ways to elevate the knowledge about and interest in Cuba and attempts to be accessible to a board spectrum of national and foreign readers.

Is there any contradiction between your previous occupations and the creation of this new information medium?  Has your appreciation of the situation on the island changed since starting Havana Times?   

On the contrary, having translated and revised for the Cuban media for seven years gave me many ideas about how journalism here could move forward over time.  Translating and revising journalistic materials can be extremely boring when the materials are of little interest, repetitive, missing information and are oblivious to what the most casual observer can see all around.  But it also gives you a lot to think about in terms of how you would write, including your topics and style.

Moreover, I had already put out other publications and ran two radio programs without being a certified professional.  To succeed with HT, I drew on all my experiences.  One thing I’ve learned how to do, and that I love to do, is involve more and more people, almost creating a family, and this is how it feels with the Havana Times group.   We even have readers who also feel like they’re part of the project – and they are.

My appreciation of the situation concerning the Cuban media hasn’t changed.   There have been timid efforts to present aspects of the different realities of the country and its people.  There’s been some talk about certain problems, but it’s all been well below what’s required.   Likewise, absent are focuses and opinions that diverge from official policies.  They’re either nonexistent or so shy that they don’t come to mean real change.   Real debate remains absent.

Furthermore, the lack of investigative journalism has done a great deal of harm to the country.  I’m sure that if this type of journalism had been encouraged, rather than repressed, some of the major cases of corruption would have come to light much, much earlier.  This lack of investigative reporting makes business executives and authorities feel like they’re on a throne, unquestionable and untouchable!

Who make up Havana Times?  
Havana Times is a fluctuating number of 20-25 people that include writers, translators, the webmaster and me – the editor.   The overwhelming majority of the group are Cubans who live on the island.  They’re of all ages, though most are between 30 and 45.  However we also have a couple of Cuban writers who live abroad, in addition to three US citizens, all of whom possess depths of experience after having lived in Latin America and worked for governments in countries that have undergone revolutions.

Photo: Caridad

One of the things that I insist on with those who write their diaries is the importance of their own voice, their perceptions, their experiences.   This “I” exists in Havana Times, and that’s of interest to the readers.  When we meet as a group every six months, we can appreciate the diversity of people who make up the collective. 
The mixture of professions, jobs, abilities, backgrounds, gender, race, community activism experience and beliefs, etc. is evident.   A few guests always show up at these meetings and even to them this diversity is palpable.

The writing also demonstrates this.   There are people who write about personal and practical problems, while others go into philosophical matters; some deal with their neighborhoods, others touch on economic and political questions that the country is facing; then too, there are those who express concerns about social coexistence, and a few like to relate anecdotes or tackle the international terrain, etc.  We only exclude those positions that use insults instead of arguments to debate.

The topics that people choose to write about come from each of them as individuals.   I sometimes suggest an issue for an article or a photo feature, but this doesn’t make up more than five percent of the materials we publish.

Tell us about how the project has developed, how it has taken stands, or the surprises, conflicts and joy it has generated.   

Three big changes happened the first year.   The first one was our losing the support of the UPEC leadership, which was initially offered publically to Havana Times.  Ultimately, after seeing the publication in practice over half a year, they couldn’t accept it as an independent and critical medium, one in which there were young non-journalists expressing themselves about their situations, their realities so distinct from the picture painted by the official media.

The second change was when my contract wasn’t renewed in June 2009.  I’m convinced this action had its roots in an ethical conflict with my boss, and that Havana Times was not the principal reason.  However, the net result was the loss of my temporary residency and therefore the need for my wife and I to leave the country within 30 days.  I returned to Nicaragua, where I have legal residency.  From there I continued the magazine with visits to Cuba every six months.

However the greatest change for HT was the September 2009 decision to put out a version in Spanish.   This had been a constant request by the bloggers so that they could share their work with other Cubans.
The effect has been remarkable and growing.  

The Cuban readership from the island was less than five percent the first year; now Cuba is in first place position among our Spanish readers, making up 15 percent of them.  Following this are readers from Spain, the US, Mexico and Venezuela.   In English, Cuba is located in fourth place behind the US, Canada and the United Kingdom.   This doesn’t include the numbers of people in Cuba without Internet connections who receive HT by e-mail.

The project has demonstrated slow but steady growth.  We have a modest average of around 2,000 visits to the site daily and 5,000 pages visited.   This is not an insignificant amount for a relatively new publication that specializes in a single country.

Photo: Caridad

We’re building a varied readership, one of differing political perspectives, but what unites the great majority is a healthy interest or love for Cuba.  They feel comfortable with the inclusive variety of opinions that are read in HT, different from what can be found in the hundreds of sites of apologetic cheerleaders or the many others set up by venomous denigrators.

So is it an effort that is primarily for “yumas” (foreigners), or is it also for Cubans?  Why do you think Cubans read Havana Times?  Is there some special contribution and characteristic of Havana Times when it comes to events taking place in Cuba? 

I believe that Havana Times is playing a modest role in the debate on the present and future of the country and also in the analysis of its past.  One of its fresh contributions is including ordinary people with their diaries or personal blogs as a fundamental part of the site.

There are intellectuals who would say that the level of writing is uneven or not at their level, but we’re not seeking to be an academic publication or one only for intellectuals.   We’re cultivating the general public, which includes them if they want, but they’re not the only ones.   I’d also dare say that everyone who is writing for the site has improved their skills, their ability to express themselves and their arguments.

As for the obvious question of language, we began by directing the magazine toward the Anglophone world and to Cubans who understand English, including many overseas.   But now our readership is much more varied and we have increasingly more readers in different countries of Latin America, like Mexico and Venezuela.

One goal has been to remove the surprise factor for people planning to visit Cuba in the future.   We put both the achievements and the problems on the table, providing certain knowledge to the readers so that when they’re in Cuba they can deepen their attempt to understand a complex and varied country.  I would also say that later, many of these people will find the nuanced Cuba that they discovered in the pages of Havana Times.

For internal debate in Cuba, HT is playing a role like several other sites, providing a setting for critical expression that practically doesn’t exist in the official spaces.   Obviously the big obstacle is the very limited Internet access that Cubans have, but we’ve made a beginning and the tendency is one of growth.

Havana Times has been the object of criticism from distinct political positions.  How do you respond to those critics?   

People with completely closed positions who believe themselves the owners of absolute truth — both those of the supposed left and those on the right — are bothered by the site and they have attacked us.

On the US side, on the right, the best example is a businessman from Massachusetts who owns more than 2,000 Internet domains with Cuba, Havana or other related keywords in their names.  These were secured with the idea of promoting his present and future business activities, including sexual tourism.  Since the very beginning he has maintained that I’m a “high-level agent of Cuban State Security” and that we’re “the Cuban government’s response to the famous dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez.”

Photo: Caridad

At the same time, there are completely unquestioning groups of apologists in Cuba and in solidarity groups abroad who take a dim view of us.  Some of them have told me that we are “playing the enemy’s game” because we publish articles exposing the many difficulties and widespread dissatisfaction in the country. 

Some acquaintances and colleagues of this thought have told me that the youth who complain “should leave the country” instead of contributing criticism about the government and its policies.

Is Circles Robinson “before” Havana Times the same person as “after”? 

My appreciation of life has not changed with the experience of HT though I feel a great warmth from the good friendships that have developed through the project.   We have lived on the razor’s edge, ourselves being sharp hard critics but also constructive ones, hoping for understanding from Cuban officials — who can cause problems for our bloggers and even our readers in Cuba — if they don’t come to the understanding that we’re part of the process of positive change within a revolution that started 52 years ago.

I continue to hold onto the dream of being able to publish Havana Times from Cuba, like I did in the beginning.  In that way I would have more contact with those contributing to the site, as well as be in closer touch with the country and even its authorities. 

It might be a crazy idea on my part, but I feel that there are those even in the party who value positively our contribution to the Cuba trying to overcome this stage of immobility, stagnation and deterioration, and replace it with a new era, one of initiative, creativity, widespread participation and progress with solidarity.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Havana Times Editor Quizzed on Cuba

Havana Times Editor Quizzed on Cuba

HAVANA TIMES, Jan. 14 — The Communist Party of Great Britain’s online/print publication “Weekly Worker” published Thursday an interview conducted by journalist Maciej Zurowski with HT editor Circles Robinson.  The interview gives some background on the starting up of Havana Times as well as some of Robinson’s views on current issues facing Cuba.

The following is the full text of the interview:


Maciej Zurowski interviews Circles Robinson of ‘Havana Times’, a web magazine that features critical writing from Cuba

Weekly Worker, January 13, 2011 – Ever imagined a post-revolutionary scenario where Socialist Worker becomes the only widely available source of information? Well – that vision is very much a reality in Cuba, where Granma, the organ of the Communist Party since 1965, relentlessly hammers home the central committee’s line with little regard for discussion, controversy or stimulating thought. Fidel Castro’s increasingly surrealistic editorials might lift Granma a notch above the drabness that plagues its cousins Trabajadores and Juventud Rebelde, but many would argue that the paper’s relationship with the truth is ambivalent at best.

Publications that serve the cultural needs of the country’s intelligentsia do contain some critical thought. Cine Cubano, for instance, is a glossy film magazine that takes the liberty of castigating the “artistic straitjacket of socialist realism”,[1] while enriching its reviews and discussion pieces with eclectic quotations, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Slavoj Zizek. But beyond the three officially approved national dailies, there has been a distinct lack of critical everyday reporting and analysis of Cuba’s political, economic and social spheres throughout the country’s 50-odd year revolutionary history.

In 2008, a group of Cuban residents founded Havana Times,[2] an internet magazine that prides itself on “open-minded writing from Cuba”. A Cuban news and opinions website that neither consists of sycophantic Castro apologetics nor of its mirror image – the rabid anti-communism peddled by Florida-based Cuban exiles – will come as a surprise to many. Broadly socialist in its outlook and critically supportive of the revolution, it gives a voice to those who are not content to let untouchable leaders do the thinking.

As we interview the editor of Havana Times, Circles Robinson, a wind of change is blowing through Cuba, though hardly the wind of progress. Raúl Castro has announced massive layoffs, employing rhetoric that eerily echoes David Cameron’s talk of a ‘big society’, while paying limp lip service to the paternalistic ‘socialism’ of the past. Meanwhile, foreign investors have been touting Cuba as a potential new emerging market for some time. Against the background of growing class divides and a bureaucratic Communist Party (redefined as the “party of the Cuban nation” rather than a “party of the working class” since 1991), it is high time that Cuban workers began the fight for independent political organisation to defend and advance their interests.

In our interview with Circles Robinson, we spoke about the Havana Times project, the imminent changes in Cuban society, and the Cuban revolution more broadly.

Weekly Worker: Please tell us in brief the story of Havana Times. I understand that you used publish it from mainland Cuba, but have emigrated to Nicaragua more recently. What were the reasons for your move?

Circles Robinson: Havana Times began in Cuba when I, a US citizen, was still working at ESTI, the Cuban government’s official translation and interpretation agency. My job was to translate and revise materials for the official Cuban online media into English. As a member of the Cuban Journalists Association (UPEC), I took part in numerous meetings and workshops to discuss the status of Cuban journalism and ways to improve its credibility at home and abroad, as well as its visibility.

After taking part in the July 2008 UPEC Congress as a voting delegate and studying my notes of what had been discussed, plus certain recommendations the Communist Party had not long before given the Cuban media, I decided to start Havana Times (HT). The idea actually dated back about three years, but it finally seemed like the right moment to launch the website. For nine months I edited the site from Havana. Really, that was an ideal situation despite the slow internet connections in Cuba.

Subsequently, I had a major conflict at work resulting from some of my co-workers and myself openly questioning the unethical conduct of our immediate boss. To get me to support his behaviour he threatened to make a case against me using Havana Times and the fact that I had started it “without permission”, though this was done in my free time. In the end, they simply refused to renew my yearly work contract. While no reason was given, I never felt that HT was the main issue in this.

Since my residency in Cuba was dependent on the job, I was given a month’s notice to leave the country. My family is from Nicaragua and I had lived there for many years before coming to Cuba, so we decided to return there. My commitment to the site remained firm, and having a decent internet connection helps in keeping it updated on schedule. I have returned to Cuba three times for a few weeks each since leaving in June 2009. During those stays I was able to update the site and meet with the HT writers with no problem.

Is it risky for those who live in Cuba to write for Havana Times?

After initial pressure placed on two HT writers, the contributors have thus far been able to continue without further problems. State security has questioned some of them for matters more related to their environmental or community activism, although the topic of HT has been present.

Information about Cuba falls into two main categories. You get bourgeois anti-communist sources on the one hand, and uncritical pro-Castro websites on the other. Because Havana Times is neither, I suspect that both friends and enemies of the Castro regime are wary of it.

Your suspicion is correct. Extremists on either side don’t like the site. I’ve been accused of being a senior Cuban government agent on the one extreme and attacked for having stopped supporting the Cuban revolution on the other. As an online publication I am trying to promote a combination of conventional and new-style reporting, as well as commentary that reflects critical support for the Cuban revolution, which is not necessarily synonymous with its leaders.

This involves seasoned writers and people from different walks of life who want to share their opinions. We try to present a balance and let the readers make up their minds on the different issues. We try to present different aspects of the situation in Cuba, breaking away from both the official monologue and the ill-intentioned imperial discourse.

Though the extremists criticise us, I truly believe that most people who visit Cuba will find their perceptions and observations more closely reflected in Havana Times than in any of the other online publications at this time.

When I visited Cuba, most young people I spoke to had a low opinion of Fidel Castro, while at the same time holding Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in very high esteem. Do you feel that there is continuity between Che’s and Fidel’s politics, or do you think they had radically different visions?

Che’s life in Cuba was during the time of great feats: the toppling of Batista, turning the country’s institutions upside down and starting over, and the most intense attempt by the US to destroy the young revolution. It was a time when most youths in Cuba were inspired and more than willing to give their best to forge a country radically different from that of the past. Che was/is seen as a symbol of that period, and as a selfless hero and visionary. The study of his politics takes a distant back seat and the complexities of his thought and vision are not required reading. I think that he continues to be seen in a favourable light.

Fidel, on the other hand, has been in the driver’s seat for over 50 years. Young Cubans are bombarded with his past and present speeches and writings, which are cited like others would cite from the Bible. He carries with him the weight of both the good and bad decisions made over that long period, and many young people put greater emphasis on the latter since they did not experience the former. A large percentage of young people in today’s Cuba do not feel positive about their present and much less the future. This is a huge difference from their counterparts in the 60s. Therefore, I would agree that Fidel, while publicly receiving massive support, is not quite as popular these days in private – especially among the youth.

Working class people in Cuba have been subsidising the country’s bureaucracy for decades. Their efforts have received little reward, and since the 90s their salaries have been insufficient to meet even basic needs. Raúl Castro has said this in different words, and the economic changes occurring in the country today are supposedly geared to reversing the situation.

Some claim that the Cuban revolution was not genuinely socialist because a minority of guerrillas substituted themselves for the working class. What is your view – can socialism be passed down to the working class from above?

Socialism is power in the hands of the people themselves. I personally do not believe that socialism can be achieved through intermediaries. And time has proven, not only in Cuba, that supposedly ‘short-term intermediaries’ do not end up seeing themselves as short-term and are prone to entrench themselves at the expense of the working class.

Apparently, one million public sector workers will be dismissed over the next one or two years. What are your thoughts about the economic liberalisation – is this only a temporary measure comparable to Lenin’s New Economic Policy, or is it the end of Cuba’s socialist project?

The mass layoffs are the kind of move that makes a company’s share values shoot up on stock markets. President Castro and his lieutenants are telling people that unlike the liberalisation measures taken in the early to mid-90s, which were touted as being temporary, this time they are designed to remain in place.

The government and party have even summoned the main workers’ confederation, the CTC, to be the main supporter of the layoffs and the main persuaders of working class people that such a move is positive for the revolution and for a socialist Cuba.

What can Cuban workers do to defend themselves?

With the leadership of the only trade union in Cuba totally behind the layoffs and reforms, I would say that workers have been left orphaned without any defence. The CTC leadership has for a long time advocated government policies as the best way to defend workers’ rights. The notion that a given government/party policy might be ill-advised is almost never considered.

A great example is that just two years ago the CTC was given the task of convincing workers that it was a good idea to raise the retirement age by five years (for men to 65 and for women to 60). The justification was the ageing of Cuban society and the need for people to stay on the job longer due to a lack of workforce replacements. Now, two years later, the same government and its main advocate are saying there are inflated payrolls with huge numbers of excess workers who need to be laid off as soon as possible.

This does not mean that new forms of worker defence will not emerge, but at this time it is hard to predict.

Likewise, allowing greater opportunities for self-employment and a limited number of small businesses that can hire non-family labour make sense, as the government concentrates on the major industries where there are plenty of problems to resolve.

Nonetheless, if this shift is to succeed, the people who embark on a livelihood outside the state payroll will need assistance for their start-up investments and stocked wholesale markets where they can buy at reasonable prices the products they need. The government says some cooperative businesses will be allowed, but a law that regulates such activity is still forthcoming.

There are those who blame Raúl Castro personally and consider him a traitor to ‘socialism’. Others say that all nationalist-socialist countries inevitably end this way. Our writer, James Turley, concluded in a recent article that “at the end of the day, socialism in one country is socialism in one country – however long it takes, it will only end in tears”. Which view do you agree with? Is it possible for Cuba to be socialist in a capitalist world?

Highly centralised, top-down state-socialism has proven a failure in the long run, while capitalism – despite its longevity – has bred inequality and exploitation and the destruction of our planet. I personally think that Cuba needs to work toward a form of socialism ‘from below’, one that its people consciously decide upon and participate in. Attempting to incorporate aspects from other countries and being creative in both new policies and untried ‘old’, truly socialist ones is where I see most hope.

What are your thoughts on Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian movement – do you think the Venezuelan connection and Chávez’s oil might save Cuba’s economy?

Venezuela and Chávez’s Bolivarian movement is another very different scenario. I have only been there for two weeks in 2006, so I do not have the practical day-to-day experience that I have had in Cuba and Nicaragua. I do support the effort to spread some of the national wealth around to benefit social and economic programmes for the majority population. At the same time, I also have my reservations about too much authoritarianism. There is a tendency to speak in a monologue of absolute truths that sometimes prove false, or to speak in half-truths.

As to Venezuelan oil and the Cuban connection, the big danger for Cuba would be if Chávez loses the next presidential election or something was to happen to him. I remember during the 2002 coup attempt, the first statement by the de facto president, Pedro Carmona, was that not one more drop of Venezuelan oil would be sent to Cuba.

Such an event would be a huge economic blow to Cuba, just like when the Soviet Union folded or maybe worse. Remember, Cuba pays for much of the oil through in-kind professionals who work in Venezuela. If it had to purchase the same oil products elsewhere, it would be on a cash basis and the country is already saddled with a tremendous debt and liquidity crisis.

When I visited Cuba, I noticed some evidently wealthy Cubans, especially in certain parts of Havana, and striking poverty in other parts. Although the official unemployment rate in Cuba is only 4%, it looked as if half of Havana was jobless. The streets were crowded with jineteros (hustlers) attempting to latch on to the tourist industry by selling black-market cigars, rum or drugs. Prostitution was widespread near hotels and tourist-frequented restaurants. What I saw looked like a class society with vast differences of wealth. Is this a development that only began with the advent of tourism? And do you think that the introduction of the convertible peso (the ‘CUC economy’) was a mistake?

I think the downside of the tourist industry, as well as the allowing of family remittances from abroad, has played a big role in the inequalities that you saw.

Years before coming to live in Cuba, I was always impressed with the revolution’s ability to survive the exceedingly difficult times of the early to mid-90s – far more difficult than the early 30s in the USA, for example. One of the possible reasons for survival was implementing the dollar economy (only more recently it became CUC-based), allowing joint ventures to obtain investment capital, as well as turning to foreign tourism to generate revenue. So I would not call it a mistake. The Cuban economy did lift itself up from the ashes. However, the lasting mid-term effects of what was supposed to be a short-term survival strategy have proved quite demoralising to most Cubans. Many of the HT contributors write about the growing inequality in the country.

Do high-ranking Communist Party officials accumulate personal wealth in a way comparable to politicians in capitalist countries?

That is a difficult one to answer, since there is no real investigative journalism allowed in Cuba. What one can say is that numerous high-ranking officials have been dismissed in the last few years for unexplained reasons, although many people believe these were related to corruption, influence trafficking and other types of malfeasance. The details have never been made public and the Cuban press is not allowed to delve into the issue.

One of your guest writers, college student Daisy Valera, wrote an article about Leon Trotsky.[3] Do you think that Trotsky’s ideas might offer a way out of Cuba’s political and economic crisis?

I would say that the writer believes that Trotsky’s ideas should be studied by Cuban students, especially his critique of bureaucratic, non-participatory socialism. She thinks they may find some solutions or ways of implementing socialism that differ from the course taken thus far by the Cuban leadership.

I would like to quote from the words of the late Celia Hart from an interview in which she answers the question: Why does Trotsky’s theoretical contribution seem so important to you?

“In Cuba anti-Stalinist feeling has always existed, because people thought that communism was the Stalinism of the Communist Party. And the Communist Party was one of the last to join the revolution … But, when Fidel announced in 1961 the socialist character of the Cuban revolution, people said: ‘If Fidel is a communist, you can sign me up too’.

“I always felt that there was something missing in my thinking about the revolution. That’s what I’ve found through reading Trotsky: I discovered that social justice and individual freedom were not contradictory and that we weren’t condemned to choose between them, that socialism could only be built by walking on both feet.”

Trotskyists hold the view that countries such as Cuba are ‘deformed’ or ‘degenerated’ workers’ states. They advocate a political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy, but keep the planned economy intact. But there are no avenues in bureaucratic socialist countries through which workers might organise such a political revolution. What do you feel must be done in order to establish workers’ power in Cuba?

The Cuban revolution has achieved much in terms of social justice and a sense of some rights. A sustained push for real participation in a more horizontal decision-making process in the workplace and community, the acceptance and encouragement of critical thought, outlets for freedom of expression and space for new forms of organisation would go a long way to creating the conditions necessary for workers to take the reins of their workplaces and the country.

As the “historical leaders” are now well into their late 70s and 80s and a bureaucratic administrative mechanism is well in place to the exclusion of democratic participation by workers, my greatest concern is that we will see a repeat of what occurred in eastern Europe … that we will see the repeat of history.

Can you tell us if there exists any workplace democracy? Are Cuban workers involved in planning and decision-making? And what rights do workers have when in dispute with the company leadership?

Cuban workers are rarely involved in planning and decision-making. They are informed of centralised planning and decisions made from above, but their voices are rarely taken into account. From what I could see at places where I worked, and in those of friends and colleagues, Cuban workers are pretty much defenceless in disputes with the administration.

The union usually takes the company position against the worker. There are cumbersome channels to appeal, but the success rate is very slim and the worker is usually told by friends or family that it is not worth the trouble to protest with the deck stacked against them. Without support from the union, the worker is pretty helpless to defend what he/she believes is an injustice.

Can workers express their opinions about company matters without the fear of being disciplined?

I myself was surprised that my boss routinely sat in on our union meetings in our office. Workers in most workplaces are extremely cautious about expressing their opinions on company matters if they differ from the party/management/union line. Time has told them they could be the victims of reprisals or have their opportunities for advancement cut short.

Is it easy for the management to sack workers?

It used to be more difficult to fire a worker and if that occurred the government was committed to finding them another job. Today, with the coming massive layoffs, that will no longer be the case. Fear of getting fired has become a new reality for Cuban workers.

Castro apologists outside Cuba are enthusiastic about the democratic election system, whereby Cuban workers stand their own candidates. What can you tell us about this?

The Cuban electoral system looks far better on paper than it does in practice. Virtually no campaigning is permitted: the posting of candidate résumés is as far as it goes. Moreover, candidates have to go through an initial party screening process that is seldom discussed.

How much influence do the elected candidates have over government policies?

Those who are finally elected have relatively little influence on policies and in the case of the nation’s parliament the 600-plus legislators meet for only two very brief sessions a year, during which time they are presented with figures and explanations by the different ministers and the top leaders. Many appear to simply go along with what is put forward out of trust in the revolutionary government.

There is the widespread belief that the Cuban bureaucracy is a lot less repressive towards its people than was the case in countries such as the USSR, Poland, East Germany and China. What can you tell us about the levels of political repression?

I never had the opportunity to visit the USSR, China or the eastern European countries before or after their change of systems. I did recently have a long conversation with a Romanian acquaintance who has travelled to Cuba many times. To her, the controls and repression that existed in her country were far greater than what she sees in Cuba. We agreed that this may be one of the reasons that the revolution and its leaders have survived such difficult times.

The rest is pretty much common knowledge … Cuba is a one-party state with official-only media (except for cracks in the internet blogosphere) and a highly vertical decision-making apparatus increasingly dominated by ageing, white, military men. Those who do not support the party or who question decisions by the leaders do not have much public space in society. The level of repression depends on how vocal an individual is. Speaking out at work, school or in neighbourhood meetings or trying to organise a group that differs from the official line can lead to reprisals at work and even affect the families of the individuals involved.

Do you think that Cuban Marxists should work inside the Communist Party of Cuba or organise outside it?

I think Cuban Marxists should do both. For some, depending on their positions and sphere of influence, the best thing they can do is to work from within. Others, whose space has been cut from under them, are better off expressing themselves and organising outside the party.

To what degree is there freedom of expression within the Communist Party?

I was never a party member, so I am not an expert on the freedom of expression within it. What friends and colleagues have told me is that dissenting opinions and the questioning of the top leaders’ ideas or policies is not well received.

I noticed that bookshops in Cuba were packed with Fidel and ‘Che’ anthologies, as well as José Martí and Napoleon Bonaparte biographies – but the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin were nowhere to be seen. I wonder if young people study Marxist theory at school. Or is socialist consciousness in Cuba limited to nationalism and following infallible leaders?

Yes, students are required to study Marxist-Leninist theory, but it is taught from the old Soviet manuals that go in one ear and out the other. The lack of debate or diversity of ideas makes these classes totally boring for most students. I think your last question says it all.

Poland, where I am originally from, had a very bad experience with ‘socialism’. The Communist Party was widely perceived as a party of bureaucrats and liars – arrogant and patronising at best, tyrannical and corrupt at worst. The long-term effect is such that the majority of Poles will not touch anything that resembles socialism in any shape or form – even though the turn to free-market capitalism did not do the country any good. Can you see the same happening in Cuba, or would Cubans choose socialism today?

I would like to give you an analogy from Nicaragua, which like Cuba used a rationing system during its attempt to move toward socialism in the 80s, when it too was under a blockade from the United States. Statistics show that most of the country’s very low-income majority received more basic foods from the ration system than they can buy today on the open market. However, if you ask people if they would prefer to go back to rationing, the vast majority would say no.

After 20 years of especially hard times, I believe many Cubans are at best either tired of hardship – even if it is blamed on the blockade and US aggression – or they do not believe in the system’s ability to solve the country’s serious problems in food, housing, transportation, wages, etc.

The question of what would happen in a hypothetical vote on socialism today I prefer not to answer because a discussion on ‘What is socialism today?’ would need to happen first and involve the population. Socialism is far vaguer, since there are few examples and maybe none that apply to Cuba and its characteristics. Likewise, many of the Cubans I know are aware that not all of the countries that embraced capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall are exactly thriving.

Finally, could you tell us what role you would like Havana Times to play in Cuban society and what developments in Cuba you would like to support with the publication of your paper?

Havana Times is an effort to present some of the many different facets that make up the Cuban reality. We give a voice to people usually excluded from the existing media, as well as those wanting to put forth proposals for progressive change. There is also room for those supporting existing policies.

I believe that Cuba, as a country that has invested heavily in tourism, needs media outlets that can serve the information needs of visitors, potential visitors, people following the developments in the country from around the world, as well as locals. We are trying to fill a portion of that void.

Those writing for HT also want the publication to play a role in the debate over where Cuba is today and how the country can move forward out of its present state of stagnation and ‘institutional sclerosis’.

I strongly feel that over the years Cubans have shown a great ability to rebound from difficult situations. It is a society with a generally well educated population and we want to give them a sounding board for their descriptions of daily life and their constructive ideas on making it better.


  1. Then again, Cuba always stood out among bureaucratic socialist countries for its rich and diverse visual arts. Though Cuban artists have never been put in a stylistic “straitjacket of socialist realism”, there are however certain limitations to their freedom: “There is freedom of artistic creation as long as its content is not contrary to the revolution,” states the constitution of the Republic of Cuba in chapter 5: ‘Education and culture’.

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