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Friends of Castro can redeem themselves by becoming Friends of Cuba. Related Gully stories:

Elian Democracy
Miami Cuban response to Fed's rulings.

The Cuba Files
Articles covering Cuba's past and present.

Al Gore
Eats Elian
Foreign policy when votes are at stake.

The Complete Elian
The Gully's essays on the Elian Gonzalez saga.

Cuba Today:
The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

che peso

by Toby Eglund

Complete Coverage Cuba

MARCH 5, 2000. A medical doctor turned anti-abortion and anti-Castro activist was sentenced to 3 years in prison in Havana on February 25. His offences included, among other things, waving a placard reading "Child Murderers" in a Havana park, trying to organize a series of anti-government fasts, marches and rallies, and hanging Cuban flags upside-down from his balcony as a sign of protest.

The prosecution had asked for the maximum penalty of 7 years of prison for Oscar Elias Biscet, 38, on three charges: "insulting symbols of the fatherland", "public disorder" and "instigation to commit crime". State prosecutor Eugenio Martinez accused Biscet of receiving money from the powerful Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), a right-wing anti-Castro group, and of having caused "violent disturbances".

Biscet and his supporters reportedly had scuffled with passers-by enraged by the "Child Murderers" placards they were waving. Abortion "is extremely common and carries virtually no social stigma in Cuba," reported Vivian Sequera, who covered the Biscet trial for the Associated Press. That is why Biscet's "anti-abortion declaration [was] largely misunderstood," she added. In fact, it may have been only too well understood.

At his trial, Biscet said that he became an activist after he was fired for protesting late-term abortions at a government hospital where he worked. He founded what he described as "a humanitarian group dedicated to defending life and liberty," and opposed to abortion and the death penalty. Biscet said he was a peaceful opponent to Castro's one-party communist system and denied getting any money from the U.S.

Sequera also reported that although the upside-down flag incident was not about abortion, Biscet's "opposition to Cuban policies allowing abortion on demand has been a constant theme in interviews with foreign journalists and in demonstrations calling for freedom of expression and the release of political prisoners."

Six foreign correspondents and half a dozen diplomats, including from the U.S., Canada, Spain and Poland, were allowed to attend the trial, in a departure from recent policy. Opposition activists have lately begun staging noisy protests in front of courthouses where dissidents' trials are taking place, clashing with Castro supporters and the police. At least nine anti-government activists were briefly detained on the day of the Biscet trial, apparently to prevent such protests.

THE GOOD: Abortion on demand.

THE BAD: Biscet not allowed to peacefully express his views. Castro's dumb repressive policies.

THE UGLY: An "abortion rights = Castro" future. Possible right-wing hijacking of opposition to Castro (disastrous both for the opposition and for Cuba's future). Moral & intellectual turpitude of uncritical lefty/liberal F.O.C.'s (Friends of Castro) of the world, who share blame with the U.S. for all of the above.

(F.O.C.'s can still redeem themselves by becoming Friends of Cuba instead, and scrambling to counter U.S., CANF and other rightist pulls on the island's internal opposition, while seeing Castro for what he is. Not an easy task, I admit.)

As the Biscet case proves, Cuba is a maddeningly complex knot of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Gagging the Press
Cuba continues to obstinately buck the trend towards democratization in Latin America. There's still no freedom of the press—all media is government-owned and strenuously censored—political parties other than Castro's PCC (Cuban Communist Party) are not allowed, all unions are state-run and labor rights are curtailed, and freedom of speech and association are severely restricted, particularly in the public political arena.

The government constantly harasses the tiny, fragmented opposition groups, which are better known to the foreign media than to average Cubans. Opposition activists are routinely detained, then released, and thrown out of their jobs, while their lives are made unpleasant in a myriad of petty and not so petty ways.

Political detainees in Cuba "were sometimes subjected to psychological pressure, such as solitary confinement, long, intense interrogations, threats and insults," Amnesty International reported in 1999. Their trials often "fell far short of international standards of fairness" and some "had no legal representation".

However, while several detainees had been beaten by cops and prison guards, Cuba was one of the few Latin American countries where Amnesty found no cases of torture, ill-treatment and murder by police and security forces, or armed paramilitary groups in 1998.

Human Rights Watch, on the other hand, reported in 1999 that in several instances it had researched, "the inhumane conditions and the punitive measures" against political prisoners had been "so cruel as to rise to the level of torture."

A Long, Healthy Life
mother and sonOn the other hand, infant mortality just dropped again, to 6.4 per 1,000, putting Cuba ahead of the U.S. (7 per 1,000) and way ahead of the rest of Latin America, where it ranges from 11 (Costa Rica) to 92 (Haiti).

Cubans born in 1997 could expect to live 75.7 years (US: 76.7). Only 7 of 1,000 children would die before their 5th birthday, just as in the U.S. Almost 96% of the adult population knew the three R's. Cuba was by far Latin America's leader in slashing under-five mortality, and a close second in life expectancy and literacy.

In 1993, Cuba was the world leader in number of doctors per people, with an estimated 518 doctors and 752 nurses per 100,000 people (U.S.: 245 doctors, 878 nurses estimated). This may explain why Cuba's doctor diplomacy--sending medical teams to other poor countries and training their doctors--has replaced since the mid-1980's military aid to insurgent groups as the country's favorite international good-will tool.

Education is free and, up to the 9th grade, compulsory. In 1997, 99.9% of primary-school kids were enrolled in school in Cuba, just as in the U.S.

Cuba matched Japan (and outpaced most of Latin America) in two key education indicators: all children in both countries reached the 5th grade, and 23% of college students were enrolled in science careers.

cuba kids In 1996, Cuba had a remarkable 2.7 R&D (research and development) scientists and technicians per 1,000 people (U.S.: 3.6). It ranked 15th in the world in this area, ahead of developed countries such as Spain, Italy, Ireland, and New Zealand, and way ahead of Argentina (0.8), its nearest Latin American competitor. Unfortunately, many a highly qualified engineer is driving tourist cabs in Havana today or hauling tourist suitcases, just to make a dollar.

Overall, Cuba ranked 58th in the 1999 United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), which measures "longevity, knowledge and decent standard of living" in 174 countries. Among Latin American countries, it was the 9th highest ranking, behind Argentina and Chile, but ahead of Ecuador and Brazil.

Had Cuba's income per capita not been estimated at a paltry $3,100 (less than half that of Colombia, which was ranked 57th globally and 8th in Latin America) its HDI ranking would have soared. In other words: Castro's government has been as inept in generating wealth as it has been adept at squeezing maximum human development bang for every buck it makes.

While Cuba is by no stretch of the imagination a prosperous country, the U.N. reports that it has one of the lowest rates (4.7%) of human poverty in the developing world. Cuba is one of the five top-scoring developing countries in the U.N. Human Poverty Index (HPI), which measures a long and healthy life, knowledge, economic provisioning and social inclusion. The only other Latin American countries that made it to this top-five list were Uruguay and Costa Rica. Ironically, the U.S. is the industrialized country with the highest human poverty (16.5%) according to the HPI.

Return of the Queens
Homophobia is still very much part of the culture, but the government has ceased to target lesbians and gay men for particular opprobrium, as it did in the 60's and early 70's, when thousands of gay men were interned in military work camps and queers were purged from universities, boarding schools, and prestigious jobs. Male transvestite performers have regained their traditional place in showbiz. Although there are no openly queer bars, gay cruising areas and lesbian/gay house parties are flourishing in Havana and nobody seems to care.

cigar workerWomen gained the right to vote and be elected in Cuba in 1934, the same year they did in Brazil, and two years after Uruguayan women got that right. The rest of Latin America would have to wait another decade. There was a vibrant women's rights movement in Cuba as early as the 1920's.

Women have been among the prime beneficiaries of Castro's social policies, especially in terms of health, education and employment. In 1998, 82% of married women ages 15-49 in Cuba used contraception, against 71% in the U.S. Women made up 37.8% of the workforce (U.S.: 45.7%). Cuban government data for 1994 indicates that more than 56% of college graduates and 61% of mid- and high-level technicians were women.

Yet, in spite of all this, representation of women at all levels of government in 1996 was an unimpressive 9.1% (compared to 20.5% in Colombia and 33.1% in the U.S.). Cuban women at ministerial level were a dismal 2.7% (Colombia: 12.5%; U.S.: 14.3%).

It's the Economy, Silly!
The largely government-controlled economy continues to be famously inefficient. Consumer product distribution remains erratic, shortages chronic. The 38-year old U.S. embargo makes matters worse.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 sent Cuba's economy into a tailspin: it lost 35% of its gross domestic product (GDP). The government was forced to undertake some economic reforms. Struggling to recover, Cuba has been slowly opening itself to joint ventures with Canadian and European companies, mostly in the tourism industry. This movement has accelerated recently.

As a result, there are two economies in Cuba today. A dollar economy, where those who work in the tourism industry or receive money from Miami can buy a great deal of things at ridiculously inflated prices. And a Cuban peso economy, in which you can buy next to nothing.

An unintended side effect is the resurgence of prostitution, which had been stomped out by the Castro government soon after it took power.

cuban farmerAnother is that white Cubans (37% in a population of 11 million) have more access to dollars than mulatto (51%), black (11%) and Chinese (1%) Cubans, courtesy of the predominantly white Cuban-Americans, and of racially discriminatory hiring practices in foreign-run hotels and other businesses that cater to tourists, which the Castro government shockingly tolerates.

Racial inequities, much improved but not totally erased by Castro's revolution, could now soar again, propelled by the dollar. Mulatto and black Cubans are over represented in Cuba's prisons, Castro himself acknowledged last January to a group of prominent African-Americans that traveled to Havana under the aegis of TransAfrica, a private Washington, D.C. policy group.

While the U.S. dawdles in the grotesque Elian Gonzalez saga, six European, Canadian and Latin American oil companies are vying to corner the exploration of Cuba's potentially oil-rich offshore area, a 112,000 square kilometer swath off the island's north-western coast.

The hottest ticket in Cuba today is not a return-Elian-to-the-homeland demo but a 12-week crash course in capitalist business management organized by the European Commission with teachers from the London School of Economics, the elite French Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales and the two top Spanish business schools. The course, which reportedly is cranking out high-level Cuban executives by the hundreds, is enthusiastically backed by the Castro government.

The U.S. may be missing the boat to Havana, again.

Complete Coverage Cuba

Related links:

For Amnesty International's 1999 report on Cuba.

For the 1999 Human Rights Watch report "Cuba's Repressive Machinery: Human Rights Forty Years After the Revolution".

For the United Nation's Human Development Report, 1999.

For a sharp take on Cuba's new inequality, see The Economist's Mala Vista Social Club.

For more on gays (and blacks) in Cuba, see Blacklight Online.

For a historical overview that, refreshingly, includes blacks, see Jean Stubb's article Cuba.

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