Sunday, August 15, 2004

Umansky on Cuba

Check out Eric Umansky's diary of his recent week-long visit to Cuba in the on-line magazine SLATE. Umanksy has done his homework and doesn't fall into the apologetics and Fidel-worship of many visitors. This is world's removed from the sad tales chronicled by David Caute (The Fellow Travellors) and Paul Hollander (Political Pilgrims.)

Umansky's entry for Friday was especially interesting--a report on a meeting with human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez.

Sanchez criticizes the Bush administration: everybody else I've spoken to—dissidents or otherwise—Sanchez rails against the U.S. embargo and the Bush administration's hardline policies. "The White House's policies are causing us—the opposition—to lose," he says. "There's an old saying, 'The best ally of a dictator is a foreign enemy.' The result is that the White House has facilitated repression here."

Sanchez picks up a copy of the State Department's recent report titled, "Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba."

"Look at the chapter one," he says, pointing to the title: " 'Hastening Cuba's Transition.' "

He waves the paper in disgust. "In Cuba, there's a great nationalist feeling," he says. "The Bush administration just doesn't understand Latin America."

Flipping to the acknowledgements page, Sanchez starts jabbing his finger at the names of Daniel Fisk and Roger Noriega, two hard-liners who helped oversee the report. "These two have never been to Cuba; they've never asked us dissidents what we think. We feel like hostages to their policy."

And he criticizes Castro:

Sanchez starts talking about Cuba itself. He shows me two maps, one of prisons in Cuba before the revolution and one now. The new map shows perhaps 10 times as many prisons. "We never used to be a country of crime," says Sanchez. "Now we have one of the largest incarceration rates in the world." Thousands—mostly suspected prostitutes, he says—are jailed under a law against "dangerousness," a vague Minority Report-type provision that essentially criminalizes intentions.

Sanchez's work is well-regarded. But it's impossible to verify his numbers, since, as he points out, Cuba keeps its incarceration rates secret and prohibits inspections by human rights groups or the Red Cross—the only country in the Western hemisphere to do so.

"Welcome to our gulag," Sanchez says, pointing to the map. As others have explained to me, it's not that there are thousands of political prisoners. It's that so much of regular life—from selling a car to owning a VCR—has been made illegal. So just about everybody breaks the law. They are pushed into doing so because of the absurdly low state salaries (about 260 pesos or $10 per month). Cubans get free monthly rations—in addition to free education and health care—but it's not enough, so just about everybody in one way or another works in the black market. (One example: When I was driving, I saw farmers offering peanuts along the side of the road. Then, at one point, they ran off into the bushes. Turns out a police car was driving by.)

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