Does Haiti exist?

Haiti was the first independent country of Latin America. In the last years of the 18th century the French colony of Santo Domingo, which occupied the western half of the island of Hispaniola, saw the coffee and sugar cane plantations that had produced such immense wealth for Europe set ablaze. The fires were started by black slaves, whether brought over from Africa or born in the colony, who had the audacity to think that the enlightenment dream that liberty, equality, and fraternity were possible for all men applied to them as well, the most exploited and unequal, though men nonetheless.

The challenge presented to the world and history by black Haitian ex-slaves seemed too audacious and was promptly reduced to a secular curse. Since that time Haiti would be the site of invasions and occupations, dictatorships and violence, misery, suffering, ignorance, fear, and fanaticism. The dreams of utopia extinguished, Haiti would become a window into hell on the face of the earth.

Haiti needs the help that is arriving today, but it has needed this help for a long time – help to extract itself from its ancestral misery, its intense ignorance, and its poverty

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, the most illiterate, the most afflicted by violence and disease, hunger and ill health. Nine million men, women and children, almost entirely black, live on a rough and depleted stretch of land periodically overrun by the kind of violence that erupts among the poorest, least educated, and dispossessed: radical and without limit. In Haiti, hundreds of children, women, and old people die each day of hunger, malnutrition, curable diseases, and desolation.

Until the fury of nature devastated the Haitian capital on 12 January, leaving a toll of the dead still impossible to quantify, who talked about Haiti? Who remembered Haiti and its eternal agony?

Today the governments of many countries are expressing their concern and offering humanitarian assistance to the ravaged country. Thanks to an earthquake that seems straight out of the Book of Revelations (though fury of this nature cannot be divine), Haiti is being talked about, helped, and remembered. The assistance and rescue teams that reach Haiti will certainly save lives, feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless and dispossessed. But when the crisis is past, who will continue to help Haiti?

The tens of thousands of dead that now lie beneath the ruins of a catastrophically poor city, in open improvised ditches and even in the streets, are moving in a particular way. But what of those who died of hunger and despair the day before? Who was moved by them?

Now when we speak of Haiti we should use words not only of condolence but also of hope. Haiti needs the help that is arriving today, but it has needed this help for a long time – help to extract itself from its ancestral misery, its intense ignorance, and its poverty, which are as, if not more, devastating than the most destructive earthquake. The fury of nature has reminded us that Haiti exists. Let us hope that tomorrow, when the tragedy no longer dominates the headlines and the appeals of international organizations, when the dead are buried, we will not forget that Haiti still exists, poor and miserable, and that its people will continue to die unless a real effort is made to change the tragic destiny that an unjust world inflicted on the descendants of the slaves who two centuries ago fought for liberty, equality, and fraternity among men. As if it were possible.

Copyright IPS. Reprinted with permission.

Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into more than 15 languages. His most recent work is The Man Who Loved Dogs, featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin Ramon Mercader as central characters.

more coverage/comment on Haiti:

Aid or invade? Blog by Sokari Ekine

Haiti: disaster aid or disaster capitalism? Richard Swift reports from the Caribbean.

Obama's Cuba challenge

It’s important to remember that before an end to the US embargo of Cuba became even remotely conceivable, certain major international developments had to take place: the profound political shift in Latin America, the moving election of the first black president of the United States (a man, moreover, committed to change in its widest sense) and the financial and economic cataclysm that has shaken the capitalist system to its roots. Without these events the commercial, economic and financial embargo/blockade of Cuba, decreed 47 years ago (since February 1962) may have continued for who knows how long in its perennial form, condemned by many in international forums, denounced by the Cuban Government, suffered by the Cuban people and kept in place by successive US administrations that believed it could force political change in Havana.

But the change that Washington was after never came and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to recognize, finally, the clear failure of the US policy towards Cuba. In his speech to the Fifth Summit of the Americas meeting in Port of Spain, Trinidad, last April, President Barack Obama went even further, suggesting: ‘I think that we can move Cuban-American relations in a new direction.’ He made it clear that he was not talking this way just to look good in a setting where the lack of representatives from Cuba and the problem of the embargo were recurring issues.

Thus far there have been more words than action. But there is no doubt that a new wind is blowing. The Obama administration eliminated restrictions on travel to Cuba by Cubans living in the US and on remittances to family members on the island. And there is the possibility that new contracts will be negotiated to improve communications between the US and Cuba. It is no accident that after those initiatives President Raul Castro expressed to the new administration in Washington his openness to ‘discuss anything – human rights, freedom of the press, political detainees’ with only one condition: that talks be conducted ‘between equals, without the minimum shadow cast on our sovereignty’.

But President Obama, an enemy of empty rhetoric, could not escape the usual formulae, and noted that Cuba would have to take steps towards reconciliation and demonstrate its desire for change to bring about the greatest possible understanding between the countries.

What he seems to have forgotten is that the embargo was an indispensable ally of the Cuban Government. For decades it generated considerable political capital and international solidarity and was used deftly by Havana both to justify domestic policy and to be the scapegoat for many of the shortages that made life on the island more difficult. It’s for these reasons that the elimination of the embargo is not an urgent matter for the Cuban Government – even though it will ease various economic and social problems that are unpredictable and therefore risky for the status quo. Cuba has already demonstrated that it can survive without the support of the defunct socialism of the former Soviet bloc and despite the strengthened blockade of the Bush years.

Perhaps the most important element to bear in mind is whether the changes that should be introduced in the Cuban economy and society will be a response to the new climate of understanding, or whether they will be dictated by the realities of a country desperate for ‘structural and conceptual’ changes.

It seems inevitable that certain changes will come, albeit slowly, delayed and scaled back. There are many things that need to be fixed urgently because they are a burden on the daily life of Cubans and threaten the future of the social system far more than the embargo. A brief list would include:

  • the proverbial economic inefficiency of the island which has been incapable of meeting the many needs of the country, even in areas like agriculture;

  • the social erosion seen in the marginalization of sectors of Cuban society and the tendency of many young people to emigrate;

  • the inability of the machinery of production to resolve problems like the housing shortage (half a million houses are needed, while Havana fills with dangerous ruins);

  • the noted disparity between the cost of living and state salaries as well as a monetary system with two currencies (US dollar and Cuban peso) and thus two economies that don’t communicate with each other;

  • the need for Cubans to procure a permit to leave or return to the island.

For the past 20 years, since the collapse of the USSR, Cuba has been in a phase that in the early 1990s was dubbed ‘The Special Period in Times of Peace’ – a name that suggested a reality far less severe than the profound and general crisis that it designated. Though in recent times many of the elements of this crisis have been alleviated (the supply of medicines and urban transport in Havana, for example) or overcome (blackouts that could last as long as 16 hours a day), it is important to remember that an entire generation of Cubans have grown up battered by the conditions of this period. In addition to the shortage of material goods there was also moral decay, seen in phenomena like voluntary unemployment, the resurgence of prostitution, the proliferation of urban tribes of young people, the loss of various ethical values, corruption.

Cuba has to change. Not as a gesture intended for the other side of the Florida Straits but because of its own needs and shortcomings. Maybe now that the United States is finally viewing the world from a more realistic perspective, it will come to see that the elimination or scaling back of the embargo might be the most likely way to bring about these and other changes in its closest Caribbean neighbour.

Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and occasional contributor to New Internationalist. His novels have been translated into a dozen languages. His most recent work La neblina del ayer won the Hammett Prize for the best crime novel written in Spanish for 2005. © IPS

Waiting in line

Leonardo Padura Fuentes

The most nettlesome and persistent institution established in Cuba over the last five decades is the queue. From the first years of the triumph of the Revolution, when scarcity started to be a daily presence, the queue began to generate its own philosophy. No Cuban who has experienced the reality of island life over these past decades is unfamiliar with questions like ‘Who’s last?’ when joining a queue for bread, the bus, or the doctor, and none can suppress a shudder at the sound of the most feared pronouncement for Cubans: ‘That’s the end’, referring to whatever was being sold or offered.

Queues have their own logic, perverse though rigorous. For example, the first in line have a better chance of actually getting the product or service they are waiting for; those at the tail end are almost certain not to.

But there is a queue in Cuba that escapes any form of logic whatsoever, from the tricks of the most practised ‘line jockeys’ to the supernatural interventions by spiritualists and santero folk priests. It is the most dramatic and frustrating – or gratifying – queue anywhere on the island, and offers a commodity that is both concrete and volatile: a visa.

At the end of the 1970s, the Carter Administration took important steps towards bringing about an understanding between Washington and Havana, which had been estranged since the US broke off relations in 1961. One of the results of the conversations held at that time was the establishment of the US Interests Section in Havana and a corresponding office for Cuba in the US. Since that time the US Interests Section has been charged with dealing with procedural requirements for Cubans wishing to visit or move permanently to the US.

It would take too long to sketch out the stages through which the issue of Cuban migration to the US has passed in the last 50 years. But one thing has not changed: the regulation of the separation of families, of travel abroad, and of legal or illegal migration for political ends. Better than any document or announced policy, the queue into the US Interests Office in Havana reflects the temperature of relations between these two countries with such complex historical, cultural, and familial relations. The queue is a literal dramatization of the progression of policies adopted by consecutive US administrations to Cuba and of the motivations of Cubans who have dreamed of crossing to the other side of the Strait of Florida.

When someone joins this queue, he knows that he has instantaneously fallen beyond the scope of reason and statistical predictability and into an area of twisted logic. In this queue, it is impossible to know what law prevails, what one’s chances are, or even whether the magic ‘powders’ from the most renowned Cuban santeros would have any effect. Dreams of travel and meeting up with family members are dashed for reasons that change from one day to the next, or from one person to the next, and even for the same person, merely because there is a change in the thinking of a functionary in charge of granting, or denying, visas.

The most dramatic and frustrating – or gratifying – queue anywhere on the island offers a commodity that is both concrete and volatile: a visa

The daily absurdity experienced in this line is essentially the absurdity of the policies implemented by Washington over the course of recent decades. The fact that the toppling of Cuba’s socialist Government has been transformed into an important lever in US electoral politics has infected the realism that would be necessary for healthy bilateral relations. Over the decades, the embargo established by President John F Kennedy in 1962 has been tightened – as under Bush – and relaxed repeatedly without ever achieving its primary objective.

Meanwhile, the embargo and various acts of aggression against Cuba by the US have provided the Cuban Government with an excuse for political and ideological entrenchment and for crackdowns on possible dissidents.

A year ago, when then-provisional President Raul Castro made an overture to the US, the response was fundamentalist and hostile, and Havana’s counter response was the usual: that after 50 years, Washington’s hostility (the major effect of which has been the suffering of individual Cubans) has not budged the Cuban Government.

Today, with this month’s US presidential elections, Cubans are asking themselves what might change in these stagnated relations that affect them so powerfully. McCain promises more of the same, and we know that Havana will respond in kind, with unity, intransigence, and the rejection of change, whatever the cost. Obama promises certain shifts – in travel policy and remittances to family in Cuba from the US – that would not address the central problem.

And even though more and more people, politicians included, recognize that the tactic employed by Washington has not and will not induce Havana to make changes – the contrary is true – the Cuban question, always prominent in electoral season, does not seem likely to produce the fundamental changes that might have a domino effect.

Or is it a deadlock that politicians need, and want? Cubans are asking. Meanwhile, those who anxiously wait in the queue at the US Interests office eye the cold, grey building, more enigmatic and stubborn than the oracle at Delphi, and think: the key to my destiny may lie there.

© IPS

Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist. His most recent work, La nieblina de ayer, won the Hammett Prize for the best crime novel written in Spanish for 2005.

Cuban futurology

It would be interesting to know who first floated the idea that Cuban writers have a special gift for predicting the future. Whenever foreign journalists interview writers from the island, they are invariably asked how they see the future of the country. And each time the writer has to take out their crystal ball, fire up their imagination, slip into their 21st-century fortune-teller garb and try to convince the journalist that since we are often unable to understand the present, it must be near impossible to make out the future.

The persistence of this question is a clear indication that Cuba and its destiny are a problem that worries those beyond the island as well (and, of course, people are interested in more than just its poor writers). But the questioners have good reason for their persistence: between domestic uncertainty and threats from abroad, the majority of those interested see Cuba's destiny as a dark cloud in which you can barely make out a few silhouettes.

However, even granting that my doubts outweigh my certainties, I think the year that ends with the US presidential elections of November 2008 might be, for a number of reasons, decisive for the future of Cuba.

As is well known, the Cuban ‘problem’ has an undeniable value in the US vote market. Thus, availing himself of the proverbial opportunity to be inopportune, President Bush outlined his final policy towards the island just days before the UN General Assembly approved by a great majority a Cuban draft resolution calling for an end to the US embargo (or blockade). Mr Bush proposed not only to reinforce the embargo but also to encourage domestic subversion and to assist the island once it begins its ‘democratic, post-communist’ period.

Bush's proposals are neither new nor surprising. They are typical of the traumatic relationship between Cuba and the US, which since the 19th century has been twisted by the imperial arrogance of Washington's policy towards the island, and which in the last 50 years has reached startling levels of irrationality and determination. How is it possible that Washington has normal relations with China – and even Vietnam – but refuses to soften its stance towards Cuba?

The belligerent talk of the US President had an immediate effect, as it always does, with Havana hardening its position in response to concrete threats. Just a few months beforehand – last July – acting President Raúl Castro had signalled to Washington an openness to come to an understanding on an equal basis. Bush’s move destroyed any such possibility and returned the countries to their permanent Cold War footing. Cubans on both sides of the Florida strait are now setting their sights on next November’s elections, after which a new US President will choose one of two paths: maintaining the current hostility or beginning a thaw which many Cubans and Americans have been dreaming about for years.

The year that ends with the US presidential elections of November 2008 might be decisive for the future of Cuba

The hardening of Bush’s policy towards Cuba comes at a time when there are real discussions under way on the island about what might accurately be called a possible transition: the search for structural and conceptual changes that Raúl Castro has himself demanded.

Although the Government insists that the option of Cuban socialism is eternal and irreversible, a sizeable part of the population is asking for a profound shake-up. Even areas where there have been huge gains – like public health and education – are plagued by a shortage of qualified personnel and corruption. Ordinary Cubans are demanding more flexible economic policies – characterized by some as more realistic – and even changes to the decision-making system.

Cubans want realistic salaries, more housing, a revitalization of economic models and freedom to travel. This clamour for improved living conditions is a clear indication of a lack of support for various structures that have been frozen by orthodoxy, bureaucratization and volunteerism.

An important question is whether the Cuban Government, in an atmosphere of belligerence from the US and serious economic problems at home, has the political space (and the will) to make these changes. How far can it go if entrenched conservative forces on the island opt for immobility, even if this means going against a public that is increasingly hungry for change?

The problems are real. For decades Cuba has been unable to find a solution to shortages of consumer goods and a lack of housing. Interest in work has fallen in direct proportion to the impossibility of meeting daily needs with one's salary. Production in sectors like agriculture is inefficient. The circulation of two currencies – Cuban pesos and US dollars – has generated huge disparities, depending on who has access to the latter. Corruption, prostitution and street violence are growing. The introduction of ‘structural and conceptual’ changes is clearly advisable, if not indispensable.

It seems that the future of Cuba of such interest to visiting journalists is being decided at this very moment. The future is in the present and it is being played out both on and off the island. The necessity of change without threats and interference will determine that future – which could also involve political change. But immobility on one side and imperial aggression on the other will only deepen the problems until they become asphyxiating – or until the future becomes only an imitation of the present.

© IPS

Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist. His most recent work, La nieblina de ayer, won the Hammett Prize for the best crime novel written in Spanish for 2005.