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GlobalPost's Nick Miroff discusses the Cuban art scene, the country's economic doldrums, and changes emerging eight months after Raul Castro took over as President.
A man walks past graffitti that reads "Long live Fidel" in Santiago de Cuba (photo by Claudia Daut/Reuters)
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Below is the transcript of the Correspondent Call with Nick Miroff.
Passport: Good morning and welcome everyone, its Wednesday, October 27. I’m David Case, Editor of GlobalPost Passport in our Boston newsroom. Cuba is the topic of today’s call, I must say we’re elated to have Nick Miroff on the phone, we spent most of the day figuring out a way we could get a phone connection through between Boston and Havana and we finally managed to do that, we have a very nice, clear one today. So we’re very happy to have Nick with us, good morning, Nick.
Nick Miroff: Good morning David, it’s good to hear you so clearly.
Passport: Yeah. Cuba is a vestige of the Cold War, an exotic island with great cigars, music and beaches and a new frontier for US business. That is, if only Washington and Miami could overcome the stalemate with Havana. Earlier this year, hope for détente emerged when the Obama administration offered some concessions. But, as GlobalPost’s Nick Miroff reported last week, Cuba is not warming up to the Obama administration’s overture. “A firewall of mistrust remains between the two countries, split by fifty years of hostile relations and emotional politics,” he wrote.
Before we begin, I have a few announcements. First, remember that the call is being recorded and will be posted on Passport’s website. As usual, I’m going to lead a Q and A that will last about 20 minutes or so, but if you’d like to ask a question, please feel free to jump in. Your lines are muted, so to un-mute yourself before you speak, press *6. We ask that you identify yourself, make questions relevant to the topic we’re discussing and be mindful of the time. We also have about five or ten minutes at the end for unrelated questions.
Nick, before we officially began we had been talking about Belkis Ayon, this printmaker whom you wrote about earlier this week. I actually missed the piece that you published, but one of the Passport members pointed it out to me and these prints are really quite haunting. They’re beautiful. If anyone hasn’t seen the piece, I really recommend you go to the Americas page and under Cuba, you can find it pretty easily. But the Passport member… let’s just start with this and then we can jump into more serious stuff. This Passport member’s asking, “how famous is she in Cuba?” How celebrated is she? And also, you gave the impression that her sister was about to publish a book about Belkis. Can you tell us more about that?
Miroff: Sure. Belkis Ayon is very well-known in Cuba, and at the time of her suicide ten years ago, because this current exhibit is timed to coincide with the ten-year anniversary of her death, when she took her own life on September 11, 1999, she was just 32 years old and she was already one the most famous Cuban artists. And certainly one of the most well-known up and coming young artists. She had a very unusual print-making style I’d never heard of before working on the story, but its called calograpy and when she started in the late 80s, early 90s, she was working at a time of terrible economic catastrophe here in Cuba and there was an acute shortage of materials, so her prints, rather than being lithographs or etchings on expensive materials, her prints are made of, you know, she would take little pieces of paper and build kind of a texture that she could use as what’s called a matrix, that’s kind of the negative, and then she would make prints from that, giving her prints these kinds of patterns and texture that is apparently very difficult to do. And she was also distinguished not only by her technique, but by her subject matter. She took viewers into this mysterious world of the Abakua secret society, an African-derived tradition here that excludes women; it’s an all-male practice, that didn’t really have its own visual culture. And here you have this woman representing these sort of sacred symbols and signs and myths and that attracted a lot of attention. And throughout most of the 90s while she was in her 20s, was traveling abroad and her work was sought after by collectors in Europe and the US and three months before she took her own life, the New York Museum of Modern Art acquired one of her works, which as you can imagine, is a big triumph for a young artist. So she was really well known here at the time. In addition to what I just described, she was also a popular instructor at an important local art academy. And her sister now has taken up the cause of her art and telling her sister’s story and it is my understanding that she’s working on a book that would be something like a catalogue of Belkis’ work. And if listeners here are interested in seeing what her stuff looks like, its on the GlobalPost website right now, its actually an audio slideshow. So, rather than a print article, it’s a narrated slide show that features many of her works and as you’d be able to see, they do have a very haunting quality to them that I still find very striking.
Passport: Right. Its very emotionally powerful stuff. Nick, staying on the topic of popular culture, we’ve heard that Sean Penn is in Cuba right now. He played a very controversial role in the country last year for Vanity Fair. What’s he up to at this point?
Miroff: That’s right! All that I know is that he arrived here a couple days ago, the website TMZ reported that he was coming down here on assignment from Vanity Fair and everyone assumes that he’s trying to get a follow-up interview with Raul Castro. So far, the Cuban state media have reported that he’s on the Isle of Youth, which is a separate island, off the southern coast of Cuba. He’s down there meeting with some well-known Cuban artists who have a project that basically brings art and culture to remote rural communities. And I think he’s down there with them, and I’m not sure if he’s still there or he’s already back here, but I think that most of the press corps here in Havana are all going to be interested to see if he does land his interview. Raul Castro certainly doesn’t meet with many foreign journalists and we’re also curious to see if Fidel Castro will receive Sean Penn. Now, last year when he was down here on assignment, he did land those big interviews and he reported an openness, a willingness of Castro to meet with Obama, to discuss anything and everything, which were essentially Raul Castro’s words, and even suggested that they could hold talks at the Guantanamo Naval base. So, obviously, that attracted a lot of attention. Those stories appeared in The Nation, and as you mentioned, Sean Penn was criticized and it did touch off a bit of a controversy because he’s still viewed, primarily, obviously, as an actor and not as a professional reporter, but in this case, his fame does open some very tough-to-crack doors.
Passport: It’s been eight months since Raul Castro took over as the President of Cuba. What’s changed in that time?
Miroff: Well, there haven’t been major changes, but I would say there have been small, but significant ones. You know, the Cuban socialist system is still overwhelmingly unchanged, but there have been some limited economic reforms. Raul Castro has created a program to turn idle, state controlled farmland over to farmers – to private farmers, to cooperatives – really in a desperate attempt to increase local food production and to substitute imported food. And then there have been some over small things that have made it easier for people to have two jobs now that was legalized. Before, you could only legally have one job. He’s lifted limits on salaries and there’s a new pilot program that would eliminate workplace cafeterias. In every Cuban workplace, there’s a cafeteria and these cafeterias end up feeding lunch to about a third of the country’s population every weekday at a pretty significant cost to the government. And so there’s a pilot program to eliminate them as well as a proposal that’s just been floated and that we’ve just reported on in GlobalPost, which is about the possible elimination of the ration book and we’ve seen a significant change to this kind of hallmark of the Cuban system. Now, all of these, on the grand scheme of things seem pretty small, but they indicate a change away from the kind of egalitarian culture of everyone really having the same and toward one that is looking to improve Cuba’s economy be rewarding individuals who work harder and even injecting more of the profit motive into the Cuban economy. So I would say those are the most significant economic changes and then there’s also a really important political change in terms of political style. Raul Castro is… You know, Fidel Castro, his older brother, was on TV every day, was giving speeches, was calling marches, was rallying people to do this or that or protesting one thing or another… Raul Castro is a behind the scenes kind of guy… he isn’t on TV very often, he doesn’t give a lot of speeches, I can’t think of the last time there was a march along the seafront wall of Havana. So just in general, there’s been a real change in the kind of political style and the political culture of Cuba. And the last thing I’ll say is there’s a greater openness to criticism and I think Raul Castro is more sensitive to Cuban’s daily frustrations and their need to blow off steam, and you’re seeing an effort by the Cuban government to actually go out and ask people what their problems are, what they think, and giving them signs that its ok for them to speak up in public and there’s a really big change in attention, a sort of look inward towards the country’s own problems and maybe not so much of a focus on global politics as Fidel Castro liked to maintain.
Passport: That’s very interesting, Nick. So it kind of sounds like Raul Castro is the sort of Cuban Gorbachev. Do we have a glasnost going on in Cuban at this point? And what do Cubans think of Raul at thing point?
Miroff: Well, that’s a great question and I think that the Perestroika period has long been seen here as a mistake and as a failure and something that has led to a very dark period in Russia that the Cubans would ever want to emulate, so I don’t think that’s an association that he would welcome, but there’s certainly a lot of people wondering that. I mean, how far are these reforms going to go? And when I talk to people, analysts see two potential paths. One would be following a Chinese or Vietnamese model, which would liberalize the economy more in order to improve economic growth and standards of living for ordinary Cubans without making significant political reforms. And then there are others who are hoping that this will bring a more participatory, and dare I say, democratic reforms that would give Cubans a greater say over their daily lives and encourage things like cooperatives or at least put a lot of the state-controlled property and excessive centralization of the country onto a more horizontal footing and allow Cubans to make decisions in a more kind of collective way rather than a vertical way. So its not really clear where things are going, but I think that Raul knows that he has to continue to make reforms and he has to pull the country out of this deep financial ditch that its in, so I think that these kinds of things will continue and you asked what Cubans think of him… he doesn’t have his older brother’s charisma, he isn’t the great orator and fiery speaker that Fidel Castro is. And even Fidel’s enemies agree that he has this charismatic and outsized personality. Raul isn’t really like that at all and he so far, seems more technocratic and pragmatic and a little more concerned with earthly affairs. And I think the burden on him will be again, to deliver an improvement in the standards of living and bring some economic reforms that will help Cubans get out of this situation that they’re in and I think that’s going to be his best way so maintain some support.
Passport: Excellent. Let me remind members that if you want, you can jump in, just press *6 to un-mute yourselves. This would be a good time to ask a question if anybody has one, otherwise I will continue. OK, Nick, let me ask you: what impact do US trade sanctions have on Cuba at this point?
Miroff: Well, that’s, as you can imagine, a matter of great debate. And there are two kind of salient points about this. One is that few people realize that the US is actually Cuba’s either fifth or sixth largest trading partner. Under some exceptions to US trade sanctions, Cuba is able to buy a number of US products, primarily agricultural products, and so Cuba actually imports hundreds of millions of dollars in food from the United States. That said, the trade sanctions do have some teeth and the Cuban government maintains that they have inflicted hundreds of billions in damage to the Cuban economy over the years. The part that I think has the greatest potential impact on the Cuban economy is that subsidiaries of US companies that are abroad can’t trade with Cuba. And ships that come into Cuban ports aren’t allowed to dock at US ports for six months afterwards. Cuba also has a hard time exchanging its dollar currency reserves. And so all of these things add up to making trade more expensive for Cuba, as well as making major disincentives for major companies to do business with a tiny island, knowing that it may, at some level, jeopardize their much more important commercial partnerships with the United States. So you know, Cuba calls the US trade sanctions, the US embargo, a blockade because of those extra territorial elements. But the rest of the world still does trade with Cuba. Cuba has a lot of debt and doesn’t have a great record of paying back loans or fulfilling contracts with foreign partners and is generally seen as a risky place to invest. So I think the answer really is that the US trade sanctions have an impact, but they aren’t to blame for most of Cuba’s economic problems.
Passport: You’ve been writing about some of the changes in Cuba policy that the Obama administration has made. Can you talk about those a bit? One of them is this willingness to allow American telecommunications firms to work in Cuba, which would certainly make our lives easier in getting a line across between Havana and Boston.
Miroff: Yeah, I have to work off a dial-up Internet connection, so as you can imagine, I would love to see an undersea US fiber-optic cable plugged into this place. But again, with the Obama administration’s approach to Cuba, I would say that small but symbolic steps have been made. One that I’ll mention that I think has made an impact is that the Obama administration has made it easier for Cuban-Americans to travel back to the island to visit relatives, to stay as long as they want, spend as much money as they want, and to provide as much financial assistance to their families here as they’d like. And that is pretty significant. But, you mentioned the provision on telecom companies or satellite service providers and I think the idea is to try to break some of the isolation here. And I think one of the reasons there’s so little Internet access here is because of the US government restrictions. And so here we have an effort to deliver those services. And that offer was essentially made back in the spring and there hasn’t really been much of a Cuban response up until recently. And in the last couple weeks, this official from Cuba’s phone company said there were still some major obstacles that would have to be overcome before any kind of agreement like that could take place that would allow US companies to partner with Cuba’s state-run phone company. And the biggest one I’ll mention is when US companies did have an agreement with Cuba in the 90s, that partnership seemed to be working fine for a few years, but then there were several lawsuits against the Cuban government in US courts for one reason or another, many of them are wrongful death suits that had to do with something that happened in the 60s or 70s and in this case, it had to do with a situation where the Cuban air force shot down some planes from a Cuban exile group in the mid-90s (I don’t know if any of your listeners will remember that), but there was essentially a wrongful death suit that was filed in relation to that incident and the Cuban-American families of those pilots were awarded something like $187 million in damages. Well, the court ordered the funds of Cuba’s state phone company to be seized as Cuban government assets. And so those funds have been frozen in the United States and were actually authorized by Congress to be awarded to those families. And the Cuban state phone company very much feels that those funds were robbed and that that was kind of a deal-breaker. And I think that by forming new commercial partnerships that companies like the state phone company would be poised for more liability in US courts. And its just another example of the minefield of baggage and legal and financial obstacles in even making small changes happen in regards to US-Cuban relations.
Passport: That’s a daunting challenge. Again, let me invite any members who want to ask a question, now is a good time to do so, don’t forget to press *6.
Caller 1: Hello?
Caller 1: Hi, my name’s Sasha and I’m calling from New York. I was curious to hear more about Cuban farming. You’ve sort of alluded a couple times to the fact that Cuba would like to have fewer food imports and I had heard a long time ago that Cuba had developed some pretty innovative farming techniques following the collapse of the Soviet Union, so is that a possibility for them? That they could stop importing foreign food?
Miroff: Yeah, that’s a great question. Currently, Cuba imports about 70 percent of its food. Now, that said, they did start a fairly innovative program in urban organic farming following the collapse of support from the Soviet Union. So around the city of Havana, there are a number of these farms, these gardens that have been cultivated in empty lots. And they provide some fresh produce, but again, the overwhelming quantity of the Cuban diet comes from imported things like rice and chicken, mostly from the United States, or other manufactured products from South American countries. And so something like 65 percent of Cuba’s internal food production is actually carried out by private farmers who are tending only about 40 percent of the whole land. So there’s a large quantity of state-owned land that is unproductive, its idle, its been overrun with weeds and it has been mismanaged terribly and so as the Cuban government’s finances dwindle, one of the ways they’re looking to save money and to substitute imports is in the agricultural sector. And its really yet to be seen whether or not these measures that Raul Castro has introduced to give more land to private farmers and cooperatives whether they’ll pay dividends or they’ll really grow enough food to make a difference in the economy.
Passport: Ok, excellent question. Any other questions from members?
Caller 2: Hi, this is Adam from Boston. I have a question if we go back to the issue of trade relations. And what are the issues the Cuban government is afraid of or concerned, as relations change with the United States. Would that mean increased tourism, increased visitors coming to the States from Cuba? What issues are they worried about as relations change?
Miroff: Another good question. I’ll speak to tourism first. I think that’s a really interesting one and its something to keep an eye on. There’s currently a bill in the house that’s sponsored by William Delahunt who’s a Mass. congressmen. And it has 180 co-signers and basically has enough support to come up for a vote. And that isn’t a proposal that would allow open Cuban travel to all Americans. It would lift the general travel restrictions that keep most American tourists out of Cuba. And Cuba says it wants those American tourists to come. I think that if that bill were to pass and if Americans were suddenly able to come here, I doubt that Cuba would place its own restrictions, given its need to generate some new sources of revenue. But beyond that, there’s a lot of mistrust and apprehension and even some paranoia that’s been built up on 50 years of hostilities and it ranges on everything from espionage to power of American companies who would come in here and compromise Cuba’s sovereignty, to American and Cuban-American support for a wholesale political change that would try to topple the Cuban government. And you’ve got to admit that to varying degrees, there are many in the Cuban-American community who have been trying to topple this government for five decades and so that creates a lot of suspicion and apprehension about closer ties. So we’ll see. But I think the one thing to look for in the next couple months is what happens with that travel ban proposal and if it does pass and it is signed by President Obama, then how will the Cubans respond to it?
Passport: Excellent. We’re a little over time, but I think I’d like to open the floor for one more question if anybody has one. (Pause) No other questions? Ok, I actually have one myself. I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba a number of years ago and I met a physician who had tried seven or eight times to flee the country and lost his practice, much to the dismay of his family, who suffered as a result of this. Do most Cubans at this point still want to leave the country? Is that still a problem?
Miroff: I would say, many, many do, yeah. Especially young Cubans. To be fair, in a number of Latin American economies, leaving for Europe or the United States is one of your best career options and is something that a lot of people look to do. But I think that’s especially the case here. Salaries are so miserably low, averaging about $20 a month, and really forcing Cubans to make all kinds of difficult choices in their daily lives. So for a young Cuban professional who graduates from one of Cuba’s very good educational programs and is facing a future of making $20 a month, there’s not only a real urge to make your life elsewhere, but even pressure from within their own families. Its not uncommon for one family member to go abroad so they can send money back home, just like we would see in Mexico or in another Latin American economy. And I definitely see it among people my age, who start working here, get really frustrated and whether their frustration is political or purely economic, they’re ready to get out of here. And we see sometimes Cubans are willing to risk getting in a raft and trying to float over to the Florida straights or Mexico, but that’s getting less common and little by little, I mean, every day there are hundreds of people who are emigrating from Cuban, typical by legal means, they have visas from the US or Europe or they have a family member who’s bringing them over and its just a steady trickle out of here. And that also is going to take a toll on Cuba’s economy and acts kind of like a brain drain on the society as a whole.
Passport: Well, that’s all we have time for today, thanks a lot Nick, I really appreciate it.
Miroff: Thanks David. It was a pleasure.
Passport: Keep up the good work down there in Havana and thanks to all the members for joining us today, we’ll see you next week.