Cuba and human rights.
October 6, 2009 4:51 PM   Subscribe

Cuba and human rights. Please ignore this if you think Cuba is a 1. Glorious Worker's Paradise or 2. 3rd largest prison on Earth (after Myammar and N. Korea) I would like to know more about human rights for the average person in Cuba. For instance, if a regular person (NOT a government employee, journalist, or someone w/ connections) could afford it, could they just leave and go to India for 2 weeks on vacation? Buy a computer and get full access to the Web? Visit a relative in Miami? Open a bookstore and import what they want? Start a blog discussing human rights in Cuba? What actually happens if they try sailing a boat to Miami or Mexico?
posted by ebesan to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Cubans are paid very low wages so any average citizen (and even most of the better paid citizens) would be totally unable to afford foreign travel. Most essentials are heavily subsidized by the government, keeping the cost of living very low.
posted by phrontist at 5:02 PM on October 6, 2009

My Cuz was down there several years ago. There are 2 cubas. a small one very rich & the big one that is very poor & worn out. NO animals other than goats (for the milk) everything else gets eaten (even the rats), As in there were no rats to be seen.......or birds or fish. That's why some risk their life to cross to America. If they can make it they can stay. If not......I guess death must be a acceptable option.
posted by patnok at 5:42 PM on October 6, 2009

I'd recommend reading the archives of Generation Y, a blog about life in Cuba.

It's written by a group of young-ish Cubans and does a good job of conveying the frustration of trying to simply get by. Today's post is about H1N1 and soap:
I search, without success, for a bottle of detergent to wash the glasses smeared with grease and fingerprints, which don’t yield to water and the dishcloth. Looking for the soapy liquid, I have walked part of Havana today, as the television announcers call on us to strengthen our hygiene before the advance of H1N1. The alert occasioned by the epidemic, however, has not caused the shops to lower the price of cleaning products, not even the cost of simple soap which is the equivalent of the wages for a full day’s work. Instead, the opposite has happened. The collapse in imports has been most notable in those that are used to bathe and disinfect.
If you are interested, the original untranslated posts are here.
posted by stefanie at 5:45 PM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

(I did study abroad in Cuba, am from the US, do not consider it a paradise or prison)

The key here often comes down to not just the Cuban policies, but, for better or for worse, US policies as well.

Travel... the low wages in Cuba are not so different from those in other parts of the world, except that more people are making them - the income is less stratified, with greater differentiation only from those getting remittances from overseas. The real impediment to the foreign honeymoon is that you need government permission to leave the country. But yeah, professionals who get the permission to leave for conferences, etc., often bring their own food on trips because they can't afford to eat out wherever they land. Visiting a relative in Miami? Well, good luck getting that US visa because they will assume you are not coming back and reject you flat out.

The bookstores... there are some great used bookstores, but most of those books have been there a very long time. The impediments are going to be 1) the cost of the books relative to what the market can bear and 2) the laws that prevent American companies from doing business with Cuba, and the pressure exerted on non-American companies who do business with American companies. Crap, but true. Most bookstores selling new books are selling domestically published public domain material or books written by Cubans, for Cubans.

Internet... when I was there (4 years ago now) internet access was only by cafe, slow, and required handing over your passport. The universities had internet, but it was a truly limited resource. This seems to be an infrastructural issue, rather than a censorship one. I never encountered blocked things on the internet, but didn't look that hard. Having your own personal computer at home? Never knew one.

Sailing a boat out... they get sent back to try again. This does not seem to cause many disappearances (i.e. persecution of people returned). Again, it is important to look at US involvement: in the case of Cuba, if they reach the US, they can stay. So the gap between the two countries is under close watch.
posted by whatzit at 5:46 PM on October 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

I should say that my Cuz was on the championship USA senior (over 50) baseball team. they played the Cuban equivalent. He got to see things most visitors wouldn't.
posted by patnok at 5:47 PM on October 6, 2009

A friend of mine is of Cuban heritage, and although he was born in the US, he still has extended family there. I've asked him similar questions in the past, although mine were more along the lines of "how can their government stay in power for so long?" The subtext is that (I assume) the general populace would rather have a different government and that propaganda couldn't be too effective if it has to compete with Spanish AM radio stations broadcast from Miami, Mexico or the Dominican Republic.

What I recall him telling me was that maybe the average person would prefer a different government, but you'd never know because people are afraid to talk candidly about these things — even to family or close friends — because government informants are widespread.

Since poverty is also widespread, making ends meet is a more pressing issue for most people. If you toe the party line, you might get better housing or similar perks. If you upset the government, you might get fired. That's a much more severe penalty there because it's generally a state-run economy and you're unlikely to find a new (legitimate) job.

Foreign travel is likely much too expensive for anyone but high-ranking government officials. I'd imagine anyone else would be unlikely to get approval to leave if they somehow found the money to pay for it. Even if someone was to manage a two-week trip to India, I'd expect that he or she would be afraid of what might happen to their family or friends back home if they spoke out.

Maybe the most important thing he told me is what his father told him: "Everyone needs a bogeyman." The US blames Castro for various things and likewise Castro blames the US. Political advantage seems to be the primary motive in either case, because both countries seem content to ignore others doing similar things. I guess that's easier to see for someone whose lived in both places.
posted by tomwheeler at 6:07 PM on October 6, 2009

What I recall him telling me was that maybe the average person would prefer a different government, but you'd never know because people are afraid to talk candidly about these things — even to family or close friends — because government informants are widespread.

This wasn't particularly my experience, and I should have mentioned it above. In general, people I talked to about these issues wanted modernization, internationalization, and for the Castros to hand off to someone else, though they liked the idea of the system overall. From what I have read/heard, this was a serious issue in the heyday of the CDR (committees for the defense of the revolution), up until the 1990s or so.

Everyone needs a bogeyman
Indeed, this is totally an issue, and part of the reason I chose to go live there for a while: you just cannot get good reports in the US news, and often even from Cuban-Americans. Finding out the reality is really, really tough. Should it seem like I am coming down hard on the US policies above, trust me, I'm not out there protesting an end to the embargo or anything. To be frank, I am not optimistic about a easy post-embargo transition. But, nonetheless, it really does complicate matters.
posted by whatzit at 6:26 PM on October 6, 2009

There are many schools of thought in Human Right discourse, one being that rights which do not follow a "violator, violated, remedy" formula cannot be considered a human right. This means that economic and social "rights" are not actually rights because who is to blame (legally) in a government for a citizen being poor?

However, if you are someone who believes that economic and social rights are indeed human rights, Cuba has a number of violations, including but certainly not limited to the right of expression, the right to information, and the right to (in some cases, legal) migration to remove oneself from a country if it cannot provide a self-defined good quality of life.
posted by msk1985 at 10:37 PM on October 6, 2009

You should take into account that the government did not decide they wouldn't import things. The USA punished Cuba for its political ideology with an embargo, which is the main reason why Cubans cannot get everyday goods, unless they manufacture them.
posted by Tarumba at 4:49 AM on October 7, 2009

Something not often mentioned in US reportage about Cuba is that the government still has very strong support from the rural parts of Cuba (that is, most of the country), because they were raised from dirt-poor serfdom to full, though still pretty poor, participants in society.

Landowners and the wealthy suffered from the revolution, of course (what else is new). Those families made up the majority of those who fled to Miami early, those who were tossed to Miami at the Mariana Boatlift. The descendants of both are the ones who have voice in the USA, and they're (naturally) from very anti-Castro families and upbringings.

In the time I have been visiting, I've seen the country open up quite a bit: citizens now own and run their own small businesses, computers can now (as of 2007) be purchased and owned by any citizen*, there's (government filtered) Internet available to all, and so on. Slow, but definitely more open than say, 20 years ago.

Managing a controlled transition to a more 'western' and market-oriented system is the challenge of the reformers active in government, and there are certainly many. Where they agree with the conservative Castro-types, though, is in their fear that Cuba could become a US slave state once again. They were burned very badly by Batista et al, and it's not forgotten. And naturally, the US sanctions and blockade don't help relations much.

(* they like Linux a lot. Naturally.)
posted by rokusan at 5:51 AM on October 7, 2009

In general, people I talked to about these issues wanted modernization, internationalization, and for the Castros to hand off to someone else, though they liked the idea of the system overall.

Seconded. That describes almost every Cuban I've ever met and spoken to at length.

The general feeling is that Castro's time is past, but they very much like the system in terms of government services, health care, and so on, and they do not want violent or dramatic changes.
posted by rokusan at 5:52 AM on October 7, 2009

The main reason why Cubans cannot get everyday goods, unless they manufacture them.

They get imports from Mexico, South America and Europe... but of course they're very expensive and coveted.
posted by rokusan at 5:53 AM on October 7, 2009

I was there about three years ago and I met one young and vocal anti-Castroist (who had an uncle living in the US), one young local who generally admired Castro for being intelligent but thought he was longwinded. This guy liked Castro insofar as he supported the initial ousting of Bautista but he also thought Castro had his faults. I met another older local who was a loud and proud Fidelista and claimed everyone in Cuba was. So it didn't seem like people were really that scared to talk about politics on a surface level.

I met the proud Fidelista as I was drinking a beer - he was sitting nearby and told me that his grandson was my size, that he liked my shirt, and could he have my shirt - a shortsleeve button-up that I was wearing over a tshirt. I gave it to him, we chatted, and he proclaimed his love for Fidel even while the failings of the country were obvious. And this was in Veradero too - a place that could easily make a local feel jaded or resentful about the situation.

So from all that, I basically think Rokusan has it right. There's a spectrum of opinion on Castro, and people just want more of the basic things.
posted by molecicco at 8:06 AM on October 7, 2009

Tossing my anecdotes in: the older couple I stayed with in a rural area seemed very much in favor of the Cuban system, which had improved their lives greatly. The younger guy I spent time with in Havana was less enthusiastic, cautiously mentioned some darker things. He was interested in going abroad (he had an Australian girlfriend, I believe) and was more worldly in general.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:48 AM on October 7, 2009

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