Gutierrez Calls on International Community to Focus on Cuban Human Rights Absuses
Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez
Remarks to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts
Thank you very much, what a pleasure to be here in this great institution. Dean Ellwood, thank you for the introduction, thank you for the invitation. It’s a unique privilege for me to be able to talk about Cuba and to get in the subject of Cuba. You’ll find very quickly that I have a clear point of view about Cuba. But that of course isn’t to say that I can’t learn about Cuba and I’m looking forward to the Q and A. I’m looking forward to hearing from you. To having a good discussion, about our thoughts and this tremendous experience that has taken place 90 miles from our shores. We were just saying a little while ago that while Cuba hasn’t been at the front of foreign policy for many decades, it will soon be. During many of your generations it will be, because of events, because of changes, because there’s clearly a changing of the guard coming in Cuba and that will impact events in Cuba and events in Cuba 90 miles from our country, it will impact us. And we will have a role to play, I hope. So, let me get started and I’m looking forward to hearing from you but I thought I would set the stage and maybe provoke some discussions and questions.
Interestingly, in April of 1959, Fidel Castro came to Harvard. This was four months after he had toppled the Batista government—the Batista dictatorship—and he came to the U.S. in a kind of a “friendship, goodwill mission” and I brought a quote from that, sort of a quote that has made the rounds and I thought I would just start with the specific quote from his speech here and also from his speech in Washington. So it was clearly something in his talking points he wanted to get through. [From] April 1959 [it] says: “There is not communism or Marxism in our ideas, only representative democracy and social justice.” This was very much his message at that time and what he was getting across when he came to the U.S.
Later on as books had been published and as more had been written about Cuba and Castro’s life, an interesting quote of Castro’s, [from] June 1958, was published not long ago, it was actually a letter that he wrote to a very close friend of his, it was part of his movement. June 1958, and it says … and I’ll put these quotes together because I think they shed a lot of light on Castro and Cuba. 1958, the quote says: “When this war is over,” this war being the war to topple Batista, “I will begin a much longer and a much larger war for me. The war that I will wage is against the U.S. I realize that that is my true destiny.” So, interesting the juxtaposition of those two statements in 1961, in June of ‘61, about two years after he came to the U.s ., after he was here at Harvard, he made this quote which I will use and then get on with some of the points. 1961 speaking in Havana in front of hundreds of thousands of people, it says “I am a Marxist-Leninist and I will be for the rest of my life.”
So, we have these three quotes, one is “I stand for democracy.” Two is six months before, “My real purpose in life is to wage war against the U.S.” And then three, “I will be a Marxist-Leninist for the rest of my life.” Those three quotes I believe if you’re trying to figure out Cuba, if you’re trying to figure out the last 50 years or trying to think about, “How does this individual think?” You will find that most actions that have come out of Cuba in the last 50 years somehow you can trace back to one of these quotes. Especially the one about the U.S. and of course, especially the one about communism.
What I will tell you and what I will convey to you today in my discussion is that I believe that Fidel Castro is first and foremost anti-America. And that Communism has been almost a tactic to enable him to achieve that policy goal. He sees himself as the anti-American; he is here to be the person who hopefully topples the U.S. Communism, a tactic. You’ll hear a lot of theories about this but that’s my theory. And as you can imagine, I can believe 50 years have come by, and we can look back on the past and look back at history, I am going to do my best to convince you that the last 50 years have been one of the great social disasters of our time and one of the most tragic events … social, political events that have taken place over the past 100 years. And that ultimately it has been a success because it has kept Castro in power; it has been a tremendous failure if your goal is to increase freedom, improve prosperity, give people hope, allow individuals to develop their God-given gifts.
So let me get on with it, and I’ll find out in the Q and A if I was at all success in trying to move you toward my corner. January 2009, is the 50th anniversary of when he took over; January 1, 1959, so this will be 50 years, 50 years … think about that. Fifty years. It’s not just the same political party in office but 50 years that the same five or six individuals, Fidel Castro who is now 82, his brother Raul Castro who is 77, Vice President Machado Ventura who is 77. So this is the same group of people, the same individuals who have been running the country for the last 50 years. And it’s ironic because this is a time around the world where more, more countries than ever before have actually embraced the idea of elections and democracy and representative democracy and having people have a say in government. And peaceful transitions of government.
In fact, in Latin America, I would say that I can’t remember a time in our hemisphere when there have been more elected governments than now. We may not agree with all of them and we may quarrel over whether they’re all truly representative but they have gone through a process. They have gone through elections, more so than ever before. The only exception of course is Cuba, which has embraced very much a Marxist-Leninist discipline since 1961, 1962. Let me talk to you about the economy and talk to you a little bit anecdotally about the economy because its very difficult to get numbers on GDP, on inflation, on employment and you’ll find that they have their own method of calculating things so I’ll do so in a brief anecdotal description.
The average Cuban makes about $20 per month. This is with exchange rates at our currency and part of the big problem with Cuba is that the government, of course, provides rations for food and medicine and what have you, the food rations last about 10 days. And then the Cubans are left to solve their problems as they call it in Cuba, “resolve” their problems over the next 20 days. What that has created is an amazing culture of petty corruption. They say that Cuba is the only country where one kilo has less than, or one pound has less than 16 ounces because if you buy something at the store, the employee there will take an ounce for himself because he has got to take it home to fill the gap of those 20 days where the government isn’t providing. It has this incredible multiplying effect throughout the economy, the irony here of course is that by and large, business is illegal. Think about that. Business—free enterprise—is illegal in Cuba unless it’s done by the state. So, if to compensate for that shortfall of 20 days, you decide as many people do, that you’re going to open up a little cafeteria in your kitchen or that you’re going to find supplies and sell them in the black market, you can land in jail. You can be in a lot of trouble. You are committing a crime and any time that someone wants to use that against you, you can find yourself sitting in a jail cell for having sold something on the black market or having started a little business.
So, an incredibly complex set of circumstances that have been created by this conviction that the only way forward is this Marxist-Leninist dogma. And because of that there’s very little innovation, there’s very little creation, there’s been very little of what we call the entrepreneurial spirit and essentially things have stood still. If you are an automobile collector, Cuba is your place. Because you still find 1959 … essentially the country has stood still from an economic standpoint.
I want to talk about the hurricanes because that’s very topical, and very recent. Cuba has just been hit very hard by two hurricanes. And from what we know and what we have gathered, this is real, real tough. This is the real thing. This has been throughout the island; places like Pinar del Rio have been absolutely devastated. Our estimate or what we read in public sources is that about 400,000 houses have been damaged to the point that they are not useful anymore. Agriculture has been damaged, it’s a country that was in trouble before and now has been hit very, very seriously.
This weekend, last actually Friday evening, we, the U.S. government, made our fourth offer of humanitarian aid to Cuba. The first two offers were made the way we typically do worldwide, which is to let us send down an assessment team, they’ll assess the problem, assess the damage, they’ll come back and put together a package and we’ll offer humanitarian aid on the base of that package. They said “we don’t need an assessment team. We don’t need anybody to come here especially from the U.S, and assess our situation.” So the third offer we have made was bypassing the assessment team. We said we’ll put together a plane, $5 million, we’ll send it to you wherever you want, no conditions, that offer was rejected. And they said “we want to buy on credit, we want you to lift the embargo.”
We’re not trying to sell you anything, we want to give you aid. We made the fourth offer for building materials to repair homes plus food and medicine, tents, all the things that we know they need and we are waiting for an answer. But I find that personally I find that the extreme of politics. And here’s where the rhetoric comes in. I heard Castro actually wrote us back a note in the newspaper, he said you know, “the dignity of the Cuban people cannot be bought.” That’s a heck of a statement. And I would say there is a difference between the dignity of the leaders, being Fidel and his group, versus the well-being and the hunger of the people. And I think they’re confusing things. So I think the people and military are walking around thinking we have great dignity because we did not accept aid from the U.S. But I don’t think the people who are starving and thirsty and don’t have anywhere to sleep or don’t have enough to eat and they don’t know what to do with the kids. I don’t think they confuse dignity with hunger. So that’s part of the frustration were going through with Cuba.
There are reforms that have been made, so called reforms since Castro took over. As you know Fidel has been ill since June, July of 2006. Last year, Raul was named formally the President of Cuba so he’s taken over Cuba and he announced some reforms. And let me just give you an idea of what these reforms are, because they had a lot of play around the world. Cubans are now permitted to buy cell phones. They’re now permitted to rent automobiles and they’re now permitted to stay in hotels that have been destined for tourists—but only if they have Cuban convert-able pesos which unfortunately are unavailable for Cubans. Two: the sale of DVDs and computers has been authorized based on improved availability of electricity. Video content is totally, totally censored and access to the internet is limited to a very select group of people. What they have is an intranet, and the internet is essentially illegal. And finally electronic, toasters and ovens will be made available for sale but not until 2010. So, a little bit cynically, imagine that after 50 years of a pretty tough so-called revolution, you’re going to be allowed to buy a toaster. That strikes me as, you know the kind of reforms that we should be careful about celebrating because I don’t think Cubans would see that as a great leap forward but these are the reforms and you hear a lot of press internationally is saying “that Raul, is quite a guy, quite a reformer, people can now rent cars!” They don’t have money to rent cars, they forget about that, but if they wanted to rent a car, they could rent a car. They could stay at a hotel for tourists; the hotel costs $400 a day!” But those are the reforms.
The human rights situation I think is something that needs to be talked about when it comes to Cuba. You may disagree on the embargo. You may disagree on our policy and you know what, that’s what’s great about our country. We have disagreements, we can talk about it. But I hope there’s no disagreement about fundamental human rights. There are people today in Cuba that are living in very cruel conditions. I mean about as cruel as it comes, for having expressed a point of view that’s different to the governments, they have a crime in Cuba called “pre-criminal activity”. So you haven’t committed the crime yet but we know you’re about to commit a crime. They have another crime called “dangerousness” and that can put you in jail for 20 years. 20 years. And one of the very unfortunate tactics they use in Cuba is they will throw you in a dungeon; they will deny you medical attention after you get invariably sick. After two weeks, most people get sick in those conditions and then you’re denied medical attention. This is some pretty cruel stuff. This is the kind of stuff we didn’t, that you may not be aware, still happens in the world, and it happens 90 miles from our shores.
Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet is one example. This is all out there, I hope you look and find on the web and just find information. He’s a medical doctor, and he exposed the use of forced abortions in Cuba, which got him into a heck of a lot of trouble. Five years ago he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He has been in prison for all but 36 days since 1999, in unbelievably, incredibly difficult conditions.
He is an afro-Cuban and he has come to represent kind of the spirit of defiance that is taking hold throughout Cuba. And there are a lot of Cubans like that. Gorki Aguila, maybe some of you have heard of Gorki Aguila. He’s a rock star, rock musician in Cuba, and he plays lyrics that are critical of communism and the regime and critical of what happens in Cuba. He was just charged recently with “dangerousness” and there was a very strong uproar around the world about Gorki and so they let him free. They fined him $28 and let him go, and he’s constantly getting put in jail. He has a concert, they don’t like his lyrics, he gets put back in jail. There was something he said after he was let out, he said “you know, I have just been let out of a small prison and now I can go to a large prison.” It’s all one prison experience. Gorki Aguila.
Finally just one more person I’d like to point out, Yoani Sanchez, in her early 30s, an incredible woman she was named by Time Magazine, one of the 100 most influential people in 2008. She was a blogger; she didn’t know anyone knew her! She just blogs about life in Cuba. She doesn’t get into … deep into politics; she just talks about life under communism. She wrote a dissertation called “Dictatorship in Latin American Literature” that was thought to be a veiled criticism of Castro and ever since then she has been watched. She goes to hotels, she borrows internet, she borrows computers, she goes on the internet, she goes under disguise, she goes under a different name. It’s an amazing story. She recently won the Ortega y Gasset Journalism Award, she wasn’t allowed to travel but she is someone to watch and she’s sort of the new, a new generation of Cubans that is using new tools, new ways of communicating and she is letting her voice be known and because she is known internationally because of what Time Magazine did, it’s very difficult for the government to put her in jail or, you know, just have her disappear. So someone to watch, Yoani Sanchez.
Let me just, in terms of the future: change, change has to come from Cuba. We are not going to create change in Cuba. We are not going to take over Cuba. We, the U.S. government, that has … in 1962 after the missile crisis, the agreement between President Kennedy and Khrushchev was you get those missiles out of there and we won’t touch Cuba militarily. And we have abided to that.
There is no future where we see the U.S. running Cuba. Change has to happen in Cuba and I’ll tell you that the future of Cuba is not in Miami, it’s not in New Jersey but probably in a jail cell in Cuba. Somewhere in Cuba. That’s where the future leadership is. So I get the question asked often, “When are you going to lift the embargo? When are you going to change policy?” I don’t think that’s the right question. The question isn’t, “When is Washington going to change policy?” The question is, when is Cuba going to change policy? This is about Cuba; this is about Cuba and Cubans being in charge of their destiny. We’re going to do everything we can to let them know that we stand for human rights, we’re going to let the world know and let them know what’s going on. But change has to happen in Cuba.
The U.S ., ironically, you’ll never hear this, but .U.S. is Cuba’s number one supplier of food. Number one. Number one supplier of medicine and number two supplier of cash. So, in spite of the fact that everything that happens in Cuba including the hurricanes, were somehow related back to the embargo, we are the number one supplier of food and medicine and number two supplier in cash. I find that very telling. So again, this isn’t about U.S. policy, this isn’t about, “When is Washington going to change?” This is about when is Cuba going to change a system that doesn’t work. I think we all learned throughout the world in the 20th century, that Marxism-Leninism isn’t a functional system. That has to be learned in Cuba.
We believe, and I believe this personally, that there is a tremendous amount of talent in Cuba. There is a tremendous amount of vitality, there’s a tremendous amount of creativity, and as soon as that creativity and vitality is unleashed, Cuba could be one of the great societies, democracies, economies, in the world. It’s going to take a long time to get there. But the potential is there. What they need is freedom.
So, here’s something for you … again, we may not agree on tactics. We may not agree on the embargo. I know some of you believe that Cuba has a great health care system; I want to hear your points of view. But what I think we can agree on is human rights. I would hope you take an interest in Cuba. This is 90 miles away from our country. There are family members who live here. This is a country with which we have had a close relationship for well over 150 years. These are neighbors. You know, this is Cuba and the U.S. are very, very tied historically. I don’t believe the Cuban people hate us, and I know we don’t hate the Cuban people. In spite of the fact that it’s been drilled into their head for 50 years that all of their woes is due to the embargo. Not due to the communism, but due to the embargo, due to the U.S ., due to the Yankees, due to the CIA, you name it. In spite of that, I believe that the average Cuban respects and admires the U.S. the same way that we respect and admire Cuba.
So, get involved. Get involved, take an interest, take an interest in human rights, this is right down the street. This is not just in our neighborhood it’s on our same block. Again, Cuba will become a foreign policy theme during your generation, so I would like to think that your interests in your conference today means you’re a bit ahead of your time. Thank you, I’m going to stop here and turn it over to you and your interests.
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