August 12, 1999

If Castro goes to Seattle, ask him these questions

Frank Calzón
Published Thursday, August 12, 1999, in the Miami Herald

In his recent invitation to Fidel Castro to visit Seattle this November, Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wa., said that the city would be eager to hear from Castro, adding that he ``would be received respectfully, graciously and warmly.''

If Castro goes to Seattle, he presumably will spend his time blaming the United States for Cuba's woes and presenting a glossy image of his government. But perhaps it wouldn't transgress protocol for McDermott to ask Castro when average Cubans will be allowed freely to present their opinions about conditions in Cuba to their neighbors, schoolmates and fellow workers -- much less to government officials.

If Cubans could engage Castro in a dialogue without fear, if the mothers of political prisoners could be received by authorities, if Cuba's independent journalists could question official policies as American papers do every day, what would they ask?

Why hasn't Castro released his political prisoners -- despite petitions by Pope John Paul II, the Cuban Catholic Church and many nations? What about Amnesty International's Prisoners of Conscience, people such as Marta Beatriz Roque, Felix Bonne, Vladimiro Roca and Rene Gomez Manzano? They are serving lengthy sentences for daring to write The Homeland Belongs to Us All, a rationally argued document calling for a national dialogue on a transition to democracy.

What is Castro's response to Amnesty's charge that medical attention and food are withheld from political prisoners as punishment? But Cubans would be unlikely to get answers from a government that looks down on its citizenry. Castro says that all Cubans are equal, but some people are more equal than others in totalitarian regimes.

The Cuban hierarchy, Communist Party and state-security officers, enjoy a standard of living far above that of the average Cuban. Literary works -- such as George Orwell's Animal Farm -- that point out the injustice of systems such as Cuba's are considered subversive and banned by the regime.

After 40 years of socialist revolution, Castro now enforces a system of tourism apartheid that bars Cubans from hotels, beaches, stores, restaurants and, most troubling, health clinics set aside for foreigners. According to Havana, the American embargo makes it impossible to offer services to the Cuban people.

But this is hard to believe considering that Servimed, the Cuban government agency responsible for ``health tourism,'' lacks nothing -- despite the end of Soviet subsidies 10 years ago. According to Ulysee, the French travel guide, ``the best hospitals and clinics are open to tourists, payment is in dollars, and the hospital service is excellent and fast.''

When Cuba was part of the Soviet bloc, Havana received more assistance from the former Soviet Union and for a longer period of time than some Western European nations ever did from the post-World War II Marshall Plan. But many Cubans today would like to know exactly where the billions of dollars in Soviet subsidies went.

What about workers' rights? Why is it acceptable for foreign companies to do business in Cuba while Cubans are not given the same opportunities?

Cuban restaurant operators, for example, are fined and shut down by state authorities if they are found to accommodate more than 12 people. Some in Seattle, including Castro's hosts, might talk about the favorable impact of trade and policies of engagement.

But the truth is that foreign companies have had as much interest in promoting justice and freedom in Cuba as their American counterparts did under the pre-Castro Batista regime. That is, they have little or no interest.

What about Castro's arrangement with Sheritt? This is a Canadian mining conglomerate that pays Castro $9,500 per year for each Cuban worker whom it employs; each worker, in turn, receives a salary in Cuban pesos equivalent to between $20 and $39 per month.

What happens to Cuban workers who dare talk about an independent labor union? Or to workers who speak out about the effect of ``savage capitalism'' (investment practices unconstrained by the rule of law or by a watchful free press) on Cuba's environmental crisis?

What about Castro's use of electroshock therapy and the internment of sane political dissidents in Cuba's psychiatric institutions? As Vladimir Bukovsky, the Russian human-rights activist noted, ``Within a single generation, Cuba advanced from `revolutionary justice' to `socialist legacy,' from liquidation of `class enemies' to `political re-education' and psychiatric treatment of those `apathetic to socialism.' ''

There are other questions that Castro probably won't be asked in Seattle, a city perhaps too far away from Cuba to understand its true plight. Cubans, however, will remember. They will remember those who exploited their misery. And if by chance Castro were challenged in Seattle for fostering misery in Cuba, Cubans would remember those who asked the questions that they could not raise at home.

Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, an independent, nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 1999 Miami Herald