June 12, 1998

Report of the Pax Christi Netherlands Delegation to Cuba

Visit between the 18th and the 31th of January 1998

For obvious reasons, the names mentioned in the present report have usually been changed or omitted. Real names are only used when those involved had no objections. However, no part of this report should be quoted or used in any other way, without express authorization from Pax Christi.


Long before the visit to Cuba of His Holiness John Paul the Second, carried out in January, 1998, President Fidel Castro was doing his best to take personal advantage of the occasion. 'The Pope and I, both together against poverty', he said in a six-hour mega-speech, lasting until 3:00 in the morning. 'All of us united against Neo-Liberalism, Capitalism and Imperialism ... religion has never been an obstacle in Cuba's path'. For a whole week, Castro played the role of the most devout boy in the class. 'Everybody go the Pope's mass; I'll be there too'. Many people, especially older women, watched and listened to him through clenched teeth: 'The hypocrite. The liar. All my children had to be baptized in secret. We were forced to give up everything we believed in. He destroyed our religion and our culture but we've always held on to our faith. God bless the Pope!'. Meanwhile, uncertainty reigned over how Vatican conditions for the visit would be handled; it was not even sure whether the Pope's masses and sermons would be transmitted throughout the country. Clearly, though, Fidel Castro wanted to show a refined, composed face before the world. Driven by economic disasters, he struggled to approach Europe as never before, eager to reap cooperation and trade benefits and to reverse the critical 'common position' adopted by the European Union (EU) towards Cuba since 1996.

Compared with his guest, the 'Commander-in-Chief' met with an exceptionally cool reception in his own country, whenever the two happened to appear together. During the arrival ceremony, Fidel Castro pronounced a welcome speech, beginning with the Adam and Eve of colonial exploitation. He rejoiced in the Revolution's blessings and concluded his remarks by declaring that religion in sovereign Cuba always had room to flourish in. Castro's trusted confidant, the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, hovered nearby. It was rumoured he had written Castro's speech. People stood along the Pope's route towards the city; a significant number proved to have been sent over directly from work.

The objective

The objective of our mission during the historical occasion of the Pope's visit to Cuba was to broaden our local knowledge and contacts, improve our capacity to intervene in Europe, with as much legitimacy as possible, on the subject of human rights in Cuba, and help the voices of peaceful opposition be heard before the different international fora. In general, informing public opinion is an important objective for Pax Christi, but, foremost in our minds, was influencing Dutch policy and the policy of the EU, currently chaired by England (human rights is a high-priority issue for the UK Labor government), as well as helping shape the 'Brussels' policy. Our findings were to be relayed to the UN in Geneva, the European Commission and the European Parliament. It was also our intention to monitor as closely as possible how the 'common position'(which conditions aid to Cuba to the improvement of human rights) was being implemented. Among other things, we were concerned about what might happen to dissident groups once the Pope, members of the press and other international visitors had left Cuba.

The Delegation

Our delegation consisted of Erik Laan and Liduine Zumpolle, from Pax Christi, and Thanasis Apostolou, Member of Parliament for the Dutch Labor Party (PvdA). Pax Christi's former visit to the island took place in July, 1996. It was Apostolou's first trip to Cuba. In 1996, he had visited Uraba, Colombia, with a delegation from Pax Christi, reporting back to the Dutch Parliament after his tour. In 1997, he took part in the first international meeting of the 'Platform for Human Rights and Democracy in Cuba', held at the Dutch Parliament in The Hague. Both events led to more Dutch involvement in different projects. This time, the purpose of Apostolou's visit was also to brief the Dutch Parliament and 'Brussels' on the Cuban situation, in order to determine if and what kind of support could be given to Cuba's peaceful opposition.

The Preparations

Prior to the Pope's visit, Pax Christi Netherlands held repeated consultations in Rome with different church commissions involved in preparing the visit to Cuba. The theme of such discussions was human rights, in general, and the importance attributed to this issue during the course of the visit itself. Precisely because of the Pope's visit to Cuba, Pax Christi decided to hold the second international gathering of the 'Platform for Human Rights and Democracy in Cuba'(coalition of European human-rights organizations seeking attention for Cuba) in Rome, November, 1997. Also, a public debate between victims and actors of the Cuban regime took place in Rome. Father Miguel Loredo, now exiled in the US, after spending ten years in a Cuban prison cell, met there with Dariel Alarcón, alias 'Benigno', former guerrilla fighter and top-security agent in Castro's troops, who recently fled to Europe. Both men have published impressive testimony on their experiences. The encounter was amply covered by both the local and international press.

Our flight to Cuba was full of high-ranking, black-and-purple-clad Church servants, given respectful treatment by Iberia on the way to Cuba. Arriving in Havana, the Church representatives went through Customs without a hitch. This was not the case for us. When Apostolou and I passed Customs, Laan was abruptly being turned back in the same aircraft. Calling the supervisor, trying to invoke the protection of the Bishops and threatening to make a scandal were to no avail against the 'orders from above'. As it became evident later, only the timely waving of dollar bills might have been more effective. A Cuban auxiliary Bishop, well-known to us, stood waiting in the hall with several foreign Prelates. I said hello, surprised to see him. We had met during the recent Rome meeting (among others, he had given us a detailed account of the arrival in Rome of Castro's secret agents). Then, he had been sharply outspoken on the subject of Cuba's social, moral and political paralysis, in the Italian press. Now, he turned pale and looked away, almost in panic. Pope visit or not: it was obvious who still held the reins in this country.

Outside were a handful of Dutch journalists, eager to observe the rising confusion and report back to their home offices. The Dutch ambassador was told of Laan's expulsion. Pax Christi could not complain about the press attention received in the days that followed. 'The Cuban authorities made a blunder and, from now on, they will probably not bother you anymore', was what the diplomats had to say about Laan's expulsion. Why should international human-rights organizations always be forced to 'camouflage' as tourists, anyhow, in order to enter Cuba? M.P. Apostolou will pose the question to the Minister.

The Visit

On the recommended list of people and places to visit during our ten-day stay, old contacts, new opposition groups, Church and diplomatic representatives, and European aid and business organizations were to be found. The Dutch Embassy was quite helpful, making our intended visit known in different circles. Soon we left the ugly, expensive state hotel which Cubans themselves are usually not even allowed to enter. We rented a small apartment (tax-free during 'Pope days') from a Cuban family, who made believe it did not live there during our stay. Thus we could experience, first-hand, what it is like to have no bread, no gas and no water in the mornings. Our old acquaintance, Oswaldo Payá, from the 'Movimiento Cristiano de Liberación (MCL), lost no time tracing us. Seeing him again that evening was a real celebration.

General impressions: the average Cuban

The average Cuban wearily spends his or her day in 'resolver' (solving): 'rustling up' ways to ward off the constant poverty and shortages. In the few farmer markets available, you find vegetables, fruit and sometimes even meat, but have to pay in dollars or huge amounts of pesos. The city shops which allow ration books to be used are hollow, gloomy spaces with many empty shelves. Getting dollars is the big question and, above all, finding transport. Physical hunger is often the result. Cuba is very expensive for foreigners (reporters from abroad can vouch for this: no other country's authorities squeeze so much money out of its visitors, exacting thousands of dollars for special taxes, permits, visas etc. The story goes that the Vatican paid US$ 400.000 for the Pope's visit). Cuba is even more expensive for Cubans themselves, since their earning capacity is so limited.

We talked with a 92-year-old street sweeper in a park in the middle of Havana, not someone with access to dollars; that is, either employed by a foreign 'joint-venture' or the tourist sector, or having rich relatives living in Miami. He had a pension of 118 pesos (about US$5) a month. Since no one can survive on that, he had to earn an extra income; from two to eight o'clock in the morning, he swept streets and got 100 pesos for it from the State. Even in Cuba, Socialist Mecca, you cannot avoid hunger on 218 pesos a month, or survive on the small daily ration you are entitled to (in the 'dollar shops', a bottle of water costs two dollars, a pound of 'ham' ten, a pack of coffee seven, a plain piece of bread one, a liter of oil three dollars, a bar of soap one dollar, etc.).

Hunger had the bent street sweeper also in its hold: you could see it plainly. A woman neighbor used to cook for him once in a while, since the shed assigned to him had no gas or anything resembling a kitchen. The neighbor had been absent for some days now. The old man had just returned from a compulsory meeting of his 'work unit', a three-hour walking distance from his own place. Apart from hunger, he complained of nothing else and showed us his working tools with pride: a broom and a scoop. The longer we spoke, the more 'inconspicuous' conspicuous characters drifted by, the familiar-looking individuals with dark glasses whose job is to spy on Cuban citizens and, above all, to keep the tourists shielded from reality. The very old man we spoke with pointedly ignored them, however, saying goodby with the words: 'No me abandonen' (don't abandon me).

Cuba's timid private 'entrepreneurs'(those who repair lighters on the streets, rent rooms or bicycle-taxis, for example) must suffer a lot before they can thrive at all, due to Cuba's exorbitant taxes. The measure is intentional, in order to discourage economic (and therefore political) independence. Anyone who wants to rent a miserable room in one of Havana's poor neighborhoods, pays US$ 100 a month in taxes, regardless of whether the room is rented or not. Add to this a US$ 100 registration fee and a 15% yearly income tax. In better neighborhoods, taxes can go up to US$ 250 a month. And what about renting illegally? That fine consists of US$ 1.400! Excessive taxation and a bureaucracy capable of driving anyone crazy can nip any initiative in the bud: people must choose between inertia or 'dodging the law', resorting to the Black Market, which is unavoidable. Thus, the entire population is in the grip of permanent blackmail. This is the method most favored by the authorities to arrest 'politically unreliable' citizens, under the guise of one 'transgression' or another. Under these circumstances, it is extraordinarily difficult to organize political opposition, considering the all-seeing eye watching over the city.

We visit the mother of someone who rented his rooms during the Pope's visit, an elderly woman, formerly married to a member of the Armed Forces. She divorced him due to differences over religion and the Revolution. She had baptized their children without his knowledge and held on fast to her beliefs. The Pope's visit gave her strength. We are alone in her kitchen, for a while; her voice is barely audible. Her brother 'disappeared' years ago, trying to reach the Coast of Florida in a raft. Her only daughter and grandson are now in the U.S. Her oldest son managed to escape to Argentina. The two sons still living in Cuba will follow in his footsteps as soon as they can (the rent paid by 'Pope tourists' helps towards this end). 'I won't have any more family near me, but I prefer that they can build their futures in freedom, than to see them languish before my eyes'. She starts to cry. She is bitter about all the wasted years, about all the things she feels have been destroyed for the Cuban people: their family life, their culture, their ethics and things like plain happiness and beauty. 'Don't betray me', she whispers. What could we possibly betray, in Heaven's name? Her sadness? We are destined to hear many such stories in the days that follow. Virtually no family in Cuba has remained intact, without having loved ones who have drowned, escaped to other countries or been estranged from them by politics.

One of the many people who drive tourists around during the Pope days is Jeronimo, a highly-qualified technician. He is shy and withdrawn. He has a good job (he earns US$18 per month approximately), but he does the tourist rounds just the same, sometimes replaced by unemployed 'Ivan', someone who trained as a ship repairer but does not even bother to look for this type of work, since it only pays about US$12 a month. The car they drive is a shocking wreck; the exhaust pipe seems to en in the passenger seat. The city's once imposing streets (according to Unesco, most old Havana is already beyond repair) stink like never before, also outside the city limits: along the asphalt of the Pinar del Río highway, permanent clouds of poison caused by little traffic cling over everything. People say this is due to the bad quality of gasoline, which is mixed with crude oil. The generation growing up in these surroundings is bound to be an expensive one, as far as the Public Health Service is concerned.

Ivan is young and completely cynical about the system: 'If there were only weapons, I would be the first to enlist to put an end to the scoundrel'. His younger brother left Cuba one day, in a raft. He told no one anything. He was never seen again. Ivan's father had a fatal accident at work and Ivan (not the Party) was left to care for his mother and sister. The father of his young wife (she is expecting a child: 'why not?', she says, 'there's nothing better to do') fought in the mountains with Castro's army, spending 18 years in jail after the triumph of the Revolution. Many others who fought alongside Castro have also been imprisoned, either for later opposing the regime or because the 'Comandante' sees them as rivals. Ivan's former father-in-law was a human-rights activist. He was dismissed from his academic post at the university for it and escaped to the U.S., together with his daughter. This brought a painful end to Ivan's relationship. For Ivan, the Pope's visit hardly has any meaning: 'It is just cosmetics', he reckons.

Driver Jeronimo was often in the former Soviet Union. He served for a long time in the Army and was part of Castro's special troops, entrusted with personal security services. It took a great deal of complicated maneuvering for him to distance himself gradually from the Party, without arousing suspicion. He is all too familiar with military procedures and the forms of blackmail used to control the population.'Only because the economic crisis forced him, did Castro accept 'joint-ventures' with foreign companies'. 'The standard of living for average Cubans has not improved, however: only the elite profit from these ventures, above all, the military, who get many privileges and 'stimuli'. Mainly retired high-ranking officers are involved in the various 'joint-venture' schemes, especially in the tourist sector. They are bound to try to retain their privileges in a post-Castro era. The question is obvious: why should an ordinary Cuban citizen also not be able to set up a small business in his own land?'

'It is also the military elite that profits from the scarce medical supplies and medical care: the embargo does not affect them. Jeronimo tells us about the diseases now prevalent in Cuba, due to malnutrition, lack of infrastructures, medicines, hygiene and safe drinking water. To admit this in public can cost one his or her job and even a prison sentence (for the 'crime' of making 'enemy propaganda'). This is what happened at the beginning of the Nineties to former Sub-Minister of Health Dr. Terry, 'set to cool' after he presented Castro with a report confirming the local presence of 'peripheric neuritis' (a form of Beri-beri), an affliction which affects the nervous system and is due to vitamin deficiency. People dying from this disease get written off as victims of something else, a diagnosis that doctors are often forced to endorse, lest the Revolution's achievements be placed under threat. This is also how the prominent doctor Desi Mendoza was vanquished sometime ago, jailed in Santiago de Cuba for warning against the appearance of 'dengue hemorrágico'. This disease begins with bleeding of the eyes and has caused many deaths until now. It is transmitted by a fly that thrives on unhygienic conditions and the lack of adequate medicines. The Ministry of Health does everything in its power to conceal such evidence, even supplying false figures to the World Health Organization, in order not to discredit the Cuban health services.'

'Donations of medical supplies arriving from the U.S. only reach the military hospitals and the dollar shops; there you can find the essential vitamin B, no longer available in drug stores, where often even aspirin no longer is stocked. Many people resort to their parish churches for medicines. Even the Church NGO 'Caritas', a distributor of medicines, is obliged to give the State a percentage of its proceeds.'

The mother of an acquaintance is over seventy. She comes from a poor family. At the beginning, she was happy with the triumph of the Revolution, because it meant she and her seven children would at least have a roof over their heads. One night we are invited to her home for a 'typical Cuban meal'. Preparations (the 'resolver') had lain ready in the hallway for days. The crumbling, dilapidated building was not too inviting. The elevator was broken and the stench of urine rose on each floor as we passed. We joked, to counteract the uneasy feeling we shared. Our hostess was almost blind but prepared the meal for us.

It was a lovely evening and the Dutch drinks offered by the foreign 'journalists' were gratefully accepted. Without needing much encouragement, the grandmother revealed a skillful alto voice. She knew and savored thoroughly many Cuban pre-revolutionary popular songs. It was singing that filled the poor flat that evening, not the pain and inner turmoil that practically every Cuban family endures. When the time came to leave, the old woman hugged one of the journalists and whispered: 'Thank you for what you are doing for us Cubans. It is really needed. Please carry on and God bless you'. Apostolou left behind a small souvenir from the Dutch Parliament. Afterwards, we rode through the desolate streets of Havana. Some public ladies, strictly banished from sight during the day because of the Pope's presence, were back in place. Some of them looked under fifteen. No customers were to be seen. Immediately after the Pope's departure, however, many women emerged again on the streets surrounding the hotels, plying their trade among the tourists. Also in this aspect, Cuba was back to its usual self. The male members of the Dutch press can vouch for it: how Cuban beauties in urgent need of dollars lost no time approaching their male targets.

We met an old friend, the very talented musician Teófilo, who has worked for years in a state music center, the 'Casa de la Cultura'. Ever since we first met Teófilo, in 1991, we have tried to find complicated ways to get musical scores and other supplies not found in Cuba to him, which he needs for his work. Over 40 years old now, he has reached the peak of his career. His salary is as high as possible for his line of work: he earns 140 pesos.

Since Teófilo cannot live on this amount, he earns additional income in the corner bakery shop, where they make the daily roll everyone gets with the ration books. We go to the bakery and Teófilo's colleagues let us enter, regarding us with some suspicion. We observe a bakery with shocking conditions of hygiene and safety. For the first time, I am in the poor neighborhood where our friend lives and I try to conceal my sense of shock. The place is just a few square meters large. He almost bumps his head against a rudimentary storeroom, made of corrugated tin. Until recently, he lived there with his father (whenever both happened to be living without a woman), who was a widower and died in their shed. 'Right now there's no water', he said, looking guilty. There was a toilet, though: a hole in the ground. He also had electricity, judging from the dangerous, exposed live wires in plain view. A few minutes later, the music I had taken at his request filled the room. His face beamed. Usually the power is cut off throughout long periods (except during the Pope's stay of course). Especially in summers, the place must be murderously hot without vans, I think to myself.

The floor is just plain earth. A small trunk doubles as an altar holding small offerings for the 'gods of Santería'; a makeshift bed and clothes on a hook complete the furnishings. Teófilo voices no complaints. 'I take good care of my gods, because I need them', he explains. In a box sticking out from under the bed, some diplomas and yellow, wrinkled photographs, apparently from before the Revolution, can be made out. They show a black middle-class family: the father, looking fit in his suit, a highly-esteemed musician with a good job (after the Revolution, he had to go work in a factory); a handsome mother, proudly holding a baby before the photographer; godfather and godmother standing next to a Baptismal Fountain in a rural Catholic Church; special occasions in hotels, dance orchestras and joyful meals are portrayed. I also see more recent photographs. These depict Teofilo's brother, who is in the U.S. He disappeared suddenly, one night years ago. No one knew where he had gone. Later the family heard that he had left in a raft and managed to reach Miami. Now he is a U.S. citizen and a strong, strikingly-looking sports instructor.

I cannot believe my eyes. The conquests of the Revolution had unexpected effects, at least in this family: from being members of a black prosperous middle-class, they were reduced to the poorest of existences. Teófilo voices no complaints and we, on our side, just make small talk. When we leave with him, at his request we visit a 'santero' known to him, who warns me about the enemies who have it in for me, due to my reckless activities in Cuba: 'You are not almighty', his reverence scowls at me. Luckily we also hear that the 'God Olofi' will decide for himself when the time is ripe for me, and it is not to be here and now.

Somewhat later, we drop in on the rehearsal of a young troop of black dancers belonging to the neighborhood. Teófilo has led the group for years and tried, in vain, to get a contract abroad for them. The presentation of Afro-Cuban dances is a virtuoso performance. What splendid talent is to be seen on the shoddy stage! 'Extremely qualified for going overseas', we assure, when asked our opinion.



prensa ind. | news | prensa intl. | prensa oficial | opiniones | debates | cartas | documentos| archivos
busquedas | correo electronico | centro | cuba fotos | pinturas | anillas de tabaco
Agencia Medio Ambiente | enlaces