Sunday, January 16, 2011

More Glasnost, Less Perestroika?: An Extended Interview with Circles Robinson, Havana Times Founding Editor

"More glasnost, less perestroika"
Weekly Worker, January 13, 2011

Maciej Zurowski interviews Circles Robinson of 'Havana Times', a web magazine that features critical writing from Cuba

Ever imagined a post-revolutionary scenario where Socialist Worker becomes the only widely available source of information? Well - that vision is very much a reality in Cuba, where Granma, the organ of the Communist Party since 1965, relentlessly hammers home the central committee's line with little regard for discussion, controversy or stimulating thought. Fidel Castro's increasingly surrealistic editorials might lift Granma a notch above the drabness that plagues its cousins Trabajadores and Juventud Rebelde, but many would argue that the paper's relationship with the truth is ambivalent at best.

Publications that serve the cultural needs of the country's intelligentsia do contain some critical thought. Cine Cubano, for instance, is a glossy film magazine that takes the liberty of castigating the "artistic straitjacket of socialist realism",[1] while enriching its reviews and discussion pieces with eclectic quotations, from Jean-Paul Sartre to Slavoj Zizek. But beyond the three officially approved national dailies, there has been a distinct lack of critical everyday reporting and analysis of Cuba's political, economic and social spheres throughout the country's 50-odd year revolutionary history.

In 2008, a group of Cuban residents founded Havana Times,[2] an internet magazine that prides itself on "open-minded writing from Cuba". A Cuban news and opinions website that neither consists of sycophantic Castro apologetics nor of its mirror image - the rabid anti-communism peddled by Florida-based Cuban exiles - will come as a surprise to many. Broadly socialist in its outlook and critically supportive of the revolution, it gives a voice to those who are not content to let untouchable leaders do the thinking.

As we interview the editor of Havana Times, Circles Robinson, a wind of change is blowing through Cuba, though hardly the wind of progress. Raúl Castro has announced massive layoffs, employing rhetoric that eerily echoes David Cameron's talk of a 'big society', while paying limp lip service to the paternalistic 'socialism' of the past. Meanwhile, foreign investors have been touting Cuba as a potential new emerging market for some time.

Against the background of growing class divides and a bureaucratic Communist Party (redefined as the "party of the Cuban nation" rather than a "party of the working class" since 1991), it is high time that Cuban workers began the fight for independent political organisation to defend and advance their interests.

In our interview with Circles Robinson, we spoke about the Havana Times project, the imminent changes in Cuban society, and the Cuban revolution more broadly.

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Weekly Worker: Please tell us in brief the story of Havana Times. I understand that you used publish it from mainland Cuba, but have emigrated to Nicaragua more recently. What were the reasons for your move?



Circles Robinson: Havana Times began in Cuba when I, a US citizen, was still working at ESTI, the Cuban government's official translation and interpretation agency. My job was to translate and revise materials for the official Cuban online media into English. As a member of the Cuban Journalists Association (UPEC), I took part in numerous meetings and workshops to discuss the status of Cuban journalism and ways to improve its credibility at home and abroad, as well as its visibility.

After taking part in the July 2008 UPEC Congress as a voting delegate and studying my notes of what had been discussed, plus certain recommendations the Communist Party had not long before given the Cuban media, I decided to start Havana Times (HT). The idea actually dated back about three years, but it finally seemed like the right moment to launch the website. For nine months I edited the site from Havana. Really, that was an ideal situation despite the slow internet connections in Cuba.

Subsequently, I had a major conflict at work resulting from some of my co-workers and myself openly questioning the unethical conduct of our immediate boss. To get me to support his behaviour he threatened to make a case against me using Havana Times and the fact that I had started it "without permission", though this was done in my free time. In the end, they simply refused to renew my yearly work contract. While no reason was given, I never felt that HT was the main issue in this.

Since my residency in Cuba was dependent on the job, I was given a month's notice to leave the country. My family is from Nicaragua and I had lived there for many years before coming to Cuba, so we decided to return there. My commitment to the site remained firm, and having a decent internet connection helps in keeping it updated on schedule. I have returned to Cuba three times for a few weeks each since leaving in June 2009. During those stays I was able to update the site and meet with the HT writers with no problem.

WW: Is it risky for those who live in Cuba to write for Havana Times?

CR: After initial pressure placed on two HT writers, the contributors have thus far been able to continue without further problems. State security has questioned some of them for matters more related to their environmental or community activism, although the topic of HT has been present.
Information about Cuba falls into two main categories. You get bourgeois anti-communist sources on the one hand, and uncritical pro-Castro websites on the other.

WW: Because Havana Times is neither, I suspect that both friends and enemies of the Castro regime are wary of it.

CR: Your suspicion is correct. Extremists on either side don't like the site. I've been accused of being a senior Cuban government agent on the one extreme and attacked for having stopped supporting the Cuban revolution on the other. As an online publication I am trying to promote a combination of conventional and new-style reporting, as well as commentary that reflects critical support for the Cuban revolution, which is not necessarily synonymous with its leaders.

This involves seasoned writers and people from different walks of life who want to share their opinions. We try to present a balance and let the readers make up their minds on the different issues. We try to present different aspects of the situation in Cuba, breaking away from both the official monologue and the ill-intentioned imperial discourse.

Though the extremists criticise us, I truly believe that most people who visit Cuba will find their perceptions and observations more closely reflected in Havana Times than in any of the other online publications at this time.

WW: When I visited Cuba, most young people I spoke to had a low opinion of Fidel Castro, while at the same time holding Ernesto 'Che' Guevara in very high esteem. Do you feel that there is continuity between Che's and Fidel's politics, or do you think they had radically different visions?

CR: Che's life in Cuba was during the time of great feats: the toppling of Batista, turning the country's institutions upside down and starting over, and the most intense attempt by the US to destroy the young revolution. It was a time when most youths in Cuba were inspired and more than willing to give their best to forge a country radically different from that of the past. Che was/is seen as a symbol of that period, and as a selfless hero and visionary. The study of his politics takes a distant back seat and the complexities of his thought and vision are not required reading. I think that he continues to be seen in a favourable light.

Fidel, on the other hand, has been in the driver's seat for over 50 years. Young Cubans are bombarded with his past and present speeches and writings, which are cited like others would cite from theBible. He carries with him the weight of both the good and bad decisions made over that long period, and many young people put greater emphasis on the latter since they did not experience the former. A large percentage of young people in today's Cuba do not feel positive about their present and much less the future. This is a huge difference from their counterparts in the 60s. Therefore, I would agree that Fidel, while publicly receiving massive support, is not quite as popular these days in private - especially among the youth.

Working class people in Cuba have been subsidising the country's bureaucracy for decades. Their efforts have received little reward, and since the 90s their salaries have been insufficient to meet even basic needs. Raúl Castro has said this in different words, and the economic changes occurring in the country today are supposedly geared to reversing the situation.

WW: Some claim that the Cuban revolution was not genuinely socialist because a minority of guerrillas substituted themselves for the working class. What is your view - can socialism be passed down to the working class from above?

CR: Socialism is power in the hands of the people themselves. I personally do not believe that socialism can be achieved through intermediaries. And time has proven, not only in Cuba, that supposedly 'short-term intermediaries' do not end up seeing themselves as short-term and are prone to entrench themselves at the expense of the working class.

WW: Apparently, one million public sector workers will be dismissed over the next one or two years. What are your thoughts about the economic liberalisation - is this only a temporary measure comparable to Lenin's New Economic Policy, or is it the end of Cuba's socialist project?

CR: The mass layoffs are the kind of move that makes a company's share values shoot up on stock markets. President Castro and his lieutenants are telling people that unlike the liberalisation measures taken in the early to mid-90s, which were touted as being temporary, this time they are designed to remain in place.

The government and party have even summoned the main workers' confederation, the CTC, to be the main supporter of the layoffs and the main persuaders of working class people that such a move is positive for the revolution and for a socialist Cuba.

WW: What can Cuban workers do to defend themselves?

CR: With the leadership of the only trade union in Cuba totally behind the layoffs and reforms, I would say that workers have been left orphaned without any defence. The CTC leadership has for a long time advocated government policies as the best way to defend workers' rights. The notion that a given government/party policy might be ill-advised is almost never considered.

A great example is that just two years ago the CTC was given the task of convincing workers that it was a good idea to raise the retirement age by five years (for men to 65 and for women to 60). The justification was the ageing of Cuban society and the need for people to stay on the job longer due to a lack of workforce replacements. Now, two years later, the same government and its main advocate are saying there are inflated payrolls with huge numbers of excess workers who need to be laid off as soon as possible.

This does not mean that new forms of worker defence will not emerge, but at this time it is hard to predict.

Likewise, allowing greater opportunities for self-employment and a limited number of small businesses that can hire non-family labour make sense, as the government concentrates on the major industries where there are plenty of problems to resolve.

Nonetheless, if this shift is to succeed, the people who embark on a livelihood outside the state payroll will need assistance for their start-up investments and stocked wholesale markets where they can buy at reasonable prices the products they need. The government says some cooperative businesses will be allowed, but a law that regulates such activity is still forthcoming.

WW: There are those who blame Raúl Castro personally and consider him a traitor to 'socialism'. Others say that all nationalist-socialist countries inevitably end this way. Our writer, James Turley, concluded in a recent article that "at the end of the day, socialism in one country is socialism in one country - however long it takes, it will only end in tears". Which view do you agree with? Is it possible for Cuba to be socialist in a capitalist world?

CR: Highly centralised, top-down state-socialism has proven a failure in the long run, while capitalism - despite its longevity - has bred inequality and exploitation and the destruction of our planet. I personally think that Cuba needs to work toward a form of socialism 'from below', one that its people consciously decide upon and participate in. Attempting to incorporate aspects from other countries and being creative in both new policies and untried 'old', truly socialist ones is where I see most hope.

WW: What are your thoughts on Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian movement - do you think the Venezuelan connection and Chávez's oil might save Cuba's economy?

CR: Venezuela and Chávez's Bolivarian movement is another very different scenario. I have only been there for two weeks in 2006, so I do not have the practical day-to-day experience that I have had in Cuba and Nicaragua. I do support the effort to spread some of the national wealth around to benefit social and economic programmes for the majority population. At the same time, I also have my reservations about too much authoritarianism. There is a tendency to speak in a monologue of absolute truths that sometimes prove false, or to speak in half-truths.

As to Venezuelan oil and the Cuban connection, the big danger for Cuba would be if Chávez loses the next presidential election or something was to happen to him. I remember during the 2002 coup attempt, the first statement by the de facto president, Pedro Carmona, was that not one more drop of Venezuelan oil would be sent to Cuba.

Such an event would be a huge economic blow to Cuba, just like when the Soviet Union folded or maybe worse. Remember, Cuba pays for much of the oil through in-kind professionals who work in Venezuela. If it had to purchase the same oil products elsewhere, it would be on a cash basis and the country is already saddled with a tremendous debt and liquidity crisis.

WW: When I visited Cuba, I noticed some evidently wealthy Cubans, especially in certain parts of Havana, and striking poverty in other parts. Although the official unemployment rate in Cuba is only 4%, it looked as if half of Havana was jobless. The streets were crowded with jineteros (hustlers) attempting to latch on to the tourist industry by selling black-market cigars, rum or drugs. Prostitution was widespread near hotels and tourist-frequented restaurants. What I saw looked like a class society with vast differences of wealth. Is this a development that only began with the advent of tourism? And do you think that the introduction of the convertible peso (the 'CUC economy') was a mistake?

CR: I think the downside of the tourist industry, as well as the allowing of family remittances from abroad, has played a big role in the inequalities that you saw.

Years before coming to live in Cuba, I was always impressed with the revolution's ability to survive the exceedingly difficult times of the early to mid-90s - far more difficult than the early 30s in the USA, for example. One of the possible reasons for survival was implementing the dollar economy (only more recently it became CUC-based), allowing joint ventures to obtain investment capital, as well as turning to foreign tourism to generate revenue. So I would not call it a mistake. The Cuban economy did lift itself up from the ashes. However, the lasting mid-term effects of what was supposed to be a short-term survival strategy have proved quite demoralising to most Cubans. Many of the HT contributors write about the growing inequality in the country.

Go to the Weekly Worker or the Havana Times to read the rest of the interview.

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