Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana
Marc Frank, Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013)
Marc Frank is a journalist for Reuters, The Financial Times, and ABC News, residing in Havana. His articles are factual, timely, descriptive and well written, as is his new book, Cuban Revelations. It provides important insights and impressions for those planning on traveling to Cuba and/or interested in gaining an understanding of Cuba’s recent history, with emphasis on political and economic changes, unique and up close descriptions of the population’s attitudes toward changes in leadership and laws, and current conditions on the island. This journalistic account does not, however, try to identify the causes of these changes, nor does it offer theoretical analyses of what the changes mean for the future of Cuban socialism.
The book is divided into four parts that trace the history and consequences of changes that have occurred since 2006, when Fidel Castro became seriously ill and his brother Raúl took power. Part I begins with the final decade of Fidel’s leadership, which included the huge problems of the special period in the 1990s and the economic recovery in the early 2000s, resulting in a rise in economic inequality and abandonment of many of the socialist ideals found in Che Guevara’s concept of the “New Man.” Raúl “determined that the social changes under way were irreversible, and that a new economic model of harnessing them rather than squashing them was the only way the Revolution could survive” (30f). He aimed to attract the majority of Cubans in what Frank calls the Grey Zone, those who support the government but want change. Frank’s anecdotal evidence indicates a positive response to Raúl’s less flashy yet more substantive and open style of leadership.
Part II analyzes the period beginning in 2008 with Raúl’s official assumption of power, with the emphasis on improving production, which includes distribution of leased land to farmers. His less confrontational foreign policy has been accompanied by support from most Latin American countries for commercial and diplomatic ties with Cuba and for ending Cuba’s isolation from regional organizations. Frank does not mention the annual lopsided votes in the UN General Assembly against the US embargo of Cuba (which reached 188-2 in 2013). Inexplicably he suggests that Cuba and the US share the blame for the history of hostilities.
Part III begins in 2009 with laws allowing and regulating private barbers, street vendors and cabs, and resistance to changes by some bureaucrats. Frank discusses the dissident movement in Cuba, the counterrevolutionary exiles in Miami, and the case of Alan Gross. Regarding the 75 dissidents sentenced to jail terms in 2003, Frank claims “they were convicted of conspiring with the United States against the government…” (95). What he fails to note is that they were convicted of accepting money from the US government, and that all were freed a few years later prior to completing their sentences (Frank states that 23 were released). Discussing religion’s expanded role, Frank curiously asserts, citing no sources, that “more than 90 percent of the Cubans believe in the supernatural” (202).
Part IV encompasses 2010 to 2013. Frank refers to the 2011 Communist Party Congress, which followed nationwide organized discussion. Even though “local economists1 said the cuts were long overdue, in spite of the accompanying unease and pain” (220), the planned layoff of 500,000 state workers was cut down by more than half in response to protests. Resistance was also voiced to the proposal to eliminate the ration book. One well-received surprise was Raúl’s proposal to limit tenure in office to two five-year terms. Another was allowing everyone to travel outside of Cuba.
The many positive aspects of this book are tempered by errors and omissions. Frank does not fully grasp how Cuba’s parliamentary system functions. Candidates are selected by the municipal, provincial and national candidacy commissions, whose members are not selected by the Party, but are chaired by representatives from the Confederation of Cuban Workers, and include representatives from the Federation of Cuban Women, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, and high school and university student groups, but not from the PCC. Frank incorrectly states that the election of the Council of State by the National Assembly Deputies “is no more than the approval of a slate proposed by the Communist Party Politburo” (77). In fact it is the National Candidacy Commission that proposes the slate to the deputies. The municipal candidacy commissions and not the PCC nominate the municipal assembly councils and officers. Of course the PCC, like other organizations, has influence in the selections.
Regarding elections for municipal assembly delegates, Frank correctly writes that the PCC “does not participate as an organized force in the ward elections,” but then he incorrectly concludes “anyone can run as an independent” (77). In municipal elections no one runs with any party label, PCC or independent. Contrary to Frank’s contention that the delegates receive perks such as telephones, my studies show that municipal delegates are well known in their districts, and are closely watched by their constituents to make sure they do not receive perks.2 Furthermore, telephones are now widely available (78).
Frank also incorrectly writes “a minimum 50 percent of the more than 600 deputies at the national level must be elected ward-level delegates…” (78). The 1992 Cuban Constitution states that up to 50 percent of the National Assembly deputies must be elected municipal assembly delegates. Frank should have used the word “maximum” instead of “minimum.”3
Frank is in error when discussing Fidel’s possible nomination in 2007 as a National Assembly Deputy candidate. Candidates are nominated by the candidacy commission, and ratified by the municipal assemblies. Thus, when Frank asked the municipal delegates in Santiago whether they would nominate Fidel, “one after the other looked at me like I was an idiot, or from another planet.” (79)
Speaking of the resumption of food imports from the United States, Frank over-generalizes by concluding that a woman who expressed delight over an apple from Washington State “could have been speaking for most of the Caribbean island’s inhabitants.” (95). I found many who were dissatisfied with the quality of some items imported from the US, such as the chickens, which they regarded as lacking taste.
Regarding Cuba’s role in campaigning to free the Cuban agents in jail in the United States, Frank inexplicably writes that “Cuba’s eleven-year effort to bring back its five agents…all but came to an end as three of the five’s long sentences were reduced, one from life to thirty years, but the others by insignificant amounts” (182f). In fact two (not one) of the agents had their sentences reduced from life to long prison terms. Gerardo Hernández is still serving two life sentences, and Frank gives no evidence that Cuba’s legal efforts have been abandoned.
The errors I have pointed out, while important, do not substantially detract from the overall usefulness of this book, which reveals some of the attitudes and consequences experienced by Cubans in light of the changes currently taking place.
Reviewed by Peter Roman Hostos Community College and the CUNY Graduate Center firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Frank fails to cite these economists, nor does he give citations for economists elsewhere in the book.
2. Peter Roman, People’s Power: Cuba’s Experience with Representative Democracy, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003
3. Peter Roman “Electing Cuba’s National Assembly Deputies: Proposals, Selections, Nominations, and Campaigns,” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 82, April 2007, 69-88.