Marta Beatriz Roque is the founder of the Cuban Institute of Independent Economists, and a prominent Cuban dissident who has been in and out of prison several times.
Robert Broughton: You recently had a visit from a group of Democratic U.S. Senators and Members of Congress: Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vermont), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (Rhode Island), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Sen. Dick Durbin (Illinois), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Maryland 8th), and Rep. Peter Welch (Vermont at-large). What message did you have for them?
Marta Beatriz Roque: I told the Congressmen (Senators and Representatives) that whether I agreed or not [with the Obama announcement on diplomatic recognition], the decision was made, but a retreat from the recent actions of the Obama Administration would be very painful for the Cuban people, so Congress has to be careful on this issue.
RB: One misconception I had about Cuba was that it has a shortage of tourists. Actually, there are a lot of them. And, Havana's better hotels charge $150 to $200 per night, and the all-inclusive resorts charge around $300 per night. Where is all this money going?
MBR: I would be unfair if I said, “into the pockets of Castro”, because I am not aware that this is happening, but I can say that is not used to improve the people's livelihood, which is becoming worse. However, family members of the regime travel like millionaires, as seen with Fidel Castro's son's involvement in expensive golf tournaments and fishing derbies. Most Cubans do not know what golf is, and haven't eaten fish for many years.
RB: The resort hotels don't have their own employees. The workers in them are employees of the government, and the hotel owners pay the government for them. What are the amounts of money involved here?
MBR: It is true that Cubans working for joint commercial enterprises receive a minimum wage, and the State gets most of it; it's as if they were slaves. The same applies to Cubans working in foreign embassies, and they also have to serve the Security Police as spies on the embassies and the homes of officials. I have no idea how much money in involved here, but the amount kept by the State is in the millions of dollars, because it doesn't pay the workers.
RB: Can you imagine how the UNITE HERE union would respond if a major employer like Hilton or Marriott announced, “we're going to keep 90% of your wages for ourselves”?
MBR: I can imagine that the result would be a major strike of the workers, which would cost Hilton or Marriott a lot of money, because they would not be able to provide services in hotels. In Cuba, workers have no right to strike, and respond by giving bad service and stealing everything they can.
RB: How much of Cuba's food supply is imported?
MBR: This information does not officially exist; most of the information provided by the regime is altered at their convenience. But there was a time when plants and vegetables for the resort hotels had to be imported, and Raúl Castro himself said in a speech that this was a shame on the "people"; we must remember that the blame for everything that happens here lies with the “people” of Cuba.
RB: How does Cuba's current food production compare to what it was prior to 1959?
MBR: When the regime took power in 1959 there were 1.5 cows per person, because there were regions, such as Camagüey, that were very productive and dedicated to livestock and milk. Today, however, there are three generations of Cubans who have been subjected to rationing. Children no longer have the right to one liter of milk daily at age 7, and a lot of these three generations don't know what beef is. I think this comparison is sufficient, although you might say that there are other foods that have never been through their mouths, such as shrimp, lobster, pears and apples; but even some easy-to-produce foods like apple bananas [a type of fruit unique to Cuba] have disappeared.
RB: The Varela Project wasn't highly publicized in North America. Tell us about it.
MBR: The Varela Project was an attempt to work within Cuba's system to produce democratic change in the country, and start a discussion at the National Assembly of People's Power [Cuba's parliament], by collecting 10,000 signatures according to the Constitution of the Republic.
RB: And what was the government's response?
MBR: The regime responded by changing the constitution in 2002 by adding an article that says that nothing can be done against “established socialism” in the country.
RB: And what are the people involved in the Varela Project doing now?
MBR: Oswaldo Payá's family went into exile. [Payá, leader of the Varela Project and the Christian Liberation Movement, died in 2012.] The Christian Liberation Movement exists within Cuba, but doesn't have the strength it had before. It is led from the outside by Paya's daughter Rosa Maria, but they are in a reorganization process. It is quite understandable that this family went into exile, because Payá's three children were young and were constantly threatened. I think they have the will and the intelligence to return to revive the project.
RB: The Cuban government always likes to talk about the United States as the Great Imperialist Satan, but when Venezuela or China offers Cuba some crumbs off their table, it seems that the government will do whatever they ask.
MBR: The Cuban regime has been accustomed to be a maintainer and squanderer of what they have given to the people. The former Soviet Union "donated" $13 billion annually, and the factories that entered the country had to protect themselves from losses due to pilfering, negligence, and faulty construction. Right now, these enterprises are mostly non-functional. Maduro's Venezuelan government is totally subservient to the Castro regime, and when he has problems, he comes to Cuba for solutions. The Chinese are not the same; they don't give things away, and their system has a strong capitalist component in making trade relations.
RB: You're the founder and principal member of the Cuban Institute of Independent Economists. What is this organization doing? How many members does it have?
MBR: The Cuban Institute of Independent Economists has vacancies, because most of its members have gone into exile, and there are few economists of the first generation of the regime. It's no secret that a large proportion of those entering the opposition want to avail themselves of the opportunity to travel as political refugees. Right now, it is not very easy for students of economics to join our organization.
RB: You've been in and out of Cuban jails how many times? And how many hunger strikes have you done?
MBR: I have been imprisoned twice, but have been arrested dozens and dozens of times. The first time I was imprisoned was in 1997 when I wrote “The Homeland Belongs to All” (“La Patria es de Todos”) with three other members of the opposition [Vladimiro Roca, Félix Bonne and René Gómez]. Those were different times. All four of us are still living in Cuba. The second time was in 2003, when I was fresh from my first imprisonment. This was part of a crackdown by the regime to end dissent, in which 75 dissidents were tried and sent to prison with very high penalties, in my case 20 years. I have to say that three members of this group of three have died and sixty are outside the country. There are twelve remaining in Cuba, and they are in a legal limbo called parole, but the truth is that we have our civil rights, including the opportunity to travel abroad and return home. I made what amounts to three hunger strikes.
RB: What health problems do you have?
MBR: Prison destroys peoples' health. I had a heart attack in 2003 and became diabetic. I have the infirmities normal for a person who soon (May 16) turns 70 and can not even go to the doctor or the dentist, because the Security Police is capable of anything to terminate opponents and say it was because of natural causes.
RB: What is your legal status according to the government?
MBR: According to the regime, I'm on parole, but I have never been given documentation of what this means, even to formalize this status. This status comes from the Minister of the Interior, but there is nothing in Cuban law that explains how I will complete the sentence, because it says that while one is on parole, the prison time is frozen, so I'll never complete the sentence while on parole.
RB: Have they stopped harassing you at home?
MBR: No, harassment at my home continues. In fact, when people climb the stairs of my building, they see a mural with a photo of mine from the Cuban press and captions such as “terrorists”, “mercenaries”, etc. There are also pictures of two other prominent dissidents, Berta Soler and Guillermo Fariñas.
RB: What do you think needs to happen to give Cuba a better future?
MBR: A better future for Cuba depends its own people. We have to respond to what has been happening in these 56 years. Unfortunately Cubans prefer to emigrate instead of confronting the system, which results in long years in prison, and we are the bad examples. It is amazing to see over the years that many young people who could enlist in the struggle for democracy, would rather die at sea trying to cross the Straits of Florida, an activity which has increased since the announcement of talks with the US, because people fear that the policy of “wet foot, dry foot” will end. But history, in most cases, has written that the solution lies with the Cubans.
RB: And what can people outside Cuba do to help?
MBR: People can do many things to help. It is amazing to see the needs of many Cuban families and the misery that goes with it. Much of this country lives on remittances sent by those who have achieved exile. There are many aid programs for sick children, for people in need; but the most important thing you could do is expose the true face of the international regime. Although from the information point of view, few people learn, but there are dissidents who are dedicated to disseminating news, which should open the eyes of this sleepy population.
NOTE: My original plan was to film this interview, and put it up on YouTube. Unfortunately, prior to my meeting with Sra. Roque, I had an unpleasant conversation with one of the Policia de Inmigracion. I caught his attention because I was taking pictures at a baseball game. He examined my notebook, and asked by why I had the name of a “contrarrevolucionaria” (he said that with a straight face) in it. He made me sign a statement acknowledging that I was in Cuba on a tourist visa, not a journalist visa. So, this interview was conducted by email after I returned home, so that the only journalism I did while in Cuba was blogging about baseball games.
It was also impossible to do the interview using Skype, because Skype is blocked in Cuba.