"The Cuba of my dreams"
An interview with Dagoberto Valdés Hernández
by Alessandro Armato
Q: What is the atmosphere like in Cuba?
A: It is dominated by uncertainty and a sense of expectation. The uncertainty is due above all to the lack of information about everything that is going on, and to the fact that the future is not in the hands of the sovereign people, but in those of the highest spheres of political power. This uncertainty is combined with the consequences of an anthropological wound inflicted upon the majority of Cubans by the “ideology of dependence” and by totalitarian control, which blocks the development of freedom and responsibility.
Q: In your editorials, you insist upon the need to develop a “civic maturity” in order to usher the country out of the “socio-political adolescence” in which it lives. What do you believe is the best way to do this?
A: I see two avenues: education, and the small opportunities for participation. It is true that there is incredible civic and political illiteracy, the fruit of ideological extremism and of the systemic blockage of information other than that provided by the government. But this situation can be overcome only by breaking out of internal isolation, which is worse than the external embargo. There is a need for more information, more openness, more exchange. We need a systematic and deep process of ethical, civic, and political education. But I don’t believe that’s enough...
Q: What do you mean?
A: We must not stop at theory: we must create small opportunities for participation and debate, and we must have training in democracy, because a theory that has not been experienced for half a century is difficult to put into practice if we have not first tried to apply it in small matters. This is what the Catholic Church, the independent libraries, the Damas de Blanco, the non-aligned journalists, and the evangelical Churches are trying to do... This is what we have been trying to do for fourteen years with our Center for Civic and Religious Formation of the diocese of Pinar del Rio, and with the magazine “Vitral.”
Q: Cuba’s march toward freedom seems unstoppable, but resistance is not lacking...
A: There is, and there will be, resistance to change. This is human. The ones putting up the obstacles are not only those who now hold power, but also a good portion of the citizens themselves. But the current situation is much more weighty than the natural resistance to change. It seems that the balance is leaning toward a series of peaceful and gradual transformations that will lead us from being a political fossil of the past to becoming a normal country incorporated like the others within the international community. A country whose children will no longer need to flee from their own land if they want to advance themselves and live in freedom. And yet, I still don’t know how these absolutely necessary and unstoppable changes will take place.
Q: What are the scenarios you foresee?
A: The first: a succession within the system itself, gradually opening to economic and social reforms and thus normalizing international political relations and leading to the implementation of internal political reforms. Another possible scenario is a combination of a brief succession and a slow, lengthy transition entrusted to a younger generation with more open minds. In the most pessimistic scenario, neither of these would happen and there would be a reinforcement of totalitarian control, the repression of dissidents, and international isolation. All of these latter alternatives would lead to a “North Koreanization” of Cuba, creating more suffering and poverty and increasing the mass exodus. With the risk of opening the door to violence.
Q: What, in your view, are the main risks that tomorrow’s Cuba must face?
A: If restriction and isolation are reinforced, we will head straight toward violence, uncontrolled social explosion, and political chaos. It’s inevitable. No one wants it, but unfortunately few are working seriously to ward off this result. But if, instead, Cuba opens up and democratizes, we will have to face the risks intrinsic to a freedom divorced from responsibility: corruption, moral relativism, unprincipled media, unemployment, and perhaps the emergence of new criminal organizations. It’s up to us to keep this from happening. We must, beginning now, expand the ecclesial and social services of ethical formation, the services of civic and political education, and promote a culture of responsible freedom.
Q: Are you afraid of the “imperialism” of the United States?
A: Negative influences, and even hegemonic aspirations, can come from outside, but we Cubans have enough experience in this area to take care of ourselves. But there can also come from outside - if we’re able to channel it properly - positive and constructive help from about two million Cuban exiles and émigrés. This is valuable assistance in the form of knowledge, experience, investment, family reunification, and cultural reinforcement. The worst imaginable scenario is that of an openness that would be a cynical enthusiasm for the outside world, an indiscriminate subordination to everything that comes from outside, to hedonistic models contrary to life, without discernment and critical understanding.
Q: There is even talk about a possible annexation of Cuba by Venezuela. What do you think about this?
A: It’s a pipe dream, an impracticable illusion that would offend the great majority of Cubans and Venezuelans. But a respectful regional integration would be another matter.
Q: Do you believe it is possible that communism, instead of dying, is perpetuating itself under the form of that “twenty-first century socialism” of which Hugo Chávez claims to be the prophet?
A: Communism as humanity has lived it has failed, and it has disappeared in the way it once existed. What remains of it in some countries is only a shadow of that sorrowful past. It was a mistake, and I don’t believe that humanity is willing to pay the price of repeating it.
Q: At this juncture, does it seem to you that the attitude of the Cubans of the diaspora is constructive?
A: The great majority of the Cuban exiles recognize the eagerness of the inhabitants of the island, and put their potential – in terms of formation and financing – at our disposal. There already exists a group of Christian-inspired businessmen who are creating a common investment fund destined exclusively for micro-enterprise and microcredit, which I believe must be the basis of the new economic model for Cuba. But there still remain – both outside and within Cuba – small minorities with great power and influence over the media, which give the impression of representing everyone, when that’s not really the way it is. If these minorities, holdovers from the past, persist with their anachronistic pretensions – some over unrecoverable property, others purely out of attachment to power – they will be a serious obstacle to realizing those gradual, peaceful, and just changes that Cuba needs.
Q: Political opponents, dissidents, representatives of civil society: the panorama of the Cubans pushing for democratic openness is fairly varied, but the profiles of the different groups aren’t always clear...
A: In Cuba today there are political opponents, dissidents, and groups forming a nascent civil society. But there is also a great civic and political illiteracy that does not permit the social agents to distinguish themselves clearly. Furthermore, we have a government that seeks to confuse these groups and individuals with each other, in order to put everyone on the same level, labeling them all as “counter-revolutionaries” and “mercenaries” in the service of the United States. All of this gravely compromises the future of Cuba. The nation must learn to distinguish and to recognize, to respect and promote the different social agents. Civil society must understand its role and its margin of autonomy in relation to the state and the opposition political parties. We need a patient educational effort so that the opposition parties may know how to respect and dialogue with the other members of civil society, without confusing them with their own aims, and so that the state itself may learn to identify and dialogue with the different social agents.
Q: Is “Vitral” a dissident or opposition magazine?
A: “Vitral” is a Catholic magazine, an expression of the Center for Civic and Religious Formation of the diocese of Pinar del Rio. It is a magazine for the Church, even if its profile is socio-cultural, and not confessional. It is open to all men of good will, and the editorial board watches to ensure that everything that is published remains within a broad ethical-humanist and pluralistic context. It identifies itself with and places itself in the heart of civil society, and not within the political opposition. Personally, I think of myself as a civic catalyst from the sociological point of view, and as an evangelizer of civil society insofar as I am a Christian.
Q: Is it an influential magazine?
A: Since I believe in the Gospel, I am convinced that a tiny grain of salt can be effective, a miniscule mustard seed can sprout, and a little light in the darkness can orient others. “Vitral” aspires to be this ferment in an immense lump of dough.
Q: Does it circulate freely?
A: “Vitral” circulates as it is able, from hand to hand: it cannot be sold on the streets, it cannot be brought into the schools, but the informal network of the Church and the rest of civil society brings it to our ten thousand subscribers in Cuba, in some of the diaspora communities, in certain universities in the United States, Mexico, and Spain, and to a network of friends spread all over the world.
Q: What role does the Cuban Church play in this delicate phase of transition toward a “just, liberal, and united” country, as cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino has said?
A: The Church is the only institution in Cuba that over the past half century has maintained autonomy and independence from the state. In the Church there is still a trace of that civil society which otherwise has been perversely dislocated from actual socialism. In recent years, the ecclesiastical institution has played a fundamental role in the accompaniment and reconstruction of civil society, offering ethical education, civic formation, training in community participation and responsibility, education for freedom, justice, and peace. The Church has, moreover, alleviated the despair of many Cubans and given them reasons to remain in the country.
Q: How do you see the relationship between the Church and political power today?
A: The Church has maintained its identity, its mission, and its areas of responsibility, even if its incorporation into society has been limited by a state that presumed to control everything and everyone. The Church has succeeded in sowing the Gospel in the midst of the most incredible difficulties. Many priests, religious, and laypeople have worked for years and years as faithful witnesses, even at the risk of their own safety and that of their families. All of this is a great gift from God!
Q: Half a century under a communist regime. Is there something special that the Church has learned during this time and from which everyone can learn?
A: I believe so. We have learned to believe in the force of smallness, in the efficacy of the seed, in the power of the leaven in the dough. We have learned to be humble, to live with our feet on the ground, sharing the fate of those who suffer injustice. We have learned that the Church grows and purifies itself in the midst of tribulations, and that this is a time of glorious crucifixion and resurrection for us, the disciples of Christ living in Cuba.
Q: There are also many missionaries in the country...
A: The presence of so many Catholic missionaries – we don’t call them foreigners, because in the Church no one is a foreigner – is a grace and a gift from God for this people, which suffers and hopes. There are missionaries from Italy, Spain, Germany, Colombia, Mexico, and many other nations. They arrive with great generosity and curiosity, they seek to inculturate and engage themselves in the villages to which they are sent. The people receive them with open arms. They offer us that which we have not known because of the isolation of the island, but – in their turn – they receive much from the people, who are always busy seeking alternatives so that they may survive without losing hope. They proclaim the Gospel and denounce, when possible, that which offends human dignity and rights.
Q: What difficulties do the missionaries face if they raise their voices?
A: Often they must remain silent because they risk the revocation of their residency permit and a silent, humiliating expulsion. Some missionaries wonder what it means to lose a residency permit when compared to losing one’s life, as happens elsewhere; others maintain that it’s better to remain here, serving in silence. Still others, finally, wonder if silence means complicity with injustice. But no one remains indifferent to the current situation on this beautiful island of suffering and hospitality, and to its peaceful and joyful people, who for five decades have continued to hope for the visitation of the Lord Jesus that they may accomplish – by their own power – interior freedom, political democratization, and overall human development. This is what John Paul II asked for in Havana in January of 1998, in the Plaza de la Revolución José Martí: “You are and must be,” he said, “the protagonists of your personal and national history.” We hope so. And we are trying.
(This article originally appeared in Mondo e Missione in April 2007)