I Always Did What My Conscience Dictated
“I Always Did What My Conscience Dictated” / Dimas Castellano, Oscar
Posted on June 21, 2014
One of the central figures of the Cuban opposition, who participated in
the revolution before its ultimate victory but ended up being sentenced
to 20 years in Castro’s prisons, was the independent economist Oscar
Espinosa Chepe, who died in Madrid. He recounts his life and ideas in
Born in Cienfuegos on November 29, 1940, Chepe joined the revolutionary
movement while studying at the Instituto de Segunda Enseñanza in that
city. After 1959 he held various positions in the Socialist Youth (JS)
and in the Association of Young Rebels (AJR), in the National Institute
of Agrarian Reform (INRA), in the Central Planning Group (JUCEPLAN) and
in the office of Prime Minister Fidel Castro.
He was punished for his opinions by being made to collect bat guano from
caves and to work in agriculture. While on the State Committee for
Economic Collaboration he was in charge of economic and technical and
scientific relations with Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. He
served as economic adviser at the Cuban Embassy in Belgrade and as a
specialist at the National Bank of Cuba, from which he was fired for his
beliefs in 1992.
The following interview of Chepe was conducted by Dimas Castellanos in
Havana in 2009.
DC: You are described as an economist or an independent journalist, but
we know little about the other aspects of your life. What were your
early years like, your family environment?
OEC: I was born in Cienfuegos. My parents were from humble origins. They
had business dealings with a string of pharmacies. My mother was also
involved in the real estate business and together with my father came to
own a drugstore in partnership with other people. I had a happy
childhood but I was always interested in history, politics and social
justice. My father encouraged these interests. He was a member of the
old Communist Party and participated in the struggle against the
dictatorship of Gerardo Machado, a cause for which he spent time in
prison. During my undergraduate studies, I established contacts with
members of the Socialist Youth (Juventud Socialista, or JS).
I participated with the JS and other students in demonstrations against
the Batista dictatorship. During the sugar strike of 1955 students were
going to workers’ assemblies to encourage them to join the strike. At
these activities I met union leaders who would later belong to the
People’s Socialist Party (PSP).
Did you suffer any consequences as a result of your activities?
In 1957 I was accused of a sabotage attack in Cienfuegos. I had no
involvement but I was imprisoned and tried by the Emergency Court of
Santa Clara. At the trial I was defended by the man who would later
become President-of-the-Republic, Dr. Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado. I was
acquitted but the threat from the chief-of-police of Cienfuegos forced
me to leave town. For that reason I came to Havana and began my studies
at a school called Candler Methodist College, where I continued my
political activity. That’s why I was expelled from the school in early 1958.
In what political organization were you active at the time?
I was a member of a student movement called the March 13th Revolutionary
Directorate until the triumph of the Revolution. Then, after the JS was
reorganized and it became the youth organization of the People’s
Socialist Party, I re-established ties with the organization. I was its
president in Cienfuegos and a member of the provincial committee in the
former province of Las Villas until youth organizations were folded into
the AJR. I was then in charge of propaganda for the provincial committee
in Las Villas and served on the national committee. While in this
organization, I helped set up committees in Cienfuegos as well as those
in rural areas that had opposed the government.
I remember a peasant leader who was working with us, Juan Gonzalez, who
was later killed in an ambush. Much later, when I was on the Provincial
Committee, one of our drivers was killed in another ambush. His name was
Hector Martinez. He was a humble young peasant and, like all of us, very
It was a very sad period, a time when Cubans were caught up in a war
that made no sense because it was a war between brothers. The government
cruelly evicted many families from the mountains. They lost their land
and their belongings because it was thought they were cooperating with
the rebels. The departure of these families created ghost towns in Pinar
del Rio and other provinces.
It was a bloody period, one when hatred prevailed. It lasted several
years and in the end totalitarianism won by instilling fear in society.
Cubans as a whole, including those who risked their lives for an ideal,
Was there anything from that period that had an impact on you?
There were many things. While I was in Cienfuegos, I remember the first
militias that went to fight in Escambray. I was part of a battalion that
was took over Cayo Loco, where we found remnants of Batista’s navy,
which were under suspicion. I also remember the enthusiasm of that era,
when the revolution had overwhelming support.
Another emotional moment was when the revolution was declared to be
socialist. I was speaking at an AJR assembly in Sanctus Spiritus and
suddenly there was a huge crowd in the street waving red flags and
shouting, “Long live the socialist revolution!” And Fidel Castro made
the proclamation in Havana on the eve of the Bay of Pigs.
The next day, after we found out about the landing on the beach, I
boarded a jeep with 30-caliber machine guns — not knowing where we were
going — to protect the airport at Santa Clara. I was somewhat like a
commissar, with militiamen who did not have much experience but had a
total willingness to sacrifice. Our mission was to protect this
strategic location, which was not far from the Ciénaga de Zapata, from
aerial attack. Fortunately, nothing happened.
Those experiences had a big impact on us. We thought we were going to
turn Cuba into a paradise and people were full of hope. We had total
confidence in the future, in our leaders, especially in Fidel, in Che,
in Raul. To many of us from the JS our greatest inspiration was Raul
Castro. We knew he had been in the JS. It was a time of tremendous
enthusiasm and naivete, feelings that subsequently gave way to colossal
After that first experience in the youth movement, did you join any
other political organization?
I joined the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations (ORI). I became core
secretary at the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA), where I
was departmental head when the party was forming within the ORI. There
was Antero Regalado, an old peasant leader, and other directors who held
high-level positions in INRA.
At that time was the INRA something of a parallel government?
Yes, yes, it was a government. Even the agrarian development zones were
almost republics. The heads of those zones confiscated land and had
tremendous power. In supply planning, where I worked, they first put a
Latin American in charge, but the man turned out to be a disaster. There
was no one else to take his place, so they put me in charge. I was about
21 or 22-years-old and my only qualification was a high school diploma.
I remember at the time they fired an engineer, Santos Ríos, from INRA.
Fidel Castro was President but in effect he was running the agency.
After they removed Santo Ríos, they appointed Carlos Rafael Rodriguez
president of INRA. I was given a position I didn’t want because he knew
I had no experience. My goal at the time was to study economics at the
University of Havana. There were also some special plans over which only
Fidel Castro had control. Three weeks after completion of the one-year
plan, Fidel’s envoys appeared with different plans, so all our work had
to be thrown out and resources had to be reallocated to other planning
projects. It was crazy.
After that did you hold some other position within the government?
Later I transferred to JUCEPLAN. There were big turnovers there and they
asked Carlos Rafael for additional personnel. I was one of those
selected. I went to work in the agricultural sector as department chief
in the Supply Plan for Agriculture and Fisheries. I worked by day and
studied economics by night at the University of Havana until the
economic research teams were created. Then I was chosen to work on the
A few months after these teams were formed, it seems that Fidel Castro
decided he wanted some of them to work directly with him. We were
relocated to 11th Street, near the home of Celia Sanchez. I did as I was
told. I was assigned to a group specializing in artificial insemination.
It was crazy because insemination is supposed to be done with animals
specially selected for certain traits. Instead, they were inseminating
any cow who happened to come along.
At the time I went to the countryside and realized what a mess it was.
It was the peasants themselves and the INRA directors who showed me how
bad things were. Around this time I began reading the works of some
socialist economists. Among the Soviets I remember Liberman. Among the
Poles there was Oskar Lange, W. Brus and M. Kalecki, who provided
critiques within a socialist framework.
I began to realize a lot of things. Working with Fidel I understood that
some things were irrational, such as the abolition of material
incentives, which Che had championed, the systematic gutting of
accounting systems and economic controls, and especially the mass
confiscation of private property.
I was a spectator to the conflict between Che Guevara on the one hand
and his defense of the budgetary finance system, which proposed to
monopolize the entire economy, and Carlos Rafael Rodriguez on the other
and his support for a more rational and flexible style of self-management.
I later discovered, however, that in such a dysfunctional system this
too was impractical. When it came to theory, Carlos was brilliant but,
though he was astute, he did not engage with Che directly but rather
through third parties. Che was a man who was completely wrong when it
came to economic theory. History has amply demonstrated this and the
budgetary finance system is not even mentioned in Cuba today.
In light of the situation, I shared my views with my team. After I
defended them, they took me to a meeting to try to dissuade me from my
“misconceptions.” I remained unconvinced so they then took me to have a
discussion with José Llanusa Gobel, who at the time was Minister of
Education and someone very close to Fidel Castro.
What happened at this meeting?
We had a heated discussion. He tried to convince me, which made me
increasingly more steadfast in my beliefs about the very things he was
talking about, such as building communism and abolishing money. I asked
him what the economic and rational basis for this was. I acknowledged
that there had to be moral incentives, but at the same time you had to
pay people more, in accordance with the quantity and quality of the work
they performed. This is the position Raúl Castro himself ultimately
adopted. Llanusa told me I was evil.
A short time later they bought a bull in Canada that looked like an
elephant. We got word that we should go see it. Fidel was there. He was
very impressesd, walking all around it. Later, the bull was discovered
to have been injured. It seems they took too much semen from him before
he was sold, which made him damaged goods. Llanusa arrived while I was
there and went off to talk with Fidel, so we left. The next afternoon
Fidel arrived at our office with his bodyguards and began saying
offensive things to me.
“We know who you are hanging out with and who you are meeting.”
I said, “Look, Comandante, you have been misinformed. I am not meeting
with anyone nor hanging out with anyone. I am just telling you what I
have been taught at the University of Havana.”
He took that as a sign of disrespect and became enraged. I only told him
the truth. My point of view was based on what I had studied at the
university. Many of our classes were taught by Soviet or Hispano-Soviet
professors and our basic textbook was Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. From that
moment I wanted in some way to oppose his program. I could not remain
silent in the face of so many blunders and nonsensical policies which,
among other things, were direct contradictions of basic Marxist principles.
Did this lead to any repercussions?
Two or three days later the head of the team called me in and told me I
had to leave. That was in June 1967. They sacked me but kept sending a
paycheck to my house until January 1968. At that time the
“micro-faction” trial was taking place. Then the party secretary in
Havana, a man named Betancourt, called to ask me what I thought of the
trial since the statements of the accused happened to coincide with some
of things I had done. Then he asked if I still felt the same way.
I said, “Yes. If I told you that I had changed, I’d be lying. Do you
want me to lie?”
He said, “Then we’re going to send you on a heroic mission in order to
reform you. And what you’ll find is that you have never worked so hard
in your life.”
They sent me to clean bat guano out of caves such as La Jaula, which is
on the road towards Escalera de Jaruco in Quivicán, and in Pinar del
Río, where I got sick. As a result they transferred me from there to the
Havana Green Belt to work in brigades of people convicted of petty
crimes. It was very humiliating for me because I considered myself a
revolutionary. It was a hard time but I still believed in the
revolution, still thought mistakes were being made and had to put up
with it until they were corrected, but time passed and nothing was resolved.
After all that how was it possible you went to work in the foreign service?
After almost two years of punishment I wrote to Carlos Rafael Rodríguez
and also to Osvaldo Dorticós, who had known me in Cienfuegos. Then one
fine day Llanusa called me and apologized. He told me he had made a huge
mistake, that he had never ordered them to do this to me and asked if I
would go work for him. I told him no, that I would not work with him. He
asked me where I wanted to work. I said in the Ministry of Sugar with
Miguel Ángel Figueras, an economist who had been my professor and who
was vice-minister there. He picked up the phone, called him and
immediately I began work at the ministry, though I was really very
One day I went to the Technical Assistance Center (CAT), where Humberto
Knight was the coordinator. He was a little leery and asked if I really
wanted to work there. I said yes because I had always admired Carlos
Rafael Rodríguez, who headed that office. Carlos Rafael was a very
intelligent and educated man. He had been a member of the old Communist
Party. I started working there in an auxiliary capacity but I devised a
comprehensive methodology for evaluating the work of foreign specialists
and was congratulated by high-level officials from other organizations.
Then Carlos Rafael called me in to explain it to him. When we started
talking, I told him, “Doctor, you were commissioner in Cienfuegos at the
end of the revolution of ’33.”
He asked me, “How do you know that?” He then looked at me and blurted
out, “Oh, aren’t you the son of Oscar Espinosa?”
It so happened that my father once told me that he had participated in
the creation of a soviet, was taken prisoner and was sent to Havana.
Then Carlos Rafael, who held a position in the Hundred Days’ government,
looked at him and said, “Come along. You’re going to be a prisoner of
Then my father responded, “This isn’t a revolution; it’s a piece of shit.”
This offended him. At times my father could be somewhat aggressive and
the Communist Party of that era was extremely arrogant and sectarian.
Carlos Rafael told me the same story during our conversation and said to
me, “Your father was a shithead. Are you going to be like him?”
In short I worked with him, a few yards from his office in the Palace of
the Revolution, dealing with relations with Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
Then I also began dealing with the economic and scientific-technical
ties with Yugoslavia. I must admit that, in terms of opportunity, I
enjoyed working alongside Dr. Rodriguez, as he was respectfully referred
to overseas. I learned a lot, especially in regard to his penchant for
anti-dogmatic opinions and open dialogue. Given the position he held, he
reserved his personal opinions for a narrow circle of people, though
there was never any doubt he was a committed Marxist.
What did you do there?
I sat on intergovernmental commissions and served as secretary on those
commissions. I also held discussions with our foreign partners on
setting up accords, general conditions of co-operation and state credit
agreements, some with special governmental powers. This was quite
unusual considering I was never a member of the Cuban Communist Party,
which was a basic prerequisite for participating in these types of
Later we moved to First and B streets in Vedado. It was then that I
began to travel. My first trip was to Hungary in 1973, which I made with
Carlos Rafael. It was awful. There was an enormous number of documents
to be signed and when I looked over them, I realized half of them had
not been signed. Carlos Rafael and Miklos Ajtai, the Hungarian
vice-president, were supposed to have signed them. I thought this was
going to be a disaster. I spoke openly with Carlos Rafael and explained
to him what had happened. He said, “No problem. Bring them over,” and
the two of them set about signing them, even though the signing ceremony
had already been televised.
I also spent many years as secretary for Czechoslovakia and participated
in many conferences with vice-presidents of the Cuban government. With
José Ramón Fernández, Ricardo Cabrisas and other senior leaders for
example. My department also oversaw the commercial interests of the
State Committee for Economic Cooperation. We had a good working
relationship, but I think he appointed me departmental head because of
the problems he had with Fidel Castro.
What was not approved?
I was never formally appointed. It was a position with the Central
Committee but I was not appointed. I was there for ten years,
negotiating millions of rubles worth of business. We later went to the
ministries, and ministers the vice-presidents provided signatures. It
was for different types of business, such as sending young people to
work in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. I am talking about volunteers. I
worked out the language in all those documents. In the case of
Czechoslovakia I held discussions with the Czech vice-minister.
But things did not go well. What happened was that they told the kids
they could not bring this thing or that thing, that they could keep only
a portion of the money they were paid and the rest they had to turn over
to the government. Nevertheless, the kids were dying to go. The Czechs
and Hungarians also complained that our young people were all in love
and always screwing around but, when it came time to work, they were
better than those from other countries.
How long did you do this type of work?
I dealt with Hungary and Czechoslovakia until 1984, when I was made
economic advisor in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. I had an office and a lot of
autonomy. This situation created a lot of tension with the ambassador
but in terms of the work itself I had no problems. It was the beginning
of perestroika and I had said that I was in agreement with Gorbachev.
When a Yugoslav man approached me, I immediately informed the security
office of what had happened but I waited a few hours before informing
the ambassador. They took advantage of the situation and used it as a
pretext to get rid of me. Fidel had been there during a visit to
Belgrade and had seen me. From the look on his face it was obvious he
was not happy I was there. Then, when I went back to Cuba in April of
1987 for vacation, they told me I could not go back. They told me they
were trying to protect me, that the enemy was trying to do me harm. They
didn’t even let me go back to collect my things. My wife Miriam was also
a diplomat in charge of cultural affairs, press releases and sports.
They let her go back to collect our belongings and she kept working at
the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but I was prevented from working in the
diplomatic field and was sent to work at the National Bank.
I was a specialist dealing with businesses affiliated with the National
Assembly of People’s Power and the Ministry of Domestic Commerce. I
started making statements about the need for reform. In March 1992 I was
summoned to a meeting where they even brought up my problems with Fidel.
They told me that I was raising issues that had already been discussed
at the last party congress. I stated that I did not have to accept what
the congress had agreed upon because I was not a party member. I began
arguing with them, citing the congress’ own statistics. I was then
removed from my post at the bank and sent me to work at a tiny bank near
my house, which you and I both know, dealing with paperwork of no
Anyway, little by little I began typing articles and sending them
around, sharing them with friends. That’s how you and I became
acquainted. Colleagues of Oswaldo Payá also began having contact with
me. You later helped me transcribe the articles I typed onto a computer.
Then my circle of acquaintances significantly widened. I had a program
on Radio Martí called “Talking to Chepe” until I was arrested in 2003
and was was given a 20-year prison sentence.
What effect does a prison sentence have on a person like yourself who
has dedicated his entire life to the revolution and to socialism?
It was very difficult, including what was a very delicate moment for me
when I was being transported to Guantanamo to serve my sentence. Even
the Batista government would have been more forthright in the way I was
tried. The charges they brought against me were so crude. They accused
me of being an American agent when everyone knew that I had never agreed
with American policy. They accused me of meeting with certain American
congressmen when they knew that I had told those congressmen they should
lift the embargo. It was really awful.
I came to the conclusion that I had followed the revolutionary line but
that it was the government itself that gone against that line, that it
had become stagnant, conservative and counter-revolutionary. It wasn’t
even nationalistic because through its actions it had distorted the
national identity. It had forced millions of Cubans to leave the country
while making a significant portion of the remaining population want to
leave the island as well.
Do you feel hatred to some of the people who caused you harm?
No, I try to avoid hate because it stifles your intellect. You have to
look for a point of reflection in order to try to understand because
some things are not easy to understand. I have come to the conclusion
that in Cuba there can be no end to the crisis without reconciliation.
Cubans have only one possible path, like in Spain, like in Chile. Of
course, there can be justice — justice for everyone — but Cuba has no
way of solving its problems unless it is based on national compromise
and reconciliation. We have to look for compromise.
I envision initiating a dialogue that might end — as happened in the
1930s — with a new constitution that resembles as much as possible the
constitution of 1940. The situation now is so serious that we have to
take a series of measures such as granting peasants access to the land,
increasing the range of self-employment options, legalizing small and
medium-sized private businesses and later establishing a truly
representative constituent assembly like the one in 1940 that included
conservatives, Christians, communists, liberals, everyone. That’s my
Before, however, you felt hatred. Does this mean you have evolved?
Yes, that was a phase. I have to acknowledge that I came from the
communist ranks, where they used to talk about class struggle and where
in a certain way they preached hate, but I have overcome all that. I
have realized that it doesn’t get you anywhere, that it doesn’t allow
you to be analytical, because you start off with a series of prejudices
which leads to a biased analysis.
Of course, I am human and I have feelings. They have haunted me at times
and at any given moment this type of sentiment can disrupt any analysis
I might be doing, but I try to avoid it. I don’t get upset about it. I
look at Cuban leaders in a positive light when they say things I believe
to be correct.
For example, Raúl Castro gave a speech on July 26, 2007 that I believe
to be that of a realist and I have said so. Many people have attacked me
for that and for many other things that I said about people who are not
exactly friends of mine. I think I must stick with this approach so that
hatred and prejudice do not blind me and prevent me from looking at
things analytically. There is a rule I try to follow, though I don’t
know if I always succeed, which is to have a warm heart and a cool head.
After revolutions succeed and their leaders come to power — becoming the
law unto themselves — do other revolutionaries end up being the victims?
I am aware of that but that’s not revolution. What has happened here has
been an attack on power by people who crave power above all else. That
does not qualify as revolution. The fact that a revolution may have been
violent does not mean that all revolutions have to resort to violence.
There are many revolutions in different spheres of human life that have
led to advancement, to development, to progress. I don’t necessarily
associate revolution with violence.
Given all that has happened to you, have some of your ideas changed?
I have come to the conclusion that no one doctrine has a monopoly on
truth. I believe, for example, that those promoting private property and
those promoting public property are not mutually exclusive. They can
co-exist. There are countries in the world where there is real public
property — not like in Cuba, where it’s an illusion — and private
property as well. There are markets; there is competition. In other
words, the two things are compatible. The most successful societies in
the world are those that have adopted this model in one way or another.
For example, in terms of living standards, wealth per capita,
transparency and low levels of corruption as measured by the United
Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index, nations like
Holland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Canada and Denmark rank high. Each has
its own peculiarities, so they cannot be copied. But that is the way.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the recent world economic crisis have
demonstrated that neither extreme individualism nor total state control
offers solutions. We must go in search of a society where private
property exists because the desire for social status and material
success — within certain regulatory boundaries and controls — can be
But at the same time public ownership is also useful because in many
sectors the potential profits are not large enough to spur private
initiative and therefore the state must play an important role. Although
they do not produce high returns, certain activities such as education,
public health and other areas require the state to be involved for the
reasons discussed or for strategic considerations. I am referring, of
course, to a democratic state.
Do you consider yourself to be a Marxist?
No, frankly I would say no. When asked if he was a Marxist, even Marx
himself said no. Marx is a man who must be looked at in the context of
his time. The problems of the 19th century are not those of today. To
look to Marx for solutions to our current problems is a mistake. Even
some of his basic proposals did not come to pass.
His follower Rosa Luxemburg recognized through her own analysis that his
theory of the impoverishment of the working class did not hold up. The
prediction that socialism would first triumph in Western Europe, where
there was a larger and more developed working class, also did not come
true. I don’t think Marx had aspirations to be a soothsayer. There is
only one passage in the Critique of the Ghota Program which speaks about
the future. For that reason I am not a Marxist; I find that absurd.
I believe the world needs a series of solutions that can be found in
neither the 19th nor the 20th century. They have to be devised now. Even
institutions that were valuable in the 20th century, such as the
International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, will have to adapt to
new circumstances. Some concepts which were valid in the past are
obsolete today given the unstoppable advance of globalization, science
and technology. By necessity new ways of thinking and interacting in the
world will have to be implemented.
I believe that international cooperation will play a much more important
role than it has so far. In turn there will be a better chance of
fighting ignorance, hunger and poverty on a global scale, as well as the
challenges to human life brought on by environmental impacts. I’m sure
this process will lead to the strengthening of the United Nations,
giving this institution a much wider mandate.
Were you released “on parole?” What is that?
“Parole” for medical reasons means that I can go back to prison whenever
I am considered cured, which is ridiculous since my illnesses are
chronic. They summoned me to the Playa Municipal Provincial Court two
years after my release to remind me of this, to tell me that I could not
leave Havana without permission, that there was a commission in the
neighborhood supervising me and, depending on what I say, I could go
back to jail.
Above my apartment here, in #8, there is a State Security office that I
think is monitoring me. They don’t even let me go outside. They apply
different policies to different people. They allow some of those freed
to leave. I have asked to go to the United States but they turned me
down. I have even been invited to events in Poland, Puerto Rico and
other places and, even though I have filed all the necessary paperwork,
I have never received the authorization to leave: the famous White Card.
How did you see the relationship of economics to politics?
They are inseparable. In this regard Marx might have had some valid
arguments. He used to say that society is based on production
relationships and I still believe that, though I don’t deny that there
is a relationship between the foundation and the framework above it. I
believe that if there is more economic freedom, there will be more
political freedom. Fidel Castro is very clear about this. He denies that
there is economic reform because he knows that one thing leads to
another and the consequences are inevitable.
The United States has imposed enormous restrictions on economic trade
with Cuba: they don’t offer credit, you have to pay in advance, they
don’t buy anything, you have to use foreign vessels. Nevertheless, with
all these obstacles, the United States is now at least Cuba’s fourth
largest trading partner. That is bound to have an impact. If there were
more freedom, we would feel more in control of our own future. That
would give us the motivation to fight for our political freedom, for the
creation of a favorable economic environment.
The new law allowing individuals to lease agricultural land is full of
snags and that is not by accident. It was carefully designed to make
sure that people do not feel like owners. That is why I believe there is
a very big correlation between economics and politics. Cuba is a country
that has a geographical position and socio-political traditions are
better than China’s. But even in China, with all its economic changes,
people are beginning to push back. The protests there over the economic
crisis and the closing of factories are huge, to say nothing of Russia.
Freedom is also an aspect of production. I defend this thesis because I
believe competition plays a more important role than freedom of movement
or freedom of thought. It allows you to choose the best option in a
world with ever more choices, where dialogue and responsible, civilized
debate are essential for sound and sustainable development.
From your standpoint what might be the main obstacles to change in Cuba?
The first is having the political will to move forward in a gradual way.
I would begin with agriculture, giving land to people, giving them the
means to pay for it, a way for people to come together on a voluntary
basis. The state can retain a role in certain areas. There’s no
What the private sector will be and what the public sector will be will
depend on results and concrete conditions. I think public involvement
can be very efficient when it comes to education, public health and
other sectors. Before the revolution students in Cienfuegos went from
private primary schools to public secondary schools. It wasn’t because
the public schools were free; it was because the quality was better.
Private-sector education can be allowed to operate within certain
guidelines, as was the case before 1959.
I came to Havana to go to a private school. You still had to pass the
state exams. You have to avoid extremes. State extremism fell with the
Berlin Wall and extreme capitalism fell the current economic crisis. Now
Obama wants to guarantee health insurance for more than 40 million
Americans and to improve public education, so he is being called a
socialist. That’s nonsense. We must promote private initiatives as a key
aspect of social progress and economic development but subject to
regulation to curb excessive ambition and unjust enrichment.
Do you believe American policy is partly to blame for Cuba’s problems?
I do believe American policy has a degree of responsibility for this, a
big one. I have always said that the Cuban government had two great
allies. The Soviet Union gave a huge amount of economic support to the
regime. But on the political side there has been the United States, with
its unwavering stance, that has fostered totalitarianism. American
policy and the embargo was like oxygen to the most conservative factions
within the party.
Your book Chronicles of a Disaster? was published in 2003 and in 2007
Revolution or Devolution was published. Is there a direct relationship
There is a direct relationship. They are collections of articles that
express my viewpoints about the genesis of the Cuban drama, theories on
how to overcome the crisis and proposals for national reconstruction in
a framework of reconciliation that sets aside the hatreds that for so
long have poisoned Cuban society. They cover different eras. Chronicles
of a Disaster is about one era and Revolution or Devolution? is about
another. I would say they represent a maturation in thinking, one
achieved through reflection, dialog with others — including some with
whom I disagree on several issues — and many years spent in opposition
For example, in the last book there is a series of articles I wrote
about the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the UN. This led me to
collect a significant amount of data and to study the history of Cuban
economic theory, all of which showed that Cuba before the revolution was
not the disaster that government propaganda would have us believe. This
research has led me to the conclusion that, although there were serious
problems hampering national development, from 1902 to 1958 Cuban had
progressed in spite of its various governments and not because of the
desires of those governments.
Cuban civil society had made advances in education and public health. In
some significant ways such as the number of doctors per capita, life
expectancy and infant mortality, the public health situation was better
than that of European countries. Advances in education as well as in
public health were comparable to those of Europe, not to Latin America,
where the only countries comparable to Cuba were Chile, Argentina,
Uruguay and perhaps Costa Rica.
Cuba did not begin in 1959, regardless of the fact that great strides
were made in medicine and that educational efforts became focused on
areas that had previously been marginalized, especially in rural areas.
Unfortunately, even these accomplishments, which were achieved through
the efforts of the people, are currently being undone due to the lack of
necessary financial support.
In the introduction to Revolution or Devolution? Carmelo Mesa Lago
writes, “The writings of Oscar Espinosa have inspired and influenced the
work of many Cuban economists living overseas.” What does that statement
mean to you and how did your training allow you to reach that level of
Well, I am very flattered that a person whom I greatly admire and whom I
consider to be the greatest living Cuban economist, someone who works
for the International Labor Organization, has made this assessment of my
work. For me that’s very heartening.
What I have done is to examine data and information, summarize and
research official statistics, and look for misrepresentations. I rely on
data from CEPAL, the UN, foreign publications and the Cuban press. If
you were to go to my house, you would find thousands of clippings from
periodicals and journals such as El País, ABC, El Mundo, El Nuevo
Herald, The Economist and even official domestic publications such and
Granma and Juventud Rebelde. I use them to analyze the economy as well
and social and historical events. I really like history. It’s what I
like most. I am a history nut. I always have a history book in my hand.
Often I see parallels in Cuban history. Many things seem to repeat
themselves. For example there was Spain’s obstinate refusal to for carry
out reforms and its rigidly conservative stance. Its insistence on not
taking any action at that time became one of the root causes of the
Cuban wars of independence. And now there’s something similar going on:
the obstinance of the Cuban government means all doorways are closed
off. So far there has been no danger of things blowing up, but no one
knows if that will continue to be the case.
You have made important recommendations but the government, which would
have to implement them, is not considering them. What is the
significance of your work?
It is gratifying to know that my articles are read and heard on foreign
radio stations. It is gratifying to know that some people access them
through the internet or read them in newspapers published overseas. That
some television interviews I give to foreign broadcasters make their way
back here. That people tell me, “I saw you on television!” It is
gratifying that friends are generous enough to make copies of them.
This is just the beginning; I am sure things will change for the better.
Not too long ago we didn’t have the internet. Though there are a lot of
hassles, we now have it. Who knows if one day soon I might also have it
in my home.
Do you believe this tiny seed might germinate at some point?
That’s the idea, to sow the seeds of the future. I might live to see it
or I might not, but I am modestly trying to independently collaborate on
that because, as you know, I don’t belong to any organization. Sometimes
I am asked to join a collaborative effort and I agree to do it. And if I
don’t want to, I don’t agree to do it. And that’s how I participate, by
offering my ideas. I do what I can. I even think that my work might, as
you put it, be useful to the government itself. I hope it might help
lead Cuba towards democracy. I would have no objection to that but I do
not have any personal ambitions.
What do you feel would be the optimal outcome and what might be the
possible outcome for Cuba?
To me the optimal outcome for Cuba would be something along the lines of
the 1940 constitution. It seems to me that such a Cuba would be an
expression of José Martí’s desire for a “republic with everyone and for
the good of everyone.” It would be one in which individual aspirations
are supported, one with private ownership where market forces are an
important tool for the distribution of resources, where there is
competition and the opportunity for improvement. There would be
significant public participation that complements private initiative,
but always within a democratic framework. There would be debates and
political parties but we would not have to wait until an election is
held to make decisions.
I think these things are possible; I don’t think it is a dream. It is
something that other countries have achieved and I ask myself why we
cannot also achieve the same thing through tenacity and through major
investments in education and culture, which would lay the groundwork for
fulfilling our destiny. I believe that throughout our history the Cuban
people have demonstrated such motivation and aspiration, and can do so
What events have had a big impact on you personally?
Some things have had a big impact on me both positively and negatively.
After the victory on January 1, 1959 I had a lot of dreams, though it
all ended in enormous national frustration. It was a day I will never
I was active in the youth movement and later I served as a diplomat,
working to obtain advantages for my country. I have always fulfilled my
duty and followed my conscience. Perhaps mistakes were made but they
were always made with the best of intentions, trying to do something
useful for Cuba.
As far as negative aspects go, there are also events that have had an
impact on me. In 1967 I was expelled from economic research teams and
was sent to clean dung out of caves and to work alongside criminals. In
1987 I was forced to leave the foreign service. In 1992 I was fired from
the National Bank. They sacked my wife Marian from her job at the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs just because she decided to stay with me.
Another terrible blow came when I was arrested in 2003 and sentenced to
twenty years in prison under inhuman conditions. All this was very hard
but, you know, life goes on, thank God. I don’t know why. I’ve always
pulled myself back up, though it wasn’t easy.
When your mother died, you were in jail…
My mother died a few weeks after I was released from prison, so I was
able to be with her. By then she was very badly off. Much of the time
she was unconscious and was suffering a lot. She was an example of hard
work, of tenacity, of struggle and at the same time she was very
tolerant. She never was a communist. She always rejected those theories.
She was very devout but very tolerant. Even when I was involved in
Marxist activities, she never objected. She respected my decision just
as she respected it when I decided to oppose totalitarianism.
Do you feel fulfilled?
I feel fulfilled. I feel that I did something for my country. At certain
times it was difficult because I was misunderstood by many countrymen,
but I can also see the fruits of my labor. People have become aware and
many countrymen — many intellectuals, valuable people — have joined the
opposition movement. I think the struggle to achieve the kind of society
I have hoped for — one of national reconciliation, a vision that I have
carried around with me for many years — is paying off and that is quite
Do you have friends and/or enemies?
I don’t consider anyone to be an enemy, though some do consider me to be
their enemy. I don’t hate anyone because hate doesn’t allow you to
think. As a human being I can at any given moment become infuriated and
anger takes over, but I try to let it go. I have a lot of friends,
people I really admire, including some whose viewpoints are different.
You yourself were one of those people. We have discussed them on
occasion, arguing over our ideas, but we are still friends. There are
people overseas with whom I have never spoken in person but have spent
years talking on the phone: economists, scholars, journalists. So I have
many people to help me, who want to support me in my fight.
Your mother was Catholic. Did her beliefs have any influence on you?
My mother was Catholic and very devout but never wanted to impose her
beliefs on me. My father was a communist but ended up being religious
too. He left Cuba and ultimately died in New York. In his later years he
completely rejected this system and died a Christian — a very, very
devout Catholic. He was an intelligent man. Even when he was a
communist, he enrolled me in a Methodist elementary school — the
Elizabeth Bowman, which was run by American missionaries — of which I
have very fond memories. Even before he was a believer, he encouraged me
to study the Bible because he considered it to be valuable.
Then I met other communists who felt the same way. For example, Carlos
Rafael Rodriguez, who knew the Bible very well and quoted it
extensively. Or Juan Marinello who on one occasion, when asked if a
library were burning down, what one book would be rescue, said the bible.
As you look back on your life, is there anything you would have done
differently or are you at peace?
I am at peace with everything I have done in my life. I am very proud
that I always did what my conscience dictated. When I worked with Fidel
Castro, I could have done what everyone else did and I would not have
had any problems. I could have taken an opportunistic approach and
accepted everything he said at the time.
When I lost my job in foreign affairs, I could have adapted. I had a
comfortable position, signing documents on behalf of the government even
though I was not a party member. I was sent as an adviser to different
countries, to Granada where I met with Maurice Bishop, to North Korea
where I met with Kim Il Sung. I don’t go looking for problems. But my
conscience told me to do something else and it made them look at me as
though I were an enemy, which brought me to where I am now.
When all is said and done, I have to thank them. All the persecution and
harassment led me to understand that the Cuban situation cannot be
solved with tepid reforms. What is needed is a radical change to the
whole dysfunctional system that has led the nation to disaster.
I am the son of the bourgeoisie. My family had money. My mother owned a
pharmaceutical company and real estate in Cienfuegos and Havana. I left
all that behind and joined the revolution without any interest in
material benefit. I did not join the revolution out of class interest or
out of any other interest but out of a concern for social justice and
sincere love for my country.
I have come to the conclusion that democracy is essential. It is a
political weapon, a social weapon, an economic weapon. Democracy and
freedom are essential for a nation’s development in every area. Respect
for individual sovereignty within a democratic legal framework is one of
the determinants for the advancement of a people. I think one of the
great advantages of American society and other societies is that they
have managed to maintain balance and a capacity for self-criticism
What other national historic figures have had an influence on your
There are historical personalities whom I consider to be irreplaceable
figures. First of all there is Félix Varela. When one reads about him,
one wonders how a man of his era could say the things he said. It’s not
what he said, but when and with what insight he said them.
There is also Martí, a key figure in Cuban history, to say nothing of
military and political geniuses such as Antonio Maceo y Máximo Gómez. We
also cannot forget Fernando Ortiz, the third discoverer of Cuba, a
cornerstone of Cuban culture, a man who rejected tempting political
offers and eschewed party politics so that he could carry out his
research without other commitments.
There’s Juan Gualberto Gómez, a slave who became a remarkable figure.
There’s Enrique José Varona… There are even figures whom we have to
reconsider in light of independence. Although they made mistakes, as is
the case with some who sought mere autonomy, they played an important
role in the formation of the national consciousness by cleverly using
the limited freedoms granted by the Spanish government to create
conditions that would later allow those who sought independence to show
that there was no alternative other than complete separation from Spain.
These include Jorge Mañach and Ramiro Guerra, whose book Sugar and the
Population of the Antilles is one of the most important treatises to
have been published in Cuba. The list of extraordinary men that our
small island has produced is enormous.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I believe that what really matters is what one says. That’s what I can say.
From Diario de Cuba
13 December 2013
Source: “I Always Did What My Conscience Dictated” / Dimas Castellano,
Oscar Espinosa Chepe | Translating Cuba –