Dr. Alberto Coll
Dean of Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College for "The Cuban Military: An Economic Force"
DR. COLL: Well, I was born and raised in Cuba, and my family has long roots going back many generations in Cuba. One of my most vivid memories as a six year-old boy was seeing my father taken away by the Cuban secret police. And my father spent nine years in prison as a political prisoner under Castro.
When I was twelve years old, it was quite clear to my parents, my father was still in prison, that I had no future in Cuba. As a believer, I would have no future to go anywhere professionally in Cuba. You have to be a member of the Communist Party, and at that time, only atheists were allowed to join the Communist Party. So my parents decided to send me out of the country, and it was a decision with which I agreed, and I left Cuba alone, and my mother stayed behind with my father. I didn't see them again for ten years. And after spending a few months in Spain, I wound up in the United States, and this was a country that received me, and I made my home here.
Eventually I went off to college, and did graduate studies, taught at Georgetown University, and from there I was offered a position at the Naval War College. I also served in the Bush administration for three years, and am back at the Naval War College since 1993.
INTERVIEWER: What kind of emotions did you go through in deciding to go to Cuba, to return for the first time in over 30 years?
COLL: There were very powerful emotions when I thought about going back to Cuba, after being away for 31 years. First of all, there was a great sense of fear. How would I relate to them? How would they relate to me, coming back after having been away so long, and given my political views? There was also a great sense of sadness, and I literally would feel that my heart would break, and that I would not be able to take it. So I put off my return as long as I possibly could, but finally, this year, I felt I was ready to go.
INTERVIEWER: And what was the experience like, as you arrived in Cuba, and began as the day dawned, to look around and see the city?
COLL: My first day in Havana was very, very exciting. It was just a day of walking all over the city, and reliving boyhood memories with my family. And visiting the churches, and the squares, and the public buildings, and just breathing in the great city. And relating to the people. It was a wonderful experience, then, and gradually that fear that I had had disappeared, and gave way to a great sense of joy. And a great sense of gladness that I was back, and that I was finally back again, to re-engage myself with Cuba and with my roots, and with people who had been part of my life.
INTERVIEWER: You had an opportunity that first day, to participate in a mass in the cathedral, in the plaza of the cathedral. I was wondering if you could tell us what that felt like, what that experience was like, and set that up for us with the Ryan visit.
COLL: That first Sunday morning, I went to the cathedral, and I went to mass there. I remembered as a boy, going there. And after I walked into the church, right before the service started, Governor Ryan of Illinois walked in with another 90 Americans. And we began what turned out to be a very joyful and very moving service. And you could sense that a lot of the Cubans in that church were very moved that Americans had come, and that the governor was there to deliver $1 million worth of food, medicines, humanitarian assistance. And for me, the most moving moment was the time of the peace, the giving of the peace. The Bishop of Chicago and the Cuban priests were there, and it was as if the whole church erupted in one great celebration. People were hugging each other, mobbing one another, very expressive giving of the peace; rather different from the way we do it in most of our churches. And I couldn't help but be profoundly moved.
INTERVIEWER: We saw in addition to that cathedral, many other churches, beautiful old churches in Havana, most with people in them, openly praying. Do you see a growth of interest in religion in Cuba, and if so, what effect do you think that might have on the regime?
COLL: There is a strong interest in religion in Cuba, and I notice, for example, at the cathedral, the members of the choir, most of them were young people. Some of them very young, in their late teens, early twenties. Multi-racial; blacks, whites, people of mixed race were there. And I think that this reawakening of the church will have a profound impact on Cuban society.
I think Cuban society as a result will benefit from having people in it who believe ultimately that our great differences in life ought to be resolved through love and goodwill, as opposed to violence and contempt for one another.
INTERVIEWER: If we move into sort of the economic, or the realm of our visit there, what were your impressions of the economic status of Cuba? Of course, they suffered a tremendous collapse of the economy following the Soviet Union's collapse. Do you see reforms it's making now being enough to solve its problems, or do they need to go further?
COLL: I think the current Cuban economic reforms will not suffice to solve Cuba's problems. Cuba's basic economic problem is generating more economic growth. The current reforms are a helpful step in that direction, but there is still much that needs to be done, to provide further incentive to people to become more productive. And I think that the key people that would benefit from these changes, and the key people who will move the Cuban economy forward will be your small businesses, your small entrepreneurs. They need more freedom, they need more incentive, and only through them will the Cuban economy generate enough productivity in the future.
INTERVIEWER: What impact do you see the influx of U.S. dollars having on Cuban society? And do you see it -- well, let me leave it at that.
COLL: The dollars that are flowing into Cuban society have, of course, many different kinds of impact. Some of it, you could say, is negative in the sense of facilitating some forms of corruption, for example. Such as prostitution. But I think on balance, the impact is positive, because it enables people to perceive a link between their labor and a reward, and enables people to work, to sell the products of their labor, and to purchase things or services that they want to have. And so in that sense, the introduction of the dollar is a positive step towards a freer economy, where individuals have more scope for their freedom.
INTERVIEWER: Do you see it causing problems in a socialist society that, at least, had the notion of equality firmly permeated, to see this two-tiered society of the dollar developing?
COLL: Naturally, whenever you have growing economic development, you will see inequalities in any society. And whenever you give scope to individuals to become more productive, inequalities do develop, partly because some people don't have the same ability as others, and partly because some people are not as capable, for a whole number of reasons, to be as productive as others.
I think the key challenge for Cuba in the future will be to increase economic growth, while at the same time helping those who are disadvantaged, helping the needy, not letting them fall through the cracks. And that was the point that I made repeatedly while there, that the challenge is not to limit entrepreneurialism, not to limit individual incentive, but to use the fruits of economic growth, among other things, to help those in need, and make sure that they are protected.
INTERVIEWER: We now see the Cuban military involved in the economy. What are your thoughts on the economic role played by the Cuban military today? I mean, is it appropriate for a military, for this military, to be involved in that kind of activity?
COLL: I did not get the sense that the Cuban military has a dominant role in the economy. I did not get the sense that they control the economy, or run it. I got the sense that they play a role in the economy, and it's been particularly helpful in terms of managing certain key industries. I think that over time, that role will frankly not be as important as the role of foreign capital, foreign investors, and eventually, of Cuban entrepreneurs, who will be the real engines of future Cuban economic growth.
INTERVIEWER: You met with a number of Cuban military officers. Can you offer your overall impressions of their professionalism, integrity, knowledge, etcetera?
COLL: I was tremendously impressed with the professionalism of the Cuban officer corps. It struck me that among Latin American militaries, that the Cuban military are among the most professional. They struck me as being very serious about their professional obligations. They also struck me as being very patriotic. They love their country, they're devoted to their country, and they do have a sense that the world is changing, and that this will mean that Cuba should have constructive relations with other societies around the world. And they struck me as being quite comfortable with that reality. But, you know, their business is to defend the country, and to carry out their role, and they struck me as being very professional about how they go about it.
INTERVIEWER: Here we have a traditional notion of national security as being that the defense of the borders, and the military's role in that is fairly well defined. Do you think in Cuba there is the notion of what national security is, encompasses feeding the people, making the economy work? That their notion of national security extends to a level of human security, and therefore, this is an appropriate role for the military?
COLL: I did not see them as having that extensive of a notion of national security. Now I think at the political level, the Cuban government certainly feels that security should be defined along all the categories of not just protection against outward aggression, but also in terms of security and protection against humanitarian disasters.
The Cuban military seemed very willing to step into any kind of humanitarian disasters or needs, where they may be called on to provide help, but I think they still see themselves as primarily devoted to the task of defending the country. And that task, in their view, is significant enough that they are prepared to devote all their energies to it, and feel that that is their primary responsibility.
INTERVIEWER: The Cuban military, of course, has seen drastic reduction in manpower and budgeting in the last decade or so, while at the same time, stepping into these economic chores. Do you think this has had any psychological impact on the military, in terms of morale and self-esteem?
COLL: I think it's inevitable, and it's--
INTERVIEWER: Let's start that again. Say what's inevitable.
COLL: I think it's inevitable that in light of the massive cut, 50 percent cut, that the Cuban military has experienced, that there has been a loss of morale; there has been a process of discouragement, so to speak. And after all, that's not very different from a similar process that has taken place here in the United States with the morale of our own armed forces has declined in terms of what it was, let's say, in 1991. And some of it has had to do with the massive cuts that we also have experienced.
So this is something very natural that you would expect to see happen. They have, the Cuban military has tried to adjust to those cuts by refocusing their mission, and also simply by reducing their size, to the point where those who do stay in it feel that what they're doing is vitally important.
INTERVIEWER: If I could go back to some of your personal impressions, walking around the city. What, how would you describe your feelings as you walked around? Was this the same city that you left at age twelve? Or did it seem like an alien place, that things had, you know, had eroded to such a degree? What was your reaction to the physical appearance of the city?
COLL: As I walked around Havana, a number of things struck me. First, there were parts of the city that are literally crumbling down, and that reminded me of a city in ruins. You know, large portions of neighborhoods and commercial districts, orderly in ruins, literally falling apart, in much worse condition than I had seen them 30 years ago.
But I also was struck by some signs of revival. I was struck by the fact that significant sections of the city are undergoing restoration, in a very careful, very professional way. And it gives me hope that the Cubans today, in Cuba, view these wonderful architectural treasures of the City of Havana as a heritage to preserve and to enhance for the future.
So, in a way, I'm more optimistic than I would have been had I gone back to Cuba five years ago, when these efforts had not been undertaken yet. I also should note that one thing that struck me walking around Havana was the rich historical character of the city. And this is a city that has links to the past, that has links to Europe going back several centuries. Havana, of course, has been in existence far longer than any American city, and it gives me hope that this is a sign of Cuba's future; that in the future someday, Cuba will be as much of a part of the international community as the City of Havana was at one point.
INTERVIEWER: We have today travel restrictions against Americans traveling to Cuba, and only a limited number are permitted to go, through a licensing procedure. Do you see any advantages to changing that, or what advantages would you see to increasing the travel and contact between America and there?
COLL: I think it would be essential for the United States to change its policy, and to abolish travel restrictions to Cuba. I think that it would be very beneficial, first of all, for the United States citizens to travel to Cuba, to see Cuba, to meet with Cubans. And I think it would also be very helpful to Cuba. I think that it would lessen the isolation of Cuba, to have more Americans being allowed to go there. I don't see any legitimate purpose of these travel restrictions served today. I think they only serve to isolate the Cuban people.
INTERVIEWER: I think you've covered most of the things I wanted to. Are there additional points that you would like to make? I didn't really get into the policy areas, you know, I didn't know if that was something you'd want to talk about, about narcotrafficking, etcetera.
COLL: Yeah, no, I mean, whatever you're comfortable with. I suppose you asked David Chandler questions, those questions.
INTERVIEWER: He was not comfortable with addressing the policy issues.
COLL: Okay. I mean, I'm not uncomfortable addressing those. If you want to ask me, I can give it a shot.
INTERVIEWER: Well, are there areas of policy that you think might be changed, that would be beneficial to both sides? And what are they?
COLL: I think that the United States policy towards Cuba should change significantly, in the following ways: We do have relations with countries such as China and Vietnam, with which we still retain significant political disagreements. In the same way that we will have political disagreements with the government of Fidel Castro. I nevertheless think that we should have full relations with Cuba. And those would allow us not only to have greater contacts with the Cuban people, but also, to have government to government address various issues of critical importance to the United States.
For example, on the issue of counter drugs, there's a great deal of room for cooperation between both governments in the area of counter drugs, in the area of restraining illegal immigration, and the smuggling of illegal aliens into the United States. It seems to me that it is in our interests as a great country, to be talking with Cuba, to be engaging Cuba at the people to people level. And also, at the government to government level. And that only good things from the viewpoint of American interests, will come from a policy in which we talk with the Cubans, we meet with them, we engage them, even in the midst of whatever disagreements we will have with them.
INTERVIEWER: Dr. Coll, thank you very much.