Mileydi Fougstedt was born in Havana, Cuba in 1970. After finishing high school she moved to Sweden.
There she began looking for some kind of organization that worked for democracy promotion in Cuba. But there were very few Cubans in Sweden and the cold war was still raging.
Many years later she got involved in the struggle for democracy. At first she did it anonymously to enable her to return home and visit her family.
After visiting Cuba in 2007 and deciding that the system must be changed as soon as possible, she started working openly. Directly after the “elections” in Cuba in 2008 she was invited to comment on them on Swedish TV and was subsequently informed that she would not be welcome to Cuba any more…
Mileydi continued working on the magazine and eventually was offered a full-time position as editor. They have different projects with the independent press and the independent libraries which work with both children and adults. Her dream is to start a project helping women on the road to empowerment, especially in terms of education (entrepreneurship) and to get them more involved in political issues.
When ‘The Oslo Times – Editor in Chief Hatef Mokhtar’ met her for an exclusive interview this is what she has to say about her struggle and the Cuban state of Communism.
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TOT: Being born in Cuba, what do you think that Communism has done to the Cuban culture and people?
Mileydi: The first thing that comes to mind is that the communist system has broken family ties; it has divided families and forced them to emigrate to other countries. In my case, four out of five family members now live outside Cuba. Regrettably the communist system has also destroyed many of the rich traditions, both cultural and religious, that Cuba enjoyed as a country founded on many nationalities, besides Spanish, African and indigenous, as well as nine religions that have co-existed peacefully for centuries.
TOT: What consequences have you and your people faced for taking a stand against Communism?
Mileydi: In a country like Cuba there is no space for individuals to express their thoughts, let alone act on them. There are no free elections, no freedom of press or expression, no freedom to create NGOs, civil organizations or parties. The government has total control of the media. An article in the Cuban constitution approves “freedom of speech, press and all the other rights and liberties stated in the Human Rights Convention” but the following article states that “None of the above rights and liberties mentioned in the Cuban constitution can be used against the Socialist State. If so, it is punishable…”.
This means that you can be persecuted and imprisoned for your views or actions, even if they are non-violent.
TOT: What do you have to say about Fidel Castro’s leadership and his effect on Cuban society?
Mileydi: Fidel Castro is a very cunning man who came to power at the right moment, back in 1959 when a change was needed. Right after that the personal cult around him grew to be limitless. Soon pictures of him, his brother Raul and Che Guevara appeared everywhere on the streets alongside the slogans. Fidel Castro became the figurehead of the revolution. He is very eloquent but manipulative. Soon people hung pictures of him in their living room beside pictures of their relatives out of fear, to show any visitors that they supported Fidel Castro and the revolution. His image and the ideals of the revolution became the new religion of Cubans.
TOT: Do you think Fidel Castro’s role has lead Cuba into economic and political isolation from the rest of the world? If yes, what policies were they?
Mileydi: This is a very complex question. Fidel Castro started by nationalizing all the companies in Cuba which might have been needed at the time if he wanted to make the nation, “national”, which was what he had promised to the Cuban people. However, he soon aligned with the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. This gave him the economic, political and military support to promote Communism elsewhere, or wherever the Russians instructed him to. This was also a time when the Cuban revolution inspired other Latin American countries, so that its leader, Castro had the chance to send troops. Even Che Guevara left Cuba for Bolivia after driving the Cuban economy to the bottom during his time as Director of Cuban National Bank.
TOT: What is the situation regarding women’s rights in Cuba? How they are treated in Cuban society?
Mileydi: This is a question that lies very close to my heart. There is a lot of work to be done for the rights of Cuban women. Women in Cuba have access to education and health care in general. Even if women have more rights than “before the revolution”, e.g. the right to work without the permission of the husband, access to contraception, the right to divorce a man, and also have the final word when it comes to the difficult question of abortion, women still lack social acceptance in many aspects and are still considered the weaker gender.
Cuban women, for example, lack protection against domestic violence. Even though there is a law against killing a woman there is no law against a man hitting her. If there is a case of domestic violence, there is still the conception that “she likes it – that is why she stays with him”. The Police would say that they have no authority to interfere “between a man and a woman”.
In a rape case, the woman is questioned more as to how many men she has had, what clothes she was wearing. etc. A woman has a lower social standing if she does not have a man by her side. This is particularly difficult for the older generation, as so many men have left the country in the search for a better future and the women stayed behind to look after the families.
Many Cuban women have some kind of degree or at least a diploma that could make them finally independent. However they cannot provide for their families. Even if a Cuban woman who is an engineer makes as much money as her male counterpart, it is totally worthless because the salary is not enough to cover even basic expenses.
Unfortunately, with the opening of tourism in Cuba, prostitution has returned, and it might be as high or even higher than “when Cuba was the Americans’ playground with all the American marines”. But while back then these prostitutes had no education, women today have degrees and do not sell themselves only to the Americans but to men (and maybe women) of all other nationalities that come to Cuba to enjoy themselves. Even Fidel Castro himself talked to the nation during early 90s stating “that the Cuban prostitutes had the highest level of education, they are true professionals”. Please give me a break!!!
TOT: Do people with certain rights under the constitution of Cuba have remained in prolonged suppression since then?
Mileydi: The current constitution was created 1976 and was amended in 1992 and 2002. As I mentioned before, Cuban citizens have the right to vote for their closest neighbour, representing them to the next municipal level, but they don’t stand a chance of voting at the really high decision-making level, which would mean the difference, meaning the Parliament. At the same time, what is the point in voting if we only have one party which is communist and does not accept any other ideology, and when there is more or less only one candidate? We need a multiparty system. At the moment, all the changes which Raúl Castro’s government is proposing are in fact unconstitutional since they do not comply with the Socialist ideals stated in the last amendment to the constitution in 2002. This is how arbitrarily the country is being run.
TOT: Does discrimination exist in Cuba between white & black? And if so, to what extent has it affected Cuban society?
Mileydi: You only need to take a look at the composition of the current Cuban government to realize that racism is not over in Cuba. Officially the Cuban government is made up of 41% women, 31% coloured and blacks and the rest white males. The main question, however, is whether these 41 and 31 ‘percent’ have any real power. There is only one black man and one coloured woman in more centralized power. Of course there have been improvements since 1959, especially with regard to legislation. Interracial marriages in Cuba are more accepted today and in general everyone goes to school and socialises with children of all colours. But deep down there is still differentiation and discrimination against people of darker skin colour, one of the worst legacies left over from colonial times. This is also one of the biggest social challenges; it is still in the neighbourhoods where the majority of the population is black that we face the biggest social problems and poverty. We want equal opportunities for all!
TOT: What forced you to leave your country and under what circumstances?
Mileydi: As soon as I became conscious about the rights and wrongs in terms of politics, I woke up. I was a very rebellious teenager generally. I was an elite fencing athlete and they did not trust me simply because I spoke English and I enjoyed British and American music, i.e. the music of the enemy. I did not like the idea that “my” medals were the revolution’s medals, as they tried to imprint in our brains, and I expressed those ideas openly. I was never trusted and never allowed to participate in international competitions. That was the beginning of my political awakening. On a social level I was not happy with the way women were treated generally. Eventually I left the country because I met a lovely Swedish man. He was a journalist, hardly a profession which he could exercise in Cuba, with all the rights and credentials a normal journalist is entitled to, and we eventually decided to move to Sweden.
TOT: Which Castro brother do you think has brought most change to the lives of Cubans? Is it Fidel or Raul? Are there any reforms which have been introduced recently by Raul’s government?
Mileydi: The direct answer to that question is of course Fidel Castro. He was in power for many years and his manipulative style lasted only until 2006 when he fell ill. Otherwise he would still be running the show to this day. There are many changes brought about by them that we could talk about, some of them might be true. Free education, free health care, free sports practice, highly subsidized cultural events and so forth. But what is the advantage of having free education, but not being able to decide what you can read or write. W what is the point with free health care if, at this point for example, many Cuban doctors are in other countries, working for a salary of USD 200, while the government charges at least USD 2,000 each month for their services, and they are monitored all the time. The shortage of medications is high and the prices in CUC are equivalent to at least a month’s salary. Additionally, the conditions in Cuban hospitals are deplorable, despite what the government says. The hospitals for the Cuban population are a disgrace!
Raúl Castro is a military man, pragmatic, does not want to lose power. He would do anything not to lose it. Last year, before the party congress, there was a document with 300 suggested improvements for Cuba. Among these was the possibility to open your own business irrespective of whether or not you have the skills. This was the solution that Raúl Castro found when he mentioned that “measures had to be taken because Cuba was on the verge of collapsing”. The state, being the only employer, decided to fire over one million people over a year, with no pension, no unemployment insurance and no offers for re-education or training. Eventually it turned out that people could run a small business but with the state in charge of wholesale! This proves that even if they say that they want to “lighten up”, they are in fact just “tightening the rope” from a different angle.
TOT: What is your take on what the US detention facility at Guantanamo has done to Cuba’s image?
Mileydi: I think that the Cuban government has been very clever in dealing with this matter. The base is on Cuban soil, but it belongs to and it is governed by the Americans. From the beginning the Cuban government tried to implement a kind of embargo on the base. For example, they are not allowed to recruit locals and the drinking water supply was cut off. Today, however, the base is totally self-sufficient and only two locals of very old age cross the “Gate” every day to work on the base. Whatever happens on the base is the Americans’ responsibility. For example when the ten Afghan men were imprisoned in Guantanamo Navy Base without proper legal representation, this was an excellent opportunity for the Cuban government to demonstrate “that the Americans are the bad guys”, just like they love categorizing the US government. The Cuban government uses the issue of the Naval Base however and whenever it suits them. It is as simple as that.
TOT: What steps have you have taken to promote democracy and its values in Cuban society?
Mileydi: I was always interested in promoting democracy in Cuba but as I mentioned before you will be harassed and jailed for expressing any opinion against the current regime. Since mid-2000 I have collaborated with the organization Misceláneas de Cuba. At the beginning I did so sporadically and anonymously in order to be able to visit Cuba. But since February 2008 I have worked openly and at the end of 2010 was finally offered a full-time position as Web Editor. Misceláneas de Cuba is a platform to support the opposition, the bloggers, human rights activists, NGOs, HBT organizations, the independent press and the network for independent libraries. Misceláneas de Cuba publishes news from the independent press daily on the web, as well as a weekly newsletter and a magazine which comes every two month. We have a big project with the Independent Libraries Network and we are hoping to develop other projects in the near future.
TOT: How you see Cuba in the near future and do you believe that there will be a major transformation in the country?
Mileydi: The current government is a “gerontocracy” as we call it in Cuba (old men who have shared the power amongst themselves). The average age on the Central Committee is 69. Due to nature laws there will be changes in the Cuba government structure in the next ten years. A sudden change, such as the death of Raúl or Fidel Castro, could trigger political change but we do not know to what extent since some of the “old men” will still be in power. The younger generations want change, and if they, along with the opposition, are given the opportunity to hold fair elections change is inevitable. The government itself is implementing a few so-called “decadent capitalist” reforms under their own blessing. It would not be surprising to see those changes slipping out of their hands. This is why they are “loosening the leash at one end and tightening it at the other”.
TOT: How do you find Sweden’s role in granting you support for your cause and role for the Cuban people?
Mileydi: I am very grateful for Sweden’s support for our cause. The left-wing Swedish governments through the years have been very friendly with the Cuban government but in recent years there have been an awakening in Sweden about the real situation of Human Rights and about the importance of a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba. The current government is very conscious of the reality in Cuba and works actively also within the EU to pressure the Cuban government into reforms.
TOT: In your view what are the challenges being faced by Cuban people in the 21st century
Mileydi: There are different types of challenges ahead: economic, social and political. The biggest economic challenge that Cuban people will have to face is trying to rebuild a country totally run-down by the communist system. Whatever infrastructure there was 50 years ago is totally destroyed today. Industries that were big and lucrative, such as sugar cane, are today in ruins. Corruption has grown enormously, especially among the Police and the Military, to an extent that even Raúl Castro has admitted publicly.
Regarding the social challenges, a crucial one is trying to convince the people, especially the youth, that there is a future waiting for them and that it is worth engaging in the work of contributing to a long overdue improvement. In addition to this, although the regime denies it, the class system in Cuba exists and in recent years has strengthened. The living conditions in the capital and in rural areas are not equal and parts of the population are living well below a decent standard, which is not decent considering the Cuban government denies this reality.
Regarding political challenges, it is not only the lack of free elections, fair play, democracy, respects for human rights and all the other basic rights that Cuban citizens are entitled to and lack today. The biggest political challenge lies in regaining the confidence and trust of people, not only in politicians but also each other. They have been let down for over 50 years through a system of snooping and spying on each other and it might take another 50 to repair it completely. But I believe that campaigning, educating and following up the compliance of the democratic rules and values is a good way to speed up this process once a new government is in place.
TOT: Do you think Cuba has come out of the pariah state that it used to be? If yes, then what has helped Cuba to enter the main world stage?
Mileydi: Cuba is still a pariah state. Its allies are countries that commit most of the crimes against Human Rights and what is worse, they deny it and help each other cover their back at UN and EU meetings. When the subject of Human Rights comes up they interrupt the speaker of any country who is about to denounce a human right violation in their own country or the country of an ally. Cuba has a long way to go before it can enter main world stage.
TOT: How do you want to see Cuba in the future and where?
Mileydi: Oh, my dream for Cuba to become prosperous nation, not only in terms of economy, but also socially, politically and spiritually. I want to see a nation free from tyranny and military rule of any kind. I want peace, transparency, tolerance, free elections, and freedom of speech, increased respect and basic rights for the children, women and minority groups. Cubans need liberty to develop the country economically. All Cubans should be free to decide what to do with their lives, whether they live on the island or not, and they should not need a visa or pay high sums of money to return home.
All Cubans on the island should have the right to travel abroad without restrictions. Like many of the Cuban migrants to the USA, the Cuban people have already shown that they are able to prosper when given the opportunity. On the other hand they have also proven to be very inventive in the way they survive despite the lack of opportunity in Cuba. Maybe there would be a bridge (why not physical as well?) between Havana and Miami.
In any case, ties between Cubans on both sides of the water will keep getting better and stronger. This is a dream scenario: people putting the memories of a horrific government behind them and building a better future for Cuba together. And if I can dream a little bit more, I like to see all this happening from a little house by the beach in Havana, with a small boat parked in front.
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