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Cuba's Enrique Oltuski: a lifetime of revolution
CubaNews / November 2002

By Larry Luxner

HAVANA — Over 100 years ago, José Martí said that to be a man, one must plant a tree, have a child and write a book.

By that definition, Marxist revolutionary Enrique Oltuski is a real mensch. He’s planted an extensive backyard garden filled with banana trees, vegetables and royal palms. He and his wife Martha have fathered four children — all members of the Communist Party.

And now, at the age of 72, Oltuski has written a book. It’s called “Vida Clandestina: My Life in the Cuban Revolution.”

Published in English a few months ago by John Wiley & Sons Inc., this 302-page autobiography tells the story of a young man — the son of wealthy Jewish immigrants from Poland — who despite his privileged life in the United States decides to return to Cuba to fight alongside Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in the 26th of July Movement.

“I wrote this book as a historical novel with the young people in mind, especially young Cubans who don’t know the Cuba of the 1950s,” Oltuski told CubaNews. “I have presented our revolutionary leaders as human beings and not as gods.”

Alan Rinzler, executive editor at Jossey-Bass — the division of John Wiley & Sons responsible for publishing Oltuski’s memoir — says the book “offers a rare, behind-the-scenes portrait of the early days of the Cuban revolution, a very warm, often humorous personal story of a brash and handsome young Jewish kid who falls in love and marries his Catholic high-school sweetheart, and reconciles his liberal democratic idealism with the hard-boiled brutality of violent revolution.”

Oltuski, today Cuba’s deputy minister of fisheries and merchant marine, is only too happy to share his controversial views on U.S.-Cuban relations, the Cuban exile community in Miami, the “cruel injustices” of globalization and the future of his own country once Castro passes from the scene.

CubaNews recently caught up with Oltuski at his comfortable middle-class home in Havana’s Nuevo Vedado neighborhood.

After a 90-minute wait — he was talking with two Cuban TV journalists filming a documentary on the 35th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death — Oltuski beckoned us into his second-floor study.

There, amid photographs of Che and Fidel, various awards, medals and tchotchkes from countless trips abroad were shelves crammed with over 3,000 books, all of which he’s read.

“I’ve been a great reader since I was a child. Maybe that’s why I’m a free thinker,” Oltuski said, beginning what would turn into a 3-hour interview. “I’m against dogmas, and some people have made a dogma of Marxism.”

But Oltuski wasn’t always a Marxist.

“I was born in 1930 in Santa Clara [a city about 150 miles east of Havana]. My parents were hard-working people, and they became very rich. That’s why I had everything I wanted,” said Oltuski, noting that his father, a shoemaker, owned tanneries and shoe stores all over Cuba.

“But I didn’t feel a part of the Jewish colony in Santa Clara. My great hero wasn’t Theodor Herzl [the founder of modern Israel] but José Martí. I drifted away from my parents’ religion, maybe influenced by the fact that I was a descendant of religious people, and most of the people in Cuba had a different religion.”

Oltuski eventually went to study at the University of Miami, graduating in 1954 with a degree in architectural engineering. A year later, he was hired by Shell Oil Co. to design gas stations throughout Cuba.

It wasn’t long, however, before Oltuski was living a dangerous double life, using his job at Shell as a cover for his real mission — helping Castro and his band of ragtag revolutionaries in the struggle against Gen. Fulgencio Batista, who had grabbed power in a 1952 coup.

“Why did we revolt? Why did we become revolutionaries? Because Cuba wasn’t like it is today,” he recalled. “A majority of people were very poor, and a few were very wealthy. In the evenings, women would sleep in parks with their children. The society in which we lived was so unjust. How could I be happy when I saw all that poverty around me?”

By 1956, Oltuski was chief of the 26th of July Movement in the central Cuban province of Las Villas, a mysterious figure known only by his nom de guerre, Sierra. As such, Oltuski spent his time launching the official underground newspaper, raising money for weapons and medical supplies and initiating urban military activities — including bombings of army headquarters and assassinations of police officers.

He also spent countless nights in the fields, arguing philosophy with his friend and comrade, Che Guevara.

“Che used to write about his fighting days in the Sierra Maestra, and sometimes we had different points of view,” he said. “I felt he underestimated the importance of the underground fight in the plains and cities. For him, the guerrilla forces in the Sierra Maestra were everything. So Che told me, ‘if you don’t agree with me, write your own story.’”

When Castro and his fighters finally overthrew the Batista dictatorship, Oltuski, only 28 years old, was appointed minister of communications. One of his first official acts was to nationalize the Cuban telephone company, then owned by ITT.

But he never forgot Che’s challenge, and in 2000, after four decades of government service, Oltuski finally published his memoirs in Spanish, in a book entitled “Gente del Llano.”

The English-language version that went on sale in U.S. bookstores in mid-September is an expanded version of that original work.

Oltuski was scheduled to begin a U.S. book tour last month that would have taken him to speaking engagements at Harvard Law School, Stanford University and the World Affairs Council in San Francisco.

But at the last minute, the Bush administration denied Oltuski a travel visa, so he went to Canada instead. Rinzler blames the visa denial squarely on Otto Reich, assistant secre-tary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

“We think Oltuski’s exclusion is unwarranted and against the stated U.S. policy of im-proving Cuban-American relations,” Rinzler said in a press statement. “This book is the author’s personal story of his experiences as an idealistic young man fighting to overthrow the vicious and corrupt Batista regime, and it is his hope that the book will help Americans to better understand the real Cuban people.”

Oltuski himself says he’s furious at being denied the visa, despite the fact that he holds a diplomatic passport and has visited the United States several times in the past.

“Since Cuba was classified as a ‘terrorist’ country, everyone [applying for U.S. visas] now has to visit the Interests Section,” he said. “I can’t accept that someone with my background, who travels on a diplomatic passport, should be interrogated behind a glass window like a terrorist.”

Oltuski’s hostility toward the Bush administration is obvious, especially when he refers to Otto Reich, the “Jamaican traitor [Colin] Powell” and the 2000 presidential elections.

“Your press is not such a free press, and so much for your wonderful democratic government. Now to elect the president, you don’t need the people. You need the Supreme Court,” he says in disgust.

And President Bush, whom Oltuski consistently refers to as W, “is completely against lifting the embargo because his little brother Jeb needs the votes of those Cuban terrorists who live in Miami.”

Oltuski thinks it’s unlikely the embargo will be lifted before the 2004 elections, despite growing pressure by both Democrats and Republicans to reverse a 42-year-old policy that many politicians are increasingly coming to view as counterproductive.

“As Fidel himself said about a year ago, we know that those who want to lift the embargo and allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba belong to two groups: one who thinks that way from a moral and ethical point of view, and the other who says it’s the best way to bring down the revolution,” he says.

“Well, we accept the risk. Come over and let’s see who wins. Of course, we know that once we have five million American tourists walking through our streets, it won’t be the same anymore.”

Meanwhile, the lifelong Marxist concedes that “as Cuba opens up to the world, adjustments will have to be made” in certain areas.

“We will have business together, we will have joint ventures together,” he said. “If we could have free economic relations, we could do incredible things together.

“Our challenge is how to combine a social conscience with personal interest. For example, in fisheries we are developing systems by which the worker gets a higher income as the enterprise he works for becomes more efficient. So it’s normal. If you work better, why shouldn’t you receive a higher income? What we don’t want is to have billionaires.”

Oltuski, who enjoys quoting statistics on everything from Latin America’s foreign debt to Cuba’s low infant mortality rate, claims Fidel Castro is backed by 87% of the Cuban population — a measure of support that can’t be claimed by any other world leader.

“The secret of the Cuban revolution is unity of the Cuban people, not the Cubans in Miami,” he said. “Everybody views Fidel as the great guerrilla commander. But to me, that’s not his greatest accomplishment. He was the first Cuban leader to be able to unite the people behind a just cause. I’ve told him that personally.”

What about suppression of free speech, private enterprise and other individual freedoms since 1959, we asked him. Aren’t those things the hallmark of a dictatorship, despite the Cuban revolution’s impressive achievements in health and education?

“No, to us Fidel is not a dictator,” Oltuski shot back. “I don’t follow Fidel because I’m in love with him, but because of his ideals. The day he changes, I won’t follow him anymore.”

And what will happen when his hero, now 76 years old, passes away?

“Nothing,” says Oltuski. But then he adds quietly: “Cuba will not be the same without Fidel. To us, he’s not just another president. He’s the father of the revolution. Fidel is a world figure that happens once every 100 years. Compare Fidel to Washington, Jefferson or Lincoln, but not to W.”

A moment later, Oltuski adds: “Do you know what Fidel is doing now? He’s dedicating most of his time to preparing Cuba for when he is no longer here.” Castro himself has left no doubt that when he dies, his brother Raúl will assume control of the government and the revolution. But Raúl is only five years younger than Fidel.

What will happen after he’s gone too? Is there a short list of other Cuban figures such as Carlos Lage, Ricardo Alarcón or Felipe Pérez Roque who might be groomed to take Raúl’s place for eventual leadership of Cuba?

“There is no such list,” Oltuski responds firmly. “Fidel and Raúl are our two main political figures. After them, who knows?”

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