CubaNews / November 2006
By Larry Luxner
These days, Phil Peters is in hot demand on the Cuba lecture circuit. With Fidel Castro laying in a hospital bed and the island’s immediate future up in the air, Peters’ views on Cuba are more highly sought after than ever before — which explains why he’s been a panelist at just about every Cuba conference from Miami to Washington.
The reason: Peters, vice-president of the Lexington Institute, is one of the few US-based Cuba experts who’s actually been to Cuba.
“I go under a general license as a professional researcher. If that’s your job, you can get a license,” he said. “If I’m going to study agriculture, for example, then I will want to talk to people in the Ministry of Agriculture. I also talk to farmers and everybody else I can.”
CubaNews caught up with Peters last month after a Cuba conference at which he was one of four panelists. The first thing we asked him was what’ll happen when Fidel dies.
“I don’t assume that the political system in Cuba will change just because Fidel Castro dies,” he replied. “He has not left the presidency, he’s pulled back and delegated powers, so the post-Castro era is not here — but it’s coming into view. That realization did not have any significant consequence in Cuba.”
“To me, it’s a sad thing to say, but one of the things it really brought to light was the gap between Cuba itself and some of the activists in Miami. There was an assumption here in Miami that with Fidel in the hospital, there was a new political dynamic in Cuba, so they called for civil disobedience and assumed a transition was underway.
“But none of that happened, and leading dissidents including Oswalda Payá explicitly rejected the calls for civil disobedience. Payá did so because he didn’t want anything that would cause any rupture, or disturb social peace.”
The Lexington Institute, a small think tank based in Arlington, Va., has a dozen employees and an annual budget of around $2 million. It investigates different areas of public policy, including national security, immigration and education reform; even though it was started by Republicans, Peters says its reports are nonpartisan.
“We don’t get any USAID funding, and I’ve never applied for a grant from USAID,” he said.
“Lexington in general gets support from foundations, individuals and corporations — about one-third each. These Cuba research papers are funded by the Ford Foundation.” Peters doesn’t hide his irritation with the current Bush administration policy towards Cuba — particularly its recent announcement that it would channel $80 million to dissidents seeking a “democratic transition” in Cuba.
“It’s an extraordinarily expensive way to go about it, but it’s been this way for years,” Peters told CubaNews.
“USAID gives grants to American organizations, and the grantees distribute books in Cuba. They buy the books, then they send them back to the government so that the U.S. Interests Section can distribute them. One of the distinguishing features of the USAID program is that none of the grantees actually go to Cuba, so I don’t see it having any real impact.”
Nor does TV Martí — or Radio Martí for that matter.
“Radio Martí gets through on shortwave, and has a very small audience, in the single digits. And TV Martí? I’ve met just one person in Cuba who said he saw the first seconds of a program, then the jammer turned it into snow,” he said.
“Last year, I went all across the island, asking people including dissidents and journalists incidentally about TV Martí. I think it’s a waste of money. For 15 years, it’s been the same story. We broadcast, they jam and the U.S. government tells us there’s some solution right around the corner. Now we’ve got an airplane flying figure-8s just south of the Florida Keys. The fundamental problem is that you can’t repeal the laws of physics. If the airplane is in Florida and the jammer is in Cuba, you can’t beat the jammer.”
Peters, 50, is originally from Newark, N.J. He graduated from Georgetown University with a bachelor’s degree in international economics, and a master’s in government and national security studies. Peters had a particular interest in the Soviet Union and its strategy in Latin America. We asked the academic if he had ever worked for the CIA.
“No!” he said, laughing, though he does ad-mit to a lifelong fascination with all issues pertaining to the Cold War.
His first job after college was working for Rep. Jim Courter, a New Jersey Republican. “I did everything from opposition research to carrying mailbags,” he said. “I ended up being his chief of staff.”
Peters eventually landed a position with the Reagan administration, specializing in Central America. He became a speechwriter and the chief spokesman for the State Department’s Latin America bureau.
“I had a small travel budget, so in 1991, I went to Cuba for the first time. That was when all the changes in the Soviet Union were beginning to take place.”
Since then, Peters has been back to Cuba 20 times. Those trips have resulted in a dozen special reports documenting a particular area of the Cuban economy: sugar, health-care, tourism, energy and self-employment are among the topics he’s delved into.
Unlike dry academic papers, however, Peters fills his reports with anecdotes, charts, stories and man-on-the-street interviews; he even takes his own photographs.
“Take sugar, for example. There’s a lot of information to gather here. I want to hear the official point of view. There’s been some very interesting policy changes. The downsizing was a huge decision in Cuban history, for them to decide to close all those mills.
“But I also go around to academics, economic observers, foreign diplomats and people on the street. I rent a car and go out and interview workers. I go to towns where the mills are functioning,” he said.
“For that paper on sugar, I went to Matanzas province. Four mills were closed around the town of Jovellanos, so I went out there and interviewed people living in the bateyes.”
Are people ever suspicious of Peters?
“Well, sometimes, they don’t want to talk,” he conceded. “If I talk to a guy who used to manage a sugar mill that’s closed down, I’ll say I’m a researcher from the United States, and I’ll tell him I won’t quote him by name. So it’ll appear that a farmer in Matanzas said this or that.”
Peters mails out around 1,000 copies of each report, but he also puts them on the Internet where they’re viewed by thousands more.
“I really try to reflect what’s going on there, all the way from Castro’s speeches down to the way it affects the workers and their families, and what they have to say about it. Pure journa-ism has great value, but I try to steer between something that’s in newspapers and something that would appear in an academic journal. I give data, but also some storytelling, and let individual Cuban voices be heard.”
Not surprisingly, Peters is a loud critic of the U.S. travel ban. Having been to Cuba as many times as he has, Peters thinks all Americans should be allowed to go there.
“First of all, we made illegal a whole lot of travel that has nothing to do with tourism,” he said. “Academic travel has been severely restricted, as well as religious fellowships and humanitarian activities. People-to-people programs have been eliminated. Even programs that are designed to put Americans and Cubans in contact with each other have been eliminated because it does not fit with the policy.
“Tourism has has an impact on Cuba too, a positive impact, because it brings information and ideas. Obviously, your average American traveler is not engaged in a science project but they’re entitled to learn if that’s what they want to do.”
Peters takes issue with the notion that tourism keeps the Castro regime in power. Rather, he says, it puts badly needed cash into the hands of individual Cubans.
He added: “When tourists spend money in Cuba, it contributes to high-income jobs and private activity. There are taxi drivers, artisans, people who rent rooms in their homes, and a whole chain of cuentapropistas that only exists because of foreign tourists traveling to Cuba.”
Peters is an expert on the subject of cuentapropistas — Cuba’s league of self-employed people whose number hit a high of 209,000 in 1996. That’s since fallen to 149,000, according to Peters’ latest study, released in September.
That report, entitled “Down But Not Out,” is based on interviews with Cubans from all walks of life, including 73 whose income information was used in a survey conducted by Peters while on the island recently.
“The self-employment sector has been reduced by taxation, government regulation and competition, but they’re still there,” he said.
“I talked to shoe repairmen, taxi drivers, carpenters, people who ran guest houses, you name it. There’s no question that the government muscled out many of these people in jobs where they wanted the state to come back in and take over, but at the same time, you can go to a bicycle or watch repair guy, and plenty of them are doing fine. They’re able to work with the current level of taxation and I don’t think the government sees them as a threat.”
Peters added that “these people are only part of the story. There are many more entrepreneurs in Cuba who don’t have licenses — i.e. the black market — than those who do.”
Other recent reports Peters has published include “Rescuing Old Havana” (2001); “Cuba Goes Digital” (2001); “International Tourism: The New Engine of Cuba’s Economy” (2002) and “Cutting Losses: Cuba Downsizes Its Sugar Industry (2003).
We asked if Peters had any advice for the Bush administration. His reply:
“To follow Reagan’s policies toward the Soviet Union. First of all, engagement and contact don’t equate with moral approval. We should engage as much as we can with actors who matter in Cuba. The point is, what Reagan did with the USSR was maintain a very firm moral stance about the nature of that government, but he engaged with those officials. At his level, he promoted engagement.
“Reagan saw private Americans traveling to those countries as a good thing,” Peters said. “It was a way of expanding our influence. He wanted government to get out of the way.”