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  • Submitted by: lena campos
  • 09 / 26 / 2013

Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a high-ranking Cuban economist and diplomat who became a vocal critic of Fidel Castro in the 1990s but chose to remain in Cuba, despite enduring harassment and imprisonment, died on Monday in Madrid, where he was undergoing medical treatment. He was 72.

Mr. Espinosa Chepe (pronounced CHEH-pay) lost his job as an official of the National Bank of Cuba in 1996 after advocating the limited restoration of capitalist principles like the right to buy and sell one’s home or start a business.

He then became a journalist, writing articles for American and Spanish-language Web sites in which he used statistical data to analyze Cuba’s economic problems. In March 2003 he was one of 75 activists arrested as part of a government crackdown on dissent known as the “Black Spring.”

He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for what the government characterized as “mercenary” propagandizing on behalf of the United States government. Mr. Espinosa Chepe, who denied the accusation, was released in November 2004 because of failing health.

The crackdown brought international attention to a society of disparate dissidents in Cuba that had emerged in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union. They included independent journalists, religious leaders, labor union organizers and academics who called for democratic overhauls and greater individual liberties, and found outlets for their views on Web sites like CubaNet and Nueva Prensa Cubana, both based in Miami, and Encuentro, in Madrid.

Mr. Espinosa Chepe, who joined Castro’s revolutionary government in the early 1960s and was once head of the powerful Office of Agrarian Reform, had frequently clashed with fellow economic planners over policies he considered overly dogmatic.

His internal critique became increasingly adamant after 1991, when the loss of the Soviet Union’s financial support began taking a devastating toll on the country’s economy. But his proposals for change, many of which had already been adopted in former Soviet bloc states, were labeled counterrevolutionary, said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a professor emeritus of economics and Latin American studies at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on Cuban economic policies.

Despite opportunities to resettle in the United States or Spain after he was fired, colleagues said, Mr. Espinosa Chepe kept his small book-lined apartment in Havana and began writing about Cuba’s economy. Like the writings of other dissidents, his articles mainly reached Cuban expatriate communities. But his voice was familiar to Cubans who heard his broadcasts for Radio Martí, the United States government radio station that broadcasts from Miami.

“He was the best-known and most independent-minded economist in Cuba,” Professor Mesa-Lago said, and by refusing for years to leave, “he sacrificed his health and ultimately his life for his country.”

Chronically ill from liver disease, Mr. Espinosa Chepe had initially received government permission to visit Spain in 2010 for medical treatment, including a possible liver transplant. But learning at the last minute that the government’s permission stipulated that he never return, he scrapped the plan, Professor Mesa-Lago said.

Mr. Espinosa Chepe finally departed for medical treatment in Madrid six months ago, accompanied by his wife, Miriam Leiva, when the Cuban government, under pressure from international humanitarian groups, reversed itself to permit the couple’s return.

Mr. Espinosa Chepe was born in the central province of Cienfuegos on Nov. 29, 1940, to a father who was a Communist and a mother who was a fervent Roman Catholic, Professor Mesa-Lago said. He graduated with several degrees in economics from the University of Havana and joined the government in 1961, two years after Mr. Castro overthrew the American-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

He was Cuba’s economic attaché to Yugoslavia in the 1980s, and later wrote about being influenced by the experiments in market overhauls undertaken in the Soviet Union under Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

As a dissident, Mr. Espinosa Chepe wrote on a variety of topics besides economics, including the rise in alcoholism and suicide and what he called the “information apartheid” emerging in Cuba, based on the access of a privileged few to the Internet (mainly via telephone lines) and its denial to the vast majority of people.

The country’s economic stagnation, he wrote in a 2009 article titled “Crisis Over Crisis,” was having its most devastating impact on civil society. Market changes introduced since 2008 by Fidel Castro’s successor, his brother Raúl, had been inadequate to stem a tide of crime and self-dealing deeply entrenched in Cuban society because of the lack of opportunity.

“These years of prolonged and deep crisis have generated an enormous loss of spiritual values in large segments of the population,” Mr. Espinosa Chepe wrote. “People had few choices other than the black market. Egoism, mendacity, double morality, and all illegal methods of survival have proliferated to incredible levels.”

His wife is his only known survivor.


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