Three years ago, dissident Cuban economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe turned down an opportunity to fly to Spain for treatment of a chronic liver disease after Havana officials told him that he would not be allowed to return to the island.
On Monday, Espinosa Chepe died in a Madrid area hospice, having finally received treatment after the Cuban government promised him this spring that he would be permitted to return home. He was 73.
“He had all the medical attention possible, but serious illnesses could no longer be overcome,” his widow, Miriam Leiva, wrote on her Facebook page. “He died at ease, wishing to return to his homeland, Cuba, and yearning to continue giving his all for progress and democracy in our country.”
“He sacrificed his health and his life for Cuba, and we owe him a great debt,” said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, an old friend, dean of Cuban economists and professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh.
Espinosa Chepe was so widely respected for his knowledge and moderation that as he convalesced at the Hospital Fuenfría hospice he received words of praise from both critics and supporters of the Castro brothers’ communist governments.
“Oscar was one of the best-informed Cuban economists,” Mesa-Lago said. “His columns surprised me because with all the difficulties that he faced, they were always well documented, objective and insightful.”
Espinosa Chepe regularly criticized Raúl Castro’s pro-market reforms as too weak and mismanaged to have any significant impact on the island’s unmoving economy, called for democracy and respect for human rights.
“The reforms haven’t provided results … there’s an enormous stagnation in society,” he said in one of his presentations to the annual Miami meeting of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, written or phoned in from his Havana apartment.
He also criticized the U.S. embargo and restrictions on travel and remittances to the island — and the Cuban exiles abroad that support them — arguing that they only serve to keep the Castros in power.
When Raúl Castro, 81, appointed Miguel Diaz Canel, 52, as his successor in February, Espinosa Chepe said the problem in Cuba “is not to appoint young people. The problem is to appoint people with an open mind who can fix a broken system.”
Born Nov. 29, 1940, Espinosa Chepe obtained a degree in economics at the University of Havana and worked in Fidel Castro’s Economic Advisory Council in the 1960s until he was fired for questioning economic decisions.
Rehabilitated, he was sent to Yugoslavia to supervise economic links with Belgrade, Hungary and Czechoslovakia along with his wife, Miriam Leiva, then a career diplomat with Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He worked at the National Bank of Cuba after he returned to Havana in 1984 but, influenced by the experiments with market forces in Hungary and the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, began to criticize his country’s dogmatically Soviet-like economy.
Fired in 1996 for his “counterrevolutionary” views, Espinosa Chepe began publishing a string of columns on the island’s economic failings and hosted a program on the economy on Radio Martí, a U.S. government broadcaster.
He was one of the 75 peaceful dissidents arrested in March 2003 and convicted the next month after one-day trials behind closed doors. Charged with “activities against the integrity and sovereignty of the State” and sentenced to 20 years, he was declared a “prisoner of conscience” by the London-based Amnesty International.
The dissident was sent to a remote prison in easternmost Cuba, and Leiva became one of the founding members of the Ladies in White — women relatives of the 75 who demanded their freedom — and an independent journalist.
Leiva alleged that his imprisonment “aggravated” his chronic liver disease, and he was freed on his 64th birthday in 2004 under a “medical parole” — meaning he could be returned to a cell any time the government deemed his health had improved.
Mesa-Lago and about 20 other economists later signed letters urging the Cuban government to allow Espinosa Chepe to travel to Spain for treatment but received no reply. The George W. Bush administration also endorsed the request.
In 2010, an immigration official finally told him that he could leave, but not return. Leiva quoted her husband as responding, “If they let me return, yes. If not, no.”
The same immigration official changed his reply this spring after Espinosa Chepe’s health deteriorated and Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega intervened on his behalf, Leiva told el Nuevo Herald recently by phone from Madrid.
The couple left Havana on March 11 and he was admitted the next day to the Puerta de Hierro de Majadahonda Hospital in Madrid, where the Spanish government paid for his treatment. Doctors found several complications that had not been detected in Cuba, Leiva said, and on Aug. 22 he was transferred to the Fuenfría hospice.
“His firm goal was to return to Cuba as soon as his precarious health improved,” Leiva wrote on her Facebook page last month. “However, the specialized attention in the modern Hospital Puerta del Hierro has not been able to reverse the course of the ailment.
“His body is shutting down with grave discomfort, while his ideas and thoughts continue dedicated to Cuba and its people,” she said.