HAVANA TIMES — Cuban economist and government official Juan Triana has become highly popular among our country’s leadership by peddling a rather exciting idea: the world economy is sailing before the wind and Cuba ought to stick a rocket up its ass if it wishes to catch up and not be left out of the party (my phrasing). We need to grow quickly, he suggests in his lectures, replacing the old socialist engine with a turbo-capitalist one, but leaving the Communist Party at the helm.
Today, when neo-liberalism is taking in water and the world economy can’t seem to pull itself out of the hole it’s in, and when so many projects in Cuba have stalled half-way (the underused Mariel Development Zone, investors who refuse to bite, a decreasing GDP, weed-covered golf courses), isn’t it time to ask Triana why his marvelous predictions turned out to be wrong? What consequences will the country face for having used its last bit of strength to chase after a pipe-dream? Why did he neglect the currents of socio-economic thought that have been announcing the current crisis for several decades? (1)
Journalist Fernando Ravsberg had the opportunity of interviewing Cuba’s most popular economist, but, instead of reminding him of his “accurate” predictions, he allowed him to yap away.
Below, I will discuss two of the ideas Triana expounded on when Ravsberg allowed him to be himself:
- Cuba needs to change its energy infrastructure to begin using renewable resources.
- The productivity of Cuban agriculture is low, and we must therefore take a technological leap forward.
1- Cuba and Renewable Sources of Energy
I don’t know whether you’ve noticed that this conclusion is missing a premise, a cause that Triana “forgot” to mention. Why would we need to change our energy infrastructure? Is there a problem with the supply of oil we’re getting from the country with the largest oil reserves in the world?
The complete formula should have gone something like this: We’ll be having a hard time getting fossil fuels, thus we need to change our energy infrastructure.
Many reasons could lead someone to “forget” our “little problem” with fossil fuels. Coming from Triana, I can think of two:
1- As a State official, he cannot reveal truths that would make investors uneasy.
2- The uncertainty surrounding the supply of hydrocarbons does not mix well with his techno-optimistic discourse in support of development at all costs. It has been demonstrated that, without increasing consumption of fossil fuels, no economic development is possible. To acknowledge that oil shortages are coming is tantamount to confessing that he has been blowing things out of proportion.
Let us get back to the question of renewable sources of energy. No country in the world has managed to cover even 50 percent of its energy consumption using renewable sources of energy. We, of all people, are going to be the first?
Europeans made a conscious effort to achieve this. They devoted several years of economic wellbeing, cheap energy and abundant resources to develop these sources of energy. Despite this, they could not get the infrastructure off the ground. Today, renewable resources contribute less than 15 percent of all of the energy they consume.
Let us now analyze our situation: fuel and supplies at extremely high prices (as a result of shortages that didn’t exist before), dependence on a politically unstable country, an economic blockade, lack of industrial infrastructure that would allow us to develop the sophisticated technology required at home (today, such technology is imported and only assembled here), and a worldwide crisis stepping on our heels, to mention only a few “inconveniences.” What are our actual chances of being able to change our energy infrastructure to begin using renewable sources of energy? If anything, we’ll achieve this when thermoelectric plants kick the bucket and we are once again dependent on photosynthesis (2).
2- Low Agricultural Outputs and the Technological Leap
When Triana speaks of a technological leap forward, is he referring to permaculture or to agro-ecology? Neither. In one of his lectures before Cuba’s scientific community, he ingratiated himself with his audience saying that the proper place for a steer was our dinner plate. “We need a whole army of tractors in the countryside,” he stated.
What is he talking about, then? About a Green Revolution, of course, peppered with biotechnology and transgenics. Let us have a closer look.
A Green Revolution results in an important increase in agricultural output as a result of a colossal investment in terms of energy and resources.
To put it in the technical language that Triana likes to whip us with: the energy performance (the number of calories obtained versus the number invested) of agricultural production secured through a Green Revolution is considerably lower than the performance achieved using traditional methods. If we add the damage to the ecosystem caused by the first option, the difference in performance simply becomes brutal.
What’s more, owing to the costly investments it requires, the technological leap forward in agriculture would make sense in prosperous times. The same holds for renewable sources of energy: it is impossible to lift these off the ground in the midst of a crisis that has no end in sight.
It seems unlikely that a think tank should be unaware of the issues addressed here. From my point of view, we are not dealing with mere ignorance.
In view of his catastrophe-proof faith in the Cuban economy and the intermittent support he offers the system (“Raul Castro encourages debate, he listens to economists”), I would say Triana is behaving more like a State official than an economist.
As an economist, he would be duty-bound to reveal the ugly truth, without offering people false hopes. As an expert at the service of the establishment, he has to sugar the pill, so that investors won’t be horrified and people will stay calm, even if they get hurt in the long run.
Our duty is to reveal that this popular turbo-economist has been making false predictions for years, and always of the same kind. He already lulled us to sleep with a siren song once, speaking in favor of development. If he gets his hooks into us now with that story about renewable sources of energy and the fairy tale about a technological leap forward in agriculture, if we squander what few ecological and economic resources we have left for the coming crisis on sophisticated toys, we are going to face an even uglier future than the one in store for us.
- The Wikipedia entry The Limits of Growth contains a summary of the research work and scientific reports that have been announcing the current crisis since the 1970s. The crisis is not merely economic and does not stem exclusively from over-production, as the previous crisis faced by capitalism. It is caused, rather, by the exhaustion of resources that are of strategic importance and the overflowing of the dumpsites with which our social metabolism functions.
- It is not a question of renouncing to the use of renewable sources of energy. They can be of great help, supplying electricity to hospitals and essential industry. The absurd and dangerous thing is to pretend we can change our energy infrastructure and even experience economic growth with their measly contribution to consumption.