Change in Cuba: Less Costly Than Clinging to the Past

Esteban Morales interviewed by Dmiti Prieto

Esteban Morales. Photo: Roberto Leon, NBC News

HAVANA TIMES — Esteban Morales is one of Cuba’s most outstanding academics. An economist and a specialist on hemispheric policy, he is a grey-haired, tall, bearded black man with an air of being a taita, or an African patriarch. Yet Esteban doesn’t possess the slightest hint of arrogance; he’s jovial and open in conversation.

A tireless reader of scientific works of all stripes, he has spoken out against dogmatism and censorship. He has been seen on both the Mesa Redonda pro-government program on Cuban television as well as in independently organized settings for alternative discussion.

Morales maintains a blog of his own, and many of his writings are reproduced and commented about on other online media sites, including Havana Times. He is the father of an Afro-Cuban family dedicated to anti-racist activism, and he has recently published two books on the issue of “the races” in Cuba. He also participates in the Cuban chapter of the “Articulacion Regional de Afrodescendientes” [the Regional Coordinating Organization of Afro-descendents], a new vehicle of civil society in the fight for ethnoracial equality.

HT: Esteban, your generation was the one that entered adulthood with the insurrectional victory of 1959. What were the most important events in your life?

EM: I was born in Cardenas (Matanzas Province) on August 26, 1942. It was between 1959 and 1962 that the most important events that shaped my life took place.

Long before 1959, when I was about 11, I won first prize in an essay contest on Jose Marti; it was organized by the “Caballeros Catolicos” [Catholic Knights] in my town. When I got to the ceremony, you could hear the murmuring throughout the hall. I figured out what had happened; the form I had filled out didn’t include my picture, and it wasn’t imaginable for those middle-class whites that a poor black kid like me would win the competition. They made me leave.

Luckily for me, there was a certain banker on the jury. He was as white and middle class as all the others, but he was the brother-in-law of the woman who employed my grandmother as a maid. It seems that he kicked up a fuss and made them grant me the award. It consisted of a full scholarship to the School of the Holy Trinity of the Trinitarian Fathers, the best school in my town and one of the best in Cuba.

I’m recounting that incident because it changed my life. I was born in a rooming house where I lived with my two siblings and my parents. The son of a carpenter and a housewife, my only advantage was being very studious and glued to books. This was despite my having to study in the backyard under the only lightbulb we had. Otherwise I read by candlelight when my father had to get up at four in the morning.

I started studying under my scholarship in the fourth grade and I almost finished high school from that same school. I also had had three cousins who were teachers who tutored me from when I was 11. They helped me get into another high school and stayed on top of me, fueling my desire to study. I was lucky because with my background I would have had to work with my father in carpentry, just like I did on many occasions, and that would have been it for me.

Before 1959, I had to leave my town  and I ended up in a room in the Jesus Maria neighborhood, in Old Havana, where the revolution took me by surprise. I joined the “Association of Young Rebels” (AJR), and since I had a certain level of education I became a teacher at the “Antonio Guiteras Revolutionary Training Center,” at the Tallapiedra School. I was a leader of the AJR, and at the same time I worked at the Department of the Provincial Office of Distribution of the July 26th Movement. There, I was shocked by the explosion of the Coubre, whose victims I helped out all I could…

HT: The Coubre was a French ship that brought weapons from Belgium and exploded in Havana harbor, killing a lot of people… in confronting the emergency, the leading role fell on the poor:  longshoremen, residents of the poor neighborhoods in Havana – like Jesus Maria. Many of them were black and a large number were members of the secret Afroancestral Abakua Brotherhood.” That tragedy occurred in March 1960.

EM: In April of 1960, I signed up as a volunteer teacher for the first contingent of the literacy campaign, marching into the Sierra Maestra mountains. In August of that year, I was placed as a teacher in the “Youth Brigades of Revolutionary Work” in Pino de Agua, in the Sierra Maestra. Later I was sent to Pinares de Mayari. I was traveling around on what was called “Raul Castro’s turf”: the Sierra de Nipe of the Sierra Maestra. During the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961), I was in the Sierra de Nipe, and during the Missile Crisis (1962) I served as a gunner. Later I enrolled at the University of Havana in the economics and diplomacy programs. I finally chose economics. I studied as a student-worker, graduating in 1969, though since 1966 I had functioned as a teacher’s-assistant to a professor.

From then on, all my work was at the university, from when I was a graduate-instructor to when I became a professor in 1977. I was the director of the Economics Department, the director of Political Science, the dean of Humanities, and I founded and directed what is now the Center for Hemispheric and United States Studies for 18 years, until I retired in 2010. Before retiring I achieved all the goals I had set for myself in the academic realm.

HT: In 2010, you were expelled from the Cuban Communist Party [for writing an article about the pervasive effects of corruption] , but later you readmitted into the ranks…

EM: In 2010, what I consider was a political error was made in relation to me. It was the result of unacceptable ideological intolerance, poor methods and ignorance of my revolutionary background. This forced me to take early retirement, though it didn’t cut short my scientific or intellectual activity. Today I hope that those who were behind these errors are honest enough with themselves — at least when they’re alone thinking by themselves — to accept that they were wrong.

HT: How do you see Cuba now compared to the dreams of the ‘60s?

EM: In relation to the sixties, I think Cuba has advanced in some things and regressed in others. The causes are multiple. The dreams of the ‘60s have proven to be just that – mostly dreams. Now we’re being forced to be more realistic, less idealistic; to abandon the arrogance that accompanied us for a while, to change copied work methods that don’t conform to our historical realities, to abandon repressive attitudes that limit personal opinion, to give more respect to individual opinions and the beliefs of others, to be less bureaucratic, to not abuse power when one holds it. I believe that the experiences, and especially the failures, have been enough for us not to want to repeat them.

HT: Today there exist many new self-organized settings in Cuba, some of them rather controversial. What do you think of social activism in contemporary Cuba?

EM: I think the social activism that exists today must be respected, and if their leaders are controversial, then their ideas should be subjected to an open debate and work should be undertaken to guide them correctly, but never to suppress them. People organize and seek new forms of collectivism when those that exist don’t meet their interests. I consider myself a part of that process. The opposite would be to deny the dynamics of civil society.

Civil society progresses like that, and anyone who tries to oppose this process will be crushed, especially if you don’t realize that civil society is taking away the power of those who actually no longer have it. This is happening, though you can still see people acting like they were in the seventies, as if they have more power than they really do.

Such activism is always positive for society if it’s understood and treated as ways to advance toward better solutions to problems. Counterrevolution only comes out of such activism when it’s not understood and attempts are made to repress it because it coincides with our personal ideas of how things should be. In society, things are always going to end up like the majority wants them to be. If minority elites cling to the past — to privileges, to powers — they’ll be opposed, the masses will run them over.

HT: Do you consider yourself a part of that activism? And if so, with what aims are you involved?

EM: Our civil society must progress whereby people have the full capacity to express their opinions, opposing everything they consider negative. We must not permit imposition, but rather demand democracy in decision-making. We must oppose bureaucracy, imposition, opportunism, abuse of power and arrogance.

This is why I consider myself part of all these currents of people who want things done in new ways, especially if there are so many ways that have proven themselves to be unsuccessful, and in our situation these methods abound. Therefore, the search for new ways of doing things is a completely progressive movement. That’s why I support and participate in these in any way I can.

HT: What do you think of racism in Cuba? Does it exist? How can it be combated? Aren’t the current socio-economic changes encouraging racist attitudes, which certainly don’t contribute to greater equality between people?

EM: Certainly there are changes that don’t contribute to greater equality, but there’s no choice other than to implement them. We had an egalitarian system, but it threatened all of our equilibrium. It would be worse to repeat that kind of egalitarianism, it is not even possible to defend it. There will be people who within a yet unknown period of time will have to suffer so that in the end we’re all saved. That is a price we have to pay for the mistakes that we acknowledge were committed. Within this, we need to seek policies so that the suffering is minimized – but we can’t prevent it entirely.

In this context, blacks and mestizos will suffer the most because they were left the furthest behind and the time that the state had to implement change wasn’t sufficient for them to reach a fairly acceptable and stable level. This is why there must be actions taken to protect these people.

Racism exists. What’s more, I think it has worsened in recent years. The only way to fight it is from within the civil society, from below, while the government and the state should support those efforts to combat it. This means not only in the economy, but also in culture, education, politics and the law. We must punish racial discrimination, we can’t allow the will of those who — out of convenience and even ignorance or intolerance — continue to practice that.

HT: As a specialist on North America, what prospects do you see for US-Cuba relations under the new Obama administration?

EM: What’s most important for Cuba’s relations with the United States to improve is to succeed — thoroughly and continuously — at increasing the costs to the United States of a policy that hasn’t given them the results they expected.

Above all, this means Cuba going ahead with its plans and projects for change, development and especially changing our mentality. It’s not in Cuba where the US policy should change, but what Cuba can do to change that policy is not insignificant. We don’t have any reason to expect US policy to change, but if we change ourselves as much as possible, they will have to change too.

Take the case of the recent immigration reform that Cuba has just adopted; it’s not perfect or complete, but it’s very useful and intelligent. We need to take bolder steps in the economy, free up the productive forces, give more latitude to foreign investment, take more advantage of the scientific and technological potential that the country has, applying it to produce domestically. These are measures to ensure the country develops in a sustainable manner.

We need to give Obama an alternative: the US can either change its policy towards Cuba or it can remain there acting like a child, playing with its “rattle” that only serves to make a lot of noise.

In addition, the change in policy is a question of Obama’s political will, which I don’t trust at all. In the end, a policy is changed only when no change has a higher cost.

HT:  As for the Cuban economy, what do you think about the relevance of the Marxist approach? There have been warnings about the re-emergence of economic exploitation of some by others. What do you think?

EM: Our problems are not with any theoretical approach — be it Marxist or not — towards the economy. Our problems are with the economic policy. To make economic policy today, “political economy” isn’t sufficient. Positive things can be found in Marx for determining economic policy just as in other theorists of “bourgeois political economy” – some who even theoretically object to Marx.

Karl Marx wrote the book A Critique of Political Economy. That meant that he studied all the political economy theorists who preceded him and in all he found things that were helpful and rational. After more than a hundred years, why don’t we do what Marx did and look at the dozens of economists who exist, everything that can be helpful for our purposes?

We often confuse orthodoxy with magnesia. I recommend you read an article of mine in the magazine Marx Ahora (No. 19) entitled “La economia politica Marxista: retos de un tercer milenio(Marxist Political Economy: Challenges of a Third Millennium), in which one of the most important things I say is that science is science, coming from whatever side it comes from; the rest is apology.

The Soviets accused as revisionists all those economists who concerned themselves with introducing mathematical analysis into economics (Novozhilov, Kantarovich, Agambeguian, and Faramasian). With truly scientific minds, they were searching for — in the field of mathematical economics — useful tools for planning. However, the stubborn defense of the supposed ideological purity of Marxism prevented this search for something that would have been useful to socialism even if it was found in bourgeois science.

Esteban Morales. Photo: Roberto Leon of NBC News

This same error was repeated in all Marxist social sciences. History repeated itself particularly with “bourgeois sociology,” viewing it as a simple response to historical materialism. In Cuba we committed the same error in the seventies with sociology. Today, people are lost who don’t make use of the tools all fields of science — Marxist or bourgeois — to develop their own approaches. True science has no ideological or political boundaries, the only difference [politically] with the sciences is how they’re used.

HT: In your opinion, how should economic theory and practice in Cuba be updated?

EM: It should be updated without dogmatism and without false ideological defenses. We don’t have to abandon Marx, but nor should we absolutize his work as if it were some bible in which we hope to find all the answers. We have to do precisely what Marx did: take everything that might be useful in formulating economic policy.

But above all, we have to give control over the economy to the economists – not to the politicians, as was done for many years. The politicians have politics, while the economists are the ones who need to guide the economy. Now we seem to be going in that direction. We’ve begun to pay attention to academia and we’re leaving aside the arrogance that only practicing administrators are those who know what to do.

HT: What do you think of social thought here? Is it fulfilling its “mission” of re-making a new vision of Cuba, of anticipating possible scenarios?

EM: Our social thought was quite backwards for several years. That was the result of dogmatism in politics, followed by opportunism and cowardice on the part of more than a few social scientists. Our politics tended to accept science only if it justified their actions, other than that, science worked to find justifications for practice. This was not without some stumbling around, but fortuneately we’ve begun to move forward.

The criticisms made by science are now breaking through. We still don’t find enough discussion of these in our media, but the power of the old media is running out. Soon they’ll have to get rid of all the secrecy and accept discourse that’s more open, truthful, daring and advanced. Above all, they’ll have to operate more in line with the information needs of a society and culture that is progressing beyond the national media. We will have to gradually create an environment that will allow our social thinking to definitively develop a new and better vision, one capable of anticipating the possible scenarios for Cuba.

11 thoughts on “Change in Cuba: Less Costly Than Clinging to the Past

  • “But above all, we have to give control over the economy to the economists – not to the politicians,”— a surely dangerous recommendation ! ‘to economists ‘ of what hue? to those like our Indian trio, viz., Manmohan-Ahluwalia-Chidambaram type who have devastated the lives of not only the peasantry in the country-side & the urban poor but also those of the lower middle classes with their WB-IMF-dictated policies ? there is no such a thing as ‘pure economics’ in real life but only an economics either for the exploiting corporate houses or for the exploited millions ; it is my humble opinion that Cuba shall not go by this kind of scholarly advice; it will also end up like India ; its GDP may go up but the lives of the marginalized will be doomed for ever ; we in India have lost more than a quarter million peasants at the altar of neo-liberalism that the ruling Indian elitist–economists hold high !

  • Excellent comments, Alberto.

    The theoretical sabotage of socialism by the bourgeois program of state monopoly ownership not only destroys the economy. It also destroys the ability of the political leadership to analyze reality and use common sense.

    Unless the PCC comes up for air and realizes that the abolition of private property and the price-fluctuating trading market are institutions that are the long-term goal of socialism, not its immediate economic core principle, I’m afraid that they will continue with their sectarian mindset and erroneous policies.

  • Ángel Santiesteban writes about his recent arrest, which underlines the necessity of change:

    “When we got to the police station Aguilera, led me to the dungeons. The guards held me by the arms, I was almost dragged. I had no energy, the pains ran all over my body, but mostly because of blows in the ribs I did not get enough air and it was like a knife stabbing me again and again. I did not want to scream in pain so as not to give them the pleasure of seeing me suffer, but I certainly felt like doing it.

    They took me down to the basement of the building. The stench warned the proximity of the dungeons. Several doors of bars were opened. I had my eyes closed because my clouded vision bothered me. They left me in a cell on a concrete bed. I spent several hours struggling not to stop breathing, every time I took a breath it was like a knife cutting into my ribs. Then, slowly, I began to get relief.

    A guard asked me if I wanted lunch. I told him no. Is this a hunger strike? I told him yes. He walked away and I heard him inform his superior, meanwhile what he said gave me to understand that he didn’t care. He said what he had done. Which was not true, because when I communicated my decision not to eat, he looked at me worried, very worried.

    Soon the photographer Claudio Fuentes, who had arrested with me, walked past my cell. They brought him lunch. He greeted me with his eyes and I saw the surprise of seeing my state of calamity with my shirt torn and bloodied. I asked about Yoani Sánchez, he told me that he didn’t know what happened to her. I asked about the lawyer Laritza and he told me she had been released the night before and had been in the same cell as I was now. At least I had a few seconds of joy. What about Antonio Rodiles? Nothing, no one else knew, he said, and the guard yelled at him to hurry up and not to talk with me.”

  • Certainly, the Cuban nation possesses the human and natural resources to achieve great things. However, nothing of any value will be created and no innovation will flourish under a dictatorship. What is certain is that Cuba cannot continue on in this same path for much longer. Cuba must be free. Cuba will only become a land people will want to come to, a land of opportunity, if the people are free. Nobody emigrates to a dictatorship.

    Unfortunately, the human resources are shrinking.

    Consider the national demographics: a falling birthrate, the highest abortion rate in the Western world, a large and steady emigration of the young and talented and a declining population. Unless these trends change, by 2030, less than 18 years from now, one third of the population of Cuba will be over 60 years old! No civilization can survive such a demographic collapse. That future is less than a generation away. Therefore, the necessary steps to prevent or minimize & prepare for that future must be taken now.

    There’s already a labour supply shortage in Cuba, and the problem will only get worse as the population ages. Raising the retirement age only buys you a few extra years, but it’s no solution to the underlying problem. Does the regime really think tourists will keep coming for salsa lessons from octogenarian dancers? Who will be left to slave away in the tourist resorts or drive the taxis? Who will work the farms? Who will clean the hotel rooms and wait tables? Who will work the factories? Who will teach the children? Where will the regime get the police and sundry enforcers of the political order?

    Meanwhile the octogenarian leadership continues to quibble over minor openings to self-employment, fiddling with the rations book or imposing new taxes. It’s way too little, and if real changes don’t come soon, it will be far too late.

  • You should read more carefully. Sr. Morales said “… but if we change ourselves as much as possible (internal change), they will have to change too (triggered by those internal changes).

  • A great interview, very educative – not only with reference to the Cuban experience – but provides insights into possible approaches for alternative social-political transformation that can be seen as helpful to all progressive movements and countries.

    Not surprisingly, pathetic opportunism originating in the “Yuma” shamelessly descended upon Professor Morales’ words and tried to distort them to suit the agenda of exilio propaganda and psyops. Nowhere in the interview does Professor Morales give an “assessment that Cuba must make changes internally to trigger a change in US policy towards Cuba.” Morales’ critique of the Cuban system simply emphasizes that Cuba’s own self-assessed and self-directed reforms are not insignificant. If Cuba continues on this path, then, in the end, the US will have no excuses and nothing to leverage on Cuba but act like a child shaking its rattle to make senseless noise. It is the height of political maturity, ethical correctness, and personal integrity – not naiveté – that Morales does not envision any scenario of Cuba playing the obliging neo-colonial poodle that needs to change in order for the superpower bully to change in turn. Rafael Correa said it best when he expressed his hope that someday Latin America would advance so much on its own path that it wouldn’t matter who is in charge in Washington.

    One is truly grateful for the exposure on Professor Morales. Before I saw him once as a participant on Mesa Redonda, I did not know that there were any other Afro-Cuban intellectuals and academics besides Nancy Morejon, the poet and U of Havana professor, whose name I had come across in journals published here in he US. Such is the result of the marginalization tricks of Cubavision and the official Cuban media. The same marginalization that has kept Afro-Cubans generally from important political appointments in Cuba.

    Professor Morales could have been a formidable counterpoint to US diplomatic propaganda and maneuvre, had it been him that was appointed Foreign Minister or Cuba’s UN representative. But it is just as well – even for the better – that he wasn’t. His academic contributions will, no doubt, contribute much to new thinking and new action in Cuba and beyond.

    At the end of the day, no reform is more needed in Cuba than a restructuring of political power that embraces all citizens of Cuba in all their vibrant diversity.

  • Once again, Esteban Morales gives me the privilege of simply agreeing with literally everything he says. The Cuban problem is so big, so urgent, so demanding of an immediate change, that searching with a magnifying glass or microscope for micron size mistakes, becomes a serious and dangerous academic distraction.

    If we would all look at the Big picture of Cuba, which I am sure, is what Dimitri and Esteban had in mind, you end up with a series of guidelines, ideas, suggestions, some of which may or may not work. There are no crystal ball for everything!!

    For myself and those sharing my views, I fully agree with Esteban, that Cuba must stop the 50 year old Tit for Tat game with the US and do its own courageous, decisive thing, life changing thing. Our country need to be more creative, pro-active, fearless in implementing those measures the people are clamoring for.

    What do we fear except for fear itself? Cuba have a near-endless reserve of wealth that have slowly devalued itself and benefitted no one!! How many billions of dollars are idle, wasted in thousands of dilapidated, shuttered or collapsing commercial business across the nation?

    How many millions of acres of fertile agriculture land remain untilled, fallow across Cuba, while hunger continue to rage across our region? How can anyone explain, that having one of the largest fishing resource in the Caribbean, fish have become a commodity in our country?

    Why do we insist in mismanaging our airline, railroad, heavy and light industry, land transportation and others, after a positive experience with joint ventures, which are subject to improvements?

    Are we not aware, that more than half of our best trained professionals and even more of our lesser higher education graduates, have left the country or are offering their services abroad, as the only means of supplementing their meager national income?

    Why not take advantage or our strategically located country, its thousands of highly qualified professionals in every field of knowledge and transform our nation into the health, education, sport, science and cultural center for a fee, to millions of people in the third world, who are deprived of and are craving for such services, generators of bilions and billions of dollars?

    Could the United States or any other country for that matter, resist such a level a social development at its doorstep, prevent tens of thousands of its citizen from migrating to Cuba and try to reverse the wheels of history, in a futile attempt to disprove what Christopher Columbus described in 1492?

  • Thanks, Dmitri, for an incisive interview with a brilliant Cuban patriot. If only his attitude were more general within the upper levels of the PCC!

    I wonder if Esteban is familiar with our US movement’s views on workable socialism? We have broken with Marxism, but this is essentially a break with Marxian state monopoly ownership socialism.

    I wonder if Esteban might comment with regard to our concept of cooperative, state co-ownership socialism? Will you continue with the interview?

  • Moses,

    Initial reports that Obama had taken almost half the Cuban-American vote were mistaken. Subsequent polls and analysis shows that while the president did improve his standing, the Republicans still hold a significant majority of the Cuban-American vote:

    Actual Cuban-American Vote Result: Romney 58% -Obama 42%

  • Good interview. Sr. Morales is correct in his assessment that Cuba must make changes internally to trigger a change in US policy towards Cuba. He comments, “In the end, a policy is changed only when no change has a higher cost.” To date, doing nothing (actually very little) with regards to Cuba has proven to be the best policy. Yet still an estimated 45% of the conservative Cuban voters chose Obama in the last election. To expect Obama to do more with little hope of greater reward for his efforts is naive. Sr. Morales is incorrect, however, in distrusting Obama’s political will. The fact that Cuban relations have not generated a blip on Obama’s poliitical radar is not because Obama lacks political will. It is due to the lack of political payoff that improving Cuban relations brings.

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