HAVANA TIMES, April 4 — In 1961, barely 12 years old, Carlos Saladrigas was sent alone to Miami because his parents wanted to “save him from communism.” Half a century later he is one of the most successful Cuban-American businesspeople.
For much of his life in exile he was an anti-Castro hardliner, but he is now part of a group that aims to support the reform process underway on the island.
Last week he gave a lecture at the Felix Varela Cultural Center in Havana, where he shared his points of view. He subsequently agreed to give us an exclusive interview.
What does Carlos Saladrigas propose for Cuban society?
Carlos Saladrigas: What we’re proposing is to seek solutions for Cuba. The Cuban conflict is a political conflict and therefore it must have a political solution. Instead of hindering changes, we’re committed to facilitating them to make them faster, easier and more abundant. I think it’s obvious to everyone, including the leaders of the Cuban government, that changes are necessary…they’re badly needed.
When you say “we,” to whom are you referring?
CS: We’re the Cuba Study Group, Cuban-American businesspeople who have spent several years working together and, although we have different opinions in terms of strategy, there’s a solid consensus around building bridges, finding solutions and supporting changes.
You come from the hardliner wing of the exile movement. What led you to change?
CS: It was an evolutionary process. I’m an entrepreneur, and when a businessperson does the same thing for 53 years without any results, they can’t keep insisting. They have to change their strategy and look for other methods.
There was also a process and reflection about how we had wanted to change Cuba by using sanctions that would produce famine so that the people would rise up against the government. That’s something unethical. It’s using the people as if it they were a missile. Instead, we’re now proposing to help people improve their lives and to strengthen civil society.
What specifically are you proposing?
CS: To help small business. We think that small businesses anywhere in the world are an important force for democratizing the economy. They prevent the excessive concentration of wealth and facilitate job creation. Now that the government has decided that small businesses are important for Cuba, it’s a good time to help them improve these businesses and to ensure that they have the capacity and resources to do so.
What ways can they be supported?
CS: By supporting the church in terms of training for new entrepreneurs, using the talent of entrepreneurs in Miami in terms of counseling and, where possible, helping to capitalize these operations by providing microcredit lending, which would be on a non-profit basis.
Do you intend you invest here?
CS: The laws of both countries are so far from allowing this that it’s not even worth speculating about.
What response have you received from the Cuban authorities?
CS: We haven’t spoken to anyone. Someday they’ll be contacted, but in the meantime I think that there are opportunities in civil society for doing certain things. The church itself has very good business development training programs.
You said that if you were 25 years old, you wouldn’t leave the country given the prospects that will open up in the next five years.
CS: Yes, I would take that gamble but I’m not trying to impose my opinion on anyone. That would be unfair because there’s always the possibility that this won’t happen. We’ve seen before how things can advance and then slide backwards, actions that have generated a lot of skepticism. But I’m seeing the international situation and the interesting prospects here, which make me think that in five years there will be many opportunities for young entrepreneurs in Cuba.
What makes you think that this time there will be no turning back?
CS: I see that as being very difficult because I don’t think that there are any other options. There’s no choice but to go forward. The big question isn’t whether they’re going to turn backwards but how fast they’ll move forward.
Apart from the issue of speed, you’ve raised some criticisms about the manner in which the reforms are being applied.
CS: When making small openings in all sectors of the economy, it’s difficult to have an impact on the markets. I suggest that the state choose which fields it wants to keep under its control and that the rest be completely open, allowing the markets to adjust. That’s what will bring efficiency. Markets have proven their ability to create wealth and reduce poverty. They need to be regulated but not in a restrictive manner. They need to let the markets do their job.
What role is being played by US hostility and the hardcore exile wing?
CS: It serves as a crutch for blaming all errors. It gives legitimacy to the Cuban government and generates fear. The will to change increases as the benefits of change outweigh the costs of change. We need to reduce the cost of change in order to reduce the fear of change. We need to talk about the benefits, about how we can accomplish this together for the future of Cuba. The past will bog us down, we need to leave it for the historians and focus on the future.