HAVANA TIMES — Juan Triana is one of Cuba’s most renowned economists. Some of his lectures are passed around by Cubans on flash drives. Before Raul Castro’s reforms began, his opinions and those of his colleagues at the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy sparked off considerable controversy.
Today, some of his proposals are being implemented by the government as part of its plans to “update” Cuba’s economic model. Triana tells us that “economists are being listened to today like never before in Cuba.”
Juan Triana: State entities have announced over 240 projects, designed as business opportunities, on the basis of the volume of needed investments that has been calculated. The 8 billion dollar figure represents much more than the initial figure, but that amount is aimed at developing investments over several years. The important thing is that we have an investment portfolio that is much more realistic and adjusted to today’s Cuba.
What sectors are these investment projects going to prioritize?
JT: The energy sector, which is of strategic importance, most of all. In this sense, Cuba is a dependent country that needs to change its energy infrastructure and begin using renewable sources of energy.
The other sector of strategic importance is the food industry. We have a huge production deficit there, and not only because we have to import a lot of products but also because we have very low production yields. Our agricultural sector is well below its current production potential. We have to take a technological leap forward in agriculture, but it isn’t easy to find investors willing to risk prosecution by US courts under the Helms-Burton Act.
Do you believe the reform process has made enough progress to interest foreign investors?
JT: Cuba has designed a new foreign investment policy. This has created a new investment atmosphere which is a change in comparison to what Cuba had before.
You have to bear in mind that Cuba is a small market with a low per capita income, such that foreign investors have to think about exporting their products, and we face another situation there. You have to guarantee investors the facilities for export, and we weren’t doing that before.
Exporting and importing in Cuba is a fairly complicated and very slow process, right?
JT: Exporting and importing in Cuba today is a big problem for many reasons. First, because there are mechanisms that have not been brought up to date. Second, because we don’t have the needed commercial culture. Third, we face real financial restrictions.
I hope that, through this new foreign investment law, import and export institutions will change and become more flexible. We have to look for indirect regulations that will make our fundamental aims easier to reach. Sometimes, people don’t realize that, in order to export, you need to import products. Japan was one of the top exporters of steel in the world, and it has neither iron nor coal.
Some economists are leveling criticisms at the government these days. Is this new?
JT: There have always been criticisms of what is done in the country – some have been publicized more than others. Sometimes, these have been divulged with a positive aim and, others, with a very resentful tone. I believe that one of the tasks of the economist is to criticize government policies. The thing is that, in addition to critical, such comments must be responsible.
I am concerned about opinions that distort reality in order to pit economists against the government. At any rate, one shouldn’t be afraid to criticize. President Raul Castro himself calls for a culture of dissent and there is nothing that leads to more disagreements than economics.
What happens is that, sometimes, there are strong reactions to what the foreign press says and things are given a connotation that they don’t have. It’s part of an old tradition in Cuba in which people keep things to themselves many a time out of fear of how the press may report it. I think this is a cost we have to pay. We shouldn’t renounce voicing our opinions out of fear that someone may misinterpret them.
Economists are being listened to like never before in Cuba. This is a very good time. There’s been a decision to include economists and academics in analyses and proposals for solving the problems the Cuban economy faces. This has already been institutionalized. We have a science and technology advisory council that systematically applies the government guidelines.
Is there room for disagreement in these spaces?
JT: Till now, I have always been able to express my opinions, even the most dissenting ones. I haven’t felt the pressure we had before in these past few years. One of the great merits of the reform process is the opening up of spaces where people can freely express their opinions.
What is the main challenge facing the Cuban economy?
JT: The greatest challenge is designing an economic development program. This involves many other challenges that are not exclusively economic – they are social, cultural, political and ideological challenges. Some have to do with individuals, families, institutions and companies.
“We have a huge production deficit in agriculture, and not only because we have to import a lot of products but also because we have very low production yields.”
The development program is difficult and it is being undertaken from a rather complex positions. We’ve been blockaded for 50 years. The blockade limits confidence and creates uncertainty among investors who fear reprisals from the United States. We are also limited in terms of markets. For instance, 40 percent of rum production is consumed in the United States. They persecute us financially, as you saw recently with the French bank.
We also make things hard for others. For the longest time, it was difficult to operate a business in Cuba. Just compare how long it took us to approve certain types of businesses with what happens in other countries. If Cuba does not develop, however, we won’t be able to have a socialist society, let alone a sustainable one.
What is the main problem that does depend on Cubans?
JT: The will to truly change. There is a song by Silvio Rodriguez that says we have to “turn the Earth upside down once and for all.” We not only have to change institutions and modernize them, we not only have to change the economy – we have to change people as well.”
We have to understand that this is an underdeveloped Latin American country and we can aspire to have the development that the region has. We still tend to look ourselves through a European lens and that is a serious mistake. The first thing we need to do is to be honest with ourselves.
Do you believe the reforms will lead Cuba somewhere positive?
JT: I believe it is more important for the State to spend money on sheets for a hospital than to continue spending on salaries, maintenance and tablecloths at cafeterias, which are going to be transformed into cooperatives now. The problem is that keeping those bankrupt businesses open means we have to pay for everything, because there’s only one, official budget.
“It is more important for the State to spend money on sheets for a hospital than to continue spending on salaries, maintenance and tablecloths at cafeterias, which are going to be transformed into cooperatives now.”
The country will have more inequality, but it will continue to operate on the basis of equity, to which neither the State nor government have renounced. It would be terrible to try and maintain equality at all costs and end up losing the economic capacity to retain equity, which is what was happening to us.
I would have wanted this process of turning food industry establishments into cooperatives to have happened five years ago. I want for everything business-related in Cuba, including hard-currency stores, to cease being operated by the State and to start functioning as cooperatives, joint ventures or a foreign company that can guarantee adequate inventories. What we spend there is money we could use on other things, and we would not cease to take in profits if we did.
(*) Visit the website of Fernando Ravsberg.