Vicente Morín Aguado
HAVANA TIMES — Cuban political scientist and economist Juan Valdes Paz concludes the second part of his interview for Havana Times with another powerful statement: “Economically speaking, Cuba is a ruined enterprise. However, for the vast majority of the population, the revolutionary project – independence, justice and development – is the country’s only means of salvation in today’s hostile world.”
HT: Professor, you left us with a question: was the collapse of East European socialism seen as the failure of that system by Cuba’s revolutionary leadership?
JVP: I don’t believe Cuba’s leadership conceives of the bloc’s collapse as that system’s failure. There hasn’t been any public debate on the matter, neither that system nor the Cuban model have been criticized, subjected to a complete and thorough evaluation, as was once promised. How Cuba’s political leadership views those events must have a considerable sway on what is doing today.
HT: Then, professor, are we anchored to the past and present?
JVP: The reform process is being implemented while the revolutionary leadership is still in power, something which has never before been seen in history. The leaders of the revolutionary process finally find themselves imprisoned by their own system.
HT: Speaking of that system, I’d like to take a moment to ask you about agriculture, an area you have studied in detail.
JVP: You’ll need quite a bit of patience, because I’ll have to tackle something as “thorny” as the marabou weed plant, which has spread across a considerable expanse of Cuba’s cultivable lands. It is a pivotal issue that any economic reform would have to address.
HT: Go ahead, we’re all ears.
JVP: In 1989, before the economic crisis, 80 % of Cuba’s lands were managed by the State, 9 % by Agricultural Production and Livestock Cooperatives (CPAs) and 11 % by individual farmers who, for the most part, belonged to Credit and Services Cooperatives (CCS).
Cuba’s privileged trade relations within the COMECON framework made up for inefficiency in the sector. At the time, no one spoke of efficiency or costs. Assessments focused on the physical output of production plans rather than their financial viability and the results were measured similarly.
Agricultural production followed an intensive technological model based on energy resources, mechanization, irrigation techniques, soil specialization, chemical fertilizers, genetics, etc. With the abundant resources available at the time, Cuba managed to bolster production in sparsely cultivated areas and agricultural outputs in general, but without efficiency and at great environmental costs.
This intensive model collapsed in the 90s. The collapse was accompanied by severe cutbacks in State companies, which lost their transportation equipment and machinery and were left without funds to maintain or repair their facilities and other assets, most of which had been received from the Soviet Union and socialist countries in Eastern Europe.
HT: Forgive me for interrupting. I imagine, then, that reforms became of the essence. What is your view of the reforms?
JVP: The crisis leads to a process of State de-regulation in agricultural and livestock management, a process which is still underway. Numerous other measures are also being implemented in this connection. These changes are, ultimately, attempts at patching up a system which needs a complete overhaul.
Cuba needs to completely redesign its agricultural and livestock production system: its productive base, its goods and services infrastructure, its scientific and technical means and processes, its marketing mechanisms, its administrative and planning systems, its financial structures, and other components.
It needs to create a system of incentives to encourage people to work and remain in the farm sector. Reforms, so far, in addition to being too shy, are making very slow progress. They are pulling back the “reins” on them, and people are champing at the bit for the process to get underway. Landholders must be given more administrative rights.
HT: Are you speaking of privatization?
JVP: The privatization of State property is forbidden by the constitution. But property, in and of itself, isn’t the essential thing. What’s important are the rights, control over property, having inalienable administrative rights over acquired means, over what you have produced, investments and the marketing. What are important are people’s effective rights, those that can actually be exercised under legal guarantees.
In essence, whether a true economic democracy will be established will depend on the degree of freedom producers will be granted: the extent to which they will be allowed to manage their own affairs and create different associations or cooperatives to pursue their interests.
HT: One cannot help but doubt that will happen.
JVP: It seems reforms are limited to substituting, out of sheer need, one layer of economic agents with another, and this because these agents are unable to achieve any efficiency through State mechanisms. The reforms are made on the basis of previous structures which cannot be fully dismantled if our intention is to preserve socialism, even a reformed socialism.
HT: Historically, it seems we’ve always been dependent on other countries, and that this is true even today, after the death of Hugo Chavez.
JVP: Any underdeveloped country will always have relations of dependence with other nations. Trade with Venezuela accounts for 40% of Cuba’s foreign trade. If these relations were undermined in any way, the impact, though less severe if we compare it to the collapse of relations with the USSR and, before that, the United States, would be significant. In any event, Cuba’s trade relations are now more diversified.
Ultimately, not even (Venezuelan opposition leader) Capriles could shut down or do away with everything that came before him. He would not tear down existing bilateral relations as violently as he claims in his official pronouncements.
The embargo, or, better, the blockade, is a real issue with real, negative repercussions. While we can’t do anything to lift the blockade, we can do something to overcome our internal problems, eliminate disorder, get a clearer sense of the role of the market, create a new economic model and implement it.
It is worth underscoring that Cuba’s international economic relations have always been based on political agreements: with the USSR, China, Russia, the COMECON, and Venezuela. The important thing to learn from these historical experiences is that we should not place ourselves in such vulnerable positions, where the margin of uncertainty is so narrow.
HT: Another important foreign relations issue is no doubt the embargo, or blockade.
JVP: The embargo, or, better, the blockade, is a real issue with real, negative repercussions. It isn’t killing us, but it hinders development. It is a political measure, a punitive measure. The blockade deprives Cuba of its natural market, the United States. It deprives us of its tourists, for instance, which would bolster the industry greatly, generating huge revenues, jobs, collateral or associated development.
The United States represents huge potential in terms of investments and trade. The financial blockade continues to do us a lot of harm, to limit us in many ways. In any event, it’s also something of an excuse.
We cannot do anything to lift the blockade, but we can do something to overcome our internal problems, eliminate disorder, get a clearer sense of the role of the market, create a new economic model and implement it.
HT: Though slow, the reform process has already had visible consequences. For instance, we’re seeing a new middle class emerge.
JVP: Evidently, Cuba has a new middle class made up of the self-employed, high level government officials, high-ranking military officers, some artistic and literary sectors, athletes, a number of scholars and many landholders. The issue is how the lower class, the lower strata of society, is going to fare as the reform process advances. This is, and will be, the great challenge faced by Cuba’s socialist system in the 21st century.
HT: So, are we left with no other option but to hope a different kind of socialism is possible?
JVP: The issue points towards politics, towards the creation of new institutions, a greater degree of democracy, aimed expressly towards self-management and self-government.
The reform process is making very slow progress. This is detrimental, politically speaking. Economically speaking, Cuba is a ruined enterprise. However, for the vast majority of the population, the revolutionary project – independence, justice and development – is the country’s only means of salvation in today’s hostile world.
We are small, economically dependent island in a hostile environment, with nothing big to show for other than our history…and the ego of Cubans.