Pope Francis & the Holy Market: On Cuba’s Reform Process

Fernando Ravsberg*

Cuba’s reform process is opening sectors of the economy to the rules of the market.
Cuba’s reform process is opening sectors of the economy to the rules of the market.

HAVANA TIMES — Ever since arriving in Cuba, I’ve been hearing Cubans say that the country’s economy cannot function properly without owners who work to protect their interests, that the government ought to let go of the reins once and for all and let the market determine the nation’s socio-economic development.

It is understandable that the citizens of a State that has sought to control every single economic activity in the country – from tourism, to nickel production to the sale of fried snacks or the shining of shoes on the street – should think this way.

Pope Francis, a man without any noticeable leftist background, however questions those who insist that economic growth can only be achieved by allowing markets to operate without restrictions and doubts that this can lead to equity and inclusion.

His Holiness stresses that “this view, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a coarse and naïve trust in the kindness of those who wield economic power and in the consecrated mechanisms of the prevailing economic system.”

It is a timely message for those Cubans, on the island and abroad, who want to leave the future of the nation in the hands of the re-discovered market, confident it is capable of regulating society as a whole in the best possible way.

Market mechanisms often lead to cutbacks in the field of culture, making it a luxury that only an elite can enjoy.
Market mechanisms often lead to cutbacks in the field of culture, making it a luxury that only an elite can enjoy.

Pope Francis reminds us that, while the very few amass immense fortunes, most people in the world cannot even aspire to basic wellbeing and that “such an imbalance stems from ideologies that defend the absolute autonomy of the market and of financial speculation.”

After 50 years of strict State interventionism, very few doubt that the Cuban economy requires greater market liberties, but this process could be undertaken in such a way as to avoid the mistakes that other countries have already run into.

The Pope insists that “in this system, which tends to devour everything in order to increase profits, anything fragile such as the environment stands helpless before the interests of a market that has been deified and turned into the ultimate horizon.”

Education, public health and culture are also among those “fragile” sectors. None of them produces any direct economic benefits. Sometimes, they aren’t even self-financed, and the market tends to cut back their budgets or privatize them.

Public health is one of the areas that would need to be protected from the “rules of the market.”
Public health is one of the areas that would need to be protected from the “rules of the market.”

Cuba has been able to afford all its citizens access to these three areas and it is something it need not renounce. There is much room for improvement in economic terms. The challenge is to achieve such improvements without turning our backs on those who have less or are less capable.

Cuba’s reform process is not without risks and citizens would do well to be mindful of the collateral damage to the most vulnerable sectors that these changes could bring about, even when dealing with economic measures that are very popular and necessary.

The new law authorizing Cubans to purchase automobiles is a good example of how the market can be subordinated to the needs of society. Using profits to create a fund to promote public transportation is to think about the least privileged and the environment.

Something similar could be implemented regarding housing, making everyone pay a tax that can be used to finance the construction of rental apartments, made available to those who cannot afford a home at the market price.

Experiences like those caught sight of in Scandinavia (where I lived for several years) demonstrate that it is possible to develop a strong State that can regulate the market and redistribute wealth, guaranteeing social inclusion and economic efficiency.

The new law authorizing Cubans to purchase automobiles is a good example of how profits can be used to protect the least privileged and the environment.
The new law authorizing Cubans to purchase automobiles is a good example of how profits can be used to protect the least privileged and the environment.

It is true the State isn’t always efficient – if it were, Cuba’s economy would be faring much better. If the market were so fair, however, it wouldn’t condemn hundreds of millions of people to poverty, and, if it were so wise, it would avoid the constant crises it faces.

Pope Francis does not condemn the market outright but recommends that it be “under the control of States, responsible for ensuring the common good” and preventing the emergence of “a new invisible, at times virtual tyranny, which imposes its laws and rules unilaterally and implacably.”

Without a doubt, the role of the State must be to “ensure the common good.” In Cuba’s case, this means economic growth without the destruction of the environment, culture, education or public health, and without the exclusion of society’s most vulnerable sectors.

No matter how efficient the country’s macro-economy becomes thanks to the reform process, Cuba will have taken a step backward if, to achieve this, it has to deprive a single child of schooling, condemn them to live on the street or to death by a preventable disease.
—–
(*) Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.


12 thoughts on “Pope Francis & the Holy Market: On Cuba’s Reform Process

  • January 6, 2014 at 5:22 pm
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    Sorry, but I heard that NPR report as well. That sort of ‘hokie’ science that measures happiness is hard to put much trust in.

  • January 6, 2014 at 1:43 pm
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    According to an NPR report this morning, Venezuela leads Latin America in contentment /happiness.
    This in the context of Venezuela having establish a ministry that deals with the happiness of the Venezuelan people, a concept that the report of course , disparaged.
    Of course, this is coming from what we on the left call National PENTAGON Radio for its penchant for populating its panels with generals, ex-generals and pro-MIC think tank spokespeople.
    Still, it is mainstream media and must be taken seriously by the wealthy people and trusts who finance it and those dumb enough to take their reporting seriously.

  • January 4, 2014 at 7:29 pm
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    Okasis,
    You have quite obviously forgotten that Cuba is on the U.S list of countries aiding terrorism and that U.S bases in Latin America and the Caribbean are necessary to keep al-Qaeda from setting up near to where Fidel can send them arms .
    ( Fidel actually runs Cuba you know)
    Fortunately for us in the States Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada in 1983 and captured that warehouse full of antique WWII armaments that were said by him to be stored there by the Cubans for the purpose of spreading revolution and (gasp) COMMUNISM!!! throughout the hemisphere.
    See…Ronald Reagan was prescient and not badly addled due to Alzheimers as everyone close to him thought .
    Gotta go, my tongue is stuck in my cheek.

  • January 4, 2014 at 5:23 pm
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    Venezuela is doing well? That must be a joke.

  • January 4, 2014 at 5:22 pm
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    Look to ALBA for advice? The worst functioning economy in Latin America is Venezuela in spite of oil priced at over $100 a barrel. Better look to Chile or Mexico if Cuba wants economic advancement; or better yet look to China as a model.

  • January 4, 2014 at 4:31 pm
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    Did you write that Venezuela is doing “well”? Okay, forget CNN, Reuters, WSJ, NYT, El Pais, etc. Go talk to a Venezuelan. For goodness sakes, they run out of toilet paper!

  • January 4, 2014 at 1:38 pm
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    Do you ever get bored with old record of the same songs and dances you’ve been practicing for years? If you would do some research instead of expecting CNN to have all the answers, you would know that Venezuela is doing well. Madura’s Party [Chavez Wins Again?] took the local elections with a very solid majority and his personal ratings are up as well. Housing, Health, and Education Programs continue to provide increasing support for the Citizenry, and the national debt remains low. While inflation presents a problem, it also remains well below the extreme levels it reached prior to the 1st election of Hugo Chavez in 1999.

    As for Bolivia and Ecuador, neither is as prosperous as Venezuela. Lacking the worlds largest oil reserves puts a crimp in any economy. Yet, they are doing a better job than was the norm under the Oligarchy. Do thoughtful people on the far-Left wish they would do more, and go faster, then they appear to be? Yes. But, I don’t live in either Country, and can only empathize with the difficulties of trying to modernize a society based on extractive industries, while pleasing the Indigenous Peoples who want to safe-guard the environment and their own societies. Think how difficult it would be to rape and pillage the Bakken Oil Fields of N.D. in the Sioux had REAL Political Power!

    All told, the ALBA Nations are doing much better without US Puppets at the helm than they did with them. Not for the US perhaps, but certainly for the people living there. The statistics on the Para-Military Death Squads in Columbia demonstrate the huge cost of being Colonial assets. As do the growing numbers of deaths in Honduras, since the Coup.

    And if they fail, they will have to accept some responsibility for it, rather than saying it was the fault of the US, only. I say ‘only’ because any rational person knows we have not given up on our USAID/NSA/CIA plots against our Southern Neighbors. It is obvious to any sane observer that the new US Military bases in Columbia and Panama have a purpose other than protecting the US from a Muslim Jihad, centered in Nicaragua or Bolivia.

  • January 3, 2014 at 6:08 pm
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    Good post Okasis , and one sure to elicit the usual moronic comparisons between Cuba and First World industrialized countries

  • January 3, 2014 at 7:10 am
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    Advice from the ALBA countries? I just fell out of my chair from laughter! Maybe you meant to say Denmark or Norway. But economic advice from Nicaragua? Venezuela? Bolivia? Cuba is better off without the three stooges of Latin America.

  • January 2, 2014 at 7:58 pm
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    Interesting that everyone wants to privatize the economy of Cuba. Difficult to accomplish as long as the Boycott by the US remains in place. Cuba should look the the other ALBA Nations for advice and examples of how to effect incremental change without throwing away 55 years of Revolution on some Get-Rich-Quick scheme.

    If that is what people want, either Las Vegas or Miami will welcome them – at least until they are unemployed and broke. Now that travel restrictions have been eased, some of the pressure on the Cuban economy and civil society may be eased. Kind of like a safety-relief valve on a pressure cooker.

    Some of the homeless and unemployed in the US undoubtedly wish the US Government would come up with a few relief-valves for them. The grass is said to be greener on the other side of the fence. When you get there, it is still grass, and has often been mowed too short to eat, just so some one with both time, and money, can play golf…

  • December 31, 2013 at 12:43 pm
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    Neither China nor the Soviet Union were communist as communism requires a DEMOCRATIC bottom-up worker- run economy .
    Both had state economies which were totalitarian-top-down and therefore could not be communist.
    The state determined how the produced goods and services were to be distributed in this was done in a manner that reflected socialist equity but it was neither socialist nor communist .
    Absent democracy: majority rule you cannot have socialism or communism .
    Defining the totalitarian forms that existed in the Soviet Union and China as communism serves the purposes of those who seek to prevent the rise of democratic economies in the world and those in places like China where they wish to convince the people of that totalitarian state that they are living in a socialist country with a democratic economy .
    Both sides in this charade are liars.

  • December 31, 2013 at 8:30 am
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    A notable achievement of the revolution is that all the children are in school and none in the streets as in other latin american countries. on the other hand the economy has been hampered by restrictions against private enterprise and the military monopoly of many businesses. The communist system has been abandoned in Russia and China for good reason.

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