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.
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.
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.
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.