Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

Ricardo Torres Perez who heads the Cuban economy team at CEEC. Photo: Heriberto González Brito
Ricardo Torres Perez who heads the Cuban economy team at CEEC. Photo: Heriberto González Brito/Trabajadores

HAVANA TIMES — Some days ago, the Cuban weekly newspaper Trabajadores (“Workers”) published an interesting interview  (in Spanish) with Ricardo Torres, a young scholar working at the University of Havana’s Cuban Economy Studies Center who has had a short but praiseworthy career.

The economist affirms that Cuba requires “major surgery”, an intensification of the reforms program, and goes on to mention a number of handicaps and opportunities in this connection. He concludes we’re going through bad times but that we could be doing a whole lot better, an opinion I basically agree with.

Since I am not an economist, I will let readers enjoy Torres’ interesting interview and focus  on a number of aspects that point to a serious problem faced by Cuban society: public speeches that are trimmed and edited to the point of becoming unrecognizable or, at least, senseless.

Cuba’s incipient public sphere suffers from schizophrenia. Save for active opponents of the government – that is to say, individuals and groups that aspire to bring about a change in government and express this openly – the existing spectrum of critics, in order to survive, is forced to say something different, and sometimes contrary, to what they want to say.

This is not because the opposition is more intelligent, but because it has already crossed the line, beyond which one invariably runs into the police.

It is a situation characteristic of authoritarian systems, which draw very clear limits for public expression. This comes at a high cost for society; as it hinders the maturation of the ideologies that will be called on to take Cuba’s future political stage.

An ideology is not simply a corpus of more or less interconnected ideas. It is also an interpretation of society, a way of interacting with the subjects the ideology is aimed at. If this last element is missing – that is to say, if there no public to address – political ideologies do not mature.

This is the situation all Cuban political actors, be they members of the opposition or critics of the system, currently face. It is also the lot of the government which, devoid of any serious competitors, shamelessly puts its shoddy doctrines on display.

The same holds for economists who have the boldness to call for “major surgery”, as Torres does.

To claim that the problem is simply a question of excessive social spending strikes me (at the very least) as something of an unkind statement, particularly when we are dealing with an impoverished and aging population that barely manages to get by on the crumbs they receive as subsidies.

For, even though they know that economic systems invariably have social and political correlates, they must remain silent on those issues.

Not because they are technocrats, per se (they are a bit wiser than that), or supporters of the kind of measures implemented by the International Monetary Fund (they are more sensible than that), but because, in Cuba, they are only authorized to debate about the economy, a debate where social issues figures as collateral damage and the political arena is a mine-field.

It comes as no surprise, then, that an economist of this stature practically glosses over Cuba’s social problems, limiting himself to saying that salaries aren’t enough to live on and that one of the most serious problems faced by the country’s economy is none other than the “disproportionately large spending on social and personal services, from the point of view of both the structure of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and that of workforce.”

That is to say, too much is being spent on the social wellbeing of Cubans.

In a sense, this is true, at least statistically, against the backdrop of a flimsy GDP that isn’t growing. And its impact is exacerbated because such spending is handled with a degree of inefficiency that has already been emphasized by more than one international expert.

However, to claim that the problem is simply a question of excessive spending strikes me (at the very least) as something of an unkind statement, particularly when we are dealing with an impoverished and aging population that barely manages to get by on the crumbs they receive as subsidies.

The majority of Cubans live in overcrowded or ramshackle houses, and this because no social policy aimed at constructing homes for them exists. If the situation isn’t more serious, this is because the population is actually decreasing.

Millions of Cubans are malnourished, have teeth taken out without anesthesia, cannot get their hands on the medication they need, are admitted into hospitals without running water, where food worthy of a Nigerian prison is served, and have children who go to squalid schools with badly-paid teachers.

Thousands of Cuban medical professionals are willing to work deep in the Amazons, not in the manner of Arturo Covas, not to challenge social conventions, but to earn 1,500 dollars a month.

I don’t think they would understand what Torres means with his comments on social overspending. I think, rather, that they are feeling the brutal onslaught of just the opposite, a reduction in social spending that has gone from around 20 % (in 2005) to a bit more than 5 % (2013).

All of this could well have been a mere footnote, were it not for the fact that Torres describes the socio-political panorama surrounding the reform process with startling naivety.

Therefore, the discussion about the future Torres proposes not only has to be broad in terms of participants – no Cuban, living on the island or abroad, should be excluded from the debate against their will – but also in terms of its agenda.

According to him, the reform process “requires a coherent strategic program, to be conceived and implemented on the basis of the active participation of the different actors of our society: the government, citizens, the productive sector, regions, communities, workers and intellectuals (…) This plurality can produce great ideas and the consensus we need to successfully trace Cuba’s path.”

Though well-intentioned, this rhetoric doesn’t help us much. First of all, because what Torres calls “Cuba’s path” does not exist. There are many paths: some are easier to tread than others and, of course, lead to different places.

Unless we are willing to swallow the cocktail of conservative nationalism and pro-market technocratic administration and accept it as a political doxa, we would have to concede that, today, the spaces for consensus are less numerous than those for conflict.

That social actor which Torres calls the “productive sector” – a shameful euphemism used to designate business managers in the process of becoming a national bourgeoisie – will only agree with workers and consumers on one point: that the economy needs to work. But these actors are not likely to see eye to eye when it is a question of deciding what to do with the surplus generated by that working economy.

This is why it is reasonable to assume – and unjustifiable to omit – that these workers, pensioners, consumers, students and others must be furnished with enough rights (of assembly and association, to demonstrate and strike) to confront the rigors of the consensus that Torres considers ought to reduce social spending.

Without the right to protest, without independent representation with which to negotiate, the “strategic program” Torres calls for will be part and parcel of the system of authoritarian domination and the expropriation of rights that the better part of Cuban society endures today. The difference will be that such domination, which is today secured through the political and bureaucratic apparatus, will rely on the inestimable help of the market.

Therefore, the discussion about the future Torres proposes not only has to be broad in terms of participants – no Cuban, living on the island or abroad, should be excluded from the debate against their will – but also in terms of its agenda.

The debate must address the political changes that are needed to ensure that the country’s economic recovery does not become a gangster-like brawl, to the detriment of the social rights of the majority. It would be desirable for Cuban society to arrive at an agreement over some of the basic aspects of the structure of the reform, but it cannot do so within the current political context.

We cannot continue to insist on monolithic unity (even if presented with a few pluralist streaks) or on a consensus founded on the needs of authoritarian governability. We cannot continue to insist on controlled debate or its inevitable corollary: the repression of the nonconformists.

There are many reasons for this. One of them is that an authoritarian regime that curtails freedom of opinion and bridles intellectual work places talented economists such as Torres at the service of the same type of restructuring we have long condemned as technocratic and neo-liberal.
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(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by Cubaencuentro.com.


One thought on “Technocrat Myopia: a Cuban Problem

  • There are many far more serious problems facing the Cuban economy than spending levels. The dual currency system continues to wreak havoc. Production in all industries is characterized by low productivity, awkward distribution channels, scarce supplies, a lack of capital investment, and rampant corruption.

    As Haraldo noted, all of these problems have social and political correlates, which prevent anything serious being done to correct them.

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