US Think Tank View of Raul’s Cuba Today

The following is a review of Philip Peters’ A Viewer’s Guide to Cuba’s Economic Reform.

by Samuel Farber

HAVANA TIMES — This is a comprehensive account of the economic changes that have taken place in Cuba since Raul Castro assumed power that was prepared for the Lexington Institute by Philip Peters, an expert on Cuba.

It describes in detail the economic measures adopted in recent years, ranging from the growth in self-employment to policy changes in agriculture and tax reform, and contains a summary and “A Viewer’s Guide” that groups the changes by economic sector. The appendices include a detailed chronology of those changes.

As informative and useful as it is the report lacks perspective. It doesn’t ask, for example, whether the thousands of tiny businesses that have recently opened in Cuba are conducive to an economic take-off. Peters does not analyze the impact that different policies are likely to have on the Cuban economy.

So, for example, the Cuban government has authorized private farmers to sell directly, without going through the government, to tourist enterprises. This policy may be of greater consequence than the sprouting of thousands of tiny businesses.

Assuming that farmers can acquire the inputs and transportation necessary to take advantage of this opening, this measure could have substantial consequences, such as raising prices for Cuban consumers and encouraging the growth of new prosperous strata of private farmers, truckers, distributors.

The reforms approved at the sixth congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) in 2011 include the possibility for state enterprises to declare bankruptcy and their being privatized or converted into cooperatives, and the freeing up of some prices, which would lead to price competition among state enterprises and private firms. These measures would facilitate large-scale privatization for the benefit of enterprise managers as it happened in many other post-Communist transitions.

In light of these proposed reforms and given Vice President Esteban Lazo’s prediction in April of 2012, that private sector production will grow from five to 40-45 percent of Cuba’s GDP in the next five years, one would expect Philip Peters to have asked what kind of a state and economy is likely to emerge should all these changes be carried out.

Is Cuba going to end with a model similar to Vietnam or China? It is unfortunate that the material so patiently assembled by Peters does not address this issue.

The report is written in a bland tone that plays down any criticism of the regime and places a positive spin, sometimes bordering on cheerleading, on Raul Castro’s reforms. What could pass for a very mild sort of criticism appears in the occasional sections titled “What to Watch?”, and it is often expressed in the form of questions, instead of stating directly what the author really thinks.

So, for example, instead of stating outright that the practice of limiting self-employment to only 178 occupations is a mistaken policy, Peters mildly “asks” whether the government will change its policy and allow for self-employment everywhere except, perhaps, for a certain number of occupations or sectors not open to private initiative. (p13)

When it comes to human rights, Peters becomes even more timid.  For example, he mentions the release of 2,900 common prisoners but does not explain that this is a rather small percentage (4.8%, a figure I calculated based on Cuban government data) of the total number of common prisoners in the island (26).

Cuba is still among the states with the highest rate of imprisonment, just a few countries below the United States, the world’s number 1 jailer. He also has a long section on the media (27-30) where he cites the diversity of views published in the Catholic press, plays up the occasional instances of investigative reporting in the official press and especially the complaints published in the weekly letters section of the PCC daily Granma.

However, he doesn’t even mention the systematic and widespread censorship that is practiced in the official media.

The Ideology Department of the PCC, headed by Central Committee member Rolando Alfonso Borges, “orients” the mass media, whose circulation dwarfs that of the Catholic press, as to what topics to cover and the political line to be followed.

This includes foreign events, such as in Syria, with its uncritical support for Assad, as well as domestic news that, for example, conceal the nature and extent of official scandals involving high government officials as in the case of the state airline Cubana de Aviación.

At the same time, it maintains a total silence about questions of national interest like what happened with the once celebrated fiber optic cable from Venezuela to Cuba, which the government promised it would greatly increase the connectivity of a very deficient system.

Giving credence to Raul Castro’s vaunted opening of the system to allow for public debate, Peters quotes him to the effect that “opposing views, when not antagonistic as in our case, are an engine of development.” This is an oxymoron especially in light of the fact that it is Raul Castro who defines what is and what is not “antagonistic.”

As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, freedom is for those who disagree, and that freedom has very clear limits on the island. Similarly, Peters presents the discussions at meetings that preceded the sixth party congress in April of 2011 in a very favorable light as having allowed for the open airing of grievances.

He does not even consider whether this was a truly democratic process. He ignores that in the first place, the official party media had the exclusive control of what and how to report on what transpired at those meetings; that the people who participated in those discussions had no organization of their own, nor were they allowed to communicate and organize on behalf of their grievances with people participating in discussions in other workplaces.

As a result, the participants confronted the organization of the rulers, that is, the PCC, as isolated groups. Instead of having been a democratic debate, this process was far more akin to a nationwide suggestion box. The PCC leaders responded to the thousands of opinions that the Cuban people submitted to them much like the managers of a capitalist enterprise who implement the suggestions that they find most helpful to run their business.

The report was sponsored by the Lexington Institute, a think tank located in Arlington, Virginia near Washington that seeks to advise the empire’s policy makers, particularly on military and defense matters. A look at the Institute’s website displays works on matters such as “Modernizing the Department of Homeland Security Aerial Fleets” and “Should the Chinese Be Allowed to Buy Hawker Beechcraft?

The author of the report, Philip Peters, is Vice President of the Institute, and an advisor to the Cuba Working Group of the House of Representatives. Before joining Lexington, Peters served as a State Department appointee of Presidents Reagan and Bush and as a senior aide in the House of Representatives.  This is very good and very bad news.

It is good news because it suggests that sections of the empire’s policy advisers no longer fear the blackmail of the Cuban-American right wing and have stopped justifying the criminal economic blockade among other aggressive actions taken by the U.S. against Cuba.

It is bad news because this group apparently supports a Cuban transition oriented towards liberalization, especially of the economic system, with political concessions for elite circles such as secular and Catholic intellectuals, and is at best, unconcerned and, one expects, hostile to the democratization of the economy – in the sense of worker self-management – and the polity – in the sense of freedom to organize politically, abolishing the one-party state, and creating a truly open and democratic mass, and not merely elite, media.

The politics of the Lexington Institute is bound to carry weight if an end of the blockade is brought about not as a result of a principled recognition of Cuba’s right to self-determination against foreign interference but, much more likely, as the outcome of a real-politik negotiated transition from above between Washington and a Cuban government probably headed by Raul Castro’s assigned successors.
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(*) Samuel Farber, the author of this review, was born and raised in Cuba and is the author of many books and articles dealing with that country. His most recent book is Cuba Since The Revolution of 1959. A Critical Assessment  (Haymarket Books, 2011).

 


6 thoughts on “US Think Tank View of Raul’s Cuba Today

  • August 8, 2012 at 5:04 am
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    The Lexington Institute report is a classic example of propaganda which is what Havana Times writer Samuel Farber is pointing out. It can be characterised as ‘honest propaganda’, containing no untruths, only selective facts, requiring a careful reading as Farber has done. The Lexington Institute, can be viewed as an ideological ad agency – propaganda for pay.

    Quoting Wikipedia, “The Lexington Institute has been called the “defense industry’s pay-to-play ad agency” and ” Media citations frequently note that Lexington staffers have ties to military contractors”. One of its founders, Loren Thompson, has stated, “I’m not going to work on a project unless somebody, somewhere, is willing to pay.”

    Significantly, Wiki notes, “The institute’s employees are quoted frequently in national media. In 2008 it was rated as the 21st most widely cited think tank in terms of media visibility, although relative to the size of its budget it has been rated as high as number two in the nation.”

    Consequently, one should not be surprised at the current mindset in the general US population. ‘Michael N. Landis’ writes, ” I found Peters’s report cogent and insightful” and ‘bjmack’ states, “I read Mr. Peters’ blog and Havana Times’ blog twice daily. I feel both are the ‘tops'”. Propaganda works. The best way to approach it is to fill in the blanks – take note of what has been omitted. This is what Farber has done.

    He starts by giving credit where credit is due, writing ” This is a comprehensive account of the economic changes that have taken place in Cuba since Raul Castro assumed power.” The rest of Farber’s article tells us what is NOT in the Lexington Institute report:

    – The report “lacks perspective. It doesn’t ask, for example, whether the thousands of tiny businesses that have recently opened in Cuba are conducive to an economic take-off. Peters does not analyze the impact that different policies are likely to have on the Cuban economy.”

    – “One would expect Philip Peters to have asked what kind of a state and economy is likely to emerge should all these changes be carried out.” Is Cuba going to end with a model similar to Vietnam or China? It is unfortunate that the material so patiently assembled by Peters does not address this issue.

    – “The report is written in a bland tone that plays down any criticism of the regime and places a positive spin, sometimes bordering on cheerleading.”

    – “When it comes to human rights, Peters becomes even more timid. For example, he mentions the release of 2,900 common prisoners but does not explain that this is a rather small percentage.”

    – “The report “doesn’t even mention the systematic and widespread censorship that is practiced in the official media.”

    Farber is pointing out how the report, emanating from a capitalist, defence industry pandering organisation, is soft-pedalling criticism of a government it would cheerfully see disappear and several of its clients would advocate violently overthrowing. What’s going on? He tells us, in his final paragraph:

    “The politics of the Lexington Institute is bound to carry weight if an end of the blockade is brought about not as a result of a principled recognition of Cuba’s right to self-determination against foreign interference but, much more likely, as the outcome of a real-politik negotiated transition from above between Washington and a Cuban government probably headed by Raul Castro’s assigned successors.”

    Thank-you, Samuel Farber, for deconstructing for us a misleading piece of propaganda. Intelligence trumps propaganda every time. Be aware.

  • August 7, 2012 at 5:18 pm
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    I read Mr. Peters’ blog and Havana Times’ blog twice daily. I feel both are the “tops” in any blog topic or
    discussion. I downloaded Cuba’s Entrepreneurs piece, read it, and thought it was excellent. Look, we don’t have the way withal to get a 100% birds eye view of exactly what is going on in Cuba. This is quite a difficult
    task but Mr. Peters continues to give us as much information, not his but various sources, to enlighten me.
    So I feel he did a very good job of interpreting, as best as possible, what’s going on in Cuba.
    BMcM

  • August 7, 2012 at 11:51 am
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    I found Peters’s report cogent and insightful, (This is one of the few times I agree with you, Moses!) although I think Lawrence W’s warnings are valid, too. The best policy the government could follow would be to arrive at an, err, synthesis of the two…neither embracing the “Wild West” capitalism now predominate, nor the near arterio-sclerottic stasis which characterized much of the government’s (in-)actions during the past 23 years–or 40+ years, for that matter!. Although I, too, am suspicicious of the foundation which sponsored his research, I am also aware that Peters is pretty bright.; folks like him have been known to evolve towards a more intelligent position. There are many examples of this (the earliest I remember being Gen. Smedley Butler, from the 1930’s; current examples include Paul Craig Roberts (former Asst. Sec’y. of the Treasury under Reagan, and a former editor of the Wall Street Journal). Of course Philip Peters probably won’t go that far; Still, he must realize that the military-industrial complex is out of control, its expenditures unsustainable, and that, in the end, its policies will ultimately lead to the destruction the Republic.
    To return to the topic of the Peters’s “Guide…”, I think it is imperative that Cuba receive an infusion of capital to create wealth–and jobs. That conditons be set for such an infusion are desirable, but also, such conditions must not discourage investments, especially the right sort of investments. Such a policy should aim for “The Golden Mean.”

  • August 7, 2012 at 9:38 am
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    I watched a documentary yesterday, “The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby”. It was made by Colby’s son so it’s point of view can be forgiven when dealing with the head of the CIA during its infamous “Phoenix” program, responsible for terrorism, torture, and assassinations – clandestine policies referred to as the CIA’s “family jewels’ by insiders. As the son of Colby, the filmmaker gained access to the major players in US government for Vietnam policy – the ones still alive that is.

    One of the fascinating aspects of the film was, in the interviews, recently filmed, these cold warriors continued to spout the same rhetoric that has been totally discredited – proudly describing counterinsurgency tactics that were a fiasco, the “secure hamlets” program to “protect” villages that relocated them and became indistinguishable from concentration camps, winning the “hearts and minds” of the peasants by torching their homes, etc. etc.

    And this morning I read an American’s solutions for Cuba’s woes: to “attract greater foreign capitol” in order to “bring about any real change”, like in Greece and Spain I suppose with economies in total collapse. And the best foreign capitol would be that coming from Cuban expats, the gusanos responsible for acts of terrorism, no doubt. Of course travel reform is required to allow “Cubans” (Americans of Cuban descent, that is) to “come and go freely bringing with them the much needed capital to invest in Cuban infrastructure”, just like the old days under Batista. “Hong Kong investment in Red China” (the ‘Red” prefix is really old cold war school ) is like saying “New York investment in the US” as Hong Kong actually belongs to China now. Thinking never changes in US cold warriors’ hearts it seems, the ones responsible for maintaining 50-year embargos, for example.

    Coming out of the movie house, I felt like I had just spent an hour and a half in another reality zone, where black is white and white is black. And now the feeling is back. Commonly referred to as delusional thinking, whether its believed or not by its citizens, as the saying goes, would you buy a used car from someone who thinks like this, let alone solutions to economic problems?

  • August 7, 2012 at 7:26 am
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    I found the report to be well-constructed and a true reflection of the challenges still facing the Cuban economy. Farber’s criticism’s are too harsh. This report was careful to not overreach in analyzing the impacts of Raul’s reforms. Any speculation about the impact of the reforms implemented or proposed is highly contingent upon the pace of the implementation. To date. most of the reforms have taken place at a such a slow pace that their impact is still negligible. It is abundantly more clear that the Cuban economy must attract greater foreign capitol investment to grow at a pace to bring about any real change or to at least stave off impending economic disaster. The cheapest, most sympathetic and patient foreign capital is that which would come from Cuban expats. To this end, immigration reform is the most pressing issue facing the Castro dictatorship. Not surprisingly, travel reform is also the most delayed of the promised reforms. When Cubans can come and go freely bringing with them the much needed capital to invest in Cuban infrastructure, foreign investment will have its greatest impact on the island. Hong Kong investment in Red China and Vietnamese expat investment in Vietnam are perfect models of this fact. Critics will say that with this outside investment will undoubtedly come the dreaded “capitalist” infection of greed and exploitation as well. I argue that it is already there.

  • August 6, 2012 at 5:41 am
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    I agree with Farber, “the report lacks perspective” or more accurately, is written from the perspective of a rightwing think tank that “receives substantial funding from military contractors” according to Wikipedia and not surprisingly is ” hardline on military issues”, “favors a strong national defense” and “market-driven solutions to domestic policy challenges”. Hardly a friend to the Revolution as Farber points out

    Is there really any “good news”, however, as he asserts when the Revolution’s enemies support Cuba’s economic reforms? It’s more like a big warning about the dangerous nature of grabbing the tail of the capitalist tiger in order to get a quick ride to financial well being. It reminds me of Israeli Jews who welcome the support of evangelical Christians for Israel and its occupation, ignoring they expect Jews to ultimately convert to Christianity or be destroyed.

    Real-politik will cause capitalists to drool over the “updating” of Cuba’s economic policies but it’s well-known what uninhibited lust leads to – rape.

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