Cuba in transition'

Published : Feb 11, 2011 00:00 IST

Carlos Alzugaray Treto:"The government prefers to describe it as an 'updating' of the economy." - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Carlos Alzugaray Treto:"The government prefers to describe it as an 'updating' of the economy." - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Interview with Professor Carlos Alzugaray Treto, Cuban diplomat and academic.

PROFESSOR Carlos Alzugaray Treto, who is one of Cuba's leading foreign affairs experts, was in India in early January. He has held important diplomatic assignments and is currently Professor at the Centre for Hemispheric and United States Studies (CEHSEU) at the University of Havana. In this interaction with Frontline he emphasised that Cuba, far from being isolated, now has more friends and allies in the region and the world.

In recent months, Cuba has been in the news for the measures that President Raul Castro introduced to streamline the economy. However, the country's hopes of improved ties with the United States under the Obama administration seem to have been belied. Excerpts from the interview:

What are your views on the wide-ranging economic reforms that the Cuban government announced last year?

It is interesting that you use the word reforms. For some reason we do not want to use the word reforms, but I think what we are seeing is reforms although the Cuban government prefers to describe it as an updating of the economy. We have reached a point where we have realised that the amalgam of different policies that we have adopted over the years in a very eclectic, conjectural and romantic way has led to the creation of something like a Frankenstein of socialism.

This does not mean that issues of social justice, equality, etc., have not been taken into consideration. All the measures have been taken with that aim in sight and with the aim of reinforcing socialism. But they have not functioned as we thought they should have, and this is the key to the issue. What we have is a system entrapped in a number of prohibitions that the governmental bureaucracy has created.

Rufo Caballero, the young art critic and intellectual who died recently, had written an article on the process of letting people out. He pointed out the problems that, as he described, led to the illusion of under-employment. He was addressing the criticism of some people who say that you are putting 500,000 people on the street. Caballero wrote that the criticism was not valid as the state was paying for people who are not working.

These people were making a small amount of money as salary, which they finish in a couple of days and the rest of the month they do not work in the place they are supposed to and instead try to solve problems on the side. So let's face it, two million people are doing the work that can be done by 500,000.

Caballero talks about the importance of micro businesses. After all, what creates wealth is work. If you are going to work you will create wealth. We have a socialist anarchic system that is not working. What Raul Castro is doing is not just rearranging the furniture. He is throwing out what is not needed. We have achieved a lot since the revolution. But there were things that should have been done differently. Fidel [Castro] in his definition of revolution starts off by saying that it means changing everything that has to be changed, but Rufo in his last article said the word revolution had lost its content. He wrote that revolution has now become conservation. What the government is trying to do is getting rid of a bunch of things that were very correct at the time that they were implemented.

What is the main purpose of the changes being instituted?

The main purpose first is to make the economy function efficiently. As Rufo said, and I agree, the government cannot be expected to concurrently run a steel mill and a banana chips factory. Let the government concentrate on the steel mill and let others produce the banana chips. This is more or less what the Cuban government wants to do. Reforms are not being introduced to destroy socialism or embrace capitalism. It is to find a balance between central planning and the market.

In the philosophy that existed in Cuba in the 1960s, the belief that we could ignore the market was very strong. Now we have come to realise that we cannot do that. I do not like the market. The market does not create equality or fairness. But the market is the market. You need the market to be efficient, and then you use central planning to redistribute the wealth. But first you must produce. Of course, Che Guevara had strongly criticised market forces, but I believe if he were alive today he would have admitted he was wrong.

The emphasis now would be on the state constricting itself to planning the economy and managing only what it has to manage. The second is to separate the party from managerial functions. The party cannot control and at the same time manage. Fidel in the 1970s had criticised the involvement of the party in both the administration and the management of enterprises.

Another important trend is decentralisation. The management of the resources of the state are going to be redistributed. Local governments will be involved. Local government is closest to the citizens. Cuban legislation till now has not encouraged initiatives at the local level. The state should encourage cooperatives and small businesses at the local level. Most people are thinking about ways of getting jobs. We should go from micro enterprises to small and medium-level enterprises. That will have social and personal benefits for the people. That is the idea of the reforms.

If you can solve social problems and make some money out of it, nobody is going to object. Nobody is going to be a millionaire by opening a restaurant. The government is encouraging such activities. I am told that the model is close to the Vietnamese model, but the idea is not to copy anybody's model but simply to be rational.

Cuba is still in a period of transition from capitalism to socialism. There should be benchmarks on the acquisition of property. If enterprises start making more than a million pesos as profit, the government should step in not take over as a partner. In the past, we went from one extreme to the other. But the government has a role in ensuring that enterprises do not turn into sweatshops.

Many people think that the move is going to be difficult. Our people are accustomed to a paternalistic state and [expect] that the state will provide the money for the creation of new business. Banks should be able to provide short-term credit. The tendency is to open up many avenues without the government giving up the commanding heights. The commanding heights of the economy have to be in the hands of the state. I cannot imagine public services not being under the government.

Is Havana disillusioned with the Obama administration?

I don't think that we had illusions. But we are convinced that Obama had opportunities which he didn't use. As somebody said, he didn't miss the opportunity to miss the opportunity. I am of the opinion that at least some people in his government wanted to change the policy on Cuba. What is evident is that the U.S. policy on Cuba is based on two objectives. The main objective is regime change. They have no other policy. They only want to overthrow the Cuban government. Only the Carter administration was an exception. President Carter had issued a directive that stated that normalising ties was the priority.

The second objective was what the Americans call containment. This was first formulated by John F. Kennedy, who decreed that there would be no more Cubas in the western hemisphere. But if you now look at Latin America, there are more Cubas. So they have failed in that objective too.

Hillary Clinton, shortly after taking office, publicly recognised that this policy was a failure. At the same time, she said there was going to be a review of the policy. Shortly after that, President Obama, in the summit of the Americas in Trinidad, talked of a new beginning. He did take some marginal measures. The most important marginal measure was his revoking of President Bush's order prohibiting Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba except once every three years. Now, a Cuban American can travel to Cuba as many times as he wants to. He also lifted the ban on remittances to Cuba. These must be recognised as positive steps.

However, these steps did not address fundamental issues. Obama was only trying to please his Cuban American support base. The American media interpreted those actions as gestures towards Cuba. It was a gesture to that section of Cuban Americans who were unhappy with Bush's extremist measures against Cuba. These measures don't go to the heart of the conflict, which is the economic blockade against Cuba. They don't recognise that Cuba is a normal country with which they should have normal relations.

The other important aspect is the behaviour of the U.S. towards Cuba, as if it has the right to interfere in its internal affairs. It wants to lead and organise the opposition to get the Cuban government out of the way. This is not going to happen. We know through the WikiLeaks cables about U.S. interference in our internal affairs.

The interesting thing is that at some point in 2009 Obama told the Spanish Prime Minister [Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero] that it was Cuba's turn now to respond to the marginal measures his administration had taken. The important American think tank the Brookings Institute had advised the Obama administration not to demand concessions from the Cuban government on the basis of marginal measures. But the funny thing is that the Cuban government in the interim had taken some steps, including the release of political prisoners, and had taken other steps, which from Washington's point of view could be termed as market reforms. This is what Washington has been demanding. So actually the ball right now is in their court. They have to decide what to do.

I have argued that it is now time to forget about the U.S. We simply tell them that we don't care about what they are doing. Cuba should do whatever has to be done whether it pleases the U.S. or not.

If you listen to some of Raul's speeches and the recent speech of the Cuban Foreign Minister [Bruno Eduardo Rodrguez Parrilla] in the [United Nations] General Assembly, I feel that Cuba is moving in that direction. In one of Raul Castro's recent speeches, he addressed the issue of relations with the U.S. He said Obama had done nothing but he did not say it with bitterness. And he said in a previous speech that the blockade should not be used as an excuse for not performing but should be used as an excuse to do things well.

But Cubans will continue to denounce the illegality of the blockade, demand the release of the Cuban Five and the prosecution of Orlando Bosch and Posada Carriles [both wanted in Cuba on terrorism charges but at present in the U.S.]. But we don't want our foreign policy to be hostage to these issues.

I don't see the Obama administration changing course in the next two years. Obama is thinking of re-election but there is a trend towards improving the people-to-people relationship. The right-wing Republicans in the new Congress will try to stop this, but their ability to hurt will not be as much as it was under the Bush administration. Once the Americans realise that the Cuban economy is growing, they know that they will have a stake in normalising relations. This is my prediction. I am ready to take that risk.

What are the prospects for Latin American integration?

Integration processes are very messy. You see what is happening to the E.U. [European Union]. There is a surfeit of integration models on offer in Latin America. There is ALBA [Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas], there is UNASUR [Union of South American Nations], and other groupings. Generally, the right wing in the region is emphasising the disintegration process in Latin America, but we have seen over the last 10 years a political will to create effective integration organisations.

The problem with integration is that there are strong obstacles. For integration to take place there is need for sustainable political will. If there is a change in government the will for cooperation should continue. ALBA has identified the areas where integration is possible. Integration cannot happen if citizens of each country don't see the benefits of integration because the forces of national sovereignty can be very strong.

What the Venezuelan and Cuban governments are doing is first emphasising energy cooperation. Pooling social benefits is the number one priority. The idea of introducing a single currency is very good but very difficult to implement, as the Europeans know. The Europeans took their time to introduce the euro. Cuba and Venezuela constitute the hard core of ALBA. We have created institutions but ALBA has to move on to more integral projects. Integration means a pooling of sovereignty. The Summit of Latin American Presidents takes place regularly but institutions have to be created to implement them.

The Canadian government, with which Cuba historically had a stable relationship, seems to have taken a rightward swing. Has it affected relations with Cuba?

It is a right-wing government but relations are very good. The relationship between Canada and Cuba, in my opinion, is not a government relationship but a state relationship. In a state relationship, the role of civil society is very important. Economic interests that have developed over the years have become strong and cannot be changed.

Canada has become a very important economic partner after the U.S. imposed an economic blockade on Cuba. We found a market for our produce in Canada. In Canada, we could buy spare parts for American machinery after the blockade was imposed, despite the fact that the Canadian government was under a conservative Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker. The Canadian Prime Minister told the American President, Dwight Eisenhower, that he would go on doing business with Cuba.

The only thing Diefenbaker promised to the Americans was that he would not allow Cuba to buy American products in Canada, but sometimes he looked the other way. Then came the collaboration with the Canadian company Sherrit in the mining of nickel. Today a representative of Cuba sits on its board of directors. Today Sheritt has diversified into metals, tourism and oil.

Canada has also become the most important partner of Cuba in tourism. Of the two million tourists who come to Cuba every year, 800,000 are Canadians. This is two per cent of the Canadian population. Canadians may admire things American but they want to preserve their identity.

One way Canadian nationalism is reinforced is through Cuba. The interesting thing is that the present [Stephen] Harper government, which is a right-wing government, has continued the cooperation. It has not happened as it had happened in the 1980s, when there was a temporary impasse in relations after the Liberal government was succeeded by a Conservative government.

Canada is one of the Western countries with a strong civil society in the real sense. The world of Canadian NGOs is quite progressive and they have a lot of influence in government. Besides, Canada being a federal state, the provincial governments have their own agendas. Canada acts very carefully with Cuba. It is obvious that it has the same position as the U.S. on the issue of democracy, human rights, etc., but it handles the issue in a very diplomatic and professional way, unlike many E.U. states that make a big hue and cry.

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