Why update instead of reform the Cuban economy?
News from Cuba | Sunday, 26 December 2010
Interview in Juventud Rebelde by José Alejandro Rodríguez
Economist Hugo Pons sees the recently begun transformation of the Cuban economy as a process of continuity and discontinuity that has brought us to where we are now.
“We are producing a bonsai in this small island,” economist Hugo Pons tells me when I try to understand the movement that has begun in the Cuban economy. The surprising reply, with its attached symbolism, takes us into a colloquial labyrinth.
Who is talking and musing? The professor who heads the economics department of the University of Havana? The researcher? Or the specialist in the consultancy group CANEC? Perhaps the vice president of the National Association of Economists and Accountants of Cuba? All of them together in one unhurried person, partial to conceptual thinking.
Hugo explains the metaphor: “A bonsai is seemingly poor and insignificant because of its small size, but it has an attractive uniqueness; a very strong individuality. We are in a unique process that arises from our origins and destiny; from the culture, history and identity of this country.”
This inquisitive interviewer plays along with the allegorical style of the interviewee, and wonders whether we didn’t spend a long time grafting the Siberian birch and spruce trees to the "trunk" of the Cuban economy before we considered updating it.
But Hugo surprises me again with his dialectic vision of the road traveled for more than 50 years. “I see it as a permanent process of continuity and discontinuity. We have been growing the bonsai as a unique species since 1959, a truly revitalizing experiment that, setback after setback, advances and retreats included, always produced a strange little tree in the forest of the global economy.
“Looking back, but without censure or rancor over the ups and downs of the Cuban economy, they appear as stages or moments in the long history of the discontinuity and continuity we have gone through. The bonsai is created by meticulously cutting and pruning the branches and roots that limit its development. Many roots and branches, due to circumstances, have been cut out in successive processes of change.”
- When you look back, don’t you think we delayed too long in making these changes?
- You can only say that this or that could have been done if we succeeded in doing it later. When I look back, I try to see what has been achieved; likewise, when I look ahead, I see the things that need to be done. When you look back, you realize that this country has been caught in a crossfire three times and in need of restructuring the foundation of its economy and production. In the early 1960s, after the falling out with the United States, we had to reorient ourselves toward the resources of the European socialist camp and its particular scientific and technological sphere. In 1972, when we joined the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), we institutionalized our economic relations with that system. With the collapse of real socialism came the great loneliness of the bonsai and we were now alone in contending with our virtues, our defects and ourselves.
- There are those of would prefer to forget those harsh years of the Special Period.
- I think that the Special Period will always be remembered not only for the harm it caused but also as a critical event that brought us to where we are. It needs to be scientifically studied as well as remembered so that it does not happen again. One of its most serious effects was the deterioration of institutions, the destruction of ties among the leadership bodies, including the Ministry of Economy and Planning and businesses. There was a certain urgency to preserve the business system, strengthening centralization. This was not always a mistake, but a necessity. The problem occurs when it spreads beyond the boundaries of historical necessity.
You see, for me the Special Period was a demonstration of the immense capacity we had for surviving together the many challenges in spite of the price everyone had to pay. It was also part of the long process of discontinuity and continuity.
- By the way, you mentioned the process of rectification of errors and negative tendencies in the late 1980s as a special moment in the evolution of the bonsai. Although it may seem like speculation, where do you think we would be had it not been for the collapse of European socialism?
- The process of rectification of errors and negative tendencies set a pattern because it identified aspects of economy policy and its tools that did not fit our character and identity and the possibilities of developing our bonsai. It clarified many errors. It allowed us to consider many motivating factors in the productive process relating to the utilization of labor and labor’s active participation. It stimulated the linkage of wages and results; it criticized weaknesses in the investment process; and in general, condemned any tendency to copy from other realities. Where would we have gotten? We would have come much closer to the reality that we are now proposing. I think that at least we would have come close to an ideal formula for the redistribution of wealth.
- Do you find some connection between the process of rectification of errors and the modernization of the economic model that has failed in Cuba?
- One has tried transformation to preserve socialism as much as the other, but in very different historical contexts.
- Why has European socialism been unable to resolve its own contradictions?
- I always think about what motivated that process. The essence of the problem is that they did not know how to interpret the interests of the society they were building. They did not get to the roots, to the essence of the cultural and historical uniqueness.
Attachment to the power of the USSR caused considerable damage as well as not having a realistic understanding of the USSR’s ability as a power to compete with capitalism. Denying the realities of capitalism and hiding the advances of science, technology and culture in other realities was also really damaging.
- Why is it, do you think, that the process Cuba is now undertaking is presented as updating the economic model and not as a reform?
- First, I suggest that you ponder the timeliness of this reflection of Marti: “Only that which is genuine is fruitful. Only the direct is powerful. Whatever comes from others is like a warmed over delicacy. It is up to each person to reconstruct their own lives; once you look within yourself, you reconstruct your life.”
Furthermore, we acknowledged the exhaustion of the imitative model in the late 1980s through the process of rectification of errors. We are now in a process of change, but it can never be identified with the reforms of others because it will be done without undermining the basis of socialism and its ideology, without modifying the preponderant relations of production.
- Doesn’t the process of updating the economic model assume that what we think will be needed tomorrow will later be inoperable? Doesn’t this imply the need for permanent revision?
- Nothing is more like the work of doctor than the process of managing the economy. The economy is the patient. When economists analyze a situation, they work out a diagnosis, and based on the diagnosis they must issue a set of professional orders; the prescription. Then what happens in the behavior of the patient -- which is the economy -- must be monitored.
In practical terms, there are no watertight compartments in the economy. The solution to today’s problems does not have to be the same one tomorrow. I am always going to manage, correct and take action.
- How can this be applied to our socialism?
- There is an aspirational side to our socialism because this system is the only one that is built on will and conscience. It requires planning. Strategy is what you wish to attain in the long term; policy is the set of actions taken to resolve problems in carrying out that strategy. The management model is the mechanism you use to back up the policies that make the strategy work. This interaction must be organic and coherent, but at the same time progressive. Except for Marxists, we know that there never are definitive solutions.
- Some think they see a before and after in the Guidelines of the Party Congress and in the latest speech by Raúl in the National Assembly of Peoples Power.
- I think we are seeing a period of renewed confidence in the Revolution due to the precision with which problems are being identified and addressed and because that identification comes from popular opinion; from the needs and goals of the majority; from the dialectical and flexible manner that characterizes this process without having to abandon essential principals.
For me the WHAT in the Guidelines is the strategic transformation that we need. The HOW are the instruments to update our economic model. The WHEN is the time line by which we go about defining our gains. The WHO is the most important: the people, our people who will always be the guarantee.
That ability to identify, analyze and develop will be the guarantee to the extent that the construction of socialism responds to the majority of the population. Socialism is built upon will and that will has to be educated, developed and preserved. That is the only way to keep the bonsai alive and healthy.