In Cuba we must have a serious and profound debate about inequality

Este artículo forma parte de la serie: 

Interview with the Cuban economist, professor and researcher Ricardo Torres*

*Ricardo Torres Pérez: Doctor of Economic Sciences (University of Havana), deputy director and Professor of the Center for Studies on the Cuban Economy (CEEC). He lectured at universities and research centers in various countries of Europe, Asia, Latin America and the United States and has published several articles on structural transformation, industrial policies, and the process of transformation of the Cuban economic model, in Cuban and foreign books and journals. Dr. Torres Pérez has a column on Cuban economic issues in the journal Progreso Semanal and heads the Quarterly Economic Report about Cuba published in the Econolatin Network.


Fernando Luis Rojas (FLR): In your view, what makes today’s socialism different from the one that Cuba needs?

Ricardo Torres Pérez (RTP): To begin with, socialism to me is the name given in the 19th century to the hope of living in a more just society. The rest is nothing but specific experiences or expressions of countries that tried to put it into practice, as in the case of the so-called “real socialism”, which were not exactly successful. I say this because there is a trend towards putting socialism on a level with the history of the Soviet Union or other Eastern European countries. Those are specific experiences, but not a reference to understand socialism.

Now, the Cuban case has two clear debts with the ideal of a new society. One is the development of productive forces, in my opinion the crucial one. Proof of that is the current intention to change our model. We have made reforms in the past, and it’s only natural, but in fact Raúl Castro spoke in 2007 about structural changes, an indication that we are not talking about minor adjustments to the model, but a significant reform, at least in the way it is conceived.

The development of the productive forces cannot be analyzed as just another goal of a system proclaimed as a valid alternative. In this regard, socialism replaced capitalism, but failed to surpass it. While capitalist development breeds contradiction and inequality both within and among countries, it has been capable of boosting the productive forces in hitherto unparalleled ways and proved to be more flexible and adaptable than other socioeconomic formations. Capitalism has a longer history, but the dynamism it showed since day one helped it become the dominant system.

Socialism in Cuba must foster economic development at such a pace that takes it closer to the best international experiences, or else it will never become a real alternative for the country.

The other big debt has to do with the how, namely the exercise of political power and citizens’ real participation in decision-making. There are many reasons that explain the way our political system works, but what’s certain is that it fails to ensure our citizens’ real participation in decision-making, sparking complaints from citizens about their degree of representation. Socialism aims to liberate human beings in every respect, and political engagement is the key to overcome individual alienation. You cannot build a viable socialism without significant progress in that regard. I don’t think that without increased social engagement in decision-making or effective control over their governmental institutions, people will be less alienated than they are under capitalism. Intrinsic as they are to the outcome that should be expected from this model, these matters cannot be merely seen as an end, but also as a means. This is in contradiction with the discourse about breaking down barriers and liberating the human being by doing things in a different way. How can one thing be achieved without the other?

I also believe that we become highly anxious in Cuba when we address topics like democracy, political power, political engagement, etc. Sometimes it seems as if some of these terms were sequestered and we refuse to talk openly about them.

On the other hand, I think that we have overused the argument that the configuration of the Cuban political system is the result of the United States’ ever-present aggression, no doubt a reason why the implementation has often been deformed, but hardly the only one. The confrontation between both countries, so different from each other in terms of economic, military, political and ideological power, forces us to be very cautious about national security and imposes many restrictions. But when it comes to giving way to political debate and much more open, wide-ranging and plural participation in decision-making and even the election of representatives at every level, that is not the only element involved, nor can it be the only argument to explain the problem.

Today’s Cuban society is much more plural, diverse and heterogeneous. Some may not like this situation, but it is a fact. Our political system must be willing to represent such diversity. If it chooses to remain on the sidelines, we will risk facing greater and more solid alienation. Cuba’s overall diversity must be represented at the level of State and government, and not only by its representatives but also in the decision-making process. The government is not the only entity that makes decisions, and when it does it must consider its citizens’ views and get them involved as befits their heterogeneity and even the multiplicity of political interests that exist in our society.

Socialism spoke of giving power back to the working class. Well, that is quite different from concentrating power in the bureaucracy, in the civil servants and even in the Party, summoned to be the vanguard of society. All these groups represent, if you will, much wider sectors, except that the representative cannot be more important than the represented. Whatever reinforces such a deformation is a deviation from the original idea and hampers the model’s sustainability. The day will come when the represented will feel so ostracized that they will no longer be motivated to fight for that system. This dynamic is particularly important to the new generations.

There is no such thing as a perfect society, but every social group creates its own interests. If total consent proves impossible to achieve, at least we should try then to make sure that everybody has their interests represented and there are mechanisms to control that no group has more power than the others.

Carolina García Salas (CGS): You mentioned the development of productive forces as one of socialism’s big debts. How is this influenced by the conceptions and practices related to property, the management of the means of production and the market?

This topic is at the heart of what we know as socioeconomic formations. The structure of property defines the rest of the categories and cannot be analyzed in isolation from a specific historical moment because it is contingent on the correlation of forces unleashed within a given context.

There are different views about this topic, some of them quite naïve, others less so. On one hand, a direct correspondence was virtually established between socialism or communism and total control over the means of production across the economic system and at all times. A more flexible stance holds that there will be heterogeneity during the transition to socialism from the viewpoint of the forms of ownership coexisting within the system.

I think the structure of property deemed to be inherent to socialism should be understood as the means to reach the system’s ultimate ends. If a certain configuration won’t secure those ends or help us get closer to them, it should be replaced with another one that will. We very often mistake the means for the ends. In our case, we did so at some point. That dominion over social ownership was achieved very quickly, perhaps breaking an essential sequence. Of course, our relations with the United States had an influence, as did the role played by the Cuban bourgeoisie whose survival and progress were so interlaced with that of their American counterparts that they ended up favoring their interests over Cuba’s own. But it’s extremely important to be able to fully understand the specific circumstances of each historical period. What worked for Cuba in 1968 can’t be expected to be good today. My personal opinion is that one reason for the limited success of our economic model is precisely the structure of property that prevailed in the early years of the Revolution. Some will say that it was in response to the need for political survival or national security, maybe so. I say that it won’t guarantee the development of productive forces and, therefore, it compromises the model’s success. 

We cannot approach this matter with dogmatic ideas like, “Otherwise, it is not socialism”. Right now we have discussions in Cuba about the heterogeneous forms of property in our economic system. Other types of ownership and management have developed in the last seven years, mainly in the non-state sector. This means that society recognizes the role that this sector must play in our economic model and, in turn, to the social, effective, real, economic and productive recognition of its specific contribution to the development of productive forces, which is far from over at this moment in time.

Of course, another much debated question is the implication of accepting a large private sector in a country bent on building socialism, considering, for instance, that it could eventually challenge our political power in many ways.

Foto: Randdy Fundora/Temas.

FLR: What does a large private sector mean?

RTP: You should always have a benchmark, and in this case, of course, what does large mean? Let’s suppose that it’s something much larger than what we have today.

This leads to another question: what’s the best combination of forms of property that an underdeveloped country like Cuba should have in the 21st century? Nobody knows that. What should be the proportion and the key indicator to define it? What do we use to measure it: rate of employment, added value, contribution to the central budget, real family income?

I will give you an example: nowadays the whole non-state sector accounts for 30% of formal employment. How much does it contribute to the total income of the Cuban families? I’m sure that it’s more, because salaries are in fact less than half of total income. And I mean the total formal income reported by the National Bureau of Statistics and Information (ONEI).

So we must start talking about it and ask ourselves what experiences will actually define the qualities we want to see in that sector, and make certain decisions from there. We could also take stock of our fixed assets and use it as a basis to establish everyone’s share and set their limits. But the truth is, we don’t know, and it’s difficult to establish this through administrative measures. Therefore, “large” means larger and much more important than it is now.

In the last few years, our still erratic regulatory framework has witnessed the emergence of a dynamic non-state sector. Our present conditions reveal that its role or contribution has not become exhausted yet. Despite all the primitive regulations, obstacles and problems facing it, that sector outgrew and created more jobs than all the others in the Cuban economy. The state sector reduced by one million the number of jobs between 2009 and 2016, which, incidentally, was not caused only by the so-called process of streamlining, but because some people quit, emigrated or retired voluntarily. But the absolute figures reveal that the state sector has one million less employees, whereas the private sector has created over half a million net jobs. This net figure is negative even in the cooperative sector because agricultural cooperatives have lost more jobs than the non-agricultural cooperatives have created.

So I believe that what prevails is a very ideological and political view about the role to be played by the non-state sector, and everything we do to stand in its way will hinder the development of productive forces. Saying that we want to develop the productive forces and accelerate economic growth while we put obstacles in that sector’s way is a contradiction.

The new model, which will not appear overnight, will have to allow the private and cooperative sectors to play a much more important role. It’s a historical need of contemporary socioeconomic development. We have taken here all sorts of precautions about the non-state sector, but I repeat that it seems impossible to talk seriously about development at the same time that we restrain that sector.

As we speak, the foreign investors have greater opportunities to operate in Cuba than the Cuban entrepreneurs themselves. No country has developed with such imbalance. Cuban socialism has to promote the best use of our own resources, factors and workforce as well as domestic saving, lest it become nonviable or end up being something quite different from the reference ideal.

This is even more complex from the viewpoint of social ownership, because, is public property in Cuba truly social? I doubt it. Here we go back to the issue of participation and the effective control of the represented over the representatives. Social property in Cuba has been essentially state-managed; there’s a gap between who the nominal and formal owner of those means of production is and those who actually make decisions about their use. The workers are barely involved in that process, not to mention, by the way, that they are not the only ones who should decide on the means of production, because these belong to the entire people. That is how it is laid down in the Constitution.

The debate would also delve into the type of social property that we have and whether it’s really social or rather a means of bureaucratic control that State and government officials use over the means of production. Not even the segment supposedly related to social ownership is fully fulfilling its role, which includes empowering the employees. Other questions arise as well: do you really need to have absolute and thorough control over all or most of the means of production to ensure social ownership of wealth? I think that equivalence is also wrong and out of touch with reality, and even with the usual practice in other contexts. The majority of the means of production may even be in the hands of non-state, private or cooperative entities, which could be subject to taxes or the provision of public services in order to guarantee that most of the wealth they produce will become social rather than private.

There is also much talk about all the vices that private property brings with it, but very little about the ones bred by the way in which state ownership is conceived in our society. That creates another problem. I would dare say that our country’s scant economic vitality is largely caused by its property structure, incapable as it is of motivating people to work more and better.

I also believe that in the end there must be a balance between social and individual appropriation of the output, since collectivity is based on individuality. If you push the individual aside, I don’t see how you can have a healthy or empowered collectivity. It’s about the individual’s contribution to society and vice versa.

I think we must reconsider some of the lines in the sand that we ourselves have drawn in terms of property structure, ownership of the means of production, the management of those means, etc., since they have obviously failed to help us develop our productive forces or to empower our citizens and workers to guarantee their real, effective participation in decision-making, namely two of socialism’s key goals.

As to the market, mankind knows no other coordination mechanism as effective and flexible. It’s a mistake to equate market and capitalism. Central planning should not replace the market; instead, we should apply other no less important criteria to that coordination between producers and consumers. All attempts to do so have failed so far. Cuba still has a long way to go in that respect. The paradigm remains the same: there’s a lot of talk about changing, but very little is done in practice.

For starters, a functional market would require different exchange rate, monetary and pricing policies and rules. The State may intervene in order to regulate, but not take over that role. And it also requires agents (enterprises), consumers who can make decisions about consumption and investment according to the information conveyed by the prices. There can be no market without real enterprises, and here, at least the state enterprises are not real, not by a long shot.

You have frequently worked on the topic of the Cuban industrial policy. To what extent are the changes and measures proposed in the documents that govern the transformation process responding to the main problems in that field? What obstacles are facing the practical implementation of those policies?

Let’s start with a brief clarification of the concept of industrial policy included in the national debate around this topic. People still link this term to the oldest notions. As it is used today, the concept of industrial policy goes beyond the policies for the development of manufacturing. That was perhaps the original notion, but it has been surpassed by academia and by the practice of economic policy in many countries. Two reasons explain that change: first, nowadays industrialization is conceived as having close ties to other branches of the economy, such as services. Therefore, talking about a policy for a specific sector is pointless unless you envisage the whole picture. Second, as a rule the most important thing in an economic system is not the typology of its sectors, but the relations established between enterprises and activities. Contemporary industrial policy goes far beyond manufacturing: it’s an attempt to change the entire economic structure of a country in order to promote growth and a better income distribution. 

Actually, it’s much more important to talk about how those sectors relate to one another, i.e. how the enterprises interact in economic activity. An economic system as a whole and the development of productive forces are very often more successful because they have a sound, profound and dynamic interaction and not so much because of the specific features of one sector or another.

In the latest documents, Conceptualization and especially in the National Development Plan, we notice a significant improvement and a qualitative leap forward regarding the concept of industrial policy. There’s a major methodological change that opens more favorable roads. First of all, they begin with what we want to achieve as a country —the vision— and then come the so-called strategic axes. They don’t begin with the sectors, which has been the traditional vision, based on the assumption that investing in certain sectors held to be favorable to development will automatically ensure the said development. They speak now of strategic axes, some of them clearly related to the economy and others to scientific development, effective governance, etc. Now that’s a change for the better.

I also believe that the documents pay more attention to Cuba’s insertion into the international scene, in a world where there’s not even an important presence of countries with socioeconomic regimes like ours. Obviously, the development, trade, investments, finances and people’s circulation of a small country like Cuba are extremely dependent on the rest of the world. That’s another accomplishment to be considered in the proposals of specific policies.

Another positive change is that one of the strategic axes makes a distinction between infrastructure and productive transformation in itself. This is a novelty in the way of approaching the concepts of development in Cuba, in the understanding that the progress of this or that sector will not necessarily guarantee the infrastructure needed to support our future expansion. In other words, they basically admit that infrastructure development has its own agenda and must be analyzed as a part of the whole economic system.

While all these steps forward are plain to see, the documents also have some weak points. For instance, they always end up talking about sectors because they can’t just address our economic structure without specifying a given sector, now described as strategic. The problem is that the definition stated in the documents labels almost all sectors as strategic, and if they all are so at the same time, then none is really a priority. I would dare say that this is because everybody identifies strategic sector with allocation of resources and investment, and if you are not on the list you assume that you will get less or nothing at all. We have too many sectors under that category, when not everything can be strategic or a priority. Things won’t work that way.

There are other problems which are hard to solve and make it difficult to design a more coherent, solid, organized and integrated industrial policy. First of all, most contemporary theoretical works about industrial policy are based on market economies. Cuba’s actions are thus deprived of a reference, which very often pushes us back towards the Soviet paradigm, no longer useful to us (as a rule). That’s still another reason to develop functional markets and everything else that comes with them. 

Second, and related to the above, we don’t have sufficient human resources to design and implement proposals linked to a hitherto unprecedented paradigm. None of our officials has lived under a market economy, nor have they ever devised an economic policy for such a system. So how technically capable are they to design and launch a coherent industrial policy that works in Cuba, beyond the Soviet paradigm? Besides, our public sector is faced with a labor exodus due to low wages combined with a great deal of responsibility, precisely when we most need our best talent. 

Third, our institutional structure becomes an obstacle to carry on with the kind of policy that demands a high level of inter-ministerial coordination and cooperation. I see this as a great weakness, since the system is too vertical and flows from the top down to the various branches without communicating vessels, and an industrial policy is precisely about coordination. Many countries tried to make way with a version based on a supra-ministerial body, usually linked to the presidency, in charge of designing the main proposals. We must pay great attention to these issues if we want to make progress.

FLR: Cuba is said to have lived through a process of strong circumstantial dependence for having limited its trading partners to one or two of its neighbors. Based on your idea of sustainability, do you think that we have more economic security today in light of the circumstantial changes taking place around the world?

RTP: The degradation of the external context is unquestionably damaging our economic performance. There’s the situation of Venezuela, for one, but also the case of Brazil, which used to be an important market for medical and pharmaceutical services. Russia is now coming out of a pretty complicated moment. What’s certain is that there is still some concentration, noticeable in terms of trade —without reaching the levels of the Soviet Union era— mainly in Venezuela.

There has been some concentration indeed, but our present situation is better than it was back in the 1980s. I don’t think that the hypothetical total collapse of Venezuela would take us back to where we were following the demise of the Soviet Union. Our economy is now more diversified and much less dependent on a single product, such as sugar was in the past. Our portfolio, albeit still insufficient, is more diverse: some medical services, tourism, and a range of other goods. Let’s say that in general we have a less concentrated and vulnerable export structure, both in terms of products and of trading partners.

Our second and third trading partners are China and Spain, stable countries unlikely to suffer a total collapse in the medium term, which compensate for the weakness of others. Cuba even has a much more diversified domestic income structure than back in the 1980s, when the vast majority of households lived exclusively on their public sector salaries and became more vulnerable when the State lost its capacity to pay properly. Today’s Cuban families rely on other sources of income, and a sector of our population has many different connections with the rest of the world. Our portfolio is not evenly distributed nationwide, but it is more diversified and will help us cope with any temporary or circumstantial situation, e.g. in case there’s a sharp fall in our national revenues or the State is forced to cut back on some services or the distribution of certain goods.

Of course, now we are somewhat exposed —although less than before— and therefore at risk, as well as vulnerable and feeling the effects of the difficult situation in Venezuela. I bet that our government is aware of the risk that such concentration means, but we were not sufficiently proactive to be able to reduce that vulnerability at a time when we could. When it comes to international policy, other events also have a bearing on Cuba, but that’s what the art of governing, policy-making and economic management under any circumstances is all about.

FLR: Fortunately, many circles have taken interest in strengthening their links and cooperation with economists, and you are an example of that. If you analyze all their studies and notes, you will notice there are significant differences and great dispersion in their opinions. Who are the Cuban economists? Who are the members of the Cuban academy of economists?

RTP: Let’s stick to the idea that the academic economists are those who devote at least a great deal or most of their time to research on the country’s economic problems. First, that Cuban academy of economists is very small. Yes, every citizen or social scientist has their own views about economy, but the body of specialists on the subject is very small. Second, there is no consensus among the Cuban economists in their assessments of the situation and the ways to resolve it. And that’s precisely why it’s very good to have a diversity of opinions, because there is not general consent about everything, not even in the academy.

The Cuban academy of economists stands out from those in other countries for its contribution to the advance of the Cuban Revolution. It’s more sensitive to people’s social problems and it strives not to get bogged down in technical discussions about economic figures or estimates, almost always trying or daring to anticipate some social impact. Moreover, many Cuban economists work on political economy and try to go beyond the diagnoses, thinking instead about how to implement solutions. But as I said, there are many diverse and heterogeneous stances in our academy and no clear consensus about either the way to study our problems or how to resolve them.

That’s why I praise so much this emergence of circles and voices of economists and experts from other fields. Those opportunities are always welcome both by the citizens and by the decision-makers who possess a wider range of facts, criteria and data to form an opinion about it, and they also contribute to a more pluralistic and diversified image of Cuba in terms of ways of thinking, influences, etc.

CGS: Many social research works warn of “undesirable effects” of the process to update the Cuban socioeconomic model, mainly in terms the inequalities that it produces. Do you think it is a “necessary evil”?

RTP: I like your question very much, as it gives me the chance to share my views on topics that I consider to be very important. Let’s start from what I said earlier. If we’re talking about updates, reforms, changes, or however you want to call it, it’s obviously because we need them.

I notice a trend to blame the “updating” for all evil. It’s good to keep in mind that nearly every problem we face today dates back many years, long before the updating. I believe that Cuba has a pressing need to have a serious and profound debate about inequality, since many deceptive conceptions about that issue are usually embraced here. Nor are the inequalities due only to the updating. Sure, this process has given rise to certain dynamics that reinforces them and makes them more visible, but they did not arise from out of nowhere. It’s a worn-out subject that certain groups use as a spearhead for political and ideological purposes. I wonder what goal of equality we are aiming for and what’s realistic for Cuba under these circumstances. We are doing very badly if we have to choose between equality and economic development, for having one without the other is as undesirable as it is unsustainable. Equalizing poverty has achieved nothing in this world, much less in underdeveloped countries. 

There’s much talk about inequality and lack of data, without which we are unlikely to carry out a truly profound analysis of this issue. First of all, you have to make comparisons with the past and then with your contemporaries to examine whether there’s more, less or about average inequality. Then you study the root causes, many of which have nothing to do with the reforms of the 1990s, let alone the updating. So I think that against this background and, above all else, in the absence of data and information, any discussion that we undertake about inequality will be rather emotional and ideological in nature.

It would seem that there’s a preference to speak of equal income and take the public sector salaries as a reference. The most common conclusions revolve around the fact that inequality has grown since the 1990s owing to the economic crisis and the emergence of the non-state sector, the latter being a favorite culprit. Well, what if we look at the unequal possession of assets (land, homes, cars) which originated long before the 1990s and couldn’t be totally fixed between 1959 and 1989? Before 1990, those assets did not provide any income stream (since there were no market mechanisms to make it possible) and, therefore, did contribute significantly to the income disparity, although it probably did to wealth and welfare. That changed.

So again, what ideal can we aspire to? I heard Cuban economist Juan Triana say that aiming for the impossible is the best way of failing. I think that’s what’s going on in our case and the equality that many people are talking about is impractical and nonviable in Cuba. History took care of reversing processes that had proven to be fragile and more nominal or formal. The parameters of equality that we are used to have responded to circumstances that were too special to be repeated.

Saying that the non-state sector is the reason for inequality in Cuba is also a lot easier and especially convenient to certain groups. And you know only too well, inequality is also multidimensional, so we would have to talk about skin color, gender, where you live in Cuba, family, etc. I think the debate about inequality is as much incomplete, misinformed and at times ill-willed as it is confusing and conducive to expectations that Cuba cannot possibly have.

We should be discussing other problems of similar or greater importance. When will we talk about informality in Cuba? For instance, according to ONEI, the proportion of people with formal jobs is 65%, a very low figure, and it has fallen by more than ten points since 2009.

Foto: Randdy Fundora/Temas.

FLR: Are we talking about the economically active population?

RTP: Yes, people of working age, that is, women in the 17 to 60 age group and men until 64. The most important resource in any country is not oil, but labor. For example, if you deduct from that percentage the number of university students —an exaggerated deduction, since many of them have a job— that figure has gone down by more than 1,200.000 people since 2009. I’m also including in this analysis the faulty count of those who emigrate, because according to the methodology changed in 2013 almost no one emigrates now. From having one of the highest figures of émigrés we went to having none. That’s how wavering we are. Hence the serious problem we have: this economic system fails to absorb our workforce. Given Cuba’s demographic profile, the priority must be to employ anyone who can work and aim for increasing productivity. That’s task number one of our economic system today.

Sometimes these new debates are useful for distracting attention from other problems worth discussing, such as informality. What is the matter with all those people? How can we make them be more formal and pay taxes? There we have other problems, because this is the only country on Earth where the more workers you hire, the more taxes you pay (in the private sector). It’s exactly the other way around in the whole world, because it’s an incentive for formal employment, which pays taxes and can be regulated.

This doesn’t mean that the updating process is free of problems. It has some, and of every kind, related to scope, speed, design and implementation of policies. In my view, implementation has been the worst part. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, so you have to be able to put things successfully into practice.

If social property is supposed to prevail in Cuba, I wonder why the reform swung more to the private and cooperative sector and less to the state-owned enterprise. It doesn’t make much sense to me. Maybe the reform should have started there, or at least deal with both at once.

We usually try to tackle the inequality issue by going from top to bottom. That is, without developing productive forces and without progress. Obviously, our people and families are not happy about the outcome. We will not solve the equality problem by looking down, but up. Of course, as in every process of change, there will be some negative dynamics. What country has achieved development without problems? Development is not about managing to do everything the right way, but doing some very important things the right way.

What worries me the most is that so far the updating process has failed to sufficiently modify some stereotyped and damaging perceptions about the market: the prevalence of state or private ownership in the process of development, the State and government’s role, the represented-representative relationship, the conceptions about how much equality and how to achieve it… The fact that it’s not helping us to reconsider these issues is a big problem.

We frequently see dichotomies like economy/politics, science/politics. How capable are we today to find integral solutions to Cuba’s economic problems?

RTP: Politics is to me a means to transform reality, which is obvious to any revolution that hopes to seize political power. And if it fails to help you get there, then you have a problem that must be resolved.

A society is a big pot of mixed and interrelated elements. Ours has changed a great deal in almost every field, be it demographic, social, economic, cultural, etc., but the problem is that our political system fails to fully reflect that transformation. In the end, such a growing detachment gives rise to a big problem of legitimacy. It’s clear that we must reexamine what we’re doing.

For example, I think that the emergence of all these media channels devoid of Party and Government control —let’s call them alternative ones, to avoid still another label— are a sort of response to this problem. This society, which is no longer a constructed paradigm, wants to see itself reflected, too. So I don’t think that this process should be oversimplified and reduced to a bunch of young people paid by the Empire who abide by an agenda of the U.S. government. That prevents us from realizing the real problems, those of our political system. The Cuban government’s legitimacy is at stake, and I don’t think that we’re making much progress in that regard. A political system must reflect the social and economic realities of its country.

The answers to our problems call for an honest and well-informed social debate. The effective participation of all social groups is paramount. The opinions of the officials and the so-called “experts” are of value, but they cannot replace a wide-ranging debate. We are better off today than 10 years ago because the “updating process” has opened new spaces and legitimized many topics, but I believe that we are not fully aware of the little time we have to make key decisions.

CGS: And specifically about the science-politics relationship?

RTP: I will refer to social and economic sciences, the ones that I keep up with. One of the strengths of the updating process is that it has managed to pave the way for discussions about a number of subjects long held to be taboo, which has had positive effects on our work. As I see it, the relationship between science and politics is never perfect anywhere. The academy has its dynamics and even interests of its own that are not necessarily in line with those of the rest of society, and it’s usually heterogeneous in nature.

That relationship has improved in Cuba as a result of some formal structures created to facilitate exchanges of ideas, debates, and feedback between the academy and the decision-makers. I also notice that the government and State representatives show much more respect for and recognition of academe. At least that’s what I feel among the economists, who are no longer seen as a “bunch of crazy liberals”.

Of course, there’s a problem of mediation between the proposal that emerges out of a consensus and is submitted to the government, and how that proposal finds its way to specific decisions. There are still weak points therein which, truth be told, will always exist, since we are neither politicians nor officials, and the decision-makers have to meet a number of requirements that we do not always see because they work for society as a whole. In some fields, e.g. foreign investment, I notice the effects of that improved dialogue, but I think that in other areas the proposals have had a lesser impact on the final decisions.

That relationship is not perfect; it has improved both formally and informally, but some gaps remain. I think many of them are unbridgeable because we have different roles in society. In Cuba, for one, there’s very little transference from academia to government and back. That is to say, the road which you undertake and consolidate is the one where you spend the rest of your life. That’s not necessarily good, because changing roles and looking at problems from a different angle can also lead you to appraise and be aware of what others are doing and thus complement your formation. You also learn when you’re free from the political pressure of decision-making and devote your whole time to go deeper into a given topic, which at some point you can present back to the government. That’s almost never done in Cuba, even if it could be another way of facilitating a dialogue. 

What specific challenges do you think that the new government leaders will face in 2018, especially in terms of unifying the political and the economic system?

RTP: First, the new government will take over a country that is faced with big challenges of every imaginable kind, both domestically and internationally. The latter case is much more complex for Cuba than it was five years ago, now that the right is back in power in Latin America, among other complexities. However, no government waits until things improve to do its job. Moreover, the art of good governance lies in trying to improve things as a result of the government’s own decisions. A government’s effectiveness cannot rely on the alternation of power from the right to the left in a region. We have to accept that as a normal rather than an extraordinary occurrence and anticipate its implications and consequences in every respect. We must make policy under those circumstances too, and not only when the times are good.

Throw in our relations with the United States and this is not precisely the best scenario that we have lived through in the last 25 years. And it goes without saying that this new government is not just any new government in Cuba. Its legitimacy will not arise from the historic merit of forging a Revolution, but from its ability to interpret what people want and make sure to fulfill their legitimate hopes for progress. And that’s not exactly a small change.