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Cuba Meets the Challenges of the 21st Century, Part II

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An interview with Ricardo Alarcon, President of the Cuban Parliament

President of the Cuban Parliament since 1992, and member of the Political Bureau of the Cuban Communist Party, Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada is, after President Raul Castro and First Vice President Antonio Machado Ventura, third in line in the Cuban government. Professor of philosophy and a career diplomat, Alarcon spent nearly 12 years in the United States as the Cuban ambassador to the United Nations. Over time, he has become a spokesperson for the Havana government.

In this long interview, one that lasted nearly two hours, Alarcon did not seek to evade a single question. He comments on the role of Fidel Castro after his retirement from political life and explains the presence of Raul Castro at the center of power. He also speaks about the reform of the Cuban economic and social model as well as the challenges facing the Cuban nation. Alarcon then discusses the question of emigration and Cuban relations with the United States under the Obama administration. He also takes on the thorny question of human rights and political prisoners and does not hesitate to talk about Alan Gross, the American sub-contractor imprisoned in Cuba, as well as the case of the five Cuban agents detained in the United States. Alarcon then turns to the important question of oil deposits in the Gulf of Mexico and the potential consequences of their exploitation. The interview concludes with a discussion of the relationship of Cuba with the Catholic church and the Vatican, the imminent visit to Cuba of Pope Benedict XVI, Cuban relations with the European Union and the new Latin America and finally the future of Cuba after Fidel and Raul Castro.

The reform of the Cuban economic model

SL: In April of 2011, the Communist Party Congress decided to reform the Cuban economic model. What brought about this change? What is it exactly?

RAQ: As Cubans, we realized that we had to introduce important changes in the social and economic functioning of our nation in order to save socialism, to improve it, to make it better. In doing so, we took an objective look at our society. Cuban socialism had, for a very long time, been closely linked to that of the Soviet Union. Clearly, it can no longer continue like this. It was also necessary to take into account certain global factors present on the international scene. Furthermore, we need to rectify aspects of the social and economic model that undoubtedly made sense at the time they were adopted, but can no longer be justified. Certain policies elaborated in the past can be explained by conditions that existed then, but today they have no reason for being.

What are we seeking exactly? We are attempting to obtain a higher level of economic efficiency, a more rational use of our limited natural, material and financial resources. In so doing, we take into account the primary external factors that impinge upon Cuba, certainly the economic sanctions that the United States imposes upon us, sanctions that have been tightened over the past number of years. But, it is also important to take into account certain positive changes, for example, those occurring in Latin America and the Caribbean. After having analyzed the problems faced by the Cuban society, after reflecting collectively upon them, we arrived at the conclusion that it would be necessary to introduce certain changes not only in order to cope with the objective realities we face, but also because we are convinced that there is a better way to go about constructing a more just society.

SL: That is to say?

RAQ: The state is not giving up its role, and it is not putting our society's social gains in jeopardy. But, in order to maintain access to free universal health care, free universal education, and to guarantee everyone the right to these services, the right to retirement benefits, to social assistance, it is essential that we reach the highest level of efficiency possible in their implementation. We have worked hard to provide higher quality services at a lower cost, not by reducing the salary of the teacher, but rather by eliminating the unnecessary costs that are inherent in a bureaucracy. This is the general approach we took for the rest of the economy as well.

SL: One goal therefore is to put an end to bureaucratic obstacles, and a withdrawal of the state from non-strategic sectors, hairdressing salons, for example.

RAQ: Raul Castro has often cited the case of hairdressing salons. When was it that Karl Marx suggested that socialism consisted of collectivizing hairdressing salons? When was it that he said that this activity, like many others, ought to be administered and controlled by the state? The idea of socialism has always been the collectivization of the fundamental means of production. It is clear that the term "fundamental" may be interpreted more or less broadly. As far as we are concerned, we are convinced that it is impossible to renounce certain things. Nevertheless, it is essential that we reduce the role of the state in certain tasks and activities that people can so better, both by themselves and cooperatively. This would allow the state to cut costs enormously and still guarantee what we consider to be basic human rights. To do this, we need to unleash new productive forces and enable personal initiatives, in the city as well as in the countryside. In this way, we will establish a Cuban socialism that, ultimately, does not simply respond to established dogma, follow another's example, or copy a predetermined template.

SL: A socialism that would therefore be uniquely Cuban.

RAQ: What characterizes Latin America at the present moment is the fact that a number of countries, each in its own way, are constructing their own versions of socialism. For a long while now, one of the fundamental errors of socialist and revolutionary movements has been the belief that a socialist model exists. In reality, we should not be talking about socialism, but rather about socialisms in the plural. There is no socialism that is similar to another. As Mariategui said, socialism is a "heroic creation." If socialism is to be created, it must respond to realities, motivations, cultures, situations, contexts, all of which are objectives that are different from each other, not identical.

SL: How was the reform of the economic model decided upon?

RAQ: We are in an experimental phase using a methodology that is very Cuban and, I think, very socialist, that is to say, a process of broad, continual and authentic public consultation. The Party proposed a plan to reform the economic system. This plan has been debated throughout the country, not only among Party militants, but also among all citizens who chose to participate. Furthermore, the plan has been significantly modified following these discussions. Certain items have been changed, new items have been proposed, and yet others have been rejected. Over 70 percent of the original document was modified following discussions with citizen groups and only then was it presented to the Communist Party Congress. Several commissions were created to work and reflect upon the final document and to analyze the proposals that emerged from this great national debate. In the long run, a new document that contains 311 proposals for change was presented to and approved by Parliament. Certain measures have already been implemented, others are in the process of being implemented and others are still under discussion, not on their content, that has already been approved, but on how best to implement them.

I am not sure that there are many governments around the world that would take the trouble of consulting the public before adopting a policy aimed at transforming their economic system. Neither am I certain that governments that have implemented drastic austerity measures, that have reduced their health and education budgets, that have raised the retirement age, all because of the systemic neoliberal crisis that now envelops many nations, might have sought out the advice of their citizens before making profound changes that promise to affect their daily lives.

Out of all of this experimentation a new socialism will emerge, different from that we have now, but it will still be socialism and it will be without a doubt more authentic.

SL: Is this not a return to capitalism?

RAQ: I don't think so, even if it is true that there will be a greater presence of market mechanisms in Cuban society, mechanisms that characterize the market economy, or capitalism if you prefer.

SL: Since November 2011, Cubans can buy and sell housing and automobiles. Why was something that is the norm in the rest of the world banned or highly regulated in Cuba?

RAQ: Allow me to give you a historical explanation. In the 1960s, when these measures were taken, the objective was to prevent capitalist restoration through the accumulation of goods. Take, for example, the Mexican revolution. It implemented a great agrarian reform, but a short time later the latifundio reappeared. The Cuban Revolution did not wish to commit the same error. If a farmer who, through the agrarian reform program, came to possess even a small piece of land and then decided to sell it to the richest landowner, he would undermine the very foundation of the agrarian reform, because he was once again contributing to the accumulation of property and to the resurgence of the latifundio.

As for housing, the urban reform gave all Cubans the right to housing by limiting the concentration of ownership. Walk around Havana and you will never find a person living in the street or sleeping under a bridge, something that is not the case in numerous western capitals. There may be a problem of overcrowding, with several generations living under the same roof, but no one is abandoned to his fate. We did not wish to once again find ourselves with owners of multiple properties and this is the reasons that restrictions -- not a total ban -- were imposed.

SL: And what about automobiles?

RAQ: In the case of automobiles, the question is more complex because it concerns an imported product upon which the nation is dependent. Never in the history of the country has Cuba had an automobile industry. Cuba has produced some means of collective transportation, but automobiles have never been produced here. There is also another key element at play, gasoline, the fuel that has always been the Achilles heel of the Cuban economy. It was necessary, therefore, to establish controls and certain restrictions.

It is also well to recall that certain of these controls predate the idea of Cuban socialism. I often refer to an extremely interesting document dated February 1959, the point at which in Cuba we established control over foreign exchange and imports. Up until February of 1959, the Cuban bourgeoisie would go to a bank to buy dollars in order to import cars, perfume or other luxury goods. With the triumph of the Revolution, a part of the elite that had been linked to the old regime took the path of exile and, among them, was the president of the Cuban national bank.

The provisional government, directed by Manuel Urrutia, then named Dr. Felipe Pazos as head of this bank. Pazos had been the founder and first president of this national financial institution when it was established in 1950 under the government of Carlos Prio Socarras. He directed the bank from 1950 until March of 1952, the date that marked the coup d'état of Fulgencio Batista. When he once again took over the bank, he wrote a report that he submitted to President Urrutia -- Fidel Castro was only chief of the Armed forces at the time -- in which he described the state of Cuban finances and revealed the extent of the pillaging of the reserves by the leaders of the old order before they had fled the country.

It was Pazos, not Che Guevara, Raul Castro or any other radical of the 26th of July Movement, an emblematic representative of the leisured classes and highly respected by the bourgeoisie of the period, who decided to establish exchange controls, stop the sale of dollars, and impose strict control over imports. As president of the National bank, he had informed Urrutia that it was imperative that measures be taken, given the financial disaster that had befallen the nation. Cuba' economic situation was dramatic and it was important to recognize that certain elements of tension that existed in the Cuban economy had not yet disappeared.

Also, beginning in the 1960s, strong restrictions were placed upon the importation of products including automobiles and, for economic reasons, this policy continues today. This decision, I would remind you, was made by a renowned economist, Felipe Pazos, who was neither a radical nor a communist, but was in fact a conservative.

Two types of situations existed. First, those who owned an automobile before the triumph of the Revolution could use it as they wished, sell it, etc. But, given that the state held a monopoly on imports, imported automobiles were to be sold only to government workers, or to deserving parties, at subsidized prices, often at little more than 10 percent of their real value. It was therefore no longer possible to sell automobiles simply in order to make a profit.

So clearly, limits were placed upon owning automobiles as personal property unless they were to serve a social function. Had unregulated sale of cars been legalized, ownership would not go to those for whom cars served a social function, or to those who by their own merits had acquired them, but rather to those with the most money. In any case, that was the justification at the time. It was important to avoid speculation in automobiles, because it was evident that the country did not have sufficient resources to massively import them, nor to furnish the fuel necessary to their functioning. So, there again, the state imposed certain restrictions.

SL: So what about now?

RAQ: We now see this from a different perspective. If you are a homeowner -- and some 85 percent of Cubans are -- it is possible to sell. Why? Take the case of a growing family that needs to acquire a larger place, and the case of a household that is shrinking and needs a smaller place because the children have grown up and married. From here on out, it will be possible to exchange or to sell. It is now also possible to leave property to someone, loan it, rent it, etc. Before, only the exchange of property and the renting of rooms was authorized. Now, this type of transaction is facilitated by the elimination of these bureaucratic obstacles.

SL: What were the obstacles?

RAQ: In the past, in order to buy, sell, or exchange properties, it was necessary to obtain an administrative decision from the National Housing Institute. To get them to make a decision, an agreement from the Municipal Department of Housing was required. One then needed to obtain authorization at both the provincial and national levels. There was an enormous bureaucracy involved and given that administrative decisions were required, it was the source of corruption and bribes.

Now, since the first of December 2011, two parties who wish to exchange their homes have only to present the titles to their properties to a public notary. All of the bureaucratic hurtles have been eliminated. Of course, public notaries have always been involved, but one saw them only after both the buyer and seller had received all of the necessary administrative authorizations.

SL: What happens if there is a dispute?

RAQ: In the case of litigation, if one party claims certain rights after a transaction has been completed either through sale or exchange, the courts will decide the case and have the last word. The bureaucracies will no longer have a voice in the matter. You can see, therefore, that in this one area alone, we have managed to reduce drastically administrative and bureaucratic involvement by eliminating unnecessary steps. These reforms have resolved a number of problems linked to housing by simplifying sales and exchanges.

As far as automobiles are concerned, this has been even easier because vehicle registration has existed for a long time. We are working to eliminate bureaucracy in our society. The biggest remaining limitation resides in the fact that individuals cannot import vehicles and, at the risk of repeating myself, this was a decision taken fifty years ago, not by Fidel Castro but rather by Felipe Pazos, long before the United States imposed a commercial embargo on our nation, long before the Torricelli Act of 1992, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 and the two reports of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba of 2004 and 2006, which strengthened these economic sanctions. As you can imagine, these sanctions have exacerbated our national economic problems and led to the imposition of strict controls on personal imports.

In the same way, a candidate for emigration will now be able to sell his home before leaving the country or leave it to his family up through the fourth degree of consanguinity. Before, the state took possession of abandoned housing and gave it to other families. This will no longer be the case.