The website of Cuba’s Temas magazine has a section titled "Catalejo"Â (Telescope) that solicits commentaries in the form of short essays on a variety of topics. Many of these commentaries respond to longer articles in the magazine itself, and some have sparked debate among contributors.Â
One of these debates has been initiated by Carmelo Mesa-Lago and Jose Luis Rodriguez. Mesa-Lago is a Cuban-born US economics professor who has written extensively on Cuba. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Economics and Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
Jose Luis Rodriguez was Cuba’s Minister of Economy and Planning from 1998-2009. An economist, he is now a consultant at Cuba’s Centre for Research on the World Economy (CIEM).
The debate was sparked by the publication in Temas No. 65, January-March 2011, of the transcript of a Temas public forum titled "The Special Period 20 years on", in which Rodriguez was one of the featured speakers. Mesa-Lago responded to Rodriguez’s comments in Catalejo.
According to Mesa-Lago, "A number of forum participants expressed their support for decentralising economic management, the position taken by President Raul Castro and the decisions of the Sixth Cuban Communist Party Congress, but Jose Luis Rodriguez seems to disagree with this and defends the current central planning."
"During the terrible crisis of the 1990s, the then newly appointed minister of important reforms in the use of market mechanisms, along with decentralisation, that achieved at least a partial economic recovery. But at the beginning of the 21st century, when Fidel Castro launched the Battle of Ideas and pushed for recentralisation, Jose LuisÂ Rodriguez was a supporter of this reversal."
History has demonstrated the "unviability" of the "socialism" of the USSR and its Eastern European allies, says Mesa-Lago.
By contrast, "the Chinese and Vietnamese models of market socialism (with a greater role for the market and the private sector) have been successful for Scandinavian countries". "It’s not clear to me what kind of socialism Jose Luis Rodriguez supports: Soviet-style centralised socialism, that of Cuba or China during their idealist periods or the current market socialism of China-Vietnam (I assume he rejects that of social democracy), or if he is in agreement with the ‘updating’ of Cuban socialism that is underway", wrote Mesa-LagoÂ
Below is Rodriguez’s succinct reply.
Following the publication in Temas No. 65 of the results of the debate on "The Special Period 20 years on", Dr. Carmelo Mesa-Lago made a number of comments on my participation in this debate. As he himself pointed out, this is not the first time that we’ve had a debate on various aspects of the Cuban economy, and I think it would be timely to enter the fray once again to put forward my own views.
Neither is this the first time that I disagree with a number of the judgements of Professor Mesa-Lago.
First of all, we cannot assess the different epochs of the Cuban Revolution’s economic policy without locating them appropriately in the historical context in which they have been implemented, considering not only the economic factors but also the political elements that operate in our society.
In this connection, I should point out that socialism is not just a menu of options for choosing an economic model in which there is a greater or lesser presence of market mechanisms or a more or less centralised decision-making process, among other decisions.
Socialism [i.e. the socialist-oriented society Â translator’s note] aims for a political transformation that would allow people to achieve a more rounded development in which social justice and solidarity are inherent features of the society that is aspired to.
Attaining the appropriate combination of the economic and political components in a socialist model is no simple matter, and history shows that the disproportion of one of these factors can lead to failure.
This can be seen in the sad experience of what happened to the models of market socialism of the Gorbachev era in the USSR that bet on the market and neglected the factors of political mobilisation inherent in any socialist project, and ended up submitting to the most orthodox neoliberalism such that they are now second-rate capitalist countries.
I don’t support this model of "socialism". However, it should be pointed out that in evaluating this model, many criticise its multiple characteristic deficiencies of hyper-centralisation, bureaucracy and the lack of worker participation in decision-making that it suffered from, but it is forgotten that market socialism tried to rectify these errors with a cure that was worse than the sickness.
Cuba didn’t make these mistakes, and because of this we survived the most difficult moment [1992-4] of the Special Period and we are now weighing up our options in order to continue advancing.
In the most recent period of our economic history, the process of "Rectification" of errors and negative tendencies [launched in 1986] fulfilled its function of rescuing the political mobilisation factors that had been seriously eroded by the mid-1980s.
While it may not have advanced much in terms of concretising a more efficient economic model Â to which must be added the internal deficiencies that impacted on it Â we cannot forget that it had to confront the drying up of credit in convertible currency and the gradual disintegration of the model of socialist [state] collaboration that existed at the time.
This collaboration was the only way of obtaining the necessary resources for an intensive economic development to deal with the exhaustion of the extensive growth that had been projected.
Of course the Cuban socialist project has not been perfect, but nor is it a question of wiping the slate clean of everything done before and, above all, of ignoring realities such as those that generally confront any underdeveloped country in the world today. To this must be added the permanent hostility and economic aggression of the US blockade against our country, which not only has an economic cost in terms of resources, but also often obliges us to make decisions under pressure, putting to one side the most efficient options.
In each historical moment of the Revolution I think we did what we could to advance the economic and social development of the country, in line with the prevailing circumstances in each one of them. This is true of the present moment.
The Economic and Social Policy Guidelines for the Party and the Revolution, adopted by the Sixth Cuban Communist Party Congress in April, are a project for the improvement of socialism, not for a transition to capitalism. Given this, it isn’t necessary to define a new model Â the model continues to be socialist Â but we’re talking about the updating of the economic model based on social ownership of the fundamental means of production in which planning predominates, which will certainly have to take into account market trends.
I see no reason for confusion. If more space is ceded to the market and its inherent laws, these will not be preponderant. It is therefore understandable that the concentration of private [productive] property [ownership] will not be permitted, that foreign investment will be regulated and that the centralised setting of prices will be maintained where desirable. These are among the fundamental elements of that determine the functioning of the Cuban system of economic management.
Nor are we talking about insignificant changes. I draw Professor Mesa-Lago’s attention to the fact that the country’s economic strategy is changing. From a strategy focused on confronting the Special Period crisis at minimal social cost and on the reinsertion of the Cuban economy in the world market in the new [i.e. post-Soviet] conditions, it is shifting to a strategy for the establishment of the bases for a sustained development of the country, through an economic policy that promotes state property together with non-state property forms to overcome the two fundamental obstacles to Cuba’s economic development for many years: the external financial disequilibrium and the inefficiency of economic management.
Overcoming the obstacles in the path of the Cuban economy can be done without renouncing socialism. Firstly, the economic policy elaborated in the Guidelines projects a greater space for the utilisation of market mechanisms within a strategic context that would ensure Â through planning Â the macro-economic proportions that are needed for economic growth.
Secondly, the decentralisation of the state’s economic management towards enterprises and municipalities, with the participation of the workers in decision-making, is feasible with the rational allocation of resources via planning. Centralised planning does not necessarily imply centralised management, but it does mean projecting the allocation of resources globally so that their use can then be decided by other economic actors, according to various alternatives.
Thirdly, in socialism, social ownership of the fundamental means of production is decisive, but this does not exclude spaces for other types of property such as cooperatives or other forms of non-state property such as peasant farming, the small-scale property of the self-employed and mixed property with foreign capital.
Finally, the experiences of other socialist countries such as China and Vietnam have been taken into account, but this does not mean that they should be copied. It should be remembered that while we share with these peoples common political aspirations, we also differ historically and culturally.
Moreover, differences in relative levels of development, as well as in endowments of natural and human resources, make Cuba different to these countries, to which we’d have to add the [degree of ] insertion of China and Vietnam into the world economy Â for at least the past 20 years Â without them having suffered the economic war that Cuba is subjected to.
For Cuba, the changes that are being carried out today are neither an easy process nor a short term one. Consequently, I think it is correct to talk about the "creation of the bases for a sustained economic development", which will probably take us longer than the projections for the current five-year period to achieve, but I’m sure that it will be successful.
In this sense, I don’t agree with the idea of the unviability of socialism that Professor Mesa-Lago expounds in his commentaries. At the same time, I am convinced that the Cuban socialist model, as it is understood by the majority of Cubans today, is the only option for our development.
Temas magazine website, September 1, 2011
Translation: Marce Cameron
Posted at MLT on December 31, 2011