Ricardo Torres (Villa Clara, 1981) is a teacher-researcher at the Center for Cuban Economic Studies, where he spent years studying the reform process in his country. Like many of his colleagues, he has long warned against the need to accelerate the pace of change and introduce structural transformations to reactivate the economy and give oxygen to the population, increasingly affected by the crisis and the hardships, aggravated by the ineffectiveness of the state’s productive system, the pandemic and the resurgence of the North American embargo. Torres believes that Cuba has “enormous potential” for development, but that action must be taken as soon as possible.
Question: Did you expect the protests we just saw to happen at some point?
Reply: In recent years, problems have accumulated that negatively affect the daily life of Cubans. Some of them are the consequence of long-term structural weaknesses in the Cuban economy. Others are temporary. But the difficulties are so acute that they are reminiscent of many of the worst times of the early 1990s. Personally, I have seen that there is too much dissatisfaction that was not channeled.
P. What economic and political factors most influenced what happened?
R. Unfortunately, in Cuba, this discussion ends up delineating two groups, one which gives more weight to the effect of the coercive measures of the United States, and the other which points more to the internal shortcomings of the Cuban model. It is a false dichotomy. Both are important. As a Cuban economist who lives and works in Cuba, I am more interested in internal factors, because it is on them that we can influence more effectively. The reform formally proposed in 2011 targeted several of these structural problems. However, even within the official framework, progress has been very limited. Hence its limited impact on the economy. For example, in 2017, Cuban authorities suspended licenses in the most popular categories of self-employment. And they tried to introduce new restrictions on self-employment. A few days before their implementation, in December 2018, many of these restrictions were lifted. The so-called “command task” had design and implementation errors and was not supplemented with other steps that would make it feasible. The “order” itself proposed to change relative prices to trigger a reaction from companies. This mechanism is the market: autonomous units that make decisions based on price signals. At the same time, we observe that the official discourse continues to demonize the market, just like that. This constitutes a total inconsistency. There are formulas that have been tried over and over again that get nowhere. Soviet-style central planning has failed everywhere. It is time for Cuba to find authentic recipes adapted to its circumstances. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam himself, during a visit to Havana, made it clear that this country can only move forward if it abandons the model of a state and subsidized economy. On the other hand, social policy requires new paradigms to fully accept the fact that there is a very important socio-economic stratification. This delay made it less effective in reducing areas of vulnerability. Unfortunately, we talk a lot about equality, but without going into the concepts. Data is scarce and of poor quality. The truth is that the reform has been very slow and inconsistent. And it would be nice to critically recognize these shortcomings. I have no doubt that what has been stopped or half-done wrong over the past decade has a lot to do with the current crisis. Many of us had a sense of urgency which unfortunately was not shared by the authorities. Political will has been lacking and there are also gaps in key technical skills among public officials. Here the international community can play a decisive role.
P. Has Cuba wasted too much time introducing far-reaching reforms? What’s the most urgent thing to do?
R. Precious time has been lost. Even times when Cuba had a much more favorable international environment. It would be illusory to think that the solution of the problems is simple and quick, even if the necessary measures are taken. So there is no time to waste. I believe that the transformation of the ownership and management structure is essential to change the incentives facing economic actors. It is essential to undertake a deep restructuring of the state enterprise and to promote the expansion of the private and cooperative sector. Only this will allow the mobilization of resources, energy and human talents which are wasted today. All this while maintaining the necessary safeguards in processes of this nature.
P. Can Cuba in the short term emerge from the desperate economic situation in which it finds itself?
R. Technically speaking, the situation is dire. Cuba has experienced eight consecutive quarters of economic contraction, since the second half of 2019. But I am convinced of the enormous potential that exists in Cuba. Everyone recognizes him. I believe that the solution to our problems lies in Cuba. We need to let go of the habit of looking outward at what we can and should do on our own.
P. How did you feel seeing the pictures from these days?
R. There have been many readings of what happened on July 11th. I believe that the government has a duty to protect the exercise by citizens of all rights enshrined in the Constitution, including the right to demonstrate peacefully. To pretend that everyone who participated in the protests are criminals or annexationists is wrong. It should be remembered that annexationism has been a political trend for a long time, but it has always been in the minority. I would be more concerned about the conditions that could make him grow up in contemporary Cuban society. Even to think that some are just confused or wrong is a simplification of reality. I reject violence, wherever it comes from. This is not so. On the other hand, I ask for respect for the participants who came from poor neighborhoods. Some of the adjectives used are downright false. These neighborhoods exist and have developed in Cuba. Has anyone ever wondered how a person manifests himself when faced with a desperate situation and lacking the analytical resources of the intelligentsia? They are all as Cuban as the most enthusiastic specialist. I’m not interested in a Cuba where we don’t all fit in.
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