Should we Make the Path by Walking?

By Mario Valdés Navia

If poet Antonio Machado had known how much nonsense would be justified with his lovely verse, he might not have written it. Not because creating has ceased to be the word of order for revolutionaries and reformists, but because in order to do so one has to think responsibly, and weigh all possible alternatives before putting everyone’s capital and the future of present and future generations at risk.

When Che Guevara took on leadership functions in the Cuban economy, far from just improvising, he devoted himself to studying the newest and most effective experiences of capitalism, and decided to start with the high level of socialization reached by its leading sector: American monopolies. At the same time, he refused to accept the application of the obsolete Soviet economic calculation, which copied the mechanism of companies in the old, barely concentrated and centralized free-competition capitalism. About that he clearly stated:

On the technical side, our system [referring to the budget financing system he advocated from the Ministry of Industry] tries to take the most advanced elements from the capitalists, and should therefore tend to centralization. This centralization is not an absolute; to do it with intelligence, one must work within the framework of possibilities. One could say: to centralize as much as possibilities allow; that’s what guides our action. This permits a saving of administration, of workforce; it permits a more efficient use of equipment by limiting ourselves to known techniques. It’s not possible to have a shoe factory which, set up in Havana, should send the product to the whole republic, because there’s a transportation issue involved. The use of the factory, its optimal size, is determined by the technical-economic elements of analysis (…) We cannot have a General Motors with more employees than all the workers of the Ministry of Industry put together, but we can have an organization –and in fact we do– that’s similar to that of General Motors.[1]

After years of idealist experimentation (1965-1970), devoted to an accelerated construction of communism, the country was economically bankrupt. In addition to huge expenses for defense against external and internal aggression, came the losses related to improvisation: the abandonment of monetary-commercial relations, accounting records and material incentives; the elimination of all sorts of small and medium private businesses, and the attempt to complete an immense sugar harvest that would provide us with funds for development.

At the time (1971) the alliance with the USSR and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) came as an only hope. From that moment, a new industrialization period was started, which was born contaminated with gigantism, dependence on imported raw materials and the use of wasteful and environmentally unsafe technologies. The productive linkages within the Cuban economy were replaced by external ones in the so-called socialist division of work.

In the early 1990s, after the crumbling of that world which was never really socialist, our economy was left like a painter whose ladder breaks: hanging from the brush. However, Cuba’s will of resistance soon yielded results. After the terrible years of 1991-1994, a package of liberalizing measures was applied to reanimate the productive forces –opening up foreign investment, increasing tourism, decriminalizing the dollar–, which reached its peak in 1997, but since 1998 we entered a recessionary phase that, as a general trend, still lasts to this day.[2]

Since then, numerous proposals have been made to continue with reforms, but in spite of the wide existing consensus about doing so –both among specialists and in society– the bureaucratic machinery, fearful that continuing transformations might endanger their system of domination, has put off once and again their application, even though they are set out in the approved guiding documents: Guidelines, Conceptualization and 2030 Plan.

Thus, far from carrying on with the process of handing over idle government-owned farmland to private producers and cooperatives, this has been stopped, because companies are not giving up the million non-producing hectares under their control. Gastronomy, commerce and services –not included among the fundamental means of production– are still confined to municipal enterprises which are undercapitalized and devoid of resources, while their raw materials are inexorably funneled toward the underground economy and small independent businesses.

The improvement of salaries in companies is done by means of a much-questioned system of payment for results, unheard of in any country, the general reform of prices and wages is on hold until the twelfth of never, and monetary unification is substituted by multiplication with the reappearance of the dollar in the domestic market. Meanwhile, the ineffective government stock system still runs rampant in agriculture, wholesale commerce for small businesses fails to materialize, and nobody even speak anymore of the Law of Trade and the authorization of SMEs.

Cuba has the most precious resource in the world: the talent, education and creativity of its workforce. The important thing is deciding first where we want to go and what to do to get there, as Varela taught us. It’s not about making the path by walking, but about charting the course in our minds –allowing for the blockade and climate change– and then covering it with a firm and confident step.

Contact the author at: mariojuanvaldes@gmail.com

[1] E. Guevara: “Algunas reflexiones sobre la transición socialista” (‘Some thoughts on socialist transition’, fragment of a letter to Fidel from April 1965), in Mis sueños no tendrán fronteras (My dreams shall have no borders), p.102. Emphasis added.

[2] Vidal, Pável and Annia Fundora: Tendencia y Ciclos en el Producto Interno Bruto de Cuba: Estimación con un Modelo Estructural Univariante de Series Temporales (Trend and Cycles in the Gross Domestic Product of Cuba: Estimation with a Single-Variant Structural Model of Temporal Series). University of Havana, 2004.

(Translated from the original)