Progresso Weekly September 11 - 17, 2007
‘Less fearful of letting people make money’
An interview with intellectual Aurelio Alonso
By Manuel Alberto Ramy
To Aurelio Alonso, the Cuban reality has been marked not only by the permanent hostility of the U.S. administrations "that have hampered the normal development of changes within" but also by the alternatives open to the island by the processes taking place in Latin America.
"Without these two elements, you couldn't understand today's Cuba," the sociologist tells me on a Saturday afternoon, through the smoke of a cigar "of the type sold through the ration card."
Alonso, 67, average height, rosy-cheeked, with shrewd eyes not hidden by his glasses, is the deputy director of the magazine Casa de las Américas. This man, who from his speech and manners could be described as a thinking Everyman, occupies a special place in Cuba's intellectual world, the author of a long list of books, articles, essays and lectures. In the 1960s, he was a member of the advisory board of the famous and controversial magazine Pensamiento Crítico (Critical Thought.)
In between cups of coffee, I interview him.
MANUEL ALBERTO RAMY: What are the main problems faced at present by the Cuban population?
AURELIO ALONSO: Beginning in 2004, the macroeconomy begins to recover with some impetus, with acceptable growth. But, due to the deterioration suffered in the 1990s, the recovery is very slow.
The macroeconomic improvement achieved by the country still is not felt by the population. Food, housing and transportation are the weaknesses that place us in the indices of poverty, though not among the indicators of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank.
Here, you can't measure values by saying that the average Cuban earns US$40 a month, because we don't pay for education, health care, funerals or income tax. Even the amount we pay for a divorce is so little it's laughable. The Cuban people don't live under the same stress as someone in the United States who earns $40,000 a year but has to worry about spending one third of his salary on the mortgage for his home and if he can't pay it he's out on the street.
Here, the problems are different. However, if you don't take into account the real benefits we get and consider food, transportation and housing, it is evident that the population lives in a high context of deterioration.
RAMY: Raúl Castro's speech on July 26, in which he announced (but did not define) some structural changes, has been described by many as very critical of our reality. What is your opinion?
ALONSO: What's important is not whether it was critical of others or self-critical. It opened the possibility of doing different things that either never occurred to us or we couldn't do yesterday.
In agriculture, we had two visions: one, that identified agriculture as a subsistence economy; another, that identified family farm production -- the private producer -- with small business and therefore demonized it.
However, most of what the population consumes is not what the state-owned property produces. I remember the creation in the 1990s of the Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs), which, among other things, sought decentralization, but they were so limited in their abilities that they left no room for the peasant. They did not provide sufficient incentives to become what we had hoped they would.
I think that when Raúl talks about structural changes he's thinking that the country must procure an effective agricultural sector, even if it doesn't supply 100 percent of the needs but only 70 or 80 percent of what we consume.
RAMY: Are effective cooperatives a way to solve the problem of food?
ALONSO: Raúl is not launching a program -- yet. He has issued a call and announced a disposition. He is announcing that the country's political leadership is not unwilling to make the changes that seem to be necessary and timely to increase production and productivity. I think he is referring to the world of agricultural production and its relation to the industrial and service sectors.
RAMY: Will it be necessary to give producers other incentives?
ALONSO: Historically, there has never been an incentive device to produce the foods we want. In my opinion, it would be worthwhile to tell a family: "Look, here you have 10 hectares. Work the land however you wish. Whatever you produce, you sell in the market; or you deliver a minimal portion to the state." The family should not invest all its productive effort for the benefit of the state.
In the end, we should be less fearful of letting people make money. If you give people the space to live better and to triple what they give to society, hey, they should live better.
I remember that Che, the great promoter of moral stimuli, once said that it is not possible to expect a superior form of stimulus from a population that's starving. In other words, society must first satisfy its basic needs.
RAMY: You have just mentioned the market. Speculating on the possible changes, what role do you think the market should play?
ALONSO: That's a question for which nobody today has an answer. What everybody will tell you is that the market must play a role. I believe that, too.
Marx never proposed the possibility of crushing the market. Marx proposed the possibility of a society that surpasses the market. You can't issue four decrees, expropriate 20,000 small businesses and abolish the market.
The vision of a possible socialism also includes the existence (albeit transitory) of a market controlled by a state that is increasingly democratic, where the citizen participates more effectively and where the Assembly of the People's Power, which meets only twice a year, deals with the country's needs.
Whenever we see that the market makes contributions that are not outrageous, why not adopt them? And if possible surpass them, because that's the time to go beyond the market.
RAMY: As a journalist, I have recently heard two constant themes among the population and on the Internet, such as the forum-debates. One is the effective participation of the citizen, as a greater form of socialist democracy; the other, entrepreneurial self-management, as the magnification of socialism. What can you tell me about that?
ALONSO: I don't think that self-management as a concept is reprehensible or cannot be included within a scheme of socialization. The problem is that self-management failed in Yugoslavia because it was adopted with a Stalinist methodology and style. In other words, there was self-managerial dogmatism.
I don't favor a self-managerial model. I favor the concept where we must think about what's the greatest level of participation from the grassroots structures. We have a serious problem in our People's Power system.
RAMY: What is that?
ALONSO: The municipalities have no power to decide anything; they have no budget. We have been unable to find mechanisms of decentralization that lead us to joint ventures, to an increase in small ownerships, to a more flexible view of the economy. We have been unable to decentralize economic devices. Everything emerges from the State's main budget and trickles down.
That's no good. We have to make space for the municipalities to create their own resources, handle them and even impose municipal taxes upon private enterprises that operate within them. The same with the provincial governments.
Indisputably, Aurelio Alonso continues to be the profound Marxist, the often-irreverent revolutionary (irreverence being a Cuban characteristic), the same entertaining and charming talker I met years ago after one of his lectures. I chat with him every time we share some time together.
We could have talked a lot longer (and in fact we went beyond a simple interview), steeped in the aroma of coffee and tobacco, discussing not only Cuba but also the current situation in Latin America. His opinion, which I share, is that "the Bush administration's aggressiveness might grow, because what's happening in the Middle East could be replicated in our own region, specifically in Venezuela." But that's a subject for another story.
I prefer to let my readers weigh Alonso's opinions about facets of our reality.
Manuel Alberto Ramy is Havana bureau chief for Radio Progreso Alternativa and editor of Progreso Semanal, the Spanish-language version of Progreso Weekly.