The process of changes is ongoing
Francisco Aruca chats with Manuel Ramy
Excerpted from Progresso Weekly
One other factor is the people's pressure, from the standpoint of undeniable realities. That's precisely one of the reasons for the recent calls for open discussion, which have been held and have resulted in more than a million proposals, according to Raúl Castro.
Pressure from below, upward, supports the need for change and is a factor that limits the power of bureaucracy. When we talk about structures, we talk about forms, grades, levels of relationship. When we talk about economic structures, we talk about other modes of property that are perfectly compatible with socialism, or about the role the market might play -- whether it would be central or peripheral -- or about the degree of decentralization of sectors of the economy.
We must also realize that it is a question of calibrating the depth and direction of the changes, so that they won't go beyond what's sensible. For these reasons, we're looking at a process in stages that, in my opinion, is being measured cautiously.
Washington certainly has an effect on this entire process. It has had an effect in the entire 50-year history of the Cuban revolution, and the role its pressures have played is very clear. First, at the level of the people, [Washington's stance] is an element of cohesion, of unity, that looms more serious than any everyday problems because it represents the threat of imperialism, 90 miles away, and what it wants to do is to destroy. You can gauge how much, or how little, the people have achieved, but [Washington] is one of the factors that stimulate cohesion.
Aruca: The Cuban people do not want to run the risk of losing all the good things that may have been achieved.
Ramy: I see no evidence that they're willing to do that, so far. On the other hand, the role being played by U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba at this point reinforces the position of the hardliners within the system. They can argue that, because of the threats from the U.S., there can be no opening.
However, that's only one side of the coin. The other is that the pressures from the [Bush] administration also reinforce the need for change [in Cuba], because this country cannot live constantly thinking in a reality ...
Aruca: I conclude that, in your opinion, the people's need for better answers to a series of basic problems is probably the most important factor. U.S. foreign policy, too, plays an important role.
There was a time when more people would have said that the [Cuban] government is using foreign policy as an excuse not to make internal changes. But you say that the changes will come from domestic reasons, whether or not the U.S. changes its policy. If U.S. policy becomes less aggressive, the changes would take place with greater ease.
You say that, to a great degree, the needs of the people are the primary factor that will explain how the changes will be made.
Ramy: You have understood me correctly. The needs of the people are the primary and determining factor. If U.S. foreign policy limits the depth and direction of the changes, that's something else. Within a context of good relations, the Cuban government probably could take the steps it wishes to take, something it wouldn't do within a context of a permanent threat to the Cuban nation. The latter situation would hinder the normal development of a process [of change].
The determining element is the reality and the national factors. The United States is not going to move from where is sits, and the island of Cuba is not going to move from its geographic location.
Aruca: You mentioned Raúl's speech on July 26. But Raúl also delivered a speech on Dec. 28 at the National Assembly, and we all concluded that it was a very important speech. Please comment on the importance of that speech.
Ramy: Raúl Castro has made four major speeches in little more than one year. One was not given much publicity by the media because it was a gathering with students at the University of Havana. Rather, it was a charming and very pleasant conversation, according to students who were there. He told anecdotes about his childhood, his youth and more or less said that the time for generational change was upon us.
Then came the ground-breaking speech on July 26, which was a critical (and self-critical) speech and served as the starter's pistol shot. He spoke about structural changes and changes of mentality. As a result of it, assemblies were held at all levels of Cuban society, with the participation of more than 5 million citizens and the presentation of more than one million proposals.
Then came his appearance Dec. 24 in Santiago de Cuba. As you know, Fidel is a candidate to Parliament for Santiago de Cuba. In his name, Raúl toured the barrios, the municipalities, everywhere.
There, [Raúl] said he gave Fidel Castro his speech of July 26 to read in advance, and said that Fidel didn't correct a single comma. What did he mean by that? That there are no discrepancies. In other words, Fidel Castro is totally in accord with Raúl Castro's statement of July 26.
Further, on Dec. 28, Fidel sent a letter to the National Assembly in which he said Raúl had shown him the speech he planned to deliver there, and that [Fidel] had read it and was raising his hand to support [Raúl]. What does that mean? That there is a perfect agreement between the two fundamental figures in government.
Some analysts see Raúl as the more pragmatic person, perhaps more willing to implement some measures swiftly, while Fidel is the more cautious leader, even though he is strategically in agreement. But the first thing I conclude from all this is that there is a consensus between the two figures in power.
From Raúl's speech, I would point to several aspects. First, that the changes must be made by consensus (obviously, he refers to the deep changes, to the structural changes) and that an integral vision is needed to make those changes. That means that there is a project of integral changes, because there are aspects that cannot be fixed with one measure here, another measure there. That's the first point I would stress.
Aruca: In other words, they are interrelated aspects.
Ramy: Exactly. But he did talk about measures that can already be implemented. When he said that a series of laws were established in the past, regulations that created problems instead of solving them, what did he mean?
Aruca: If I remember correctly, he worded it in terms of prohibitions. A great many prohibitions were enacted that, in turn, created illegalities.
Ramy: One thing is clear. There are many prohibitions here, and many things that are not tolerated, even though they are not prohibitions. I think that many prohibitions and regulations have actually generated the underground economy that exists today, and even participate in it.
I can't give you any figures, but I know that at the people's assemblies, in the CDRs [Committees for the Defense of the Revolution], in workplaces, people have made such proposals as allowing citizens to sell their cars, sell their houses. A series of measures have been proposed that -- if implemented -- would give a different style and movement to the domestic scenario.
Aruca: Would you include prohibitions such as not permitting a Cuban national to enter a certain place or eat in a certain [restaurant]?
Ramy: Yes, and that's one of the issues that are being studied and require a consensus. Not only a consensus at the levels of Party and government but also among population sectors that are not a majority but that wouldn't agree with some specific measures. What's being sought is the widest consensus possible in whatever is done. For example, there's the topic of migration.
I don't wish to minimize the impact of 2 million Cubans living outside the island. I couldn't tell you the figure, but many Cuban families have a relative living abroad. There is a complex migratory problem that goes from "the white card" that enables a citizen to leave the country to the rights of the émigré. I think that's also on the table of topics to discuss.
The place where economic changes must begin is the sector of agriculture. It is essential. Cuba must solve its food problem. If we have achieved military security, as some say, we must achieve alimentary security, because in military terms food is part of the rear guard. Besides, it is one of the problems with the hardest impact.
The country is spending US$1.5 billion in foodstuffs -- practically 70-80 percent of the volume it consumes -- yet, the sectors of agriculture that have given greater results have been the private producers, the credit-and-service cooperatives, and the basic units of production. They produce 60-65 percent of what we Cubans eat.
What does that mean? That the remaining 30 percent comes from state-run farms -- from the state, which has more land than the private producers. Therefore, I think that the policy being instituted (not very publicly) is to distribute more land to the private farmers.
Aruca: To individual proprietors or families, and cooperatives?
Ramy: To both. Let me explain. The credit-and-service cooperatives own land in which they freely share resources, land, machinery, etc., and share the revenue. Some cooperatives make more than one million pesos per year. The problem is that they need raw materials, they need to spend their money. They don't want regulations from the Ministry of Agriculture that only hamper an individual's productivity.
On the other hand, they must open spaces for certain levels of consumption. I don't mean the farmer's productive consumption but his enjoyment consumption, because the farmer may earn 800,000 pesos and then, what can he do with that money? Will he bury it under a mango tree, or hide it, because he cannot buy a car, he cannot go someplace and stay in a hotel?
I think the turning point in the Cuban economy is the agriculture. The nation's leaders are weighing the option to decentralize it, to form a concept of agriculture in the municipality, to give autonomy to the municipality to plan and develop the local agriculture. That's what [the newspaper] Juventud Rebelde stated.
I think we must produce more, and to produce more we have to be more liberal in the treatment of agricultural production and the farmer. And we have to open space, so that the farmer can spend the money he makes.
That experience can then open spaces in the urban sector, service cooperatives, laundries, industrial production, services that don't exist or that exist only in convertible pesos. You cannot manage a thermonuclear plant and at the same time manage an ice-cream cart.
Aruca: I think you have touched on the topics that are the most important. You have provided a viewpoint that I almost completely share, although I shall reserve some comments for when I play this recorded interview in Miami. Is there anything more you wish to say?
Ramy: The process is ongoing, but it's ongoing from the institutional point of view, because it comes from within the system. The system needs to reform itself, although it mustn't do so at the expense of the people's needs.
I think that we'll see some things happen in 2008. Maybe they won't be the deepest and most integral measures ever -- because there must be a consensus at Party, government and population levels -- but there will be changes.
Manuel Alberto Ramy is Havana bureau chief of Radio Progreso Alternativa and editor of Progreso Semanal, the Spanish-language version of Progreso Weekly.