Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Translation: A magnifying glass on the 'updating'

Note the emphasis in this brief report on the internal, rather than external, challenges and the emphasis on "bureaucratic, centralising and administrative obstacles" to the implementation of the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines for the Party and the Revolution.        

Below the online version of this article on the Juventud Rebelde website are 16 comments submitted by readers. One of them, "Rogelio", wrote:

I'm worried about this attention given to the economic transformations in Poland, one of the countries where the ruling class sold the country to the capitalist class and this same class restored capitalism. I think the trajectory should be towards the working class.   
The author replied as follows:

Rogelio: I'll explain because I was there, reporting on the seminar. The fact that Señor Polaco had given a lecture there, and the same goes for the Vietnamese specialist, doesn't mean that they're handing out recipes to the Cuban scholars. If you read the brief report I published, it is noted that the approaches of the Cubans are aimed at improving and advancing our socialist economy, which it sorely needs. Kind regards.        

A magnifying glass on the economic updating 

By José Alejandro Rodríguez

Juventud Rebelde, June 23, 2012

Translation: Marce Cameron

The Annual Seminar on Cuban Economy and Management 2012, held over three days in Havana, was a bold academic introspection on the challenges that confront the current process of updating the Cuban economic model, to consolidate it firmly in the face of much external and domestic resistance so as to secure the wellbeing of the nation and the future of socialism.

In the gathering, organised by the Centre for Studies on the Cuban Economy (CEEC) at Havana University, the pressing problems that limit the country's economic growth, and the urgency of radical structural changes that would overcome bureaucratic and top-down obstructions and favour the socialist state enterprise — in harmony with the cooperative and non-state[1] sector — were debated, with a view to freeing up the economy from restrictions and the lack of incentives and initiative that entrench low levels of productivity.

The academics took stock of the transformations that are brewing following the adoption of the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines for the Party and the Revolution, and weighed up the decisive factors and the external uncertainties of the Cuban economy, in particular the prolonged US economic blockade. But even more so, they pointed to the internal obstacles that still limit the efficacy and efficiency of our economic management, and that make us more vulnerable to so many pitfalls.

The bureaucratic, centralising and administrative obstacles were also emphasised, as well as the lack of systematic approaches, that still limit and slow down the growth of the productive forces in Cuban agriculture, make it more difficult for the workers to feel a sense of ownership, and don't recognise in reality the role of the market together with planning.

Two keynote lectures, with very different approaches, were presented in the seminar: the Vietnamese experience of foreign direct investment and international trade by Mai Thi Thu, Director General of Vietnam's National Centre for Information and Socioeconomic Forecasting; and the economic reforms in Poland by Grzegorz Kolodko of the Research Institute on Transformation, Integration and Economic Globalisation at Poland's Kozminski University.

The seminar also launched the multi-volume publication Perspectives on the Cuban Economy; The Updating Process — Cuba; Towards a Development Strategy for the Beginnings of the 21st Century; and Elements of Econometrics — Applications for Cuba, by CEEC researchers and other study centres.
Translator's footnote

[1] A reference to self-employment and small private businesses

Translation: With neither subsidy nor explanations

My last post referred to the new housing subsidies Cuba, whereby low-income individuals and households can apply for grants to repair or extend their homes. Priority is given to those whose homes have been damaged by hurricanes and flooding. The scheme is funded by the sale of construction materials by state entities at retail prices. A percentage of the proceeds are allocated to subsidies at the municipal level.

As always, enlightened policies might look nice on paper but their effectiveness depends on implementation. Here, the enemy is what Cubans call "the bureaucracy" — corrupt, incompetent or simply uncaring administrators and, sometimes, entire institutions. 

The problem is not simply petty-mindedness on the part of individuals and an administrative culture that fosters such a mentality. The root cause seems to be hyper-centralised decision-making, in both the political and economic spheres, and a lack of accountability of administrators and institutions to popular constituencies, i.e. "from below". The theme of decentralisation is taken up in another commentary I've translated by the author of the fragment below, Jose Alejandro Rodriguez.

Rodriguez has a regular column in Juventud Rebelde newspaper titled Acuse de Recibo (Acknowledgement of Receipt) in which he summarises and comments on selected letters sent in by readers, most of which deal with specific cases of administrative corruption, incompetence, arbitrariness or insensitivity. As well as exposing and publicly shaming those responsible for such injustices, Acuse de Recibo provides a sober counterpoint to the triumphal style of much Cuban journalism. It arms and emboldens those who struggle against administrative arbitrariness and injustice.

The online version of Juventud Rebelde allows readers to submit comments. These are moderated, of course, but highly critical opinions are often accepted, including from Cubans living abroad who don't support Cuba's socialist order. The regular feature that attracts by far the most commentaries is Rodriguez's column, which has evolved into a forum in which Cuban revolutionaries debate each other and, on occasion, the Revolution's hostile critics. The case below is one of two that appeared in Acuse de Recibo three days ago. It burns with indignation.   

Little wonder, then, that the online commentaries occasionally draw attention to instances in which Juventud Rebelde journalists, or those from other Cuban pro-Revolution publications, have been turned away by officials who probably have something to hide.   

With neither subsidy nor explanations

By José Alejandro Rodríguez

Juventud Rebelde, June 23, 2012

Translation: Marce Cameron

What's worst of all, in some of the tales related in this column, is not the lack of resources or unavoidable objective impediments. No, what's inexcusable is that authoritarian style, blind and deaf to human problems; drastic decisions being taken without even those affected being offered an explanation. A name is crossed out and that's that.

Félix Revilla Castillo of 12th Street, No. 97, between 7th and 14th Steets in the Mármol neighbourhood of Santiago de Cuba, was very upset when he wrote to me. He told me that the mother of his two children, Miosotis Hechavarría, lives with them together with her own mother, now elderly and infirm, in an old and very run-down house at No. 50 Brigadier Marrero, between Calvario and Maceo Streets, in that city.

Miosotis has found it necesary to leave her job, due to health problems, and is a social welfare recipient. Given her precarious economic circumstances, and faced with the urgent need to get to work on the house, she applied for a subsidy to repair it. This she was granted by the [local government] commission established for this purpose, after a monumental effort given that there was always something missing: either a signature or a statement from the People's Savings Bank (BPA) that lacked a name or this or that surname of one of the requisite officials...

Then, at the construction materials distribution centre, the first time they gave her 65 metres of reinforced steel rod, a sink, two towell racks, electrical cables, two soap dishes and the set of components for the toilet cistern.

That was all she got. There were no other kinds of materials assigned to those with subsidies, even though such items were being sold freely[1] to the population. Yet Miosotis has a subsidy precisely because she can't efford to pay for them...

The following week they went back to the distribution centre to ask for the windows, doors and interior lighting. To their astonishment, at the Bank[2] they were told that the subsidy had been suspended as instructed in a letter sent by the Municipal Administration Council, in which they didn't even explain why.

Félix asks: "Why was that subsidy cancelled or suspended? Can anybody, whatever their level of authority, stop a process that up to now has been going well, despite its ups and downs?"

The saddest thing of all is that no offical from the Peoples Power municipal government has written to this family to inform them that the subsidy in question was cancelled, and why. Are these the methods of our society?
Translator's footnotes

[1] At retail prices
, i.e. without subsidies, and in unrestricted quantities 

[2] Once granted, housing subsidies are deposited in a bank account. The bank is supposed to ensure that the funds are only used for their stated purpose, i.e. the purchase and transportation of building materials and the labour of registered small private businesses or self-employed workers (construction cooperatives have been foreshadowed).

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Translation: How to view the glass?

Superstitious readers may have noted that my last post was dated Friday April 13. Let me reassure you that nothing bad happened to me on that day; it just so happens that since then I've had dedicate myself almost exclusively to completing my undergraduate degree. I'm now anxiously awaiting the results of exams and assignments.

In this incisive comm
entary Juventud Rebelde deputy editor Ricardo Ronquillo Bello refers to one of the first significant policy changes announced by Raul Castro when he became acting Cuban president: lifting the ban on citizens staying in Cuban tourist hotels. While most Cubans can't afford to stay in such hotels —  the aim is to maximise income for the socialist state from foreign tourism — lifting the ban was a popular measure and an act of great symbolic significance. Many Cubans had resented the fact that only foreigners were entitled to stay in Cuba's best hotels, regardless of affordability, and pointed out that such discrimination was proscribed by Cuba's socialist constitution. 

In the early 1990s, Cuba turned to foreign tourism as a means to keep its socialist-oriented economy afloat after the demise of the Soviet Union and the tightening of the US economic blockade. The ban on Cubans staying in tourist hotels was aimed at minimising the social and ideological fallout from the sudden and massive expansion of tourism in a relatively egalitarian society amid great hardships and shared sacrifices.

The ethical logic was simple: if the vast majority of Cubans can't afford to stay in such hotels then no Cuban should be allowed to. In the name of solidarity, the government pursued a policy of limiting the possibilities for conspicuous consumption by a minority in the midst of a national emergency. The ban was also aimed at curbing the resurgence of prostitution during the Special Period and the growth of black-market activities aimed at fleecing tourists of their hard currency, both of which contributed to the rise in social inequality that accompanied the economic crisis.

How to view the glass?

By Ricardo Ronquillo B

Juventud Rebelde, May 19, 2012

Translation: Marce Cameron

Some data published in this newspaper last week might pose a dilema for us in the style of Mastropiero. Let’s recall that the famous doctor, going by the name of Alexander Sebastian, is the originator of the well-known uncertainty principle.

That scholar carried out an experiment in which a group of people were placed in a situation in which the glass was either “half full” or “half empty”. It demonstrated that subjectivity is the element of thought that depends on the way of thinking or feeling of the person making the observation.

For Mastropiero, the throught process is linked to memory, recollections, experiences and the knowledge of the people involved, who, as individuals, usually have differing experiences.

The announcement by the Ministry of Tourism that domestic tourism has grown significantly since 2008, and that during the past year alone 580,000 Cuban citizens stayed in hotels, an increase of 32%, is one such figure that can be viewed from different perspectives.

The first, and who would deny it, is very pleasing. It’s gratifying that more of our fellow Cubans have the means to enjoy a little taste of tourism.

Fortunately, as might be expected, this growth affects all of us. As well as demonstrating the soundness and good sense of abandoning a policy that favoured foreign tourists, it dignifies Cubans and stimulates a sector that was always intended to function as an engine of the national economy; a sector that often had many of its rooms unoccupied, while numerous Cubans found themselves unable to satisfy their yearnings and spend their adequate incomes in a pleasant way.

But there’s a more defiant way of viewing the content of this “Mastropierian glass”. The good news also demonstrates that we have a country with a marked social stratification.

As this sector with money to spare grows, with the possibility of using its incomes for some deserved holidays, at the other extreme is another sector whose economic situation obliges it to turn to state subsidies just to be able to satisfy basic necessities.

Hence the need for us to bind to everyone's sensibility, with silken threads, the socialist principle that in Cuba nobody will be left helpless; that in this process of adjustment of the economy and society no person or family will be cast adrift, without lifelines to this magic rope of justice that united us after 1959.

To achieve this implies replacing the egalitarian policy, that subsidised products, with another that subsidises persons, without trauma; and consolidating a taxation strategy that would guarantee the funds for our state to support an appropriate conception of redistribution and welfare, as decided by the Sixth Communist Party Congress.

After the beginning of the updating [of Cuba's socialist economic model], the best sign in this regard was the government's decision to allocate part of the proceeds from the free[1] sale of construction materials to subsidising the construction of a basic housing unit [i.e. a room] for those individuals and families of greatest social vulnerability[2].

As important as the decision itself was the way in which it was announced by the members of Workig Group 6 of the Permanent Commission for the Implementation and Development of the Economic and Social Policy Guidelines for the Party and the Revolution. They made it clear that this is neither an act of state charity nor a gift, but the fulfilment of a constitutional obligation.

They stated that the government's decision to grant subsidies to low-income individuals and families is a policy that promotes equality of opportunities in Cuba; that nobody will be left to fend for themselves, and that social solidarity will be put into effect, organised by the socialist state.

Neither can we ignore the fact that ours is a socialist state that must undertake the transformations in the midst of a serious distortion of the social pyramid[3], which means, moreover, that until it is corrected equal access won't always involve equality of opportunities. Thus it might be more complicated for us to place ourselves in front of Mastropiero's glass and answer his disturbing question: It's half full! It's half empty!
Translator's footnotes

[1] By state-owned retail stores without subsidies and in unrestricted quantities.

[2] 'Social vulnerability' is a Spanish term that is more encompassing than poverty. The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean defines it as a multidimensional process that contributes to the risk that an individual, a household or a community may be disadvantaged by a situation or a change in circumstances.

[3] A reference to the fact that, for example, a self-employed worker or small business owner may earn more in one day than the monthly salary of a doctor, a teacher or an engineer — a legacy of Cuba's post-Soviet "Special Period".