Technocrat Myopia: a Cuban Problem
October 8, 2013
Haroldo Dilla Alfonso
HAVANA TIMES — Some days ago, the Cuban weekly newspaper Trabajadores
(“Workers”) published an interesting interview (in Spanish) with Ricardo
Torres, a young scholar working at the University of Havana’s Cuban
Economy Studies Center who has had a short but praiseworthy career.
The economist affirms that Cuba requires “major surgery”, an
intensification of the reforms program, and goes on to mention a number
of handicaps and opportunities in this connection. He concludes we’re
going through bad times but that we could be doing a whole lot better,
an opinion I basically agree with.
Since I am not an economist, I will let readers enjoy Torres’
interesting interview and focus on a number of aspects that point to a
serious problem faced by Cuban society: public speeches that are trimmed
and edited to the point of becoming unrecognizable or, at least, senseless.
Cuba’s incipient public sphere suffers from schizophrenia. Save for
active opponents of the government – that is to say, individuals and
groups that aspire to bring about a change in government and express
this openly – the existing spectrum of critics, in order to survive, is
forced to say something different, and sometimes contrary, to what they
want to say.
This is not because the opposition is more intelligent, but because it
has already crossed the line, beyond which one invariably runs into the
It is a situation characteristic of authoritarian systems, which draw
very clear limits for public expression. This comes at a high cost for
society; as it hinders the maturation of the ideologies that will be
called on to take Cuba’s future political stage.
An ideology is not simply a corpus of more or less interconnected ideas.
It is also an interpretation of society, a way of interacting with the
subjects the ideology is aimed at. If this last element is missing –
that is to say, if there no public to address – political ideologies do
This is the situation all Cuban political actors, be they members of the
opposition or critics of the system, currently face. It is also the lot
of the government which, devoid of any serious competitors, shamelessly
puts its shoddy doctrines on display.
The same holds for economists who have the boldness to call for “major
surgery”, as Torres does.
For, even though they know that economic systems invariably have social
and political correlates, they must remain silent on those issues.
Not because they are technocrats, per se (they are a bit wiser than
that), or supporters of the kind of measures implemented by the
International Monetary Fund (they are more sensible than that), but
because, in Cuba, they are only authorized to debate about the economy,
a debate where social issues figures as collateral damage and the
political arena is a mine-field.
It comes as no surprise, then, that an economist of this stature
practically glosses over Cuba’s social problems, limiting himself to
saying that salaries aren’t enough to live on and that one of the most
serious problems faced by the country’s economy is none other than the
“disproportionately large spending on social and personal services, from
the point of view of both the structure of the Gross Domestic Product
(GDP) and that of workforce.”
That is to say, too much is being spent on the social wellbeing of Cubans.
In a sense, this is true, at least statistically, against the backdrop
of a flimsy GDP that isn’t growing. And its impact is exacerbated
because such spending is handled with a degree of inefficiency that has
already been emphasized by more than one international expert.
However, to claim that the problem is simply a question of excessive
spending strikes me (at the very least) as something of an unkind
statement, particularly when we are dealing with an impoverished and
aging population that barely manages to get by on the crumbs they
receive as subsidies.
The majority of Cubans live in overcrowded or ramshackle houses, and
this because no social policy aimed at constructing homes for them
exists. If the situation isn’t more serious, this is because the
population is actually decreasing.
Millions of Cubans are malnourished, have teeth taken out without
anesthesia, cannot get their hands on the medication they need, are
admitted into hospitals without running water, where food worthy of a
Nigerian prison is served, and have children who go to squalid schools
with badly-paid teachers.
Thousands of Cuban medical professionals are willing to work deep in the
Amazons, not in the manner of Arturo Covas, not to challenge social
conventions, but to earn 1,500 dollars a month.
I don’t think they would understand what Torres means with his comments
on social overspending. I think, rather, that they are feeling the
brutal onslaught of just the opposite, a reduction in social spending
that has gone from around 20 % (in 2005) to a bit more than 5 % (2013).
All of this could well have been a mere footnote, were it not for the
fact that Torres describes the socio-political panorama surrounding the
reform process with startling naivety.
According to him, the reform process “requires a coherent strategic
program, to be conceived and implemented on the basis of the active
participation of the different actors of our society: the government,
citizens, the productive sector, regions, communities, workers and
intellectuals (…) This plurality can produce great ideas and the
consensus we need to successfully trace Cuba’s path.”
Though well-intentioned, this rhetoric doesn’t help us much. First of
all, because what Torres calls “Cuba’s path” does not exist. There are
many paths: some are easier to tread than others and, of course, lead to
Unless we are willing to swallow the cocktail of conservative
nationalism and pro-market technocratic administration and accept it as
a political doxa, we would have to concede that, today, the spaces for
consensus are less numerous than those for conflict.
That social actor which Torres calls the “productive sector” – a
shameful euphemism used to designate business managers in the process of
becoming a national bourgeoisie – will only agree with workers and
consumers on one point: that the economy needs to work. But these actors
are not likely to see eye to eye when it is a question of deciding what
to do with the surplus generated by that working economy.
This is why it is reasonable to assume – and unjustifiable to omit –
that these workers, pensioners, consumers, students and others must be
furnished with enough rights (of assembly and association, to
demonstrate and strike) to confront the rigors of the consensus that
Torres considers ought to reduce social spending.
Without the right to protest, without independent representation with
which to negotiate, the “strategic program” Torres calls for will be
part and parcel of the system of authoritarian domination and the
expropriation of rights that the better part of Cuban society endures
today. The difference will be that such domination, which is today
secured through the political and bureaucratic apparatus, will rely on
the inestimable help of the market.
Therefore, the discussion about the future Torres proposes not only has
to be broad in terms of participants – no Cuban, living on the island or
abroad, should be excluded from the debate against their will – but also
in terms of its agenda.
The debate must address the political changes that are needed to ensure
that the country’s economic recovery does not become a gangster-like
brawl, to the detriment of the social rights of the majority. It would
be desirable for Cuban society to arrive at an agreement over some of
the basic aspects of the structure of the reform, but it cannot do so
within the current political context.
We cannot continue to insist on monolithic unity (even if presented with
a few pluralist streaks) or on a consensus founded on the needs of
authoritarian governability. We cannot continue to insist on controlled
debate or its inevitable corollary: the repression of the nonconformists.
There are many reasons for this. One of them is that an authoritarian
regime that curtails freedom of opinion and bridles intellectual work
places talented economists such as Torres at the service of the same
type of restructuring we have long condemned as technocratic and
(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by
Source: “Technocrat Myopia: a Cuban Problem – Havana Times.org” –