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In Dante’s Ninth Circle

16 Sep


One of the merits which I believe can be attributed to the government of Raul Castro, since he took office on the island in 2008, is his obvious concern for the national economic condition.

Being conservative, I believe that in just two years the Army General has publicly shown far more interest and willingness to change the economic sector, than Fidel did in the entire last decade of his official mandate.

Timid, inadequate, naive measures? Perhaps. But the truth is that anything is preferable to state control.

This presidential concern could be motivated by two specific reasons:

1. The country facing Raúl bears no resemblance to that hotbed of exuberance and revolutionary fervor, to the society bursting with faith ,that his brother presided over for several decades.

The Army General has found a nation with obvious signs of distress, very high rates of illegality, battered productivity, and above all, he has found a nation with a dangerous discontent that can be seen in virtually all areas.

The endless exodus of athletes, doctors, artists; the degrading the cunning tricks by which Cubans are claiming Spanish nationality and a chance to leave the county; along with crime under the guise of common practices, are indisputable signs of this.

2. On the other hand, according to certain secret voices, the General has a pragmatic temperament, alienated from idyllic epics and social fantasies, which has led him try to first stop the unstoppable downfall of the national economy.

Of course, to speak of merit in this sense is too extreme. Or is it perhaps a case deserving of applause that a child respects his mother, or cares for her health. Can we speak of merit in citizen behavior that rejects theft or pedophilia? Are not these essential duties? I think that it is what is required of everyone, and does not merit recognition.

Similarly, I believe that Raúl’s effort to revive the Cuban economy is meritorious, but it is also true that this is a primary function, basic to any ruler. It is his obligation. Especially if we take as a starting point that any form of government in contemporary society should not have functions other than to ensure the proper performance of social processes, and to ensure the safety and welfare of its citizens.

This is not just me speaking. In the eighteenth century Jean Jacques Rousseau said it in a philosophical monument called The Social Contract (it shares with Das Kapital by Karl Marx, the status of the most famous and influential book of political philosophy ever written).

Another element to take into account in fairly assessing the current government’s will to transform the economy, is the responsibility that belongs to the Cuban State in this regard. In my view, it is no different from a surgeon who, after making a mistake in a particular patient’s surgery, decides to take a special interest in that patient’s progress and future treatment.

According to the wise words of a church authority I recently spoke with, “The greater share of power the ruler of a country accumulates, and the less opportunity ordinary citizens are given to decide their own destiny, the more responsibility, in the eyes of society and of history, is laid on he who holds the power.”

Under a system like Cuba’s, where about 95 percent of the jobs are working for the State, where the scope for managing personal finances is exactly zero, who can be held responsible for the chaotic situation presented by the national economy?

However, the main problem, which in my opinion can be seen behind this effort to inject vitality into a quadriplegic economy, is the lack of a clear perspective on the sense of where these measures are going to lead.

In economics there are no miracles. Nothing happens for no reason. All possible progress in a sector is the consequence of the implementation of sound policies in the medium or long-term, policies which translate into development.

In 1923, as a result of hyperinflation, the German mark was valued at 4.2 billion for every dollar. Though we Cubans understand what it means to change 25 Cuban pesos for one Cuban convertible peso (CUC), it is almost impossible to imagine what that 4.2 billion figure represented. Quoting the words of an eminent economist, “The German mark was worthless.”

The rapid revitalization of the country, what some then were calling the “German miracle,” was no miracle at all. It was the result of sound economic policies that led that ruined nation — which still had to go through another World War — to what it is today: an undeniable power.

In our continent, the case of two countries in particular, Brazil and Chile, confirm this principle. It was not divine benevolence, nor work at gunpoint, nor happy accident, which has brought these two nations on a poor continent to excel with their high standards of living.

It was, again, solid decisions in the field of economics, which have propelled Chile to become the only Latin American nation that can be considered to have joined the First World.

Why bring this up? Because at times it is clear that in Cuba the effort is not matched by clarity, and we know that the way to Hell is also paved with good intentions.

First, as a plan to revive productivity, they increased the retirement age by five years for workers across the country. Those who were almost ready to retire had to add years to their working lives. Workers, for the most part, unmotivated and discontented by the impossibility of prospering economically after 25 years of sacrifices.

But the new law was passed. We all knew that the public consultation was another game of democracy, with the same enthusiasm and seriousness of children playing house.

And while we’re talking about laws, we could also mention the “Pre-Criminal Dangerousness Index,” where they levy sanctions — including prison terms — to those who have no verifiable employment.

That is to say: they apply a penalty to people before they have committed a crime; in this case the pre-criminal behavior is not working and, therefore, having the propensity to commit a crime. (I’ve always thought that the plot of the movie Minority Report, by Steven Spielberg, where the Pre-crime Police stopped and arrested people before the crime happened, occurred to the brilliant director after his visit to Havana.)

It so happens that now — according to official reports of the event — President Raul Castro himself admitted, during his closing speech at the Ninth Congress of the Union of Communist Youth, that more than one million workers need to be laid off to increase productivity.

Stated clearly and without qualifications: one million people who do not produce will be put out on the street (in other times we would have said “in the cane fields”). The Cuban Workers Union has announced the cut of half a million jobs before April next year.

Against this background, it is impossible not to think: First, those who don’t work are fined or imprisoned; then those who have accumulated the most working years see the retirement age extended; and now, they throw a half million workers into the street in just a few months! But who is making these decisions for our country?

This revision of strategies is not about the will to change, about what can save us from the ruin we have been immersed in for so long. But it is a good first step. But no more than that. The drug addict who wants to ensure his future detoxification must first acknowledge and accept his addiction. But simply accepting it does not make him a “self-critical” individual. He must make good decisions to free himself from drugs.

I think there has never been a time like now, when the Cuban government has a real chance to change direction, to kick-start the transformation of our economy, to give Cubans the transfusion that is needed. But it would have to be done with real commitment and total precision.

It is worth remembering, as a subtle warning, that the worst place in Hell, the ninth circle, was reserved by Dante Alighieri in his “Divine Comedy” for traitors to the homeland in times of crisis, those who closed their mouths or crossed their arms.

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Posted by on September 16, 2010 in Ernesto Morales Licea

 

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