Liberals talk Cuba

Yesterday afternoon I finally accepted the invitation to go to one of the annual conferences of the Inter-American Dialogue (referred to by many on the Washingtonian left as the Monologue), in the basement level of the posh Willard Intercontinental Hotel. After office hours, I took the metro downtown and considered stopping to buy fancier pants before heading to the event. Felipe Calderón was finishing his speech, which apparently made reference (in a powerpoint slide mentioned several times in the following panel) to Cuba's human rights record and argued that the center of the universe had moved from Havana to Mexico City. I lingered outside the doors. It was too crowded to get in anyway, and I was enjoying a cup of the very fancy teas (those individually-sewn cloth bag types) they had out. Helped me deal with the AC, which is poison for me with this never-ending cold.

There was a large number of nametag-wearing young folk, bubbling with enthusiasm and helpfulness. The one by the door was eager to help me get inside, but I could hear Calderón's Q & A while sipping my tea, so I passed. I was surprised. He sounded like some kind of radical. Talking about free healthcare and education, and going beyond that to say that until the quality of (free) education for the poorest of the poor was exactly the same as that of the richest of the rich, social inequality would not begin to diminish. But then he went on to say something about the Singapore miracle, and discipline and hard work, and I remembered he was Calderón.

When Calderón finished the mass of men in suits and ladies in a combination of fancy Washington (drab, fashion-backward) and Miami (impeccable, latino) outfits slowly made their way toward the exit. Trying to get in and find a seat that hadn't been reserved with a CAF/IAD/OAS folder or a purse was like swimming upstream. I recognized several power players (there were clearly many, many more I did not recognize). The power in the room felt suffocating, but it may also have been the crowded seats in the overly air-conditioned basement location. People were in good spirits, in any case.

The second panel, on Cuba, predictably began about 10 minutes late, because that's how long it took for all the people to get out of the room and come back in. Ted Piccone from Brookings was the moderator. He gave some opening remarks (I hope this will all be online on video later as a corrective to my transcribed scribbles) asking "Why is Cuba the first panel?" in a conference on US-Latin American relations. Cuba's economy is a small part of the story, he answered, but politically it's bigger. The upcoming Summit of the Americas brings to the fore the tensions—he noted. Also, Calderón's slides said something about Cuba's state of democracy and rule of law (presumably both bad).

Piccone began by asking Juan Triana, an economist from the University of Havana, how the reforms were going. Triana responded by saying they have only been in place for 2 1/2 years, and now there are a half million people with private property in Cuba, but it hasn't really made a positive difference. "Se necesita una visión de país," he said, "del socialismo sostenible." (this was subsequently indirectly mocked by almost all present) He spoke about creating an appropriate legal framework, a coherent and pragmatic program for investment, improving infrastructure and resolving the dual exchange rate problem—all in the short term, and creating incentives for saving and adequate employment in the long term. Nothing too specific.

Augusto de la Torre came next, answering a question about his Brookings paper on exchange rate unification in Cuba. He explained (quite clearly) the two-peso system as a subsidy & transfer system, and said that, while Cuba's low inflation rate will mitigate the trauma of the conversion to one system, it still needed to happen gradually to avoid shocks. The bodily metaphors economists rely on are always interesting to me—so unreflexively deployed, yet so telling. I like how Naomi Klein likens shocks (for psychiatric and/or torture purposes) to economic shocks. de la Torre went on to say it was important to distribute the pain just as the gains occur. [My gymnastics instructor used to say "no pain, no gain," which in my seven-year-old brain translated to pain=gain. This contributed to the 13 broken bones I suffered before age 11. I think development works much the same way; pain promoted as a sort of Christian ideal that nonetheless does not really lead to gains. But I digress...in this case the economist was actually making some sense]. Specifically, de la Torre stated, he suggested that instead of unifying the currency sector by sector as Cuba seems to be indicating it will do, and which will just create more chaos, Cuba should create explicit subsidies and taxes to replace the ones that are embedded in the dual exchange rate at present.

In response to Piccone's question about the role of the IMF and World Bank, he stated matter-of-factly that the process would be easier if accompanied by international finance (no mention of attached strings), and that he thinks Cuba should be a member of the CAF. He stated the latter as an inside joke with someone in one of the front rows, presumably some official from either Cuba or the CAF.

Richard Feinberg, professor of International Political Economy at UCSD, was next, and Piccone asked him a question about the non-state sector, and is the state meeting its goals there. Of course everyone's interested in this part of Cuba's special socialist-privatization (oxymoron?) project because it signals the creation of a "civil society"—that dangerously loaded keyword that means so much more than it appears, on first glance, to mean. And because it indicates, investors assume, that Cuba will soon be open for plunder business.

Feinberg began by thanking Juan Triana and calling him a mentor. Everything was very friendly here, even between those with the most serious differences (I'd venture to say that was Triana vs. Saladrigas). Cuba, Feinberg noted, is very different from 5-10 years ago. He said that up to 40% of people have at least one foot in the private sector (counting small business owners but also, if I heard right, people who worked in the informal economy--I'd have guessed more). Is that good enough? he asked rhetorically. No, he immediately answered. Glad he didn't leave us hanging there. He mentioned that only 200 categories of jobs were open, and more public sector jobs need to be privatized—engineers, doctors, architects.

...Screeching halt...

See here's the thing that I'm pretty sure I get, from having spent one week in Cuba (and having read some ethnographies), that makes this and so many of the macro assumptions (which entail deeper assumptions about capitalism as fundamental human nature) being made at the panel absurd. Dude throws in a casual reference to privatizing the work of doctors...does he not understand how fundamental the principal of universal free, quality healthcare for all is to Cubans? They may criticize pay structures, they will admit the Castros have made mistakes (just as the Castros have admitted). And many of them even individually and creatively privatize their healthcare just as they luchan outside the system on a daily basis to make ends meet, e.g., paying a neighbor/friend doctor directly and outside the system for at-home treatment rather than going for a hospital visit. But the idea of healthcare as something that must never be formally privatized is at the core of Cuban identity and at a deeper level, subjectivity.

So that was just thrown in there as one in a long list of things. Feinberg continued listing problems with a successful move toward a private-sector economy: a lack of wholesale vendors, no available retail space. Cuba should allow for more international technical assistance, he said, and give individuals more economic independence (i.e., to contract directly with foreign employers rather than through the government, which exploits them, he claimed).

The idea that the Cuban government steals wages by acting as an intermediary appears on the surface to be true. But if that's a tax on workers, then it seemed to me that the question of where & how that money that is not just going into workers' pockets is being spent would be relevant. Unlike regressive taxes in this country, it's not going toward imperialist wars, but rather toward things like free education and healthcare. To Feinberg and the others this wasn't part of the equation.

He also mentioned a limited number of hotel beds, and too many controls on tourism, "broader issues" of business climate. He concluded by saying that the Cuban government has to come to grips with its mixed economy, and realize that the private sector is good, ending by quoting Deng Xiaoping: "To be rich is glorious."

This was followed by a question and several comments on the port of Mariel, where a FTZ has been set up with the Brazilians. Cuba doesn't yet have firm investors there, apparently, and was chastised for not thinking competitively enough. Triana contradicted that claim, saying that 50-60 companies were currently vying to do business there. "Russia is rediscovering Cuba today" he said; he also mentioned that there are lots of new agreements with China re: energy, etc. This was actually a little entertaining, because (and perhaps I'm making this up, but) I felt a collective squirm in the room—which Triana must have anticipated—with these unapologetic assertions.

Prominent Miami Cuban businessman Carlos Saladrigas was next. Piccone asked him what impact Obama's policy changes were having. Saladrigas started by making a joke about how Calderón was mistaken, and Cuba still is the center of the universe [especially true in Miami].

He first stated that Obama's lifting of travel restrictions has had a huge, good impact on Cuban families (on both sides), and also through remittances, which allow for island-based family-members to create small businesses.

As usual, "family" functioned here as an obfuscating keyword, a code for so many other things, and Saladrigas used it skillfully. International policy reconfigures the meanings and forms of family. This notion of divided families is at once true and a construction based on an assumption of what families are and what members' (economic and other) obligations are to each other. From Saladrigas' perspective, a strengthening of families that creates bonds of dependency between Cubans on the island and Miami Cubans is a step toward capitalism (which he seemed to prefer to call freedom and/or democracy, although from hearing him talk I doubt he'd take issue with the term). Saladrigas noted that in the U.S., this policy shift has softened more hard-line attitudes (presumably those calling for violent regime change, or regime change-or-nothing). Still, "ideology is the biggest problem," he said. The Cuban government insists on reforming socialism and "that just doesn't work."

I'm always impressed by the utter self-confidence of middle-aged men who believe, because they're powerful or rich or respected by the powerful or rich, that they're always right. Not to say he's wrong there. I don't know if reforming socialism "works." But then again I'm pretty sure I have different criteria for what "works" means. I'd define it. But in the universe of men like Saladrigas, there's no need for such caveats.

He continued leveling accusations at the Cuban government, that it doesn't provide close enough direction, that the overbearing attempt to regulate, for the state to be involved in everything was dragging Cuba down. Change has to be gradual, he said. Again, he didn't specify but what he meant by "change" was clearly regime change/ socialism-to-capitalism change. He and Richard (Feinberg) and others had signed a letter to Obama asking him to make change within Cuba easier, and to open things up for U.S. businesspeople to get involved.

Jennifer McCoy from the Carter Center went next. I lost all my residual respect for the Carter Center when they whitewashed the incredible violence and fraud in last year's Honduran elections, so I had low expectations. They were met. Piccone started out noting that within the OAS, the US and Canada had been under pressure to invite Cuba in, but that for its part Cuba hasn't shown much interest. What, he asked McCoy, should Washington and other countries do?

She started from the (bogus) framework of human rights and democracy promotion. She listed three ways to approach it, in reverse order of harshness. First, sanctions, second, something I didn't catch, and third, "engagement," which included "incentives" and "empowering the Cuban people." She rightly noted that the U.S. doesn't have credibility, and complained that Latin America hasn't done anything about Cuba's human rights and democracy "problem." Focusing on the U.S. credibility issue, she noted it hasn't signed the convention against torture. Also it still defines Cuba as a terrorist state. Good (if obvious) points. She noted again that Cuba seems more focused on itself right now than on the OAS, and made the vague suggestion that "we" should engage Cuba not just bilaterally but by strengthening Latina American ties, and that Obama should go to Panama (to the summit) with the aim of strengthening the Inter-American charter. To put greater peer pressure on Cuba, since U.S lacks legitimacy.

No mention of Guantánamo in this discussion of human rights problems in Cuba...

Piccone then mentioned the $20 million/year in "democracy assistance," Alan Gross, the fake twitter scandal and Latin American youth infiltrators doing "health promotion" work, and noted there are probably many more projects. To the group, he asked whether the U.S. suspend all these programs.

There was consensus (at least in what participants stated publicly) that engaging in clandestine efforts to undermine the Cuban government were damaging and ineffective. I wonder if they would have said the same had they not been exposed, causing great embarrassment to Obama and outrage in Cuba. No mention was made of the Cuban 5 in relation to, or parallel to the Alan Gross case (and they're not really comparable anyway—Gross was on a mission to undermine the Cuban government; the five were trying to prevent terrorist attacks against Cuban citizens). Feinberg stated that Europeans have good development programs in Cuba, and the U.S. could do that in order to "build civil society" (again, that noxious code word) and the non-state sector. It would meet the goals set forth for the funding by Congress, he said, and do a better job. I thought Saladrigas said something too, but I didn't record it in my notes.

Triana interjected with an anecdote. In 1996, when Fidel decided to promote small business formation, just six months later some U.S. official stated that small businesses could be used to overthrow Fidel. "Cada vez que pensamos en una medida, siempre pensamos en qué va a hacer los Estados Unidos para derrocar el proceso." Fifty years later, he said, it's hard to understand why the U.S. persists with this stance. "Los cubanos que nacimos bajo el bloqueo," he said, "estamos genéticamente bloqueados." That got a good laugh from the whole room.

Piccone asked about the Venezuela relationship, given Venezuela's "turmoil" (a misguided and loaded term, especially given that the "turmoil" in reference is currently nowhere to be found). Triana answered that depending on one country was always a problem. Cuba learned this with Spain, with the U.S., and with Russia. To mitigate the possible dangers of depending too heavily on Venezuela (from which it gets over half its oil), he said, Cuba is working on renewable energies. Others contradicted the feasibility of this project.

Saladrigas jumped in to say that What Cuba needed was to Increase Productivity! Be Relentless! To open up the creative (read: capitalist) activities of the Cuban people! [At this point I couldn't help but think about the amazing forms of creativity the blockade has engendered--the Cuban ability to fix anything, anything. The 1950s cars all over, looking brand new, the mishmash of parts fashioned into a culture so unique and beautiful. The utter lack of danger, the vibrant life on the streets, all of it. How could even the most ardent capitalist so devalue the beauty of such creativity as to see in it only lack?] He continued on his sermon: "Let the people go! Let them take the risks they need to take and move the economy forward because we have an incredible talented human capital in Cuba!" [that phrase...]

de la Torre talked also about a focus on improved productivity, but in a more reasoned liberal economist tone. He said that foreign direct investment is disincentivized because the tax inherent in the exchange rate is too high. Something about micro-reforms not working, only macro...and he added that Juan (Triana) was right. There has to be a symmetry with how the U.S. treats Cuba and the rest of the world. In the end.

Saladrigas added that the embargo hurts, but he didn't see it going away. "The political climate in Washington is as bad as ever."

In general, it seemed that the liberals are basically chomping at the bit to open Cuba up to neoliberalization and (thus, they reason) regime change through "soft" power approaches. At least that's their public stance.

In the Q & A there were a couple questions about energy investment (one from an energy investment group rep) and I got in a question about what the panelists thought might happen in 2018, when Raúl's term expired. Triana deadpanned the answer to that one, saying "tendremos nuevo presidente." He said a new generation is preparing to take the helm, and more importantly, regional leadership is growing. The composition of the government today, he said, is totally different from five years ago. He said a national school has been created, focusing on labores del gobierno y de economía. The old guard, he said, "nos vamos extinguiendo."

Feingold addressed both questions, first expressing skepticism about Cuba's alternative energy plans. He spoke about the different funding sources for small-scale entrepreneurs—remittances, which give them hard currency, and savings. He said small scale businesses under-report, which is made easy by the lack of financial monitoring technologies, so they're actually doing much better than figures show. He said that U.S. policy had long been driven by the idea that the path to take was regime collapse followed by sudden change. But another generation is coming into power [I think he was talking about both here and there, i.e., they're not going away, we're starting to get it]. My notes here are too messy to read (Damn my never-ending cold, and related lack of caffeine!), but I think it was something like U.S. policy is out at sea. Unless it was Cuba's policy is out at sea. But I think it was U.S. policy, referring back to the notion that sudden regime change through the blockade and subversion has always been the U.S. plan. We need to move to cooperate realistically, he said, to move toward our goal [again, I believe that "goal" was left undefined, but assumed].

Triana concluded by stating that Cuba has an internal agenda with or without the U.S., and that internal agenda takes priority over relations with the U.S. In the last 50 years, he said, we have learned to live without the U.S. There's a new generation coming in, he reiterated. But the U.S. is changing too.

de la Torre added that the current tactic of the Cuban government is to no longer blame the embargo, and instead try to fix things internally. He noted that a doctor in Cuba earns more driving a taxi than practicing medicine (true). Why can a foreign investor not hire a Cuban directly? he asked [see my earlier aside re: the same question]. And, he lamented, there are so many talented Cubans willing to work.

McCoy commented that it's going to be a gradual change [again, the nature of the change unstated yet obvious]. They're very focused on their own agenda, and one thing that's very important to them is financial transactions. McCoy, or maybe it was someone else, pointed out how difficult it was for any foreign company to work with Cuba given all the banking restrictions created by the U.S. And McCoy reiterated that Obama can remove Cuba from the state-sponsored terrorism list. Posada Carriles got a mention in this context, I don't remember by whom.

Saladrigas ended the conversation on a warm fuzzy can't we all just get along note, saying "Let's hope Obama opens up, and let's hope we Cubans learn to talk to each other." Because, I guess, this has just been one big 50-year misunderstanding...

I stayed for the following panel on Latin American elections, which was pretty interesting. I'd write it up, but dios mío it's already 3:30 and I need to get a tenure case written. It's true that there's a dialogue in a very literal sense—in that there is more than one person talking at these events. But insofar as everyone at the table at these events is a free-trade liberal (with the one occasional power-palatable exception like Triana), it's pretty monologic. It's informative and fascinating in the way watching CNN is informative and fascinating. Or MSNBC, maybe. One of those mainstream stations that would make fun of Fox, even though they're really all the same. I meant to stay on for the reception, but I had a childcare emergency and had to go. All those suits must be able to afford nannies, or have stay-at-home wives. In Cuba, they have universal childcare...