An important requirement for the sustained effectiveness of an economic system and society is the ability to analyze and criticize – freely, openly and continuously – its functioning. Open analysis and criticism in a context of free generation and diffusion of information provide a necessary spur for self-correction, exposing illegalities, flawed policies and errors. Free analysis and criticism are vital in order to bring illicit actions to light, to correct errors on the part of all institutions and enterprises as well as policy makers and to help generate improved policy design and implementation. This in turn requires freedom of expression and freedom of association, embedded in an independent press, publications systems and media, independent universities and research institutes, and freely-functioning opposition political parties.
The absence of free economic criticisms means that major policy errors or indeed fiascos are not “nipped in the bud” and terminated quickly but steam ahead to disaster. Some major examples of this in Cuba have been
- The 1961-1963 instant industrialization strategy, aborted in 1963
- The 10 Million Ton Sugar Harvest effort, from 1964 to 1970;
- The attempt to use the “New Man” ideology as a labour mobilization device, 1966-1970
- The shut-down of half of Cuba’s sugar agro-industrial complex (2002)
- The billion dollar mini-generator component of the “Revolucin Energtica (2006)
Pluralistic democratic countries have free presses and open debate on the issues of the day. Opposition political parties, academics, interest groups and NGOs, and journalists continuously analyze and critique public policy issues and proposals and the functioning of private and public enterprises and institutions. Indeed, there is major competition among economic and business journalists as well as academics to be the most perspicacious analysts and critics of public policy.
Unfortunately much of this has been lacking in Cuba. The media largely performs a cheerleader role, unless issues have been opened up for discussion by the President and the Party. For example, there was virtually no public discussion or debate concerning the shut-down of half of the sugar sector in 2002, the attacks on self-employment, the dysfunctional parts of the “Revolución Energética” or of the imprisoning of the critics – or so-called “dissidents” –in 2003.This means that public policies get announced and implemented full-blown without critical input into their formulation, and without subsequent criticism and early correction.
Are the restrictions on freedom of expression becoming more or less severe in recent years? Some indications suggest that there is some relaxation of such restrictions, notably:
- The bloggers have not been shut down;
- Granma has added a ‘letters to the editor” page on Fridays;
- Espacio Laical, produced by the Consejo Arquidiocesano de Laicos de la Habana and Palabra Nueva, Revista de la Arquidiócesis de La Habana operate openly and in effect have become the leading journals of critical economic thought!
- On June 16 to 20, the Catholic church was able to organize the Semana Social Católica including a Panel on “Economy and Society” with Pavel Vidal Alejandro, Omar Everleny Perez, Carmelo Mesa-Lago y Cristina Calvo.
- The presentation of information on the economy has improved over the last 10 years. The web site of the Oficina Nacional de Estadisticas is now surprisingly good and the Anuario Estadistico Economico is quite comprehensive and appears in a timely way. (However, the methodologies for the measurement of some fundamental economic data such as labor force, employment and unemployment, consumer price index, and national accounts are opaque and ambiguous so that the analyses based on them are not as strong as they could be.)
But on the other hand, there are also some indications of a hardening of the restrictions on freedom of expression.
- The containment and harassment of the bloggers continues. They have been denied access to the web. They have been harassed and intimidated – unsuccessfully – by actions of state security. They have been vilified as “mercenaries” in the service of foreign powers. They have been denied the right to travel abroad. They are often denied the right to participate in relevant domestic events such as a conference on civil society and the new media! Their web sites and therefore their commentaries are available within Cuba only with difficulty. But they have not been shut down as of mid-2010, though this could change.
- The expulsion of Esteban Morales, Professor of Economics and Political Science, University of Havana, from the Communist Party also represents a hardening of restrictions on freedom of expression. Morales comments on the character of racism in Cuba, Challenges of the racial problem in Cuba seemed reasonably innocuous. His April 22 essay entitled “Corruption: The True Counter Revolution” was more hard hitting. But being expelled from the Party looks to me like a reward, not a punishment. Of course, this is not correct, because expulsion from the Party usually means exclusion from foreign travel which is vital for academics as a means of buttressing their inadequate Moneda Nacional incomes.
- Certain areas of the economy appear to continue to be off limits to analysis and scrutiny, notably the bio-technological industry and the conglomerate enterprises that straddle the peso and the convertible peso economies.
- The political decision-making process on economic and other matters within the highest levels of the Government continues to be a “black box,” the workings of which we can only speculate about. Cuban Universities need some real Departments of Political Science!
The near-absence of checks and balances on the policy-making machinery of the state also contributes to obscuring over-riding real priorities and to prolonging and amplifying error. The National Assembly, dominated by the Communist Party, meets for very short periods of time – four to six days a year – and has a large work load, so that it is unable to serve as a mechanism for undertaking serious analysis and debate of economic or other matters. The cost for Cuba of this situation over the years has been enormous. It is unfortunate that Cuba lacks the concept and reality of a “Loyal Opposition” within the electoral system and in civil society. These are vital for economic efficiency, not to mention, of course, for authentic participatory democracy.