Esteban Morales interviewed by Dmiti Prieto
HAVANA TIMES — Esteban Morales is one of Cuba’s most outstanding academics. An economist and a specialist on hemispheric policy, he is a grey-haired, tall, bearded black man with an air of being a taita, or an African patriarch. Yet Esteban doesn’t possess the slightest hint of arrogance; he’s jovial and open in conversation.
A tireless reader of scientific works of all stripes, he has spoken out against dogmatism and censorship. He has been seen on both the Mesa Redonda pro-government program on Cuban television as well as in independently organized settings for alternative discussion.
Morales maintains a blog of his own, and many of his writings are reproduced and commented about on other online media sites, including Havana Times. He is the father of an Afro-Cuban family dedicated to anti-racist activism, and he has recently published two books on the issue of “the races” in Cuba. He also participates in the Cuban chapter of the “Articulacion Regional de Afrodescendientes” [the Regional Coordinating Organization of Afro-descendents], a new vehicle of civil society in the fight for ethnoracial equality.
HT: Esteban, your generation was the one that entered adulthood with the insurrectional victory of 1959. What were the most important events in your life?
EM: I was born in Cardenas (Matanzas Province) on August 26, 1942. It was between 1959 and 1962 that the most important events that shaped my life took place.
Long before 1959, when I was about 11, I won first prize in an essay contest on Jose Marti; it was organized by the “Caballeros Catolicos” [Catholic Knights] in my town. When I got to the ceremony, you could hear the murmuring throughout the hall. I figured out what had happened; the form I had filled out didn’t include my picture, and it wasn’t imaginable for those middle-class whites that a poor black kid like me would win the competition. They made me leave.
Luckily for me, there was a certain banker on the jury. He was as white and middle class as all the others, but he was the brother-in-law of the woman who employed my grandmother as a maid. It seems that he kicked up a fuss and made them grant me the award. It consisted of a full scholarship to the School of the Holy Trinity of the Trinitarian Fathers, the best school in my town and one of the best in Cuba.
I’m recounting that incident because it changed my life. I was born in a rooming house where I lived with my two siblings and my parents. The son of a carpenter and a housewife, my only advantage was being very studious and glued to books. This was despite my having to study in the backyard under the only lightbulb we had. Otherwise I read by candlelight when my father had to get up at four in the morning.
I started studying under my scholarship in the fourth grade and I almost finished high school from that same school. I also had had three cousins who were teachers who tutored me from when I was 11. They helped me get into another high school and stayed on top of me, fueling my desire to study. I was lucky because with my background I would have had to work with my father in carpentry, just like I did on many occasions, and that would have been it for me.
Before 1959, I had to leave my town and I ended up in a room in the Jesus Maria neighborhood, in Old Havana, where the revolution took me by surprise. I joined the “Association of Young Rebels” (AJR), and since I had a certain level of education I became a teacher at the “Antonio Guiteras Revolutionary Training Center,” at the Tallapiedra School. I was a leader of the AJR, and at the same time I worked at the Department of the Provincial Office of Distribution of the July 26th Movement. There, I was shocked by the explosion of the Coubre, whose victims I helped out all I could…
HT: The Coubre was a French ship that brought weapons from Belgium and exploded in Havana harbor, killing a lot of people… in confronting the emergency, the leading role fell on the poor: longshoremen, residents of the poor neighborhoods in Havana – like Jesus Maria. Many of them were black and a large number were members of the secret Afro–ancestral “Abakua Brotherhood.” That tragedy occurred in March 1960.
EM: In April of 1960, I signed up as a volunteer teacher for the first contingent of the literacy campaign, marching into the Sierra Maestra mountains. In August of that year, I was placed as a teacher in the “Youth Brigades of Revolutionary Work” in Pino de Agua, in the Sierra Maestra. Later I was sent to Pinares de Mayari. I was traveling around on what was called “Raul Castro’s turf”: the Sierra de Nipe of the Sierra Maestra. During the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961), I was in the Sierra de Nipe, and during the Missile Crisis (1962) I served as a gunner. Later I enrolled at the University of Havana in the economics and diplomacy programs. I finally chose economics. I studied as a student-worker, graduating in 1969, though since 1966 I had functioned as a teacher’s-assistant to a professor.
From then on, all my work was at the university, from when I was a graduate-instructor to when I became a professor in 1977. I was the director of the Economics Department, the director of Political Science, the dean of Humanities, and I founded and directed what is now the Center for Hemispheric and United States Studies for 18 years, until I retired in 2010. Before retiring I achieved all the goals I had set for myself in the academic realm.
HT: In 2010, you were expelled from the Cuban Communist Party [for writing an article about the pervasive effects of corruption] , but later you readmitted into the ranks…
EM: In 2010, what I consider was a political error was made in relation to me. It was the result of unacceptable ideological intolerance, poor methods and ignorance of my revolutionary background. This forced me to take early retirement, though it didn’t cut short my scientific or intellectual activity. Today I hope that those who were behind these errors are honest enough with themselves — at least when they’re alone thinking by themselves — to accept that they were wrong.
HT: How do you see Cuba now compared to the dreams of the ‘60s?
EM: In relation to the sixties, I think Cuba has advanced in some things and regressed in others. The causes are multiple. The dreams of the ‘60s have proven to be just that – mostly dreams. Now we’re being forced to be more realistic, less idealistic; to abandon the arrogance that accompanied us for a while, to change copied work methods that don’t conform to our historical realities, to abandon repressive attitudes that limit personal opinion, to give more respect to individual opinions and the beliefs of others, to be less bureaucratic, to not abuse power when one holds it. I believe that the experiences, and especially the failures, have been enough for us not to want to repeat them.
HT: Today there exist many new self-organized settings in Cuba, some of them rather controversial. What do you think of social activism in contemporary Cuba?
EM: I think the social activism that exists today must be respected, and if their leaders are controversial, then their ideas should be subjected to an open debate and work should be undertaken to guide them correctly, but never to suppress them. People organize and seek new forms of collectivism when those that exist don’t meet their interests. I consider myself a part of that process. The opposite would be to deny the dynamics of civil society.
Civil society progresses like that, and anyone who tries to oppose this process will be crushed, especially if you don’t realize that civil society is taking away the power of those who actually no longer have it. This is happening, though you can still see people acting like they were in the seventies, as if they have more power than they really do.
Such activism is always positive for society if it’s understood and treated as ways to advance toward better solutions to problems. Counterrevolution only comes out of such activism when it’s not understood and attempts are made to repress it because it coincides with our personal ideas of how things should be. In society, things are always going to end up like the majority wants them to be. If minority elites cling to the past — to privileges, to powers — they’ll be opposed, the masses will run them over.
HT: Do you consider yourself a part of that activism? And if so, with what aims are you involved?
EM: Our civil society must progress whereby people have the full capacity to express their opinions, opposing everything they consider negative. We must not permit imposition, but rather demand democracy in decision-making. We must oppose bureaucracy, imposition, opportunism, abuse of power and arrogance.
This is why I consider myself part of all these currents of people who want things done in new ways, especially if there are so many ways that have proven themselves to be unsuccessful, and in our situation these methods abound. Therefore, the search for new ways of doing things is a completely progressive movement. That’s why I support and participate in these in any way I can.
HT: What do you think of racism in Cuba? Does it exist? How can it be combated? Aren’t the current socio-economic changes encouraging racist attitudes, which certainly don’t contribute to greater equality between people?
EM: Certainly there are changes that don’t contribute to greater equality, but there’s no choice other than to implement them. We had an egalitarian system, but it threatened all of our equilibrium. It would be worse to repeat that kind of egalitarianism, it is not even possible to defend it. There will be people who within a yet unknown period of time will have to suffer so that in the end we’re all saved. That is a price we have to pay for the mistakes that we acknowledge were committed. Within this, we need to seek policies so that the suffering is minimized – but we can’t prevent it entirely.
In this context, blacks and mestizos will suffer the most because they were left the furthest behind and the time that the state had to implement change wasn’t sufficient for them to reach a fairly acceptable and stable level. This is why there must be actions taken to protect these people.
Racism exists. What’s more, I think it has worsened in recent years. The only way to fight it is from within the civil society, from below, while the government and the state should support those efforts to combat it. This means not only in the economy, but also in culture, education, politics and the law. We must punish racial discrimination, we can’t allow the will of those who — out of convenience and even ignorance or intolerance — continue to practice that.
HT: As a specialist on North America, what prospects do you see for US-Cuba relations under the new Obama administration?
EM: What’s most important for Cuba’s relations with the United States to improve is to succeed — thoroughly and continuously — at increasing the costs to the United States of a policy that hasn’t given them the results they expected.
Above all, this means Cuba going ahead with its plans and projects for change, development and especially changing our mentality. It’s not in Cuba where the US policy should change, but what Cuba can do to change that policy is not insignificant. We don’t have any reason to expect US policy to change, but if we change ourselves as much as possible, they will have to change too.
Take the case of the recent immigration reform that Cuba has just adopted; it’s not perfect or complete, but it’s very useful and intelligent. We need to take bolder steps in the economy, free up the productive forces, give more latitude to foreign investment, take more advantage of the scientific and technological potential that the country has, applying it to produce domestically. These are measures to ensure the country develops in a sustainable manner.
We need to give Obama an alternative: the US can either change its policy towards Cuba or it can remain there acting like a child, playing with its “rattle” that only serves to make a lot of noise.
In addition, the change in policy is a question of Obama’s political will, which I don’t trust at all. In the end, a policy is changed only when no change has a higher cost.
HT: As for the Cuban economy, what do you think about the relevance of the Marxist approach? There have been warnings about the re-emergence of economic exploitation of some by others. What do you think?
EM: Our problems are not with any theoretical approach — be it Marxist or not — towards the economy. Our problems are with the economic policy. To make economic policy today, “political economy” isn’t sufficient. Positive things can be found in Marx for determining economic policy just as in other theorists of “bourgeois political economy” – some who even theoretically object to Marx.
Karl Marx wrote the book A Critique of Political Economy. That meant that he studied all the political economy theorists who preceded him and in all he found things that were helpful and rational. After more than a hundred years, why don’t we do what Marx did and look at the dozens of economists who exist, everything that can be helpful for our purposes?
We often confuse orthodoxy with magnesia. I recommend you read an article of mine in the magazine Marx Ahora (No. 19) entitled “La economia politica Marxista: retos de un tercer milenio” (Marxist Political Economy: Challenges of a Third Millennium), in which one of the most important things I say is that science is science, coming from whatever side it comes from; the rest is apology.
The Soviets accused as revisionists all those economists who concerned themselves with introducing mathematical analysis into economics (Novozhilov, Kantarovich, Agambeguian, and Faramasian). With truly scientific minds, they were searching for — in the field of mathematical economics — useful tools for planning. However, the stubborn defense of the supposed ideological purity of Marxism prevented this search for something that would have been useful to socialism even if it was found in bourgeois science.
This same error was repeated in all Marxist social sciences. History repeated itself particularly with “bourgeois sociology,” viewing it as a simple response to historical materialism. In Cuba we committed the same error in the seventies with sociology. Today, people are lost who don’t make use of the tools all fields of science — Marxist or bourgeois — to develop their own approaches. True science has no ideological or political boundaries, the only difference [politically] with the sciences is how they’re used.
HT: In your opinion, how should economic theory and practice in Cuba be updated?
EM: It should be updated without dogmatism and without false ideological defenses. We don’t have to abandon Marx, but nor should we absolutize his work as if it were some bible in which we hope to find all the answers. We have to do precisely what Marx did: take everything that might be useful in formulating economic policy.
But above all, we have to give control over the economy to the economists – not to the politicians, as was done for many years. The politicians have politics, while the economists are the ones who need to guide the economy. Now we seem to be going in that direction. We’ve begun to pay attention to academia and we’re leaving aside the arrogance that only practicing administrators are those who know what to do.
HT: What do you think of social thought here? Is it fulfilling its “mission” of re-making a new vision of Cuba, of anticipating possible scenarios?
EM: Our social thought was quite backwards for several years. That was the result of dogmatism in politics, followed by opportunism and cowardice on the part of more than a few social scientists. Our politics tended to accept science only if it justified their actions, other than that, science worked to find justifications for practice. This was not without some stumbling around, but fortuneately we’ve begun to move forward.
The criticisms made by science are now breaking through. We still don’t find enough discussion of these in our media, but the power of the old media is running out. Soon they’ll have to get rid of all the secrecy and accept discourse that’s more open, truthful, daring and advanced. Above all, they’ll have to operate more in line with the information needs of a society and culture that is progressing beyond the national media. We will have to gradually create an environment that will allow our social thinking to definitively develop a new and better vision, one capable of anticipating the possible scenarios for Cuba.