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Leading Cuban Scientist Speaks

'Substituting Generosity and Solidarity for Greed and Selfishness'

Interview with Jose Altshuler by Nathaniel Binzen (San Francisco)

Nathaniel Binzen [NB]: Critics have said that Cuba's centralized system has harmed civil society, taking the initiative away from individuals. Do you think this is true? Was this a necessary consequence of the revolution? How is the role of civil society changing today, and do you expect it to change for the better?

Jose Altshuler: Well, for some 60 years after the end of the colonial status in Cuba and before the Revolutionary Government was established, you could see plenty of private initiative developing in this country.

For instance, lots of unemployed or underemployed people in the streets trying to survive by setting up all sorts of small businesses like shoe shining, guitar playing in buses to collect a few cents from compassionate passengers, children diving in the sea around US ferries to catch the coins thrown into the sea by amused tourists, and so on -while a much lesser fraction of the population engaged in having the fences of their already large farms moved by night to engulf the small parcels of their poor neighbors.

Professional politicians –those in the highest governmental ranks included– displayed lots of ingenious initiatives in devising different ways of stealing public money. These ranged from charging three times the real cost of public works and pocketing the difference, as done during Batista's bloody rule, to allowing a notorious minister of Education of the late 40's to get into the national treasure vaults and proceed to transfer a few millions in bank notes into the valises he and his associates had brought for the purpose.

My own dad, a poor immigrant who came to Cuba from Eastern Europe in the early 20's, had to display lots of initiative for our family to survive: as a peddler, as the owner of a seltz water shop, and so on, but never was he able to save enough money to buy me a bicycle, which I wanted very much in my childhood. There you are...

After the downfall of the bloody dictatorship that had been in power in Cuba during the previous years, a revolutionary government was established early in 1959. The avowed purpose of the new regime was to accomplish deep social, economic, and political changes in the interest of the country in general and of the needy - the vast majority of the population - in particular. But that was rightly considered impossible unless the country's economy were centrally planned so as to avoid that production be carried on for profit, not for use. This was accompanied by the implementation of an educational system oriented toward social goals. As a result, initiative linked to private business was drastically limited. But strong initiatives developed in other areas where they were minimal in former times, such as public health and education, culture, scientific research and others. After four decades, the number of doctors existing in this country sprang from some 6,000 to more than 96,000 and that of engineers and architects was multiplied by a factor of 45, while the population increase was only 70 %. In the same period, this country has academically trained and put to work many more musicians, painters, teachers and scientists that it ever had before.

Do you think that without displaying a lot of initiative, Cuban science would ever have developed some high technology medical products as it has created, such as the very effective vaccine against meningitis B and C which even highly economically developed countries like the US itself haven't been able to create to this day, in spite of the fact that they still suffer from epidemics of the disease?

And if you like to have a quick look at some impressive result of the application of individual initiative, you might choose to come to Havana and have a look a the work of the Historian of the City who during the last two or three decades has promoted and implemented a truly extraordinary restoration and revival of the Historical Center of the City in Old Havana, from the hopeless state it was left prior to 1959. Last November I accompanied a American visitor –quite conservative, I presume– to visit the place, and he kept on telling me while we walked around: "We certainly are very badly informed in the US about what is happening in Cuba."

Mind you, I am not saying that there was no inhibition of initiative in certain areas. There was and still is, in my view, because bureaucracy is still strong and also quite a few blatant mistakes and exaggerations were made in the process by people who should have known better. Still, it is obvious to me that progress is being made, especially in these later years.

Curiously enough, in the context of the present extremely tight economic situation some important results are already being obtained in the sugar industry and others. More than 50 % of the fuel used for electricity generation is now obtained from the oil and gas extracted from the country's soil, which previously was totally imported, and -I must say, no doubt wasted to a large extent. But it is also a fact that our non-sugar cane or tobacco agriculture is much less efficient than it should be. Time will tell whether an effective solution to this very important problem will be found. I don't see why not.

In any case, you must close your eyes if you don't want to see that a lot of positive changes have been taking place in civil society already for the last fifteen years or so, most of them for better, I would say.

As a personal example, I can tell that the policies of our Society for the History of Science and Technology –for whose chair I have been elected twice– are established by no other but by its own membership. True, we don't get any economic support from governmental sources, but we manage to keep a modest office and publish and widely distribute twice a year a four-page newsletter where we put what we ourselves decide to, and print it thanks to the economic support we get from our own membership and other friends, here and abroad. Next February we'll hold our Third National Congress to which we have invited scholars from Spain, Mexico, the US, and the Vatican. Not only Cuban but also foreign members of our Society will have the right to vote in the election for the Board which will then take place. If you like, you can come and see for yourself. After all, entrance is free.

NB: What do you consider to be the established achievements of the Cuban revolution? What gains did the revolution achieve for the people of Cuba that cannot be lost? What gains are susceptible to being lost as Cuba moves forward from there?

Altshuler: In my view the basic achievement of the Cuban Revolution is having succeeded in substituting generosity and solidarity for greed and selfishness as the basic principle of social life, not only at home but also abroad. For instance, more than 1,450 Cuban doctors and paramedics are right now working for free in the poorest regions of Central America and the Caribbean countries, sent by our Government after the catastrophe of hurricane "Mitch", to which you may like to add the free training as medical doctors which is taking place here of some 3,300 young students from various poverty ridden countries.

The remarkable trait here is - I think - that although we are also a poor country, generally speaking, our people behave the way they do because they believe in generosity and solidarity as a virtue and as a human duty; and then they are in a position to proceed as they do thanks to the fact that we have already reached the figure of one practicing medical doctor for every 172 inhabitants. Well, free education and health care for all, regardless of social origin, race, religion or physical limitations are also basic gains achieved by the Cuban social system, which I believe we cannot afford to lose under any circumstances. And last, but not least, the healthy pride of belonging to a country which does not bow to the political will of other countries, however powerful they may be.

When Cuba suddenly lost more than 80 % of its foreign trade after the downfall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European trade partners, and the US embargo on our country was tightened to an extreme in order to finish us off, very few people believed that we would be able to survive. Well, you can see that we have. But, unfortunately, at a non-trivial cost.

While it is true that not a single school or hospital ceased to operate, there appeared serious food, medicine and fuel shortages, and many factories were closed for lack of raw materials and market possibilities. There was an important drop of the nation's living standard. Associated to the massive increase of foreign tourism, which was resorted to for need of hard currency, old dishonest behaviors which had been wiped out after 1959 reappeared among certain sectors of the population, who started to develop consumerist and selfish propensities, which they tried to fulfill at any cost.

The reappearance of such negative tendencies, associated to the present difficulties in the country's economy I feel may constitute a real threat to the development of the Cuban social project. I believe they should be stopped, not only by the recovery of the country's economy, - which is taking place since 1995 - but also by improving the quality of the national educational system and the related cultural background.

In this process, as required for survival in this new neoliberal globalized world we are living in, Cuba has made some carefully graded concessions to market economy, by allowing some degree of small private enterprise, such as small restaurants, private taxi services, free selling private agricultural markets, and so on, quite a few of which, in my view do play a positive role in the internal economy, and should be kept. The country has also been opened to joint ventures with foreign private capital, but having always the Government as the Cuban partner. This restriction like, say, that farmers can privately own a piece of land but are not allowed to sell it to some other private person, are measures obviously designed to avoid falling back into capitalist ownership, in the long run.

NB: How do you and other ordinary Cubans describe the relationship to the United States, and what would you like to see that relationship becomes in the future?

Altshuler: In the first place I must say that personally I like American people in general, maybe because I have many good American friends who are sincere, open-minded, generous and respectful of other people's ideas.

It's a different story with American politics through the ages. I regret to say that since 1899 the relationship between our countries has generally been one of crude dominance of the US over Cuba, until it was ended in 1959 when the Revolutionary Government was established in this country and for the first time in history fulfilled our old national dream of achieving self determination

Since then, we have been subject to the most unashamed hostility from a succession of US administrations who wanted to punish our people for its decision to live in an independent country whatever the cost, including the relentless economic war which has been waged on us for the last 40 years, mercenary military attacks, ordinary terrorism organized by US administrations, so many killing attempts at our political leaders, and so on.

But ours has never been a land of hate, and in the same way as lots of Spanish war veterans decided to remain or come back to Cuba after our wars for independence and happily lived here for the rest of their lives, I cannot see why the situation would be different with US citizens if the political and economical situations between our countries were established in the future on a basis of mutual respect, as they should be among civilized nations.

In my view, this process has already begun, for a number of reasons. More and more Americans are coming every year to this country where they can see our good as well as our bad things.

Isn't it striking that travel limitations to Cuba are imposed by the American and not by the Cuban government? If you decide to come and see for yourself, perhaps you may arrive at the conclusion that on the average we are friendly people who simply want to be able to decide for themselves the sort of a society they want to live in.

José Altshuler is a retired professor from the University of Havana, and former head of the Cuban Space Program.

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