The Memoir of a Great Figure of the Cuban Exile

Elena Gross and Carmelo Mesa-Lago during the filming of the documentary ‘Statistics and Chance’. (Courtesy)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 September 2019 — Carmelo Mesa-Lago is a known but enigmatic figure. An economist cited by both Tyrians and Trojans, with a father born in Guanabacoa and a mother from Regla, for decades we have seen him explain Cuba through his data and figures. Few know his informal, almost domestic side, in which he talks about his childhood, his daughters, his wife Elena or the moment he left the Island. The documentary Statistics and Chance  is an opportunity to approach the two facets of the man, public and private.

Mesa-Lago was one of those forbidden authors read by the sociologist Elaine Acosta while studying at La Colina Universitaria in Havana before emigrating, in the 90s on a journey that took her to Chile, Spain and finally Miami. Married to the audiovisual director Carlos Díaz Montero, a few years ago both decided to collect in a film of an hour and a half of the vital journey of the professor, 85, whom she had admired and read for decades.

The material, in which testimonies of other economists appear, such as Omar Everleny Pérez and Pavel Vidal, together with activist Dagoberto Valdés and academic Jorge Duany, has its greatest value in showing the vital journey of a man who graduated in 1956 from Law school, but who ended up falling in love with economics, in one of those surprising and random turns that have been so defining in his existence. The expert has been more determined by this eventuality and contingency than one might think. continue reading

This sequence of coincidences that gave shape to Meso-Lago’s professional and personal path is very well documented in the film through the testimony of the economist himself, but his stories are also drawn by others speaking about the moment they met him, how it influenced them and how decisive some reflection or publication from his hands was for the study of the Cuban economy.

The idea of ​​the documentary arose from Acosta and Díaz when she worked on research on care policies in Latin America and interviewed Mesa-Lago as an expert. “That interview ended up being a kind of methodology,” she says, and immediately proposed to collaborate to make a biographical documentary.

“We had it listed as an indispensable reference,” Diaz recalls. When they made the proposal to make the film “with the humility that characterizes him, he replied that it would be an honor.” During the first interview, the filmmakers realized that “chance plays a fundamental role in his life, hence the title of the documentary.”

But good intentions are not enough, nor is taking a camera in your hands to produce material of this nature and expanse. “Incredibly, despite Carmelo’s greatness as an academic and being one of the most recognized personalities of the Cuban exile, getting funds to carry out the project was not easy,” acknowledges the director.

“We were helped by the fact that we are a small team and received the support of Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, who sponsored the project. Olguita and Carlos Saladrigas together with the National Association of Cuban-American Educators and the University of Pittsburgh contributed in various ways to make it happen,” he says.

The solidarity of family and friends helped shape the initial idea. But the main contribution was, without a doubt, the testimonies of the interviewee himself and his infinite patience. “Carmelo and his wife Elena were very hospitable and attentive to us from the beginning. They, despite the years of exile, keep their Cubanness very close to their skin, they are straightforward and very authentic.”

Part of the motivation of the academic to relate his life in front of the lens was “the debt he feels to Elena. The presence of her in his life goes beyond support, is an essential part of his career, a vital piece in the gear of the life they have led together. Elena is not my support but rather my complement,” Diaz says.

“The documentary was derived in the vision of Carmelo the person and not the personality, something very difficult to demarcate. The man who suffers from exile, concern for his family, the relationship with Elena and their daughters, professional achievements and the always present Island.” The connection and trust between the filmmakers and the protagonist went so far that Mesa-Lago did not influence the post-production and “came to the premiere of the documentary without knowing what the final result was.”

In the presentations of the film, the reactions of the public have been diverse. “Those who make up the historical exile have shown empathy, nostalgia, have felt part of the history and have commented on the need to include passages of time omitted or little touched,” explains Díaz. The younger generations, for their part, have been grateful to have access to events “that were unknown to them and to hear from the protagonists the story they have learned from books or heard about.”

“What has been unanimous is the opinion that Elena steals the show. Her participation shows — in a diaphanous, sympathetic and perhaps less academic way — what it has meant to be Carmelo’s complement, the price of objectivity, the fears of exile, the pain of being torn from the homeland, the new dreams, the satisfaction for the path chosen by their daughters and the affable summary of their life in common,” recognizes Carlos Díaz.

On her side, for Elaine Acosta the value of the documentary transcends the figure of the professor. “The current Cuban and Cuban-American community in the United States is undergoing major changes. Rescuing their stories is urgent for several reasons,” says the sociologist. “First, because the generation of Cubans who arrived in the United States as adults, immediately after the triumph of the Revolution, is disappearing for obvious reasons. This may represent the last opportunity to register the memories of the pioneers of the community.”

“On the other hand, Cuban immigration is primarily responsible for the formation of the third largest concentration of Latinos in the United States and its contribution has been undeniable. With the latest waves, quantitatively more numerous, there is a generational and cultural change in the Cuban-American community.” Acosta believes that for the new generations “it is very important to have that previous story, with that road paved by several thousand Cuban men and women who preceded them.”

Among these emigrants “there have been different narrative and film experiences, in which a fundamentally political perspective predominates, centered on the opposition of the exiles to the Fidel Castro regime. Sometimes, film proposals do not always connect with the new generations.” That is why “oral history has the potential to provide a point of reference for social contact between different generations of Cuban exiles and their culture of origin and the society that receives them, as well as a means to show and preserve, for generations to come, the wealth of the Cuban heritage.”

For Acosta and Díaz, a dream that is still difficult to fulfill is that the film Statistics and Chance reaches theaters on the Island. But the director believe that is still missing because the “much-vaunted continuity is nothing more than trying to revive the belligerence of the 70s. The man designated to be the main face of the Cuban Government [Miguel Diaz-Canel] has proven himself to be a faithful heir of intolerance and the most radical dogmas.”

“I do not believe that they will allow a tribute to a person who does not agree with the political system imposed on the Island since 1959. Personally, I am not interested in official distribution, I am totally indifferent to it. I prefer it to be disseminated hand-to-hand. I think in this way it would be more worthy of Carmelo, that his history flies in the small democratic breezes that cool the totalitarian vapors,” adds Diaz.

“What I do expect is that, in the future, I don’t care if it is immediate or distant, when Cuban citizens enjoy essential freedoms, the Faculty of Economics of the University of Havana will the name of Carmelo Mesa-Lago,” she says.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Change and Continuity in Cuba

Tourism is one of the few sectors in Cuba that has seen growth in the past six decades. Nearly all the others have fallen.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Pittsburgh, April 9, 2019 — The 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution is an opportune time to examine how things have changed and how things remain the same in the intervening years. The country’s market economy lasted until 1958 but, by 1961, had been transformed into a centrally planned economy overwhelmingly dominated by state-owned enterprises and collectivized agriculture. The market took a back seat to the central plan.

Though it has failed throughout world, this economic model survives largely intact in Cuba, resulting in monumental economic inefficiency that has negatively impacted growth. The dependence on the sale of sugar, which constituted 75% of total exports in 1958, was replaced with an 80% reliance on professional services and tourism.

Cuba was not exporting any professional services in 1958, while the number of tourists in 2018 was 18 times what it had been thirty years ago, with income from this activity 53 times what it had been back then. continue reading

Oil production is 79 times what it was in 1958 and Cuba now even produces natural gas. The dependence on energy imports has been reduced from 99% to 50%. Previously, social services were mainly limited to urban areas and were provided, at least partly, by privately-run organizations. Now those services are state-managed, virtually universal and free.

On the other hand, Cuba’s foreign debt is 190 times what it as in 1958, and that is after significant debt forgiveness by the Paris Club, Russia and other countries. Annual population growth in 1953 (the last time a census was taken) was 2.1% compared to a 0.2% decline in 2017 due to an increasingly aging population. The proportion of older adults rose from 9% of the total population to 20%. Cuba has the oldest population in the region, which has increased the health care and pension costs.

In regards to continuity, in the past six decades Cuba’s socialist economy has not managed to eliminate or significantly reduce its enormous reliance on trade with, or investment, aid and subsidies from another nation.

A 55% reliance on exports to the United States in 1958 became a 72% reliance on the Soviet Union and, since the beginning of the 21st century, a 44% reliance on Venezuela.

Between 1960 and 1990, the Soviet Union loaned Cuba the equivalent of 58.5 billion euros but only got back 450 million. The rest was written off as price subsidies and non-reimbursable aid. The collapse of the Soviet bloc in the 1990s led to a severe crisis in Cuba. At their peak in 2012, Venezuelan aid, subsidies and investment amounted to 11% of Cuban GDP.

In spite of substantial foreign assistance, the economy stalled — average annual growth from 2014 to 2018 was only 1.7% — due to the economic system’s inherent inefficiency. The target for 2019 is 1.5%, a quarter of the 6% officially acknowledged as the level needed to generate adequate growth.

In 2017, most manufacturing, mining, agriculture and fishing production was below the 1989 level. Only tourism showed a significant increase. Foreign trade has suffered a systematic decline: 6.76 billion in 2017.

The surplus generated by the Cuba’s primary source of foreign exchange — the export of professional medical services provided by doctors, nurses and related professionals — decreased 35% from 2012 to 2018 due to the economic crisis in Venezuela, which had been paying 75% of the cost of these services. Overall trade with Venezuela also fell from 44% to 17% of GDP, the supply of oil fell by half, and all the country’s investments in Cuba were halted.

These problems led to a cut of eight percentage points in social spending from 2008 to 2017 with a resulting decline in health and education services. From 1989 to 2017 the value of pensions fell by 50%, home construction by 80%, and the wage adjusted for inflation by 61%.

The US embargo is blamed for these problems. This was true 25 years ago but Cuba now trades with at least eighty countries, including the US, and has received investments from multiple nations. The embargo still has negative impacts — sanctions are imposed on international banks that do business with Cuba — but the fundamental cause of these problems has been the inability to generate exports to pay for essential imports, both of which have declined in recent years.

Between 2007 and 2018, Raúl Castro tried to solve these problems with market-oriented structural reforms. They had no tangible effect, however, due to extremely slow implementation, disincentives, taxes and an about-face starting 2017.

Neither the new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who favors continuity, nor the new Constitution, which was ratified on February 24, have changed the essential economic model. This is an absurd attitude given the collapse of the Venezuelan economy and the teetering of its regime due internal rebellion and international pressure. Maduro’s fall would further aggravate the current crisis in Cuba.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

After Trump, the Deluge / 14ymedio, Carmelo Mesa Lago

Donald J. Trump addresses the Joint Session of Congress. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Carmelo Mesa Lago, Miami, 5 March 2017 — In his speech to Congress last Tuesday, Donald Trump was magically transformed into a statesman and looked “presidential” for the first time. He offered something for every member of society: new infrastructure, one million jobs, paid maternity leave, cutbacks in the high cost of medicines, special education for students in difficulties, defeat of “Islamic radicalism” and all of this, in unity, without hatred and in support of the resurgence of the nation. Was this a real transformation or just a well-rehearsed reading of a speech written for him and projected onto a screen? In any case, his key proposals did not change, only his tone: A good one-hour speech cannot erase twenty months of incessant stumbling.

Shortly after Trump announced his candidacy in June of 2015, I wrote a statement with Enrique Krauze, signed by 68 prominent Hispanic intellectuals, academics and artists, where we criticized the magnate’s ideas and predicted the disastrous effects of them. There was a prestigious academic who refused to sign the statement because he believed that the clown’s candidacy would quickly evaporate (just like what happened with Hitler). With 45 days in power, the US and the world are already suffering the devastating effects of his nonsense. continue reading

Trump is an egocentric narcissist, an arrogant know-it-all who proclaims himself the best on any subject

Trump is an egocentric narcissist, an arrogant know-it-all who proclaims himself the best on any subject (self-described as “outstanding in his performance”); thus he does not take advice and improvises creating chaos. From the beginning he said he would deport 11 million “undocumented” Mexicans. In February he decreed that people from seven Islamic countries could not enter the United States, none of which have sent terrorists to the country. This order created massive problems in airports around the world, with American residents refused entry, and measures had to be improvised to relieve the catastrophe; fortunately a district court overturned the executive order and Trump denigrated them as “so-called judges.”

Another sinister trait is his racism and xenophobia: against Mexicans and Hispanics, women (“with my power I can grab them by their genitals”), African-Americans, Muslims, Jews and gays. He dismissed as unfair (for being a “Mexican”) a judge born in the United States who approved the complaint against Trump University; he denied he was a racist and paid 25 million dollars to the scammed, to stop the spread of the scandal.

The effects of his discrimination has been horrendous: attacks on Mexicans; the murder of an Indian engineer, taken as a Muslim, to the scream of “leave my country”; the airport detention of Muhammad Ali’s son, interrogated because of his Arabic name and religion (the agents denied this); the resurrection of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan that brazenly supported him; the proliferation of Nazi swastikas; the bomb threats against 53 synagogues and the desecration of a hundred Jewish cemeteries; the attack on a gay couple because “we live in Trump country now.”

His motto “America First” was used by American Nazis during World War Two. Reacting to the question of a Jewish journalist he exclaimed, “I am the least anti-Semitic person in the world,” and despite his abominable treatment of Latinos he insists that they adore him. Although his discourse denounced those attacks, his rhetoric of intolerance, division and hatred has incited them.

His motto “America first” was used by American Nazis during World War II

Trump is a pathological liar: Obama was not born in the United States, three million of Hilary’s votes were fraudulent, public attendance at his inauguration was the highest in the country’s history and also higher than the massive demonstration of women against his misogyny. His advisor Kellyanne Conway invented a massacre in Bowlling Green to justify the deportations. All false.

A Freudian lapse is his constant catch-phrase “believe me.”  His Orwellian construction of “alternative facts” is a remembrance of “1984,” a trinket to deny the truth. He denounces the leaks to the press by officials as a crime that has to be eradicated and insinuates that Obama has been responsible for them.

His praise of Putin as a strong leader is detestable. Advised that the Russian autocrat is an assassin, that he annexed Crimea and dreams of retaking Georgia, Trump responds with the excuse that those in the United States “are not innocent.” He asked the FBI to end its investigation into his relations with Russia, based simply on his word: “I haven’t talked to Russia for a decade.” Another scam because he talked to Putin after his inauguration and was in Moscow in 2013.

Michael Flynn, his national security advisor, resigned when it was discovered he lied about talking to the Russian ambassador in the United States; and the Attorney General Jeff Sessions did the same. If Trump really is not guilty, why is he so afraid of that investigation?

Worse yet is his authoritarianism and irritable attacks against all criticism even it it’s documented. At the beginning of the election campaign he refused to answer a question from the Mexican journalist Jorge Ramos and violently expelled him from the premises. In his first press conference as president-elect he refused to let the CNN reporter ask a question, accusing him of “fake news” (what irony!), days later accusing the New York Times of the same thing, and in the last week he referred to the “fake media” as “enemies of the American people.”

Later The NY Times, Buzzfeed News, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, Politico, BBC and The Huffington Post were excluded from a meeting with Press Secretary Sean Spicer. He also disqualified his opponents: branding the hero of the Vietnam War John McCain a “loser” for having been captured, while he himself evaded military service through some trickery, and mocked the brilliant Meryl Streep (nominated for an Oscar 20 times), saying she was Hollywood’s most “overvalued” actress.

Stubbornly, Trump has insisted many times that Mexico will pay for the wall, something firmly denied by President Peña Nieto and two former Mexican presidents

From the beginning he promised to build a “fantastic” wall on the border with Mexico that would put an end to the entry of “criminals, drug addicts and rapists,” denigrating Mexican emigrants who play a crucial economic role in the United States. The wall will cost at least $20 billion and will not stop immigration because it takes place mainly by air.

Stubbornly, Trump has insisted many times that Mexico will pay for the wall, something firmly denied by President Peña Nieto and two former Mexican presidents. Changing tactics, Trump says he will finance the wall with a 25% tax on all Mexican imports, which will trigger a similar policy in the neighboring country. In his speech to Congress he announced legislation to protect “the victims of the migrants.” Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray has been emphatic that Mexico will not admit non-Mexicans deported from other countries.

The blind Republican fury against “Obamacare” was exacerbated by Trump with his call to “repeal and replace.” Two days before his speech he said that “nobody knew how complicated health care is”; in fact he is the one who didn’t know, unlike Obama and tens of thousands of experts that Trump ignored.

There are 22 million citizens covered by the affordable health plan and there is no idea if they will remain covered and how. In his speech he tried to offer something new by ensuring that those with a prior chronic illness will have to be covered, something that is already in the law, which he doesn’t know.

One of his first actions was to overturn the Trans-Pacific Partnership, creating a vacuum that is rapidly being filled by China, which he provoked with his announcement that he would strengthen ties with Taiwan, abandoning the American policy of a single China from the time of Nixon (later he tried to undo the damage). He proposed to renegotiate or annul the North American Free Trade Agreement, which would provoke a serious crisis in Mexico, the second largest Latin American economy and the main trading partner of the US, which could destabilize the region and generate a global trade war.

His latest delusion is to increase the defense budget by $54 billion, cutting back vital programs by the same amount, such as protection of the environmental and international aid

His latest delusion is to increase the defense budget by $54 billion, cutting back vital programs by the same amount, such as protection of the environment and international aid; although he has promised not to touch social security, there is fear he will privatize it. He will also reduce taxes, benefiting the richest 1% of the population, something that is enthusiastically supported by his cabinet of billionaires.

When the tax reduction is added to the $20 billion cost of the wall and the trillion dollars in infrastructure, the budget deficit will soar. His speech to Congress did not explain how he will finance his great vision of the future, he just said that “money is pouring in.”

It is astounding that the Republican congress allows such nonsense that goes against their neoliberal beliefs such as freedom of trade, a balanced budget and reduction of public debt, as well as the risk of increasing Russian power and Chinese expansion. But doesn’t matter, they were rejoicing, standing up and applauding Trump’s speech. After him, the deluge.


Editorial Note: This text has been published in the Letras Libres website and we reproduce it with the authorization of its author.

Carmelo Mesa Lago. Cuban economist. Degree in Law from University of Havana (1956). Professor Emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh.