A democracy of course! . . . But how good? / Somos+, Kaned Garrido

Somos+, Kaned Garrido, 12 October, 2015 — We Cubans know that we want a democracy, and from now on we must chart the course for it to be one that we can be proud of, because not all democracies are of the same quality.

There are countries that hold elections to decide who will govern them, yet also suffer poverty, injustice and violence in the streets. Is the ability of the people to vote enough to make a nation great?

Many believe that because democracy coexists with hunger in poor countries, democracy is insufficient to solve the problems. The 2013 survey by Latinobarómetro* found that 19.2% of Latin Americans had no preference between a democratic or an undemocratic regime. Another 14.9% believed that in some circumstances an authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one. continue reading

This skepticism runs throughout the Third World. But instead of renouncing democracy, it is necessary to differentiate its forms and focus on building better ones. This has worked for the most developed nations, due to their having higher quality standards.

Mikel Barreda, a professor at the University of Catalunya, conducted a study to measure the quality of democracy in 19 Latin American countries. He found Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica are the countries with the highest quality of democracy in the region.

What defines the quality of a democracy?

Political rights and civil liberties are fundamental. According to the reports of Freedom House, Europe ranks in first place in terms of freedom, with 86%, and the Americas in second place, with 71%.

Satisfaction with the system, and electoral participation, are critical factors; democracies where most people vote are better qualified. The turnout defines how included citizens are in the decisions of their governments.

Corruption and abuse of power seriously degrade societies, so mechanisms for accountability are essential. Institutions are needed that exercise political control over governments and oversee their management.

There is also vertical accountability. The press, citizens, and NGOs can make demands regarding the responsibilities of governments. So an underlying assurance remains that if the institutions are corrupt or unresponsive, the citizens can bring about justice.

How can we achieve a democracy of high quality for Cuba?

The literature on this topic is extensive, but clearly certain factors play crucial roles in determining the democratic quality of a country.

Freedom of expression and civil rights are essential to ensure the proposal and debate of ideas. No ruler, doctrine, or thought can be shielded from discussion. It will always be possible to reform what is wrong, to improve what should be changed.

The countries that often lead the worldwide democracy indexes are Scandinavian: Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Without obstructing freedoms they have facilitated the greatest possible equality among their citizens. Without major differences in political and economic power, democracy manages to be more equitable. When the interests of the people are more connected they often find common ground. Empathy and compromise flow in the debates.

Institutions should provide spaces for the spectrum of all political and social positions, ensuring the possibility of fair participation and competition in elections.

We also need a system of solid parties, that is, parties strongly institutionalized, with a vision and a commitment to the long term. This way there can be an effective accountability of work done by civil servants, because the parties assume responsibility to the voters.

We will have to work hard to create the institutions we want, so that it is not an isolated democracy, made for the elites. It must be built with the participation and opinions of all. We cannot repeat the history of other countries that imported their democracies without having the foundation of a political culture to support them.

We have to build it ourselves, with the acceptance and commitment of everyone, with their colors and differences . . . a Cuban democracy.

*A public-opinion survey of 20,000 people in 18 Latin American countries. The survey is on-line here.

Translated by Tomás A.

What Cuban Doctors are Thinking / Somos+, Kaned Garrido

Somos+, Kaned Garrido, 21 September 2015 — Cuban doctors have sustained everybody’s health for decades. The reason Cuban medicine has such prestige is because of the incredible effort of its professionals. The same as Cuban teachers, doctors earn very little. They spend years and years at their careers, and later in service to the country.

That’s the reason we have quality education and healthcare in Cuba. Not by some magical social politics nor because we want to take money away from the rich, like Robin Hood. It’s because of dedicated professionals and the rest of the Cuban workers who finance the expenses, all with pathetic salaries.

But it’s not easy work to sustain such a good health service in a country with such an unproductive economy. This burden ends up falling on the shoulders of Cuban doctors. Some choose the path of the missions in the Exterior to earn a little more. Others prefer to leave the island. So we need to know what they think.

These are the opinions of doctors who presently work in Cuba.

Doctor R. M. earns 1100 pesos (44 CUC, or about US$50) a month. Her specialty is general medicine. She describes her work conditions like this:  continue reading

What Flag Was Raised in Cuba Today? / Somos+

Somos+, 14 August 2105 — Today the American flag was raised in Cuba. But was it a flag of victory or defeat, and for whom? And in the coming years how will the story ultimately play out?

Was this appropriate for Cuba? Will this set us back, or propel us toward democracy?

After 70 years, a U.S. Secretary of State could say on Cuban soil:

“We are convinced that the people of Cuba would be better served with a genuine democracy, to be able to express their ideas, to choose their leaders.”

Calls for democracy, and the place where they are uttered, are crucial to driving change. To demand freedom of speech for Cuba in Washington, or by a senior official meeting with the Cuban Foreign Minister in the White House, is not the same thing as doing it in front of the Malecon. Still, many are concerned that the rights of Cubans are being forgotten. And that business is being placed above the needs of freedom.

Outside the island the Cuban community is polarized. But it’s amazing how the opinions of Cubans on the island tend to be in favor. And apart from the repression, it really seems to have a spirit of support within Cuba.

They aren’t in agreement with the situation, but believe that the restoration of relations will improve things. It’s the desire for change. For decades, we’ve been in the same situation, and there are more chances for change happening by doing something different than by continuing along the same line.

Cubans are tired of the conflict, of the interminable discussions that don’t solve problems, even though we’re not sure how we will promote this change. We don’t know what influence the U.S. Embassy will have on the decisions that Raul Castro will make in the coming years. We don’t know if Cuba will open up politically, and if the government will allow political parties and independent media.

History also calms us. Trade openings in authoritarian regimes haven’t led directly to democracy. There are dictators who rule with an iron hand and have business relations with the whole planet. But history is not 100% predictable. Political science tells us there’s something called multicausality. There is no single cause or single factor. There are many variables at play. We can’t compare ourselves with Vietnam or China. We have our own situation, our own geography, and our own history. And our will can always determine our destiny.

The blockade has hasn’t caused Cuba to change. There is a belief that the regime is supported by the amount of wealth it has. But if it didn’t collapse during the Special Period, why should it now?

No matter how rich or poor, the system will remain as long as people depend on the government. The main obstacle to expressing yourself in Cuba is the threat of losing your job and source of income.

China is not a good example of economic independence, because the private sector is so tightly tied to the state; there is thereforelittle room for dissent. President Obama mentioned something crucial during these months of debate: the restoration of trade relations could help individual Cubans become independent of the state. And this may be the most important argument in favor of Cuban-American relations.

If the opening of relations achieves economic liberation for individual Cubans, however minimally, a great step will have been taken to democratize Cuba. The rest, the other 90% required, we will have to take ourselves.

Translated by Tomás A.

What Can Journalists Do For Cuba? / Somos+, Kaned Garrido

Somos+, 20 July 2015 — In 2014 the organization Reporters Without Borders released a list of “100 Heroes of Information.” They are journalists from 65 nations who have denounced crimes against humanity. From 25 to 75 years of age, they report from the most solid democracies to the most authoritarian regimes. They are brave men and women who have suffered gunfire, bombs, and torture in order to show the truth to the world.

Even countries where freedom of expression is respected have produced heroes. Journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras displayed to American and British citizens the surveillance methods used by their intelligence services. continue reading

Others like Dawit Isaac bore the brunt of the most authoritarian countries in the world. The African journalist has spent over 13 years in the prisons of the dictator Isaias Afeworki in Eritrea, a nation near the Horn of Africa. In 2014 the country ranked last in the World Ranking of Freedom of the Press.

These journalists confront governments as well as the mafias. Many of them have revealed the activities of organized crime in Sicily, Chechnya, Bulgaria, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Those who want to know their names and their stories can read them on the website of Reporters Without Borders. a??

There are also Cubans on this list. They are Angel Santiesteban Prats, punished for his criticism by imprisonment, and Yoani Sánchez for covering social and economic problems in Cuba.

Today we have much independent Cuban media. Thanks to them, we learn the small and concealed news stories, what goes on in every corner of the island. From them we learned of the death of a 14-year-old in a building collapse in central Havana. Media like ICLEP and DiariodeCuba.com delivered us this news on August 27, 2014. And reminded us that the poor condition of the buildings is not just a problem of comfort, but a constant danger to human lives.

Yusnaby Perez’s blog, with a modern and entertaining style, also gives us an incredible x-ray view of life on the streets. This is journalism, the weapon against impotence, against what upsets us. But it also has its critics. David Randall, a journalist with twenty years of experience as an editor and publisher in Europe and Africa says:

“Undoubtedly the history of journalism abounds with sloppy work and bad intentions, but it includes a long series of examples that prove how the great successes of the profession are even more abundant, and are a source of pride.”

These shortcomings that often capture journalism are also the result of what we ask or fail to ask. The stories of Reporters Without Borders show that even democratic countries can have challenges to free expression. And that censorship in authoritarian countries can never block those who decide to seek the truth. Between repressive governments and ruthless mafias, reporters make a way to break the news.

It is not enough for the brave to do their job. We must also reach out to them. If we become citizens who seek the truth like water in the desert, censorship will not have much maneuvering room.

We must encourage good journalism. If we prefer biased news and speculations, the press will have to capitulate to the media show. The news media can only do a bad job if we settle for superficial information.

What good does it do journalists to take risks to discover the truth, showing the facts from every angle and portraying reality to the maximum, if no one is going to read it?

It has always been challenging for Cubans, both outside and inside, to find out the truth, but we also have the means. Whether by going on the internet, watching a foreign channel, or hearing by word of mouth, there are always ways to learn what is happening.

Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief correspondent, specially assigned to dozens of wars and conflicts, says:

“I firmly believe that we journalists, with our papers and pens, with laptops and satellite connections, cameras and television crews, can make a difference, we can help make the world a better place.”

In their book Why Nations Fail, academics James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu say the media are critical to achieving democracy and therefore economic growth. Elections can sometimes malfunction and politics can be corrupted. But whenever there is a defiant press, the vicious circle can be broken.

Translated by Tomás A.

How To Make Things Work in Cuba? / Somos+, Kaned Garrido

Somos+, Kaned Garrido, 1 July 2015 — Before we talk about why things in Cuba do not work, we should first ask the following question: What should we do to to make things work? How can we achieve a higher standard of living for the average Cuban, one with reasonable prices and a fair wage?

We do not believe it is possible to do away with most of the Cuban bureaucracy. Red tape is necessary to preserve the regime, but it is an obstacle in people’s lives. So far, the best generator of wealth has been the free market. In capitalist countries there are many discussions about whether to impose or remove restrictions on the market. In U.S. election campaigns, Democratic and Republican candidates debate whether to expand it or intervene in it, but everyone agrees that a free market must serve as the foundation. continue reading

This is what history has shown us.

The market allows people and businesses to make their own decisions based on what they want and what they are able to produce. People buy what they need and businesses produce only what makes sense.

Although they enjoy a more efficient system than the socialism, capitalist countries do not have it all figured out. They still face challenges. Advertising shapes people’s decisions and irresponsible consumption leads people into debt.

There are what are known as “market failures,” such as when governments grant multi-national corporations special benefits or when some people have more rights than others. Inequality of opportunity is also a social failure.

These are problems that capitalism still confronts. However, the solution is not to ignore the basic rules of the market but rather to guarantee that the judicial system is fair and that there are advancement opportunities for the disadvantaged.

The first thing the free market needs is respect for its liberal traditions in order to make sure it does not produce inequalities. English-speaking democracies have historically shown an intense interest in preventing the rise of monopolies and in limiting the power of multi-national corporations.

A free market does not mean business has carte blanche; it means balancing opportunities in the game of economics. Every business that enters the marketplace must be able to do so on a level playing field, one which allows for competition, which leads to lower prices and benefits for the consumer.

This is why it is important to free producers from crushing tax burdens. When self-employed Cuban workers are subjected to such such levies, it limits any competitive advantage that might have led to lower prices. Current tax laws are like a virus overwhelming the body’s immune system.

But the most interesting thing is that lower taxes could generate more income for the state. If entrepreneurs were allowed to set up shop and to grow, they could contribute more to government coffers. The growth of private businesses and self-employment could end up providing more funds for education and health.

Social failures are remedied by providing a wealth of opportunities such as access to education, employment and development subsidies. A free market allows for the elimination of unnecessary bureaucracy, something Cuba’s socialist leaders have never been able to pull off. Instead, we conduct business “on the side” and worry about “getting caught” for things that are legal in most countries. Commerce and entrepreneurship are basic and beneficial assets for any country.

Salaries should be enough for people to be able to buy more and better quality products in stores, and to not have to continue relying on a ration book and and low quality soap. But let us always remember that the best guarantee for resolving problems is democracy. Whenever there is freedom of expression, there is the possibility for discussion and overcoming difficulties.

Why Don’t Things Work in Cuba? / Somos+, Kaned Garrido

Somos+, Kaned Garrido, 30 June 2015 — In Cuba it is quite natural for there to be lines everywhere. For some reason there are always shortages. Prices are high and salaries are very low. And with each step they take, Cubans have to deal with excessive red tape.

What is the problem and what is the solution?

Since Adam Smith first discussed the value of goods and services, it has been accepted wisdom that the basic principle of economics is the law of supply and demand. When we want something and offer money in return, what we pay depends on the scarcity of the item and how much we want it. This essential rule of the marketplace has been around as long as there has been commerce. continue reading

But not everyone always has the money to buy food. The market does not create boundless wealth; it only balances supply and demand. This is where socialism failed at solving the problems of humanity. Intentions may have been good but the issue was that it attacked the very mechanism that allows an economy to function: the marketplace.

The crushing machinery of socialism does not allow for a basic analysis of supply and demand. It manipulates prices, directs production and controls commerce. A group of people decides what must be produced and what must be consumed. This is why Cuba distributes cigars to those who do not smoke and hands out clothing without regard to the size of the person wearing it.

With centralization came the tedious apparatus of bureaucracy. Since the earliest days of the Revolution, bureaucracy has been singled out as the cause of the problem. But bureaucracy is essential to centralization. Without bureaucracy there would be no socialism. Without all the paperwork how would prices, business transactions and production be controlled?

It amounts to an attempt to manipulate the economy through government policy. Who could  believe that forcibly reducing prices would put more food on store shelves? If that were the case, there would be no hunger.

The reality is that prices are a reflection of supply and demand. If we want to end hunger, we should provide subsidies and improve access to food. But controlling prices will not put more bread on the table. In order to reduce prices, production must be increased, something Cuban factories have been trying to do for years. But that leads to the following question: Why don’t Cuban businesses produce enough?

In the first place, they are not even geared towards consumer demand. Everything is planned based on what managers believe will be needed. In the second place, they are operated without concern for profit, the very thing and drives the economy. They operate according to political guidelines, which ultimately leads to corruption.

Lifting the embargo might alleviate shortages a little but it will not do away with them. As long as the economy is centrally planned, low salaries, short supplies and an oppressive bureaucracy will persist.