Mario Vargas Llosa: ‘Socialism is Dead. No One Can Believe in it After Cuba’

Mario Vargas Llosa in the library of his house in Madrid. (José Aymá, El Mundo)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Maite Rico, Madrid, 5 February 2023 — At age 86, Mario Vargas Llosa (b. Arequipa, 1936) faces a new stage in his life. He has returned to his apartment in the center of Madrid, after ending his relationship with Isabel Preysler. Also, surrounded by his collection of hippos, he has finished his novel about Peruvian music, which will be released in autumn. These days are frantic with preparations for his entry, on February 9, into the Académie Française, the house of The Immortals, founded in 1633. His joining is the culmination of an intense relationship with France, which defined his literary vocation, gave him his first recognition and nourished him intellectually, as detailed in his imminent book Un bárbaro en París [A Barbarian in Paris]. The writer is happy. He radiates energy and sprinkles the interview with loud laughter.

Maite Rico. You are the first author to enter the Academy without having written directly in French, something historic.

Vargas Llosa. It never crossed my mind to apply to the Academy. But on a recent trip to Paris, on the occasion of the release of my last novel, Daniel Rondeau, whom I met in my Parisian era and one of the first discoverers of the Latin American novel, calls me, as if appearing out of the depth of time. We have coffee, and I learn that he is a member of the Academy, and to my surprise he tells me to apply to be a candidate myself. “We have taken a vote, there have been no votes against, only two abstentions. There is a magnificent atmosphere and tomorrow the secrétaire perpétuelle [perpetual secretary] is inviting you to lunch.” Perpetual no less!

Q. …the historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse.

A. Yes. She has a beautiful apartment on the Seine. She is an expert on Russia, and she told me, by the way, that the Russians had banned her books because she had criticized the invasion of Ukraine. The fact is that she already had my written candidacy letter, and she told me: “you have to decide now.” And that’s how overnight I became a member of the French Academy.

Q. You are also the first foreigner to enter the Pléiade library.

A. I said that entering the Pleiade was more important to me than the Nobel Prize, and it’s the truth. When I was young, when I lived in Paris, I bought a copy of the Pleiade editions once a year, and my dream was to be able to enter that collection one day. When Carmen Balcells showed me at her house the letter from Antoine Gallimard [her editor], which said: “It’s time for us to bring Mario to the Pléiade,” I was amazed.

Q. And are you going to have the time to polish and give splendor to the French language, as you do with Spanish?

A. The two academies meet on Thursdays. The Spanish was founded in imitation of the French, three years later. My idea is to divide the month and attend two Thursdays there and two Thursdays here. You can actually miss it whenever you want: there are many academics who don’t go, because they are old.

Q. Your first contacts with French culture date back to your youth, in Lima.

A. Yes. As a teenager, I read Dumas, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo… French culture predominated then in practically all Latin American countries. And I had the idea of being a French writer. At that time there were no publishers in Lima. The poets in fashion were lawyers who worked from Monday to Saturday and wrote on Sunday. It seemed impossible to be a writer in such a country. And I got into the Alliance Française, a small place on Wilson Avenue.

Q. Your teacher, Madame del Solar, whom you remember so fondly, would be proud today.

A. She was a lovely French girl, married to a Peruvian, who helped me a lot. When I enrolled in the Alliance there were ten girls, all of them nice, a boy who studied architecture and I. The other boy only lasted six months, because the girls were killers and laughed at our pronunciation. In the end I adapted to them and spent four years there, but I started to read French after six months.

Q. And your first trip to France was in 1958, at the age of 22, with an award in a short story contest at the Revue Française.

A. In the Revue, yes. I had a wonderful month in Paris. Then I returned after completing my doctorate in Madrid. The very night I arrived in Paris, I bought a copy of Madame Bovary at La Joie de Lire [The Joy of Reading], a bookstore in the Latin Quarter. Listen, I spent the whole night reading. That book really dazzled me… continue reading

so much so that I became a frenetic fan of Flaubert. And then I decided to be a writer. I decided that in France. Flaubert confirmed to me that literature was a way of life.

Q. Neither Flaubert’s father nor yours wanted their sons to be writers.

A. My father was an enemy of literature, and I think he put me in the Military College with the idea that the military was going to free me from my vocation. But the funny thing is that I became a professional writer, because I wrote letters to my classmates.

Q. Did anyone keep any? Because they’re valuable now.

A. I haven’t seen any, ha, ha, ha. Flaubert’s father was an engineer, and he didn’t want him to dedicate himself to literature either. I think Flaubert’s epilepsy was actually his invention. Overnight he faints and begins to see lights. Don’t tell me it’s not suspicious. Then, the father, afraid that his son, whom he loves very much, could die, sends him to the countryside, to Croisset, and there he can now dedicate himself to writing.

Q. Balzac’s father didn’t want him to write either. And Balzac had another illness…

A. They invented illnesses to convince the family and then the family went along with it. At that time there was no copyright law, ha, ha, ha.

Q. France confirms your literary vocation and you discover the confrontation of ideas. It can be said that French culture laid the foundations of your intellectual formation.

A. Absolutely. For always. Look, I spent a year in the Communist Party in Peru. The communist parties were absolutely totalitarian. And what saved me from sectarianism was reading Sartre, who wrote some essays in which he attacked Stalin a lot. With the poor amount I earned while I was at university, I subscribed to two French magazines: Les Temps Modernes [Modern Times], by Sartre, and Les Lettres Nouvelles [New Letters] by Maurice Nadeau, and I could more or less follow French literary news. It’s funny because in all the controversies I agreed with Sartre.

Q. Then came the disappointment.

A. What broke my relationship with Sartre is an interview in which he is asked about two African writers, and he says that they must first make the revolution to create a country where literature is possible. I felt enormously frustrated. Sartre had taught us that you could be a writer anywhere and denounce the horrors of the Third World, and now it turns out that you had to make the revolution first to be a writer. I was already too far advanced in my literary vocation to believe him.

Q. But Sartre never got committed at the moment of truth. In the war he kept a low profile, while Albert Camus and André Malraux risked their lives in the Resistance.

A. It’s said that Sartre occupied the academic seat of a Jew who had been expelled from a high school. I don’t know if it was true. But Sartre didn’t believe in politics. He focused on philosophical studies. And at the age of 50 he entered in a very militant way and was already an exclusively political man, and he dedicated himself to writing those essays… Le communiste et la paix [The Communist and Peace]. Camus was less flighty than Sartre.  He was more realistic, more grounded, and we identified more with him. Sartre essentially doesn’t create literature. He begins novels that remain unfinished. He said that he was going to write a fourth novel that he never wrote, and then he said that he was going to write an essay on morality that he never wrote. He always left his projects incomplete.

Q. After dismissing the theory of commitment, do you still believe that literature can change life? Do you still consider it as an act of rebellion?

A. Yes, I think so. I believe that literature is an invention of human beings to defend themselves from death. It’s a way to, let’s say, hide. That’s why it’s going to survive. Literature is a defense against death. There, in the novel, you find an eternity that is fictitious, but that allows us to protect ourselves from what we are very afraid of, especially when we are old, which is the proximity of death.

Q. In addition to Flaubert, Sartre and Camus, Malraux influenced  you…

A. Malraux was the only writer who spoke as well as he wrote. His speeches were wonderful. I remember what he said in 1964 when the ashes of Jean Moulin, the head of the Resistance, were transferred to the Pantheon. De Gaulle was there, but only Malraux spoke. The French cried when they heard it. I had to cover the event. What a beautiful thing. He was an extraordinary speaker. And a great writer.

Q. And then Raymond Aron and Jean-François Revel.

A. At first I bought Le Figaro on Saturdays, which was when Raymond Aron wrote, and I hid. Ha, ha, ha. I was embarrassed to buy it. But I read it because I thought it was incredible that he defended liberalism so much. He was a complete loner. And Revel, I think he is the Frenchman who knew Latin America best. His essays on Argentina and Mexico are brilliant.

Q. Like you, he evolved from Marxism to liberalism.

A. He was a liberal. He was a close friend of Sartre at the university. Look, now I was reading Hayek and he says that when they appear in England the first liberals use words that did not exist in the political world, such as progressive or universalism. And the left appropriates all that and completely distorts it to defend socialism. Well, socialism is dead. No one can believe in it after Cuba.

Q. Your literary bond with France is double. On the one hand, you discover French literature, and, on the other, France discovers Latin American literature. France reaffirms your vocation as a writer and then recognizes it as such.

A. Absolutely. I publish my first two novels in France, I write a lot of articles, novels, stories… a lot. My big surprise was the success of La ciudad y los perros [The City and the Dogs]. What I have never known is if it was because of the novel itself or because it was burned by the military at my school in Lima.

Q. That they burned it I’m sure helped its success, but I guess some merit would have… You have said that the way in which you exercise your freedom as a writer comes from Flaubert.

A. Of course, Flaubert invents that figure of the invisible narrator, who is like a God who is not seen, who leaves apparent freedom to his characters, without showing himself.

Q. The opposite of Victor Hugo’s omniscient narrator.

A. Victor Hugo is the opposite. Now, Les Misérables is a great novel, the last classic novel. And then comes Madame Bovary, which is the first modern novel. Flaubert was not aware of the importance of his invention, of that figure that narrates from silence, from invisibility. It was the great revolution in the novel. [The writer gets up and brings an old book from his library]. Look how beautiful. The first edition of Madame Bovary. Some friends have given it to me.

Q. You said that Emma Bovary is the greatest love of your life, that with no person of flesh and blood have you  had such a passionate relationship.

A. Ha, ha, ha, it’s true, it’s the pure truth.

Q. You define her as rebellious in the face of the mediocrity that surrounds her, a superior spirit. You’re going to hate me, but she seems to me a disordered obsessive.

A. No, no, a disordered obsessive, no!

Q. She is someone who contains the seed of unhappiness.

A. What happens is that the husband is a poor devil. Completely boring. And then she believes that life is like the novels she reads. And she begins to explore…

Q. But she has unreal aspirations. She pursues a mirage and makes those around her unhappy. And she herself is unhappy.

A. Well, yes, she accumulates a great unhappiness. But her rebellion has to do with love. With love! Not with ideology. It’s a personal ideology, absolutely personal. And it is the defense of love.

Q. Yes, but it’s an ideal love. That’s why all lovers disappoint her.

A. Of course. The lovers are of a frightening mediocrity. And then she looks for someone superior and can’t find him in that little town. When she is completely frustrated, she commits suicide. Madame Bovary’s suicide is one of the most brilliant episodes in literature. There are three pages, in which she swallows arsenic, begins to feel pain and anguish and despair… Terrible. It is written impersonally, because what Flaubert wanted was impersonality. It’s a wonderful description. In the letters to Louise Colet, Flaubert said: I feel the poison in my mouth… Flaubert always looked for the most extraordinary things.

Q. Do you also correct a lot, like him?

A. I correct a lot, I redo, I create a summary diagram. Yes, a lot.

Q. And do you also read aloud?

A. No, not that, because I don’t think music has the last word in the style. Flaubert thought so. Not me. Great writers are not musicians.

Q. I have to ask you about the story Los vientos [The Winds], which was released in October 2021 in the magazine Letras Libres [Free Letters].

A. It went completely unnoticed and now it’s everywhere. The other day, the person who takes care of my books told me: “Suddenly we have begun to receive letters from people who want Los Vientos.” But hey, why is this a story?

Q. Because it’s interpreted to include messages.

A. Absurd and crazy messages. I would never have thought of ridiculing Isabel in my life. At that time I got along very well with her. I don’t even remember when I wrote those episodes that have been released in the newspapers, even in France, in an article in Le Monde!

Q. The story is amusing and at the same time tragic. It’s a very plausible dystopia.

A. It’s a story about old age. I wrote it for Letras Libres, and now it’s coming out as a novella in many countries.

Q. Old age tends to be considered a gray age, immune to experiences, to enjoyment. But you have shown that this is not the case. At work, and in your personal life, you retain a nonconformist spirit.

A. Eighty-six years is old, isn’t it? I work a lot. At this age you have to fight it. We have to try to keep writing until the end. The ideal is to die with a pen in your hand.

Q. You had a very hard experience with COVID.

A. It was horrible. I was working and my legs started shaking. And I had something in my throat and I couldn’t breathe. Isabel called a doctor, and when he arrived I heard him say to her: “His fever is going up a lot. You have to take him to the clinic.” The wait was distressing, I was drowning. They took me from the ambulance directly to a kind of tube with oxygen. Then I started to breathe. I think the most dramatic experience I’ve had has been that lack of oxygen.

Q. Did you start to think that you weren’t going to get through it?

A. Yes, I had the impression that I was dying. I was dying there. Yes.

Q. Your life has always had a public part, which in recent years has intensified. It has been at the epicenter of a bubble that can be unreal. How would you define that experience? Did you feel a little like you were under a microscope?

A. No, no, I was very much in love with Isabel. But let’s say, that world is not my world.

Q. And now you are under siege.

A. At seven in the morning, when I went for a walk, the journalists were already at the door. At seven o’clock!! For  a month. They haven’t been there for days now. It’s wonderful.

Q. You’ve been in Peru researching your new novel. Does the departure of Pedro Castillo from the presidency open a door to hope?

A. It’s still complicated. The vice president was brought in by the same forces; she has declared herself a Marxist-Leninist.

Q. Do you have the impression that Peru is now more fucked up?

A. I have the impression that Peru has been fucked up a lot more. Well, Latin America in general. Latin America, with the exception of Uruguay and Ecuador. Brazil, fucked up; Argentina, fucked up; all of Central America, fucked up. And Colombia, with Petro, who has sent a fierce message against Peru, because he says that the right wing has kidnapped Castillo!

Q. And Mexico…

A. López Obrador is a manipulator. He wants to change the Constitution to be president again, but I doubt he will succeed. What a sinister character.

Q. You are Peruvian, and Spanish, and a French academic; Latino and cosmopolitan.. Where do you feel you belong?

A. Well, literature is that, just that. Borders don’t exist for me. Look, I’m in Spain; I read the newspapers and I get terrifyingly irritated, just like in Peru. And I’m in France, and I get irritated just like in Peru. I move around very freely, and wherever I am, I’m interested in what is happening.

Q. But have you imagined a retreat somewhere specific? Have you thought about returning to Peru?

A. No, I think it’s very difficult right now. I feel at home in Spain.


After the success of La ciudad y los perros in France, Vargas Llosa sent the book to Carlos Barral. Two months later, the writer and Catalan publisher met in Paris. “He told me that he had really liked my novel and wanted to publish it in Spain.” Then the procedures began with censorship, which lasted for a year. And Barral invited Vargas Llosa to lunch with the person in charge, Manuel Fraga’s brother-in-law.

Q. And how did it go?

A. Well, there was a historian on Latin America there who didn’t understand anything, because he hadn’t read the novel, and he asked: “But what’s going on? What’s going on?” And then the head of censorship tells him: “What’s going on? The cadets are screwing a chicken!” [imitating the accent] Ha, ha, ha. The guy was speechless.

Q. Here we’re more into sheep.

A. Ja, ja, ja. It was wonderful. The head of censorship tells me: “Look. There is only one colonel in your novel. The colonel is the chief of the barracks. So, either you put in more colonels or that colonel can’t be as ridiculous as he appears in your book.” He gave me those arguments! And then I told him, “I don’t agree with that.” In the end, the novel came out with seven changes.

Q. I thought it was with seven colonels!

A. And also the detail of the priest who went to the brothel. The head of censorship tells me: “Look, I know that priests are not always respectful, but there is only one priest in your novel and that priest goes to brothels, so it can’t be that way. Aim for more priests or let’s take out the brothel.” In the second edition, Carlos Barral slipped it into the revised novel. It was a frightening struggle, with Carlos becoming a little more daring in each revision. Well, 20 or 30 years later, I’m giving a lecture and an old man appears… the head of censorship! Who tells me that he has published a book and adds: “In that book I say that thanks to me, La ciudad y los perros  was published here!” Ha, ha, ha. That’s nice, isn’t it?

Translated by Regina Anavy

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the cultural magazine LaLectura [Reading] and is reproduced here with the permission of the newspaper El Mundo [The World].


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Cuba, Sun Tourism and… Problems

The Spanish hotel company Meliá has 32 hotels operating in the archipelago, 7 under construction and some 15,000 rooms. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Maite Rico, Madrid, 23 April 2019 — Shocking to the Spanish business community. Especially the hotel sector. And more specifically in two of the big ones, Meliá and Iberostar. The United States has opened the door for its citizens to file court claims over properties confiscated in Cuba since the 1959 Revolution. Since the majority of the Cuban exile lives in the United States, what is coming is a tsunami of demands: the most conservative calculations speak of 75,000.

And what does that have to do with the hotel operators? Well, a dozen of them exploit 77 establishments in Cuba (51.2% of the entire hotel infrastructure of the Island) and it would be coincidence if none of the land they are built on came from the pillage.

Donal Trump did not pull this measure out from under his toupee. It is included in the Helms-Burton Act, approved by the Bill Clinton Administration in 1996 after the Cuban Air Force shot down two planes belonging to Brothers to the Rescue, an organization that helped Cuban rafters in the Florida Straits. continue reading

Helms-Burton toughened the trade embargo and included two thorny titles related to the confiscated properties: Title 3, which allows claims in the courts, and Title 4, which restricts the entry into the US of people who have kept those properties or to do business with them. The European Union screamed to high heaven before what it considered an extraterritorial application of restrictive measures, and the successive tenants of the White House left those two chapters in the freezer to keep the peace.

But Trump no. Trump, or rather, his advisors, have lost patience with the Cuban dictatorship, the brain-in-the-shadows of what is happening in Venezuela. After the disappearance of the USSR, the Castro regime has remained afloat in the last two decades thanks to the oil sent by Venezuela, and is not willing to allow that to change. That is why Washington has decided to tighten the screws by imposing restrictions on travel to Cuba, limiting the sending of remittances and activating those two titles of the Helms-Burton Act that so frighten the companies that have invested in the Island.

The Meliá chain has rushed to insist that it “operates legitimately in Cuba” and that “it does not own property that could be of potential claim after its expropriation in the 1960s.” Its role, it adds, is that of “mere hotel managers.”

It is true that the Cuban State is the formal owner of the facilities, and that Spanish businessmen manage them through contracts or as part of joint-venture companies (the majority controlled by the Cuban Armed Forces). But hoteliers can not wield the “I just sign in the guests”. Because, in fact, they have taken advantage of those properties to make big profits. Above all, Meliá and Iberostar, which today account for 27 and 19 hotels, respectively, 70% of the establishments in the hands of Spanish capital.

They knew from the first moment (and has already been going on for three decades) that legal problems would arise sooner or later, and they took a risk. Many others did not. But they did. They overcame their scruples and opened hotels subject to Castro’s apartheid: all the guests were welcome except Cubans, who could not stay. And thus it was until 2008, when Raúl Castro repealed the restriction, smelling the dollars of the Cubans in Miami.

The package also included the exploitation of workers, deprived of union rights and most of their salary, through the cheating exchange of currency: foreign companies pay the State salaries in dollars, and the employee receives them in local currency and at a considerably diminished share (the State keeps up to 95%). A hard sell in corporate social responsibility brochures.

The bold Spanish entrepreneurs have also had to go along with the ugly custom of the regime of spying on guests. Cuban Security has turned the hotels into Big Brother sets, placing microphones and cameras in the rooms and filling them with infiltrators and snitches. The archives of the State are fat with files about the intimacies of illustrious visitors, even of friends of the regime, always suspicious.

As the Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner has noted on several occasions, criminal consequences could result from all this. The battle begins now. The hoteliers hire law firms and Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, threatens fireworks. The Spanish Government and the European Union fulfill their role defending the economic interests of their companies, especially if there are legal discrepancies. But let’s not lose sight of the moral: to associate with a dictatorship has its drawbacks.


Editor’s note: this article has been published by Vozpópuli. We reproduce it with the authorization of its author.

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.

Vargas Llosa: ‘No Moderately Sane Person Would Want a System Like Cuba’s for Their Country’

Mario Vargas Llosa presents his book ‘The Call of the Tribe’. (Ximena Garrigues and Sergio Moya)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Maite Rico, Madrid, February 26, 2018 — Mario Vargas Llosa, who was born in 1936 in Areuquipa, Peru, is in full form. Combative, ebullient, brimming with laughter, the Nobel laureate travels widely and operates on a variety of intellectual fronts, crafting fiction and scrutinizing facts.

In a recently published essay, “The Call of the Tribe” (Alfaguara), he argues in favor of liberalism, citing the work of seven authors who influenced him and to whom he pays homage: Adam Smith, José Ortega y Gasset, Friedrich von Hayek, Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin and Jean-François Revel. They represent a school of thought that champions the individual as a sovereign, responsible being and freedom as the supreme value; that defends democracy and the separation of powers as the system that best reconciles the contradictory values of society; that rejects the tribalism that gave rise fascism, communism, nationalism  and religious fanaticism.

And perhaps that is why, says the writer, he has been “the most vilified and maligned political target in history.” The Call of the Tribe is also a kind of intellectual autobiography of Vargas Llosa himself, of his evolution from Marxism and existentialism to a reevaluation of democracy and the discovery of liberalism.

Maite Rico: Why is liberal thought the target of so many attacks?

Mario Vargas Llosa: It has been in the crosshairs of anti-freedom ideologies, which quite justifiably see liberalism as their most tenacious adversary. I wanted to explain that in the book. Fascists and communists have strongly attacked liberalism, especially by caricaturing it and associating it with conservatives. In its early years, liberalism was besieged, especially by the right. There were the papal encyclicals, the attacks from all the pulpits on a doctrine that was considered antithetical to religion, antithetical to moral values. I think these adversaries are very good at pointing out the close relationship that exists between liberalism and democracy. Democracy has progressed and human rights have been fundamentally recognized thanks to liberal thinkers. continue reading

Authors who are also analysts share common traits, among them is that they swim against the current. Even two books by Hayek and Ortega were banned. Is a liberal condemned to be a lonely long-distance runner? Liberalism not only admits but stimulates divergence. It recognizes that a society is composed of very different human beings and that it is important to preserve that. It is the only doctrine that accepts the possibility of error. That is why I often insist that it is not an ideology. An ideology is a secular religion. Liberalism defends certain basic ideas: freedom, individualism, the rejection of collectivism and nationalism. In other words, all the ideologies or doctrines that limit or preclude freedom in public life.

Rico: Speaking of nationalism, that once again brings up the subject Ortega y Gassett and his warnings about dangers of nationalism in Catalonia and the Basque country. Why do liberals reject nationalism?

Varga Llosa: Because it is incompatible with freedom. When you dig a little below the surface, you discover nationalism represents a form of racism. If you think that belonging to a certain country or nation or race or religion is a privilege, a value in itself, you think you are superior to others. And racism inevitably leads to violence and the suppression of freedom. That is why, since the time of Adam Smith, liberalism has seen nationalism as a form of collectivism, a renunciation of reason by an act of faith.

Rico: Populism, the resurgence of nationalism, Brexit… is the tribal spirit being reborn?

Varga Llosa: There is a tendency to oppose what I believe to be the most progressive idea of our time, which is the formation of large groups that are slowing slowly erasing borders and integrating different languages, customs, beliefs. This is the case in Europe. It causes a lot of insecurity and a lot of uncertainty. There is the strong temptation to return to that tribe, to that small, homogeneous society that never really existed, where everyone is equal, where everyone has the same beliefs, the same language…

It is a myth that provides a great sense of security, which explains outbreaks such as Brexit, Catalan nationalism or the kinds of nationalism that wreak havoc in democracies like Poland, Hungary and even Holland. Nationalism exists in those places but my impression is that — as the case of Catalonia indicates — it is a minority movement. And the strength of democratic institutions will undermine it little by little until it is defeated. I am rather optimistic.

Rico: How do you fight against these trends intellectually and politically?

Vargas Llosa: You have to fight them without any sense of inferiority. And you have to say that nationalism is a retrograde, archaic movement, an enemy of democracy and freedom, that is propped up by historical fictions, by big lies which we now call post-truths. Catalonia is one flagrant example.

Rico: Your evolution from Marxism to liberalism is not uncommon. In fact, it is the same path that other notable authors like Popper, Aron and Revel have followed.

Vargas Llosa: My generation in Latin America came of age on a continent of horrendous inequality, governed by military dictatorships supported by the United States. For a young Latin American with a certain uneasiness, it was easy to reject that particular caricature of democracy — Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica being the exceptions.

I wanted to be a communist because, to me, communism represented the polar opposite of military dictatorship, of corruption and especially of inequality. So I went to San Marcos — a national, public university — with the notion that there must be communists there with whom I could connect. And basically that’s what I did.

At that time communism in Latin America was Stalinism, pure and simple, with party branches that answered to the Comintern in Moscow. They shielded me from Sartre’s sectarianism and existentialism. I had discussions in my party cell all the time but I was only a member for a year. But I remained a socialist in a vague sort of way and defended the Cuban revolution, which at first seemed like a different kind of socialism, not a dogmatic one.

It excited me. I traveled to Cuba five times in the 1960s. But little by little I became disenchanted, especially after the creation of the UMAPs [Military Units of Production Assistance]. There were roundups of young people whom I knew. It was traumatic. And I remember writing a private letter to Fidel telling him I was bewildered. How could Cuba, which seemed to have an open and tolerant form of socialism, throw so-called “worms” and homosexuals into concentration camps along with common criminals?

Fidel invited me and about ten other intellectuals over to have a conversation with him. We spent the whole night together — twelve hours, from eight in the evening to eight in the morning — basically listening to him talk. It was very impressive but not very convincing. From then on I began to have a somewhat wary attitude.

The final break came with the Padilla case [the trial of the writer Heberto Padilla, who was jailed in 1971 and forced to make a wrenching, public self-critique, that marked the end of the charmed relationship between prominent intellectuals and the Cuban regime]. By reading, I began a rather long, difficult process of reconciling with democracy and little by little accepting liberal doctrine. And I was lucky to live in England during the era of Margaret Thatcher.

Rico: You portray Thatcher as an intelligent, brave woman of deep convictions. This contrasts with the widely held image of her.

Vargas Llosa: It is an utterly unfair caricature. When I arrived, England was a country in the midst of decline. It was country with freedom but without nerve, which was gradually being extinguished by the rising economic nationalism of the Labor Party. Margaret Thatcher’s revolution reawakened Britain.

They were difficult times: ending unnecessary labor union jobs, creating a free market society, building a meritocracy and defending democracy with conviction and confidence by confronting socialism as represented by China and the Soviet Union, which were the most cruel dictatorships in history.

For me they were definitive years because I began to read Hayek and Popper, who were authors Thatcher used to cite. She said [Popper’s] The Open Society and Its Enemies was a one of the most important books of the twentieth century. The contribution of Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to the culture of freedom, to the fall of the Soviet Union, which posed the greatest challenge to the culture of democracy, is a reality that unfortunately has been obscured by a campaign of the left, whose achievements are very meager.

 Rico: And what is the main challenge for western democracy today?

Vargas Llosa: The main enemy today is populism. No moderately sane person wants a system like that of North Korea or Cuba or Venezuela for his country. In politics, Marxism has already been politically marginalized, but not so populism, which corrupts democracies from within. It is much more insidious than an ideology. It is a practice to which, unfortunately, weak democracies, first-time democracies, are very prone.

Rico: The banking crisis of 2008 and growing inequality have revived criticisms of liberal doctrine, which some years ago was rechristened “neo-liberalism.”

Vargas Llosa: I don’t know what neo-liberalism is. It is a way to caricature liberalism, to portray it as a kind of ruthless capitalism. Liberalism is not dogmatic; it does not have the answer to everything. It has evolved since the time of Adam Smith  because society is now so much more complex. Today there are injustices, such as discrimination against women, that were unknown in the past.

Rico: My understanding is that, among the different strands of liberalism, the main source of disagreement centers on how much importance should be given to the state.

Vargas Llosa: Yes, liberals want an effective but non-invasive state that guarantees freedom, equal opportunity — especially in education — and respect for the rule of law. But along with that basic consensus there are some disagreements. Isaiah Berlin says that economic freedom cannot be unrestricted because when it was unrestricted in the 19th century the coal mines were filled with children.

Hayek, in contrast, had such extraordinary faith in the market that he thought it would be able to solve every problem if it were left to operate freely. Berlin was much more of a realist. He thought, in effect, that the market is what brought about economic progress. But if progress meant creating huge inequalities, the very essence of democracy would be damaged and freedom would no longer work the same way for everyone.

Adam Smith, who is considered the father of liberalism, was also a very flexible man. Of course, there are distortions of liberalism. For example, I cite cases of completely closed-minded economists who were convinced that economic reform was the only thing that would ultimately bring about freedom.

I don’t agree. I believe that ideas are more important than economic reforms. Speaking of caricatures, or language traps, it is quite significant that the label “progressive” is used in Spain, for instance, by forces who defend the Cuban and Venezuelan dictatorships.

I believe that, unfortunately, intellectuals have contributed to the distortion of language. They have imbued Marxism and communism with an aura of prestige that seduces certain young people, just as they did before with Nazism and Fascism.

Intellectuals have shown a tremendous blindness in always viewing democracy as a mediocre system that does not possess the beauty or the consistency of the world’s great ideologies. Note that this blindness is not incompatible with intelligence.

Heidegger, for example, was perhaps the greatest philosopher of the modern age. How could he be a Nazi? The same thing happened with communism. It attracted writers and poets of the highest caliber who applauded the gulag. Sartre, the most intelligent French philosopher of the twentieth century, supported the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Rico: Speaking of Sartre, his work has not aged well. He rationalized genocide, supported tyrants and lived with the Nazis while others, such as Albert Camus or André Malraux, were risking their lives in the Resistance. And later he devoted himself to teaching! Why is he still revered?

Vargas Llosa: Well, you know that, for me, he was very important during my adolescence.

Rico: That’s why I am asking you. You refer to him as a great intellectual. He was a man who… let’s just say that his political positions were always wrong.

Vargas Llosa: I think there is probably a very personal and perhaps overly psychological explanation, but he was not really a resister. He even agreed to replace a teacher who had been expelled from his position because he was a Jew. And although he belonged to a resistance group, he was really not very active in it. I think he could never escape that legacy and spent the rest of his life making efforts, some grotesque, to earn the labels progressive and revolutionary.

It was a need that was very widespread in that era. Intellectuals wanted to provide proof of human progress because that was what was expected of them. But then they turned out to be horribly wrong and ended up contributing to the aura of communism, as others had done previously with Nazism

In Latin America in the 1960s, if you were not a leftist intellectual, you were simply not an intellectual. There was no other option. Culture was controlled by a very sectarian, very dogmatic left, which profoundly distorted cultural life. I think that has changed considerably.

 Rico: The same thing happened in Europe.

Vargas Llosa: Yes, that’s right. Although, when I lived in England, there were intellectuals ready to do battle, who faced off against each other and were not timid about it, and that helped me to be a lot more honest with myself.

Rico: Often the problem is one of intellectual honesty: elites who defend political systems they would never support.

Vargas Llosa: I believe that is the case. Bertrand Russell, for example, defended very noble causes and was an admirable person in many respects but at the same time he defended horrible things. He allowed himself to be manipulated by leftists who had no respect for his work or his ideas. They did not even read his books. How do you explain such a contradiction? Unfortunately, intelligence is no guarantee of intellectual honesty.

Isaiah Berlin, however, believed that it was impossible to separate intellectual and artistic greatness from ethical rectitude, that talent and virtue go together. No, that’s not true. If it were, we would not see such flagrant contradictions all around us. Heidegger would not have gone to his grave with a Nazi party membership card. Sartre would not have defended the Chinese Cultural Revolution or declared, as he did in 1946 upon his return from Moscow, “In the Soviet Union the freedom to criticize is absolute.” But that is not the case with any of the intellectuals that I mention in the book. They believe that morality is inseparable from politics. And you have to be willing to correct and learn from your mistakes. That’s what Popper insists on.

Rico: This debate has taken on new relevance.

For example, we are seeing in cinema how the work of artists accused of deplorable actions, such as [Roman] Polanski and Woody Allen, is condemned and ostracized (with or without evidence). And in literature, Gallimard has decided not to publish [Louis-Ferdinand] Céline’s anti-semitic pamphlets. These prohibitions are stupid.

Rico: Should the work of a scoundrel be respected?

Vargas Llosa: Not only should it be respected, it should be published. If you begin to judge literature by moral and ethic standards, literature would not only be very diminished, it would disappear. It would have no reason for being. Literature expresses what reality, for one reason or another, tries to hide. Nothing stimulates the critical spirit in a society like good literature, not to mention the beauty derived from the pleasure it brings you.

But literature and morality are at odds, they are enemies, and you have to respect literature if you believe in freedom. There are demonic writers, of course. There are many whom we read not to imitate but to learn from them. The Marquis de Sade was a man of many horrors. He wrote the most atrocious things and at the same time few writers have delved so deeply into the complexities of the human mind, into the world of desire and instinct.

Céline was clearly an awful man — a racist and a Nazi supporter. At the same time, he was one the greatest writers of modern times. I don’t believe France has produced a writer as original or as brilliant since Proust.

I have read his two greatest novels two or three times and they are absolute masterpieces. Within his pettiness, his very mediocre view of human beings, he expressed not only a certain reality of French society but of all societies, without exception.

Rico: Can political correctness threaten freedom?

Vargas Llosa: Political correctness is the enemy of freedom because it rejects honesty. Or, to put it another way, authenticity. You have to fight it as though it were the denigration of truth.

Rico: We have recently discovered fake news, as though it were something new. But in Useless Knowledge Jean-François Revel describes how in the 1980s the Soviet Union waged a great disinformation campaign in the West — intellectuals participated, of course — and in the media, with biased coverage and campaigns against Conservative leaders. That’s where the big hoaxes were born.

Vargas Llosa: New words for very old realities. In the case of disinformation, of manipulation, communism had a diabolical ability to alter facts and discredit honest individuals, to use lies and false truths to cover up, which ultimately set fire to and took the place of reality.

Rico: The Soviet Union fell but Moscow is now using cyber technology to meddle in US elections, in Catalonia, in electoral campaigns of Mexico and Colombia.

Vargas Llosa. There is a technological revolution that is being used to pervert democracy rather than to strengthen it. It is a technology that can be used for very different purposes but of which the enemies of democracy and freedom are taking advantage.

It is a reality we have to face but, unfortunately, I believe the response thus far has been very limited. We are being overwhelmed by a technology that has been put to the service of lies, of post-truth. And if we do not tackle this phenomenon, it could have a deeply destructive and corrupting impact on civilization, progress and true democracy.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in El País Semanal.


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.

Martín Domínguez Architect of Havana’s Focsa Building, Erased by Francoism and Castroism

Two dictatorships, that of Francisco Franco and that of Fidel Castro, condemned a liberal and upright man to oblivion: the Basque architect Martín Domínguez Esteban. (File Martín Domínguez Esteban)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Maite Rico, Madrid, 13 January 2018 — Madrid’s Zarzuela racecourse, with its spectacular grandstands and challenging cantilevered decks, is notable in the annals of architecture. As is Havana’s Focsa building, that “open book” of 39 floors, inspired by Le Corbusier, that dialogues with the bay and Malecon in Cuba’s capital city.

Behind these two emblematic works, so studied, so dissected, lies, curiously, a ghost. A name that does not appear in books or specialized publications. It is not a mistake. It is the oblivion to which two dictatorships, that of Francisco Franco and that of Fidel Castro, condemned a liberal and upright man: the Basque architect Martín Domínguez Esteban (1897-1970).

For decades, the racecourse, conceived in 1934 and opened in 1941, was officially attributed to the engineer Eduardo Torroja. The other co-designers, Martín Domínguez and Carlos Arniches, were erased from memory. The Focsa building is attributed to the architect Ernesto Gómez Sampera. Martín Domínguez is ignored in the guides of Cuban architecture, even in the one jointly published in 1998 by the Junta de Andalucía and the authorities of Havana. continue reading

Domínguez swelled the list of architects condemned to exile or ostracism after the Spanish Civil War, many of them purged, such as Josep Lluís Sert, Manuel Sanchez Arcas, Felix Candela, Carlos Arniches and Arturo Sáenz de la Calzada, in what entailed the dismantling of the vigorous Spanish architecture of the first half of the 20th century.

In the case of Martín Domínguez, the exile was double: first to Cuba, when he was 40, and then to the United States, when he was already 62. But his personal defeats in the face of totalitarianism never separated him from his commitment: to put architecture at the service of society. He died in New York in 1970. Today, the tenacity of his son, Martín Domínguez Ruz, also an architect, working with Pablo Rabasco, a full professor of Art History at the University of Córdoba, has allowed the reclaiming of a memorable legacy and biography.

Madrid: Frustrated Dreams

“Look at the arcs, they mark the rhythm of the whole building, the rhythm of a horse’s gallop.” A rhythm paced by the undulating roofs of the spectator stands. A few yards away, the pureblood’s hooves thunder along the track. Martín Domínguez Ruz is 72. At 23 he set foot on the Zarzuela Racetrack in Madrid’s Monte de El Pardo for the first time. It was 1968 and he and took some pictures that, once back in New York, he showed to his father, Martín Domínguez Esteban. The Basque architect, one of the three authors of that project, who had never been able to see the finished work, which had been in progress for two years when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. “My father went into exile and Carlos Arniches, who stayed behind, was censured and could not finish it.” Engineer Eduardo Torroja was able to continue and remained faithful to the plans.”

Martín Domínguez Ruz, in front of the stands of the racetrack, known is Spanish as the Hipódromo de la Zarzuela, the work of his father, Arniches and Torroja. (James Rajotte)

Like a good architect, Martín the son likes to talk about the philosophy that underlies the structure. The racecourse is a technical feat, yes, but also a way to understand a historical moment.

“My father and Arniches wanted to recreate the sense of a town celebrating fiestas, where the elite mix with the ordinary people, the traditional with the modern, a network of spaces that invites one to walk and come upon the jockeys and the horses, with the paddock in the center, surrounded by arcades, like in the bullfights in the central square of Sepulveda in the patron saint festivities.”

All this combined with a great technical challenge: the large reinforced concrete canopies that seem to wave on the grandstands and that are anchored with their own weight to the entrance hall.

The whitewashed walls and Arab tile roofs unleashed the orthodox criticism of the avant-garde. But Arniches and Domínguez did not want to break with the past. It was about heading into the future based on their own traditions, very much in the humanistic spirit of the Free Institution of Education and the Student Residence, where Domínguez stayed between 1918 and 1925.

His son draws a parallel with the La Barraca theatrical project of La Barraca by Federico García Lorca, a friend of his father. “They wanted to transform an agrarian and cacique society into a more just, more modern and more enlightened one through the architectural language.”

And now it is time to put things in their place. “The racetrack is a unitary work, the result of a dialogue between two architects and an engineer, who unite two contrasting constructive traditions.

There have been historians who have had the temerity to say that the stands were the work of Eduardo Torroja, and that was convenient because Arniches and Dominguez did not have the sympathies of the regime. The reality is that it was a joint work of three professionals who were respected, and memory speaks very clearly. Without Torroja it would not have been like that, but nor would it have been like that without the architects.”

Until 1936, the career of Martín Domínguez Esteban seemed unstoppable. Coming from a family of San Sebastian’s high bourgeoisie, he shared his studio, located in the Palace Hotel, with Carlos Arniches, whom he met in 1924.

Both participated fully in the modernizing movement that was making its way into Spain. They were involved in the construction of the Road Hostels of the National Tourism Board (the seeds of the Paradores Nationales – a series of luxury hotels created in historic structures), an initiative of 1928 to promote car tourism and to update the appalling hospitality infrastructure in the interior of the country.

They worked with agricultural villages and collaborated with their mentor, Secundino Zuazo, in the construction of the Nuevos Ministerios (government headquarters). And they turned their attentions to the project of educational renovation with the School Institute and the Kindergarten (today, the Ramiro de Maeztu Institute) and the Student Residence Auditorium on Serrano Street (destroyed at the end of the war and reconstructed, using part of the original, by Miguel Fisac as the Chapel of the Holy Spirit).

When war broke out, Domínguez offered himself to the Captaincy General to work with other architects on the plans for the defenses of Madrid,

which were to be built by unemployed workers. The labor unions rejected the plan. “My father saw that the war was lost, and he told Juan Negrín that,” recalls his son.

In December of 1936, Domínguez crossed the French border on foot. Lluís Companys had interceded with the leader of the CNT (National Confederation of Labor) to give him a safe conduct (“he has a friendly face, we let him out,” the union leader told him). He ended up in Antwerp and embarked on a ship bound for Veracruz. From there he planned to travel to the United States. The ship made a two-week stopover in Havana. And the architect changed his plans and decided to stay on the island. Carlos Arniches, on the other hand, is cloistered in an internal exile until his death, in Madrid in 1958. In those years he built the settlement colonies of Algallarín (Córdoba) and Gévora (Badajoz) and the Center for Tobacco Studies, in Seville.

Havana: The Golden Years

April 2017, Martín Domínguez Ruz speaks at the School of Architecture of Cuba about the process of creating the Hipódromo de la Zarzuela with the same slides that his father had used. He has not been in his native country, which he left as a teenager, for 58 years. The meeting provokes mixed sensations.

“I’ve never seen so many police and military officers in one place, but then you say … God, what a beautiful city, and the contact with unofficial people is so kind and so warm, I found very few people attached to the regime.”

He decided to return with Pablo Rabasco to look for the traces of his father, especially in the public housing he developed in several neighborhoods in Havana. But none of the experts will help them. “Their careers were in danger, it turns out that the one who developed those plans was not Che Guevara’s New Man, but a liberal and democratic man, who left Cuba and was later called a gusano, a worm. So now the designers have become the revolutionary architects of the National Housing Institute. Changing the story is going to be difficult.”

The Cuba that Martín Domínguez Ruz’s father knew was very different. An effervescent country, with a buoyant economy and a hectic cultural life. But there was a problem: the College of Architects refused to recognize his professional title.

“It was because of ‘corporatism’. On my birth certificate, dated 1945, I am the son of Josefina Ruz, secretary and domestic worker, and of Martín Domínguez Esteban, interior decorator. In spite of everything, Domínguez Esteban soon begins to stand out. He associates with other architects, signing plans as the treasurer or engineer.

With Miguel Gastón he builds the Radiocentro building in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood for the CMQ Communications Group, the most important in Cuba. Completed in 1947, it was the first multifunctional complex in the country, with shops, offices, radio and television studios and the Warner cinema (today, renamed the Yara Cinema). Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus School, praised him on a visit to Havana.

The Focsa is structured in two wings that take off from a central hinge and the number of stories was a technical feat. (Wikimedia)

Specifically to provide accommodation for the station’s employees, Martín Domínguez’s most audacious project in Cuba arose: the FOCSA building (Fomento de Obras y Construcciones, SA), undertaken with Ernesto Gómez Sampera. The building, which at 39 floors was at the time the second highest concrete structure in the world, was raised as a small self-sufficient city, following the parameters of Le Corbusier, one of Martín Domínguez’s great inspirations, whom he had met while working on the Student Residence in Spain.

The building was structured in two wings that take off from a central hinge and the number of stories was a technical feat. The FOCSA should have received the 1957 Gold Medal from the College of Architects, but the 26th of July Movement’s assault on the presidential palace that year caused the cancellation of the awards.

By then Martín Domínguez had been involved in the construction of social housing for unions, on land bought by the FOCSA company. After the triumph of the Revolution, the architect recommended that the owners to sell the land to the state, before it was confiscated.

“My father saw everything coming from the beginning, because of his experience on the Republican side [in Spain], he soon identified Fidel Castro’s speeches with those of La Pasionaria (Dolores Ibárruri), ‘I’ve heard it before,’ he said. He knew very well where this was going. My mother did not, but he did.”

The FOCSA group sent him to talk with Che Guevara who headed the Ministry of Housing and La Cabaña Fortress. “Every morning they were shooting people there, the blasts could be heard all over Havana. He negotiated with him to sell the land, below the purchase price, of course. Then Che invited him to dinner.”

And there Martín Domínguez sealed his fate. Commander Guevara wants to know more about him. “Well, Domínguez, you are a Spanish Republican, and what are your ideas?”

“My ideas?”

“Yes, your ideas.”

“From the personal point of view I am conservative, and from the political point of view I am a liberal.”

After that conversation, agitators began to arrive at jis projects, to incite the workers to revolt. Meanwhile Dominguez, together with Gómez Sampera and Ysrael Seinuk, had presented the project for the Libertad Building, a spectacular 50-story skyscraper, to an official contest to commemorate the Revolution. “The jury of architects was going to give them the first prize. My father did not appear, of course, but when they told Fidel about the project he said he did not accept it, saying ‘this gallego is not going to build in Cuba’.”

Ithaca: End of the Journey

Martín Domínguez Esteban knew that the time has come to return to exile. He accepted a job offer from the prestigious Cooper Union University, in New York, and waited for months for a criminal background check certificate from Spain that never came.

At the end of April 1960, the architect leaves Havana on a boat bound for Miami, with his wife and son, aged 15, with a car, some clothes, photos, $150 per person and one book each chosen from the family library. The father chooses Manuel Azaña’s essays. The mother, a Spanish rice cookbook. The teenager, the complete works of García Lorca.

“We spent a night in Miami, I wanted to stay longer, we had family, but my father told me: ‘We are not staying a moment longer than necessary, your mother and I will never go back to Cuba. I do not want to live with yearnings and false expectations. We are not going to look back. Always ahead’.”

When they arrived in New York, someone else had been given the job at Cooper Union because of the time that had passed, but he got another teaching position in upstate New York at Cornell University, in the city of Ithaca, which he defined as “a Siberia with modernist airs.”

At this time, Martín Domínguez Esteban was 62. He reinvents himself again, he is happy to teach, he works as a consultant on housing programs in Latin America and designs the beautiful Lennox House, his final work. “My father faced the second exile with his sense of humor and integrity intact. He had an unusual strength of character. In Ithaca, despite the low temperatures, he continued to take his cold shower every morning.” But behind his humor and elegance, he always lived in that “constant hunger of exile” mentioned in the Greek tragedies, a hunger that, in the end, could never be satisfied.

An annual award with his name celebrates Martin Dominguez Esteban at Cornell University, which dedicated a great exhibition to him at the time. The award in Madrid is the second. “Our goal now is to have one in Havana,” says professor Pablo Rabasco enthusiastically. “It will be the best way to close the circle.” And erase oblivion.

Editor’s Note: This text was initially published in the Spanish newspaper  El País.


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.

Carmelo Mesa-Lago: “The Cuban Government Panicked After Obama’s Visit”

Cuban economist and academic Carmelo Mesa Lago. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Maité Rico, Madrid, 1 June 12017 — Carmelo Mesa-Lago (born Havana, 1934) has spent a good part of his life trying to open a breach of good sense in the wall of absurdities with which that the Castro regime has ended up plunging into bankruptcy a country that was, in the 1950s, the third most developed in Latin America after Argentina and Uruguay.

A Professor Emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, he has just presented in Madrid the only study on the private sector in Cuba (Voices Of Change In The Cuban Non-State Sector, published by Iberoamericana-Vervuert), based on interviews with 80 self-employed individuals. continue reading

Armed with the best statistical data, this economist views with perplexity how the economic reforms announced by Raúl Castro in 2010 are being diluted (“the Government takes one step forward and four steps back”), and how the country is losing the opportunity that was offered to it last year by the reestablishment of bilateral relations with the United States.

It was precisely Barack Obama’s outstretched hand that sowed panic in the Government, which fears that economic openness will lead to political change. Now there is a brake on the reforms, there are no investments, and the crisis in Venezuela, which replaced the USSR as Cuba’s economic supporter, has plunged the country into disaster.

Rico: Is Cuba entering a new “Special Period” [a euphemism to describe the period of hardship that followed the fall of the USSR and the end of aid to Cuba]?

Mesa-Lago: The situation is similar, but not so dramatic, because the dependence on the Soviet Union was much greater than that on Venezuela. That said, the trade volume with Venezuela has dropped significantly (from 42% to 27% in 2015) and the supply of oil has declined from 105,000 barrels a day to 55,000.

Cuba sold a part of that oil in the world market, and it was an important source of income that has also fallen by half. And another income that has fallen is the most important one: the sale of professional services (doctors, nurses, teachers) [to foreign countries], which went from 11 billion dollars in 2013 to 7 billion. In 2015, GDP growth was 4.4%. In 2016, it was minus 0.9%. Everything points to a very strong crisis, but I do not think it reaches the level of the Special Period.

Rico. At least, within this parasitic economy, tourism remains.

Mesa-Lago. There is a boom, for the first time they exceeded four million tourists and took in about 4 billion dollars. The problem is that this gross income has to be subtracted from the value of imports of goods and supplies for tourists. Cuba has to import everything. And that data is no longer published. So it’s not 4 billion. It’s less, but we do not know how much.

Rico. Despite the announcement of the investment plan and Obama’s trip, foreign investment has not materialized and the Special Development Zone in the Port of Mariel, the big Brazilian bet, is quite inactive.

Mesa-Lago. It is inexplicable. Cuba needs [new investments of] at least $2.5 billion a year. Until last month there were some 450 proposals for foreign investment, some of them already established in Cuba. And they have only approved some twenty of them. According to their figures, since the opening of the Port of Mariel Special Development Zone the cumulative figure has not reached 2 billion dollars. Why do they do this? It does not make sense to me.

Rico. But what can Cuba offer, beyond cheap labor? The system of production is destroyed.

Mesa-Lago. The infrastructure is a disaster. And the workforce, which is qualified, works extremely slowly. For the construction of the Manzana hotel, Kempinski brought workers from India because they were more productive. The problem is that the Cuban worker earns very little and is paid in Cuban pesos (CUP), and has to buy most things in convertible currency (CUC), and they can’t support themselves. There is no incentive, and it is a vicious cycle. Between 1989, the year before the crisis, and 2015, the purchasing power of Cubans fell by more than 70%.

Rico. And when are they going to solve the problem of the dual-currency system?

Mesa-Lago. Raul has announced it many times and two years ago made a very complicated resolution, full of equations. But nothing happened. The problem is that inflation will be about 12% this year, it is very high. And the unification of the currency, by itself, generates inflation. So I find it difficult to see them doing it in the short term. In addition, they must first do it in the state sector, and there will be companies that will cease to be sustainable, and then comes the population. It’s going to be a longer process than in Vietnam and probably in China.

Rico. How many workers has the state fired since the reforms began?

Mesa-Lago. They announced that between 2010 and 2015 they were going to lay off 1.8 million unnecessary workers, but in the end it was half a million. The private sector did not advance as rapidly as needed to create all those jobs, and there would have been a social explosion.

Rico. But why does private activity grow so slowly?

Mesa-Lago. Because of all the obstacles. It is as if the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. There are many activities that the Government has closed down or rescinded [the permission for, after initially granting licenses]: clothing sales, 3D movie theaters … now they have begun to regulate prices for private taxis and on the sale of homes, and to interfere in the free agricultural market. Taxation is brutal. There are something like seven taxes. The Government punishes those who succeed and who could help the State solve its problems. It is not logical.

Rico. And how do you explain it?

Mesa-Lago. The only explanation I have is that in Cuba there is no unified leadership with a single opinion, but there is a group that resists. Obama’s visit had a very positive impact on the population, but the government panicked. From there came a a paralysis. The most hardline group, the most orthodox, came out stronger than ever.

Rico. Are the Armed Forces putting obstacles in the way?

Mesa-Lago. Yes, and the Party, but the Army is more important because it has economic power. And it has like a reverse Midas touch. Everything it touches it turns to garbage … Restaurants, hotels … It is impressive.

Rico. The self-employed people interviewed agree on their problems: scarcity and lack of inputs, regulatory overspending, taxes, difficult access to the internet …

Mesa-Lago. Yes, and in spite of the continuous obstruction of the State, 80% of them are satisfied with what they do (although not with what they earn). And 93% made profits, and most reinvested them into their business. That is extraordinary.

Rico. Will the team in power be able to make the transition?

Mesa-Lago. If Raúl Castro, in ten years, has not pushed the reforms, I doubt that his successor can be more successful. Political logic prevails over economic logic. And they fear losing control.


Editorial Note: This article was previously published in the Spanish newspaper El País and we reproduce it with authorization of the author.