En este momento estás viendo Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel sits down for a conversation with The Nation

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel sits down for a conversation with The Nation

In late September, The Nation’s editorial director, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, and its editor, DD Guttenplan, met with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel for an exclusive interview in New York.

It was the president’s first interview in the United States. They discussed the economic crisis facing his island nation, the future of its socialist model, and the impact of Washington’s continued hostility.

DD Guttenplan: You are the first Cuban president born after the Revolution. What does the Revolution mean today?

Miguel Díaz-Canel: First of all, I would like to thank you for conducting this interview, which is being held on the occasion of this visit we have made as part of the Cuban delegation to the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly. I thank you for allowing me to address the American public, especially the millions of Latinos and Cubans living in the United States.

My generation was born with the Revolution. I was born in 1960 and celebrated my first birthday the day after the victory at Playa Giron. The birth and life of the revolution marked my generation.

From an early age, we were motivated to get involved in all the opportunities that the Revolution offered us: to better ourselves, to acquire knowledge, to participate in culture, science, and sports, and to enjoy access to health. We were also aware of the need to fulfill our duties and not only to be recipients of rights but also to meet the challenges facing the country.

Of course, the Revolution has gone through different stages. My childhood memories are of very complicated years. Later, we enjoyed a period of greater economic tranquility in the 1970s and 1980s, when we had closer relations with the socialist camp and, in particular, with the Soviet Union. Then came the Special Period, which was another challenging time.

From 2000 onwards, the country entered a new phase of economic growth, and prospects improved. However, today we find ourselves in a situation that you have described as «complex». International relations are complicated in such an uncertain world, especially with the problems caused by the pandemic.

As a representative of a whole generation that has come to assume the responsibilities of political life and government, I feel an enormous commitment to the Revolution, to the Cuban people, and to Fidel [Castro] and Raúl [Castro], who have been visionary leaders to whom we owe our gratitude and recognition.

We define ourselves as a generation of continuity, although not a generation of linear continuity. Continuity does not mean a lack of transformation, but quite the opposite: a dialectical continuity, so that, while we transform, advance, and try to perfect our society to the maximum, we do not abandon our convictions to build socialism in our country, with the greatest possible social justice.

That is our lifelong commitment and vision. It requires great effort, achievement, and selflessness, and this demands a lot from us, especially in difficult circumstances.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel: There are many young people in Cuba today. In that context, I wonder how you imagine the future of the Cuban economy. The blockade is brutal, of course, but there is also a sense among young people that, without change, they may not see their future in Cuba.

MDC: There is something unique about the current moment. We have lived under a blockade since we were born. For example, my generation, the generation of the 1960s, was born with the blockade. Our children and grandchildren – I have grandchildren – have grown up under the blockade. However, the blockade changed significantly in the second half of 2019. It became even harsher than before.

The new, harsher blockade was the result of two factors. One was the implementation of more than 243 measures by the Trump administration, which strengthened the blockade by internationalizing it and applying for the first time Chapter Three of the Helms-Burton Act. In doing so, they cut off our access to foreign capital, international convertible currencies, and remittances; Americans could no longer visit Cuba and exerted financial pressure on banks and financial groups doing business with Cuba.

And to top it all off, nine or ten days before leaving office in January 2021, Trump included us in a false list that says that Cuba is a country that supports terrorism, which is false. The whole world knows about Cuba’s humanist vocation and how we contribute to peace. We do not send the military anywhere; we send doctors. And even then, when we send our doctors abroad to act in solidarity and provide services to other parts of the world, the United States claims that we are involved in human trafficking.

At the same time, just when the economic situation was worsening, Covid-19 hit and affected Cuba enormously, as it did everywhere else. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the U.S. government acted perversely and tightened the blockade. I single out the government and not the people of the United States because we have deep respect and friendly ties with the people of the United States.

I think the U.S. government thought that the Revolution would not survive that moment. The pandemic reached a very high level in Cuba and lasted most of 2021. When it started in 2020, we still did not have vaccines or even the possibility of getting the vaccine.

Then, there was a breakdown in the medical oxygen plant in Cuba. We ran out of oxygen and the U.S. government was pressuring companies in the Caribbean and Central America not to supply us with oxygen. We also had to expand the intensive care wards, and the U.S. government responded by pressuring the companies that manufactured and marketed ventilators not to supply Cuba.

The situation was critical and was accompanied by a huge media campaign to discredit the Cuban Revolution. We turned to our health system – an efficient, free, and high-quality system that considers health a right – and we turned to our scientists, especially the younger ones. Our scientists designed the ventilators and developed five candidate vaccines, three of which are now recognized for their efficacy. And that saved the country. However, we came out of the pandemic with many problems, many of them accumulated since before 2019.

We have shortages of medicines, food, and fuel. We suffer prolonged blackouts that harm the population and directly impact the lives of people, particularly young people. I believe that our educational process has impressed upon the youth the importance of the situation we are going through. Even so, as a generation, we have a huge challenge: to ensure that this momentary distancing of Cuban youth -young people born during the Special Period and who have lived all these years in a really difficult economic and social situation- does not lead to an ideological rupture with the Revolution and with the country itself.

There is indeed a greater migration than at other times. But that has happened periodically in the history between Cuba and the United States. The most intense migratory events have always been associated with periods in which the United States has applied aggressive policies that have worsened the Cuban economic situation. Through the Cuban Adjustment Act [of 1966] and other measures, the United States has favored illegal, unsafe, and disorderly immigration of Cubans, without extending those policies to migrants from other countries.

I learned a lot when we overcame the pandemic; I came to understand the way Cubans resist as a form of creative resistance. Resisting creatively means not just resisting by staying in place but moving forward by creating and harnessing the talent and strength of our people to overcome adversity. One example of this was vaccines. Only five [other] countries in the world were able to develop vaccines, and all of them are developed countries. Cuba is the only developing country that was able to do so, and also with impressive indicators of 0.76 mortality. Cuba has given more doses of vaccine per capita during the pandemic than any other country.

We are one of the 20 countries with more than ninety percent of the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19. We were only the second country in the world to vaccinate pediatric populations two years of age and older. These forms of creative resistance are now being transferred to other areas of the economy and social life, to overcome the blockade with our effort, talent, and work.

We are increasingly involving our youth in that effort and offering them greater space for social participation. As a result, young people can see that it is possible to have life goals that coincide with the social project defended by the Revolution. Of course, some migrate, but most young people are in Cuba, working in the areas I have mentioned and others. They are the ones leading our scientific development. Young people are involved in the main productive and economic activities of the country. They are the ones driving the digital transformation of society, the standard bearers of social, political, and institutional communication. They are the ones who convince us of the need to work for the continuity of the Revolution.

DDG: I want to pick up on two things you said, Mr. President. One is the cyclical nature of what you call emigration from Cuba and how it, in your view, responds to tougher sanctions. If I understand your argument, the U.S. imposes tougher sanctions, which sends more people out of the country. Do you think that’s something that the Biden administration can do something about?

MDC: We don’t expect too much to change with the Biden administration. We still have a diplomatic relationship with the United States; there is a U.S. embassy in Cuba and a Cuban embassy in the United States. Relations were restored during Obama’s term, which was a completely different policy than the one implemented by Trump and which has been maintained by Biden. I highlight this because, although it was a Republican president who implemented a policy of maximum pressure on Cuba, it was a Democratic president who maintained that policy.

Through direct and indirect channels, we have let the Biden administration know that we are willing to sit down and discuss our problems, including immigration to the United States. But that has to be done from a position of equality, respect, and without conditions. We have not received any response from the United States. Therefore, we do not feel that there is any intention on the part of this administration to work with us.

However, we aspire to maintain a civilized relationship between the two countries, regardless of our ideological differences. Until that time comes, we will continue to work to overcome that situation ourselves. We are working to ensure that young people are not subject to deception, manipulation, or misrepresentation of the kinds of opportunities available to them. Young people get caught in a completely disorderly and illegal migration flow, falling into human trafficking schemes, when they leave Cuba legally, only to become illegal in transit to the United States.

There is a lot of talk about Cuban migration, especially of young Cubans, but the truth is that migration affects all countries, and those who migrate are generally young, healthy people with dreams.

KvH: In Cuba, you see small stores, private hotels, and restaurants, how far do you think this process can go within the framework of socialism?

MDC: We aspire to be a socialist economy that guarantees the greatest possible social justice. We have to build, strengthen, and develop this socialist economy without forgetting the conditions of the world we live in, which is full of uncertainties and complexities, a world where the gap between rich and poor is widening and where the countries of the South have many disadvantages.

Still, we will never give up our ideal of socialism. But how do we do that given the current conditions as they are, including the blockade and Cuba’s internal problems? We defend the socialist economy as the way to achieve greater social justice while advocating greater efficiency, greater autonomy, and better performance of the socialist state enterprise, that is, the public enterprise within our social economic model.

We have also opened a private and non-state sector of the economy as a complement to the state sector. On the one hand, there is a unique entrepreneurial system, where there is one actor – the state enterprise – which today has the ownership and administration of the main means of production; and there is a second non-state actor which also contributes to the development of the country, the national GDP, and absorbs part of the labor force.

Lately, we have witnessed a very interesting development: these non-state enterprises are beginning to link up with the state sector. For example, under blockade conditions, our state-owned enterprises cannot take full advantage of their productive capacity. However, the non-state sector, which has more possibilities of importing despite the blockade, links up with that state entity and together they develop productive activities and services that ultimately benefit the people.

We aspire to give the Cuban people the prosperity they deserve for all the heroism they have shown in resisting the blockade during all these years. How shall we do that? With a concept of socialist construction that includes a state sector and a private sector. It is a challenge, but we are going to achieve it.

KvH: I had the good fortune to see former Foreign Minister Alarcón a week before he passed away and what captivated him most were the changes in the region. Just the other day, Lula was in Cuba for an important meeting. The region seems to be moving in a rosier and less right-wing direction. Does that give Cuba more room to make changes or perhaps even recreate the movement of non-aligned countries for a new era?

MDC: We defend the principle of Latin American and Caribbean integration. We also defend the principle that Latin America and the Caribbean should be a zone of peace. We have relations with all Latin American and Caribbean countries.

We cooperate and collaborate with several countries that have requested our professional or technical services, including our medical brigades and other specialists in fields such as engineering. We try to work to develop commercial relations. In addition, when we participate in cooperation missions, we learn about those countries, which helps our development.

Latin America is a very favorable place for progressive movements even though a far-right current is trying to undermine these processes. We have strong relations with Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina, and those relations are getting stronger. Brazil is almost a continent within Latin America and one of the most important economies. We had extensive trade and bilateral exchange under the governments of Lula and then Dilma. When these progressive governments take power, they will also open new possibilities for our country.

Cuba sponsored the peace process in Colombia, which has helped and contributed to peace throughout the continent. The Final Agreement of that peace process was signed in Havana a few years ago. Cuba has developed a coherent foreign policy based on cooperation and collaboration with other countries, on sharing what we have in a very altruistic way. When COVID-19 arrived, we shared our vaccines with the Caribbean and Latin American countries that requested them.

DDG: Mr. President, you spoke about Cubans abroad. Of course, we all know the long and distinguished history of Cuban doctors providing health care around the world. But some of us in the United States were surprised by recent headlines about the recruitment of Cubans in Ukraine to fight. I wonder if you could explain your government’s response to the situation.

MDC: First of all, our position on the war in Ukraine is that we are a country of peace. We uphold international law and the United Nations Charter. We do not like wars. We do not celebrate wars and we do not support wars. It hurts us when human lives are lost on one side or the other, and we believe that dialogue and diplomatic solutions should be sought to end this war.

We are not part of the war in Ukraine, but we discovered through our investigations that an illegal network was hiring Cubans living in Russia and some living in Cuba to fight on the Russian side. Our Criminal Code prohibits mercenaries and we consider this a case of mercenaries as well as human trafficking. That is why, when we gathered all the evidence of that investigation, we informed the parties involved and publicly denounced what happened. Thanks to our close relations with Russia, both sides have been able to work to eliminate the illegal trafficking of people that turns them into mercenaries. I can certify that Cuba is not part of the war and that if we discover an illegal trafficking network like the one we saw, we will denounce it and act to stop it.

KvH: For the sake of greater clarity on Cuba’s position on the Ukrainian war, have you tried to play a role in any cease-fire offers? What is the Cuban government’s position on the Ukrainian war?

MDC: We insist on using all international mechanisms and spaces for dialogue; there must be a solution through dialogue and diplomatic relations. The problem is that there are efforts to distort reality and impose a twisted framework. For us, the U.S. government motivated the war by not listening to Russia’s grievances and warnings about the danger posed by the extension of NATO’s borders into Russia. The United States, in my opinion, manipulated the situation. The conflict also involved many European countries, to the point that it is not a Ukraine-Russia war but a NATO-Russia conflict.

Who pays for this war? It comes from the budgets of the countries involved in the war, so the inhabitants of those countries are the ones who pay. But it also hurts those who are not involved but still see the consequences of this war. Problems with grain exports and food markets have shown how this affects the world. We also oppose the war based on our humanist convictions that human lives are sacrificed in conflict.

But we believe that the United States has a huge responsibility in this conflict. They have been able to distort the true essence of the war and then tried to pretend that they were the ones in the right position. I believe that the right answer to ending the war is through diplomatic means. There must be objective guarantees of security for all parties. I think with intelligence and sensitivity we could all support the search for a solution instead of fanning the war and adding fuel to the flames of conflict.

DDG: You spoke earlier about socialist construction. I want to insist a little on the question of what balance you see in the future between the private sector and the State. During the Special Period, the subsidy from the Soviet Union was cut off, and that was very difficult for the people of Cuba, particularly because of the blockade. However, the problem of socialist construction has not been solved in Cuba, nor has it been solved in China, where they had to expand the private sector to raise the standard of daily living. What is the balance you are looking for between the private sector and the State in the future?

MDC: The fact that there is a private sector in a socialist economy does not negate socialism. Even the Marxist classics -or Lenin’s practice within the Soviet revolution- conceived that there are transition periods in which a private sector will be present within the socialist construction. Recognizing the private sector does not mean in any way that we are renouncing socialism. Why? Because the greatest quantity and volume of the fundamental means of production are still in the hands of the State.

Those means of production can be managed in a combination of state and non-state forms. For example, in Cuba, more than 80 percent of the land is owned by the state. However, approximately 80 percent of our land has been managed for years by private farmers’ cooperatives. This does not mean that we have stopped building socialism.

As far as the economy is concerned, we are dissatisfied with certain aspects of the current economic performance. But what has been the reality of the Cuban economy? A war economy that has had to face a blockade from the most powerful country in the world. We have to see what we would have achieved without the blockade. Of course, we also try to find ways to improve ourselves. When I say that I am dissatisfied with the performance of the Cuban economy, I am referring to the fact that we still cannot produce the goods and services that would give our people full prosperity. But it is that same war economy that has guaranteed free, high-quality, state-subsidized health care and education, as well as free access to culture and sports. Cuban professionals, even those who emigrate, are competitive in the labor markets of capitalist countries.

Cuba has an incredible system of social care that leaves no one behind or unprotected. One might ask: if people get it for free, doesn’t it cost the state money? And who covers these state expenses? Those expenses are covered by an economy that, on the one hand, has been hard hit by the blockade, but, on the other hand, has made important social achievements that capitalist and more developed countries have never achieved. Despite the tightening of the blockade, Cuba’s health and education indicators can be compared with those of any developed country in the world.

Where do we go from here? We have to be less dependent on international circumstances. That is why we are betting on the creative resistance of the Cuban people, with our effort and talent. We are working on an economic and social development model that will include a macroeconomic stabilization plan to face inflation, the distortions we have in the exchange market, and prices.

We are betting on science and innovation as pillars of government management. Look at what we did during the pandemic. We decided that to assert sovereignty, we needed Cuban vaccines, so we designed a governance system based on science and innovation. That idea was tested during Covid-19 and now we have extended it to other areas of the economy.

One of those areas is food sovereignty. We are focusing on science and innovation to boost food production so that Cuba does not have to import or depend on external sources for food. We are also changing the country’s energy matrix so that there is less dependence on fossil fuels and greater use of renewable energy sources. We aim for more than 24 percent of energy to be generated by renewable sources by 2030.

Amid difficult circumstances, we are developing social programs aimed at helping populations and families out of vulnerable situations. We are also initiating a digital transformation process. All these actions combined will generate a much more stable present and future.

KvH: On digital transformation, where is Cuba in your opinion in terms of internet access? I understood that there was an agreement with U.S. and European companies that failed, stopping the movement towards digital transformation. How do people get their media? Do you get a briefing every morning? I’m curious about what media you watch.

MDC: I’m very active on Twitter. I think I have more followers than anyone else in Cuba, although I’m not sure.

KvH: How many followers?

MDC: I’m told I have around 760,000 followers on Twitter. We have started a project for the digitalization of society, focusing on two fundamental areas. The first is to develop digital platforms such as e-commerce and e-government so that there is greater interconnection between the population, government institutions, and services, with greater democratic participation of the population. We are also working on the legal framework for e-commerce. The blockade has an impact on this because, to move towards a digital society, financial resources, and technology are needed. Therefore, we have to create the foundations of our digital infrastructure independently.

With China’s help, we were able to move towards the digitalization of television. As far as the Internet is concerned, there have been important advances in recent years. Already more than 7 million Cubans have access to the Internet through their cell phones. In Cuba, and especially among young people, it is very common to see everyone connected and actively working on social networks, although as a result of the blockade, some sites and platforms are denied to us.

There are times when one tries to update an application or enter a site, or a scientist wants to visit a research database and receives a message that says: «Your country does not have access to this site». But we are making progress. We have computer science programs in every university in the country. We have also developed a Cuban application store called Apklis, and we are also developing our Cuban application systems. We have an operating system developed by the University of Informatics Sciences, which is being used in laptops, tablets, and cell phones that we are developing through a joint project with China.

Teams of young Cubans have participated in international computer programming events and have obtained outstanding results. We have to continue advancing along this path of computerization for the following reasons: in Cuba, there is a smaller economically active population, and that group has to support a larger economically inactive population because our population is aging at the same time that life expectancy has increased.

In other words, while we are an underdeveloped country, we have a demographic dynamic typical of developed countries; with fewer people directly active in production and services, we have to achieve more efficient results, and the way to do this is through computerization, digital transformation, and automation. We have developed several popular programs to achieve these goals. For example, there is the Young Computer Club program: an institution where children from a very young age are introduced to computers and other communication technologies. There are even courses for older people so that they are not excluded from the whole process of digital transformation.

Of course, Cubans are also active on social networks. I believe that social networks can be an instrument through which knowledge can be managed, which is very important for humanity. We aspire to create a country where people are not distinguished by their material possessions, but by their spirituality and by what they can contribute to society and culture. What I condemn about social networks are their manifestations of vulgarity, banality, and the kind of online bullying that does so much harm, especially among young people.

I think the world also needs a more comprehensive and united approach to Internet governance. Cybersecurity issues are now a major topic in the world and Cuba is developing its cybersecurity platforms. Not to mention that the challenges of artificial intelligence are not only technological but also bring important social and ethical consequences. We need to achieve a form of global Internet governance. We need to build a world that is emancipatory and inclusive, where the virtual and the physical are less distant and where the Internet can help people find answers to their problems.

DDG: On the subject of culture, everyone knows that Cuba is a cultural powerhouse in music, literature, and dance. Since digital culture does not respect borders, do you see any difference or change in your government’s attitude towards Cubans who may no longer live in Cuba but still feel very proud to be Cuban?

MDC: This is the second time I have been in the United States: once five years ago and now this time. On both occasions, I have come to participate in sessions of the United Nations General Assembly. During these visits, we have always found some space to meet with representatives of American culture. Yesterday afternoon, for example, in this very place we had one of those meetings between American artists and academics, and Cuban artists based in Cuba and in the United States.

Like you, I have experienced the harmony that is created when Cuban and American musicians can share the stage. We have experienced it at the Havana jazz festivals, which always close with an orchestra that combines Cuban and American musicians. The Cubans bring to the original strengths of American jazz and their virtuosity a certain Latinity.

Those are the kind of moments when one reaches a new level of spiritual well-being. Today culture is one of the areas where bridges, not walls, can be built between Cuba and the United States. Through cultural exchange, borders are broken down and our people are united. Our people can share the values of their history and culture.

A few years ago, during the Obama era, the Kennedy Center held an exhibition of Cuban culture in Washington, DC. That was a great event. Here our artists felt very comfortable. We wanted to bring American artists to Cuba through a Kennedy Center project, but it all fell through because of Trump’s restrictions. There are still a lot of contacts. For example, yesterday we met some important Cuban musicians who have been living in the United States for many years. They have not abandoned the relationship with their country and we feel that their success is also the success of Cuban culture.

KvH: Is there an ongoing dialogue with the Biden administration and what do you expect if Biden is re-elected, in terms of U.S.-Cuba relations?

MDC: You would have to ask Biden. Right now there are diplomatic relations. We have conversations on some issues, but we have not seen a willingness on the part of the Biden administration to establish a different relationship with Cuba.

And we continue to insist on our vision. We are not going to give up on socialist construction. But we want a civilized and normal relationship between Cuba and the United States. However, to build that relationship, we have to sit down and talk. We need to evaluate all the issues on which we have different opinions and those on which we agree and those on which we disagree, try to move forward. I think this would lead to a better relationship and greater possibilities and potential for our people. But at the moment we see no signs that this is the attitude of the U.S. government.

KvH: One last question: have you seen Barbie or Oppenheimer?

MDC: I have not seen Oppenheimer, but I was recommended to see it and I will soon. I am interested in seeing Oppenheimer. I’m less interested in seeing Barbie. I find Barbie to be very, very light.


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