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Cuba: We accept private enterprise and foreign investment — not political party liberalization

A man in a suit
Jacquelyn Martin
Crisis Management: Cuban Foreign Relations Vice Minister Carlos Fernandez de Cossio (photographed on April 22, 2022, in Washington, D.C.)

Scores of private entrepreneurs from communist Cuba visited Miami last week to get tips from their Cuban-American counterparts and maybe network some investment relationships.

It was another sign that Cuba’s government has come to the realization that private enterprise is about the only thing now that can save the island’s wrecked economy.

Officials in Havana of course blame the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba for that disaster. But either way, it’s forcing them to consider deeper changes.

WLRN’s Americas editor and South Florida Roundup host Tim Padgett spoke about this topic and others with Carlos Fernández de Cossío. He’s Cuba’s Foreign Relations Vice Minister. He joined Tim from New York.

This transcription has been edited for brevity. Listen to the full conversation above.

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Padgett: Mr. Vice Minister, last Sunday night [Sept. 24] the Cuban Foreign Relations Ministry reported that two Molotov cocktails were thrown at the Cuban embassy building in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, no one was hurt. But this is the second such nighttime attack on the embassy in three years. What more can you tell us now about the investigation into the attack and who was behind it?

Fernández de Cossío: The investigation is in the hands of the U.S. law enforcement authorities; it's not being carried out by our embassy. And we don't know at this moment how far that investigation has gone or who is behind it. What we do know is that there are people in the United States that have a history of either practicing or organizing terrorist actions against Cuba. But it would be for us to jump the gun, to start making accusations without without facts and the investigation. That should be done by law enforcement authorities in the US.

Padgett: Mr. Vice Minister, in spite of the attack, how would you describe bilateral relations between Cuba and the U.S. at this moment?

Fernández de Cossío: The line that is being applied is a loyalty to the policy or reinforcement of the aggressive measures against the Cuban economy. And the government of President Biden has kept the most aggressive of those in place. In spite of that, there have been some steps in areas like migration, some level of cooperation in law enforcement, including in terrorism, by the way, and in environmental science, arts, culture, education.

Padgett: That brings me to Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel's speech last week at the U.N. General Assembly in which he criticized the U.S. for what he called “its merciless economic warfare against Cuba.” Díaz-Canel was obviously referring to the embargo. Why do you feel the U.S. keeps the embargo in place after more than 60 years?

Fernández de Cossío: Well, that's a question that we normally try to ask the U.S. government. Cuba is not an enemy of the United States. There's no hostile action by Cuba against the United States. There are political disagreements. Yes, we have political disagreements with the U.S., as the U.S. has with Cuba. And that's part of international relations all over the place.

"Private sector growth is a decision we took on our own for our development. It's an actor in the Cuban economy, regardless of what the U.S. does."
Carlos Fernández de Cossío

Padgett: But the U.S., including the Biden administration, insists that it's hard to lift the embargo when Cuba remains what it calls a repressive dictatorship, one that has more than a thousand political prisoners locked up, most of them people who took part in large anti-government, pro-democracy protests two years ago. Would it not be a positive step toward lifting the embargo if Cuba were to release most, if not all, of those prisoners?

Fernández de Cossío: Thousands of people participated in the demonstration in Cuba over two years ago. Thousands — and a few hundred were prosecuted. The ones that were prosecuted were not prosecuted because of what they think or what they said or what they shouted or why they expressed. They were prosecuted for vandalizing, for attacking people, for assaulting a police station, for overturning police cars and civilian cars. And that in Cuba is a crime, as I suspect is in the United States.

Padgett: I understand — but for the record, international human rights groups say between 500 and 700 were prosecuted for the 2021 protests, and that many if not most were merely marching or demonstrating.

Fernández de Cossío: People have been put in jail for the events of Jan. 6th, 2021, in the United States who were not even present at the place, just because they were accused of inciting people to go to Capitol Hill [that day].

Padgett: At the same time, Cuba's serious economic crisis just keeps getting worse. And we're seeing record numbers of Cubans, especially younger Cubans, leaving the island. Do you feel all the blame for that rests on the U.S. and the embargo, or is the Cuban government now recognizing its own economic mistakes and mismanagement?

Fernández de Cossío: There's a combination of factors. First, we have the effects of COVID, and we have to remember that we shut the country that depends on tourism as a main source of income, and we shut it totally. We have not recovered yet. But there's an extraordinary and artificial impact of that, which is the U.S. economic blockade, which is aimed at making the economy unworkable. And then you add to that, which is also true, that we have issues of structure in our economy that we need to improve and that we are trying to transform under very big difficulties. And we have had mismanagement, inefficiencies in what we do, which we recognize that we have to improve.

A worker at the privately run Atres Cooperative in Matanzas, Cuba, makes furniture made out of recyclable plastic, or eco-wood. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco)
Ismael Francisco
A worker at the privately run Atres Cooperative in Matanzas, Cuba, makes furniture made out of recyclable plastic, or eco-wood.

Padgett: That, of course, brings us to the dynamic growth we're seeing in Cuba's private sector since the communist government legalized those small -and medium-sized businesses, known as pymes, two years ago. This seems an area where the U.S. and Cuba can find common ground. Both governments have approved U.S. investment in Cuban private enterprises. But Cuba says it's waiting for the U.S. to soften the embargo and make bilateral banking available. Meanwhile the U.S. says it's waiting on Cuba to present clear investment rules before it can do that. When do you see all of this getting resolved?

Fernández de Cossío: I think there's a misunderstanding. Cuba is not waiting for the U.S. to act in any measure. The growth of the private sector in Cuba is a national decision by Cuba. We're taking it n our own, regardless of what the United States does. We have consented to the private sector in the past few years as part of our economic development and as an actor in the Cuban economy. Now, this sector also suffers from the economic blockade, but Cuba does not need a bilateral banking relationship with the United States for the private sector in Cuba to prosper.

Padgett: Most of the Cuban private sector tells us they do need it. But there's been a tendency in the past for the Cuban government to let the private sector grow and then all of a sudden clamp down on it and rein it in. Is that sort of thing finally over?

Fernández de Cossío: What we have approved is medium- and small-sized enterprises. We're not, at least for the moment, conceiving in our economic overview to have big monopolies and big concentrations of property and big concentration of wealth and big concentrations of capital. What we want is an expansion. As many as possible and at a level playing field for all, for many to have opportunity to flourish, not to have a few who concentrate and become monopolies in any sector. This is our aim. Now, this is the new reality in Cuba and regulation is coming behind it.

Padgett: Including clear rules for foreign investment in the private sector?

Fernández de Cossío: Yes. But the corporate law still has to be approved, a law for corporations in Cuba. What's happening? When we began this, there was no clear picture of where this was going. Which were the sectors that were going to grow? Which were the territories in the country where they're going to grow the most? Which was going to be their export exposure? Because many of them work within Cuba, but some need to import and some wish to export. That reality has to show itself so that we can regulate something that is appropriate to what's really happening.

Havana and Miami

Padgett: Last week in New York, President Díaz-Canel also told Cuban-Americans they may be welcome in the future to own businesses in Cuba? That would seem to represent a big thaw between Havana and Miami.

Fernández de Cossío: I'm surprised by what you're saying, because I was at that meeting and the president never said that. Whoever reported that either was not present or did not get a good recollection of what happened in that place. The president said that they are welcome, but not just as of this meeting. He said that we have in place, a policy that he personally has defended, that invites Cubans that live abroad in the U.S. or in Europe and Latin America, in Asia, to invest in Cuba, to be part of the economy and to participate and contribute to the Cuban economy. Opening actual businesses in Cuba is for people who reside in Cuba. Cubans that live abroad can participate like a Canadian, like a Spaniard. But if you want to establish a company you have to be a resident.

Padgett: Thank you for clarifying that. We've been talking about the growth of the private sector in Cuba. Do you feel that the economic liberalization that's taking part there could lead to more political liberalization in Cuba, especially, for example, letting parties other than the Cuban Communist Party run in elections?

Fernández de Cossío: We are not aiming at that. If you call liberalization having money participate in politics and having parties serve as machines so that politicians can be moved and then corporations and the wealthy have the capacity to finance and buy political favors — that is something we're not conceding in Cuba.

Padgett: But you still don't think a healthy pluralism could come of it?

Fernandez de Cossio: We believe that if parties, which happens in many countries, become machineries so that money and capital can be the engine of political advancement — that is something we are not considering in Cuba.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
Helen Acevedo, a freelance producer, is a grad student at Florida International University studying Spanish-language journalism, a bilingual program focused on telling the stories of diverse communities.
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