FIDEL CASTRO: cancel Third World debt, end corporate tyranny


The following is abridged from an interview with Cuba's President FIDEL CASTRO conducted in January by former UNESCO director general Frederico Mayor Zaragoza. The full text of the interview was published last month in Cuba's Granma newspaper.

Question: Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, does the word "socialism" make sense any more?

I am more convinced than ever that it makes a great deal of sense.

In Cuba, we have a united country and a party that guides but does not nominate or elect. The people, gathered in open assemblies, put up candidates, and nominate and elect delegates from 14,686 districts. They make up the assemblies of their respective municipalities, and nominate candidates to the provincial and national assemblies, the highest bodies of state power at those levels. The delegates, who are chosen through a secret ballot, must receive more than 50% of the valid votes.

Although voting is not compulsory, more than 95% of eligible voters take part in these elections. The United States, such a vocal advocate of multi-party systems, has two parties that are so perfectly similar in their methods, objectives and goals that they have practically created the most perfect one-party system in the world. More than 50% of the people in that "democratic country" do not even cast a vote, and the team that manages to raise the most funds often wins with the votes of only 25% of the electorate.

The US political system is undermined by disputes, vanity and personal ambition, or by interest groups operating within the established economic and social model. There is no alternative in the system.

Under capitalism, it is the large national and international companies that actually govern, even in the most highly industrialised nations. It is they who make the decisions on investment and development. It is they who are responsible for material production, essential economic services and a large part of social services.

The state simply collects taxes and then distributes and spends them. In many countries, the entire government could go on vacation and nobody would even notice.

The developed capitalist system, which later gave rise to modern imperialism, has finally imposed a neo-liberal and globalised order that is simply unsustainable. It has created a world of speculation where fictitious wealth and stocks have been created that have nothing to do with actual production, as well as enormous personal fortunes, some of which exceed the gross domestic product (GDP) of dozens of poor countries. No need to add the plundering and squandering of the world's natural resources and the miserable lives of billions of people.

There is nothing this system can offer humanity. It can only lead to its self-destruction, and perhaps along with it to the destruction of the natural conditions that sustain human life.

Question: Forty one years after the Cuban Revolution, and despite all of the difficulties, it has endured. What is the reason?

Tireless struggle and work. The fact that we have settled for convictions and acted accordingly; that we believe in humankind and in being our country's slaves and not its masters. We believe in building upon solid principles, seeking out and producing solutions, even in apparently impossible and unreal conditions; in preserving the honesty of those with the highest political and administrative responsibilities.

How was it possible to withstand the economic and political warfare unleashed against our country by the mightiest power ever without the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, without credits? At a recent summit meeting in Havana, I somewhat ironically said that it had been possible because we had the privilege of not being IMF members.

There were times when we were swimming in a sea of circulating money. Our national currency experienced an extraordinary devaluation and the budget deficit reached 35% of our GDP. Our peso dropped to 150 to the dollar in 1994.

In spite of this, we did not close down a single health care centre, school, day-care centre, university or sports facility. Nobody was left without employment or social security, even when fuel and raw materials were most scarce.

There was no trace of the customary and hideous shock therapies so highly recommended by the Western financial institutions. Every measure adopted was discussed not only in the National Assembly, but also in hundreds of thousands of assemblies held in factories, centres of production and services, trade unions, universities, secondary schools, and farmers, women's and neighbourhood organisations.

What little was available, we distributed as equitably as possible. Pessimism was overcome. During those critical years, the number of doctors was doubled and the quality of education was improved. The value of the Cuban peso increased sevenfold by 1998, to 20 to the dollar, and it has since remained stable.

Although we have still not reached the production and consumption levels we had before the demise of socialism in Europe, we have recovered at a steady and visible pace. The great hero in this feat has been the people, who have contributed tremendous sacrifices and immense trust. It was the fruit of justice and the ideas sown throughout 30 years of revolution. This genuine miracle would have been impossible without unity and socialism.

Question: In view of globalisation, would it not perhaps be advisable to open the Cuban economy up more to the rest of the world?

We have opened up the economy to the extent that it has been possible and necessary.

We have not gone for the same insanity and follies as in other places, where the recommendations of European and US experts have been followed as if they were biblical prophets. We have not been driven by the insanity of privatisation, and much less by that of confiscating state property to take it over ourselves or hand it out as gifts to relatives or friends.

This has happened in both former socialist countries and others that never were socialist under the pious, tolerant and complicit cover of the neo-liberal philosophy that has become a universal pandemic.

We have not attempted to commit the folly of adapting Cuba to the chaotic world of today and its philosophy. What we have done is to adapt those realities to our own, while fighting alongside many other countries of the so-called Third World for our right to development and survival.

Question: Nobody questions Cuba's social and cultural achievements, but would these achievements not be better served by an increase in exchange with the outside world?

It is true that we have achieved major social advances. There is schooling for all of our children, and no illiteracy. The development of our universities is considerable. We have numerous research centres that carry out important high-quality work.

Every child is given 13 vaccines, almost all of them produced in our own country, as are most medicines. At the same time, thousands of our doctors are providing their services free of charge in remote and impoverished areas of Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. We are also granting thousands of scholarships to young Third World people to study in our universities.

No one could imagine what a small Third World country with extremely limited resources could achieve when a true spirit of solidarity prevails. There is no doubt that the efforts undertaken by our country could be boosted by an increase in the exchange with the outside world, to the benefit of both our own homeland and other nations.

Question: What was the United States' purpose in maintaining the embargo on Cuba after the end of the East-West confrontation?

They were not trying to influence the revolution but to destroy it.

The demise of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the European socialist bloc did not take us completely by surprise. We warned our people of this possibility long before.

In economic terms, Cuba sustained terrible damage. The price we were paid for our sugar was not that prevailing in the unfair world market; we had obtained a preferential price, like that applied by the US and Europe to imports of this commodity.

Supplies of fuel, food, raw material, and parts for machinery and factories were almost completely cut off. The daily intake of calories dropped from 3000 to 1900, and that of protein from 80 to 50 grams.

Some people could not put up with the difficulties, but the immense majority confronted the hardships with remarkable courage, honour and determination. We managed to maintain important achievements, and some were even improved.

The continuing blockade is a painful burden for each and every Cuban. The Third World nations, as well as most of UN member countries, have repeatedly demanded the lifting of the blockade. But the US Congress, with the cooperation of many members of the Republican majority, and even with the support of several Democratic Party members, has opposed the lifting of this blockade, which is by far the longest lasting in history.

Question: The US is not the only country imposing all sorts of conditions to your country. The European Union has also tried to introduce a "democracy clause" in European-Cuban trade relations. What do you think of this action?

It is significant that the European Union shows much less "concern" about other countries, doubtlessly because they are of a greater economic interest than we ever could be.

In any case, the political organisation adopted by a sovereign nation cannot be subject to conditions. Cuba will neither negotiate nor sell out its revolution, which has cost the blood and the sacrifice of many of its sons and daughters.

It all depends on what is meant by "democracy clause". How many so-called democratic states are up to their necks in debt? How many allow up to 30% of the population to live in conditions of extreme poverty? Why should countries with tens of thousands of children wandering the streets and countless numbers of illiterate people be treated better than we are? We do not see why this should be so.

Cuba will never accept political conditions from the European Union, and much less from the United States. We do not argue about whether the countries in Europe are monarchies or republics; or whether power is held by conservatives or social democrats, advocates or adversaries of an idyllic "third option", supporters or detractors of the so-called welfare state which is used as a palliative for the incurable disease of unemployment.

We do not feel the urge to express our views on the actions of the skinheads and the upsurge of neo-Nazi tendencies. We have our own ideas about these and many other issues. But we do not introduce revolutionary clauses in our relations with Europe. We rather hope the Europeans will work things out by themselves.

Question: You said to me in Havana in 1997: "Today there is no need for revolutions. As of now, the struggle will be for better sharing. Our objective is no longer the class struggle but the rapprochement of the classes within the framework of just and peaceful coexistence." Do you still think the same way?

I am not sure that I ever made those exact comments; some of them are quite distant from my ideas.

I recently attended an international economists meeting in Havana. Among the participants were representatives of countries where debt servicing accounts for over 40% of budget spending. There is clearly a great sense of helplessness in the face of the challenges posed by a globalisation process marked so far by the fatal sign of neo-liberalism.

At that meeting, the representatives of the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank defended their points of view with complete freedom, but for many of those present, the conclusions were very clear regarding the unsustainable nature of the prevailing economic order. It is not possible to continue along the path that widens the gap between the poor and the rich countries and produces increasingly serious social inequalities within them all.

At the moment, Latin American and Caribbean integration is fundamental. It is only by joining together that we can negotiate our role in this hemisphere, and the same applies to the Third World countries vis-a-vis the powerful and insatiable club of the wealthy. Such joining of forces cannot wait for social revolutions to take place within these individual countries.

The current world economic order is unsustainable and faces the very real danger of a catastrophic collapse, infinitely worse than the disaster and prolonged crisis set off in 1929 by the crash of the US stock market. Not even the enthusiastic and highly experienced Allan Greenspan, chairperson of the US Federal Reserve, whose sleepless eyes do not stray for a minute from the statistical data emanating from the uncontrollable and unpredictable roulette wheel that is the speculative system, would dare to claim that this danger does not exist.

A remedy cannot be invented within such a system. From my point of view, the changes will fundamentally result from the action of the masses, which nothing will hold back. Nevertheless, nothing will be easy. The blindness, superficiality and irresponsibility of the so-called political class will make the road more difficult, but not impregnable.

Question: Is there any hope for the poor to achieve a better life in the next 20 years?

Humanity is beginning to gain awareness. Look at what happened in Seattle and in Davos.

People frequently talk about the horrors of the holocaust and the genocide that has taken place throughout the century, but they seem to forget that every day, as a result of the economic order we have been discussing here, tens of millions of people starve to death or die of preventable diseases. They can wield statistics of apparently positive growth, but in the end things remain the same, or even worsen in the Third World countries.

Growth often rests on the accumulation of consumer goods, which contribute nothing to true development and a better distribution of wealth. The truth is that after several decades of neo-liberalism, the rich are becoming richer while the poor are both more numerous and increasingly poor.

Question: At the summit of the Group of 77 in April in Havana, you put forward a series of ideas to reform of the international order. Could you repeat those proposals?

I advocated the cancellation of the least developed countries' external debt and for considerable debt relief for many others. I also spoke out for the removal of the International Monetary Fund. It is time that the Third World countries demand to be free from a mechanism that has not ensured the stability of the world economy.

In general, I censured the fatal impact of the hypocritical neo-liberal policies on every underdeveloped country, particularly the Latin American and Caribbean countries. I said that another Nuremberg trial was needed to pass sentence on the genocide committed by the current world economic order.

Question: That is a bit of an overstatement!

It might be a bit of an understatement. To quote a few paragraphs from my closing speech at the South Summit: "People used to talk about apartheid in Africa; today we could talk about apartheid throughout the world, where more than 4 billion people are deprived of the most basic rights of all human beings: the right to life, to health, to education, to clean drinking water, to food, to housing, to employment, to hope for their future and the future of their children.

At the present pace, we will soon be deprived even of the air we breathe, increasingly poisoned by the wasteful consumer societies that pollute the elements essential for life and destroy human habitat ...

"The wealthy world tries to forget that the sources of underdevelopment and poverty were slavery, colonialism and the brutal exploitation and plunder to which our countries were subjected for centuries. They attribute the poverty we suffer to the inability of Africans, Asians, Caribbean and Latin Americans — in other words, black-skinned, yellow-skinned, indigenous and mixed-race peoples — to achieve any degree of development, or even to govern ourselves ...

"I am firmly convinced that the current economic order imposed by the wealthy countries is not only cruel, unfair, inhuman, and contrary to the inevitable course of history, but is also inherently racist. It reflects racist conceptions like those that once inspired the Nazi holocausts and concentration camps in Europe, mirrored today in the so-called refugee camps in the Third World, which actually serve to concentrate the effects of poverty, hunger and violence. These are the same racist conceptions that inspired the obnoxious system of apartheid in Africa."

It is urgent that we fight for the survival of all countries, both rich and poor, because we are all on the same boat. In this regard, I made a very concrete proposal at the summit: I asked the Third World oil-exporting countries to grant preferential prices to the least developed countries, similar to what was done in the San Jose Pact signed 20 years ago by Venezuela and Mexico, which allows Central American and Caribbean countries to buy oil on more lenient terms.

Question: Is your opinion about the United Nations as severe?

Not at all, although I consider its structure an anachronism. After 55 years of existence, it is essential to re-establish the organisation.

The UN should be worthy of its name: the members should be truly united by genuinely humane and far-reaching objectives. All of the member countries, big and small, developed and underdeveloped, should have the real possibility of making their voices heard. The UN should constitute a great meeting place, where all views can be expressed and discussed. It should operate on truly democratic bases.

It is important for groups like the G-77 and the Non-Aligned Countries Movement to act within the UN system. The UN structure should be transformed so that the organisation can play a major role in today's world. Social development, for example, is presently one of the most dramatically urgent needs in the Third World.

Question: Looking at a world map, what changes would you like to make?

I would be thinking of a world worthy of the human species, without hyper-wealthy and wasteful nations on the one hand and countless countries mired in extreme poverty on the other; a world in which all identities and cultures were preserved, a world with justice and solidarity; a world without plundering, oppression or wars, where science and technology were at the service of humankind; a world where nature was protected and the great throng of people living on the planet today could survive, grow and enjoy the spiritual and material wealth that talent and labour could create.

No need to ask — I dream of a world that the capitalist philosophy will never make possible.

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