Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

From Havana to Quito: Understanding Economic Reform in Cuba and Ecuador

Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

From Havana to Quito: Understanding Economic Reform in Cuba and Ecuador

Article excerpt

Cuba and Ecuador are very different countries, but they share a common history and are politically linked by principles of the progressive Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) bloc. They are also engaged in quite distinct processes of political economic reform. In brief, Cuba is cautiously expanding its commercialisation while Ecuador is expanding its public sector. But there is more to it than that.

Travelling from Havana to Quito takes one from a warm, humid Caribbean island to perhaps the coolest city on the Equator. Quito sits in an Andean valley almost three kilometres above sea level. While most Cubans are mixed race Spanish-African, most Ecuadorians are mixed race Indigenous-Spanish.

Visitors arriving in Havana notice low levels of commercialisation and the poor state of buildings in Central Havana. Cuba is not the place to go shopping for the latest iPhone. Nevertheless, they may also have heard of Cuba's famous health and education systems and will probably notice that World Heritage listed Old Havana is being beautifully restored. The various contradictions of the city led one Cuban to write: 'Havana challenges the old Biblical proverb of "seeing is believing"' (Ledo Galano 2015).

In Quito, by contrast, visitors would notice much higher levels of commercialisation, both at the 'top end', with western brand products at first world prices, and a much more basic but extensive popular economy, often run by street people of modest means. Visitors might have heard of political changes under the government of Rafael Correa which on the one hand provoked a right wing coup attempt in 2010 but, on the other, has led to reactions from some indigenous and labour groups. Opposition figures, including academics, have called Rafael Correa authoritarian, extractivist and post-neoliberal'. However, historian Juan Paz y Mino (2015) says the relations of power in the country have changed, and that those critics have not understood the Ecuadorian process.

What then might an educated observer make of the state of economic reform in these countries? Impressions can be influential but also misleading. The western mind, in particular, is accustomed to forming opinions very rapidly, either from broad preconceptions or from anecdotal evidence. For example, economic liberal critics (e.g. Frank 2014) characterise the 'command economy' of Cuba as having failed, and suggest a necessary reversion to market principles. This misses the logic of the 'updating' process, spoken of by Cuban economists and planners (Rodriguez 2015). Similarly, a number of leftists assert that Correa's project represents a modernising of capitalism, extractivist and elitist, pointing to the failure to expropriate monopolies (e.g. Petras 2012). They miss real social and economic advances. In both arguments the options seem very slim, reminding one of the saying that 'sins against hope are the only ones that attain neither forgiveness nor redemption' (Galeano 2004: 6). A process with momentum towards improvement, but without a final goal or even a distinct road map, may be the best hopeful option available, as the late Hugo Chavez said many times and as some western Marxists recognise (e.g. Wright 2004: 17).

To understand such changes in greater depth I suggest we must reflect on our method of learning, 'pause' our rapid judgement programming and reflect on two things. First, how might we build a mature perspective, adding to our own conceptual tools some account of the historical values and trajectory of these cultures, including indigenous ideas built around those histories? In this respect we should recognise that, for 200 years, Latin American progressive thinkers (e.g. Rodriguez 2004; Marti 1975; Mariategui 1928) have rejected the idea of copying social or economic models, instead focusing on principles and values which might be shared across various socio-economic systems. Second, can we pay detailed attention to some social indicators of what matters in everyday life? …

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