Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Cuban Interlude

I've been to Cuba twice.  In 1983 for 12 days traveling from one side of the island to the other.  (Notes from that next time.)  In 1991, went back as part of the US delegation for the last session of the Joint Commission on Cuban troop withdrawal (CTW) from Angola.  This was an effort led by the Africa Bureau (AF) and Assistant Secretaries Crocker and Cohen to assist Angola, Cuba and South Africa to reach agreement on Cuban and South African troops leaving Angola and South African acquiescence to Namibian independence.  In 1983, as a young State Department intelligence analyst (with INR), I hoped for one of those late night calls to meet Fidel Castro.  Didn't happen.  In 1991, my encounter did place during the reception President Castro gave to the delegations in his palace (the former Justice Ministry).  Attending was perhaps one of the oddest groups to come together during the Cold War:  Cubans, "Marxist" Angolans, Soviets, South Africans and Americans. The following is from my personal journal:

Traveled to Cuba 11/21-22/91 for the last meeting of the Joint Commission (on Cuban Troop Withdrawal).  It was a good way, full of poetic irony, for me to get pointed back toward ARA again.  Angola takes me back through Cuba.  Met Fidel Castro at a reception he gave for the delegations.  He appeared a bit pale and listless (and impatient) during the overly long signing ceremony, but was sharp enough later on.  Shook his hand in the receiving line, mumbling about Union City.  Later on, he approached and monologued at us for some 30 minutes.  He used me and the women director of CCA as targets to deliver a message.  I nodded understanding while trying to sort out his Spanish from the English translation.  He went from discussing a Mexican novel to talking about land policy, sugar and the price of oil.  He explained that the US, Mexican, Japanese and Soviet experiences showed that agriculture has to be large scale to be efficient.  Small-scale farming can succeed only if heavily subsidized.  Cuba exports four calories for every one the Cubans themselves consume.  He justified Cuban sugar growing in this indirect manner.  And if the price of sugar compared to oil has reversed over the last 30 years, to Cuba’s detriment, Castro seemed to be suggesting that this wasn’t his fault.  He was acting rationally.  I wanted to ask about incentive.  But Castro’s clear assumption is that social man can be a reality.  Social man is rational man.  In this conception, there is thus a counterpart to the rational man of economics.  But rational in this case does not signify a simple individual maximizer (an id-rational person) but a society maximizer (a superego-rational person).  This is at least a more noble illusion than the reagan/bush kind.  From my two visits, it seems Cuba speaks of conscious intent too -- Castro’s intent -- and not just the accident of an invisible hand or some trickle down.  Castro noted to CCA that the US seems to be just waiting for Cuba to fail.  We could have a better policy.
The Latin America Bureau at State (ARA) was none too pleased at having any Americans doing business with Cuba.  They had kept an eye on us AF types and sent minders when the team went to Havana.  When Fidel began his monologue, he directed it at me, even repreatedly poking me in the stomach.  His message was directed at the CCA (Cuban Affairs) director but turned to her only at the end to deliver his policy message against sanctions.

Below is the "class picture" of the assembled delegations with Fidel taken after after the reception on the stairs of the Justice Ministry.  I'm visible as a peering, balding head in the third row behind Fidel's left shoulder.

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