• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Notes on a Visit to Cuba

Friday, May 2nd: A Russian-built four-motor plane landed us at the Havana airport early in the afternoon. Havana is barely eighty miles away from the southern tip of Florida. But for a US citizen it is now nearly as difficult to reach as the moon; and to return home by the same legitimate route via Mexico is as difficult as the return from the moon to earth. Early in January, my wife and I applied to the proper office in the State Department for permission to spend two weeks in Cuba. In mid-April we were still waiting. Only direct intervention by the Undersecretary of State and Senator Brooke induced the zealous guardians of our liberties to validate our passports with a permit for one round trip to the forbidden island. But this was only the beginning.

First we had to go to Mexico City where the Mexican government—no doubt to please its good neighbor to the North—examined and reexamined the reasons for our strange wish to spend twelve days in Cuba. Finally, after having spent endless hours in the waiting room of the Ministry of Interior, we received a page-long document authorizing a passage to, and, more important, a return from, Cuba. It was as if we were planning to visit a region raging with infectious diseases. Not one or two, but eight copies of this permit were retained by the Ministry. In contrast to the Mexican officials, when taxi drivers, waiters, porters, and other ordinary Mexicans learned about our destination they invariably seemed to be pleasantly surprised.

We felt the transition from the capitalist to the socialist world the moment we entered the Cubana de Aviacion plane: sturdy, unsmiling personnel; creaky and somewhat shabby furnishings, and reading material consisting of two newspapers, the French and the Spanish editions of the organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba. Most of the two dozen passengers were lower middle-class Cubans returning, for better or worse, to their native land. A couple of junior diplomatic types, a blond curly-haired, bearded Canadian free-lance journalist in blue jeans, his wife, and a young Italian businessman from Ferrara venturing to sell spray equipment to the Cuban government. When asked about the volume of his transactions he lifted his right arm and held thumb and index fingers a quarter of an inch apart: that large!

In the Havana airport we were greeted at the barrier by a group of five or six men including Nestor Garcia, the foreign relations agent of the University of Cuba and the Director of the University’s Economics Institute. Passport checking and formalities took little time, except that my one pair of shoes and Estelle’s six pairs were extracted from our valises, with apologies, carried away, and returned five minutes later, wet, limp, but germ-free: they had been fumigated to protect the budding Cuban cattle herd against hoof-and-mouth disease.

A twenty-minute drive through the suburbs, past governmental buildings and the stately columns of the old buildings of the University of Cuba, brought us to a modern hotel in which we were to stay. The towering, luxurious building was completed in time to be taken over by the Revolution and opened as Habana Libre instead of Habana Hilton. Our apartment was a magnificent four-room, air-conditioned suite with curtained plate glass walls and broad wrap-around balconies facing in three directions. Looking seaward on a clear day, we could make out on the horizon the silhouette of a US radar ship observing movements in and out of Havana harbor.

I handed over to the welcoming party the two official documents I had brought with me: a letter addressed by the President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to his counterpart in Cuba proposing that the two organizations establish official relations and exchange publications; and a message from a Dean of the Harvard Medical School to the Cuban Minister of Health asking for cooperation in organizing a study trip to the island by a group of Faculty members and medical students. Mr. Garcia asked for a sheet of paper (paper shortage!) and wrote out the day-by-day schedule of our ten-day visit: informal conferences, lectures by me, visits to scientific institutions, discussions with heads of governmental departments, trips to various parts of the island. The experience of the following days seemed to indicate that in this as in many other instances of socialist planning, considerable discrepancies can be expected to develop between an original program and its actual fulfillment.

I shall not describe my miscellaneous conversations and the usual or unusual events of everyday life, but I cannot abstain from mentioning the friendly, cheerful informality, the openness and helpfulness that characterized all our relations with the men, women, and children we met or saw, regardless of their station in this remarkable egalitarian society.

Saturday, May 3rd: We spent the entire morning in the Instituto de Economia with its director, Dr. Hermes Herrera, and eight or ten of his colleagues. The Institute performs the dual role of serving as an Economics’ Faculty of the University and a Center for Economic Research. Its members, research associates, assistant and full professors—most of them very young men and women—divide their time between teaching and research. Sixty-three of them take care of more than a thousand students. Depending on the field of concentration, the course of study takes four or five years. Students from backward areas spend an extra year in preparatory study. The whole enterprise, particularly the research part of it, is still in preparation, or at least at a very early stage.

Our three hours of discussion left me with the impression that the Institute members are pretty well acquainted with the basic outlines of modern economics as they are taught in the US. They all know some mathematics, study and teach modern methods of statistical analysis, linear and even non-linear programming. For my taste, here as in the US there is all too much preoccupation with Cobb-Douglas, elasticity constant production functions, and other conventional constructs of modern mathematical economics. Everyone seems interested in Input Output analysis and many of the direct questions addressed to me concerned different theoretical and practical aspects of that subject, such as: dynamic interregional models and the application of Input Output analysis to the price system.

In the afternoon, on a drive through the Old Town and the harbor area, we passed a towering ship rudder and some weirdly twisted steel plates installed on a pedestal, a memorial to a French freighter blown up allegedly by anti-Castro saboteurs. Passing a group of guards, we entered a loading pier with large vessels berthed along one side of it. All bore Russian names. These were the mother ships of the Soviet fishing fleet operating from Havana. I stopped our car and surprised some crewmen on the docks by addressing them in their native tongue. The Soviet ships are stationed there permanently: their crews rotate by being periodically flown from and to Russia. Later I was told that Cuba’s own fishing fleet is expanding rapidly. Seventy-five large boats have recently been purchased in Spain and a few are being built in Cuban shipyards. Some loss of Cuban boats is caused by defection to the United States. (All formal, and even not so formal, dinners begin with shrimp cocktail.) A friendly conversation ensued, and Estelle was asked to take a group photograph.

Sunday, May 4th: After a late breakfast, George, our guide, took us along the North shore to one of the newly constructed rural settlements. On the way we drove through suburban Miramar along a tree-shadowed boulevard, whose luxurious private villas, lined up mile after mile on both sides, have been transformed into dormitories for university and high school students from the provinces. There one sees dozens, maybe hundreds, of boys and girls reading in their rooms, playing on the broad lawns, or marching in formation to or from school.

The village consists of 120 small pre-fabricated cottages, each containing a living room, two or three bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen. All buildings have gas, electricity, running water. One of the two complexes of public buildings contains a school with dining area and kitchen, the other, near the highway and the bus station, consists of a supermarket, i.e., a food store (practically empty), a cafeteria (quite busy), barber shop, hair salon, and a children’s clothing store. We were being offered refreshments in the school’s dining room, while a traveling circus company, having lunch after a morning performance, were watching a circus performance on a TV set, attached to the wall under the ceiling, bar-room fashion.

On our way back to Havana we paid a brief visit to a similar settlement assigned to Soviet technicians. Doubly surprised by a US citizen addressing them in Russian, they proved to be as friendly as the fishermen the day before. Estelle and the Soviet “communication technician” were soon engaged in a friendly discussion about Russian poetry. A week later, on the eve of our departure, our Russian acquaintance drove the thirty miles to Havana to introduce his wife and to present Estelle with a newly published volume of Russian poetry and me with a bottle of brandy.

Monday, May 5th: The entire forenoon was spent again at the Institute of Economic Investigations, this time with a larger number of staff members. At the outset, I was presented with an English version of a detailed outline of the sixty-hour course on Input Output analysis,1 which covered the basic concepts of that particular approach thoroughly and systematically, as well as the principal statistical procedures and some of the standard applications. So far as I am able to discern in this introductory course, the dual price system, interregional models, and dynamic input output analysis are omitted. Together with the outline there are two textbooks translated into Spanish: Chenery and Clark’s Inter-industry Economics and David Simpson’s Input Output Handbook, originally commissioned and published by the Statistical Division of the United Nations. Both volumes were published by the Edicion Revolutionaria of Havana. In the course of the discussion I used the blackboard to sketch the outline of the most recent version of my Dynamic Input Output system. Everyone present seemed to be taking simple linear algebra in his stride.

At 3 P.M. I gave my first lecture, Dynamic Input Output Analysis. The large lecture hall of the University was filled to overflowing. Sequential translation by one of the staff members of the Central Planning Board was clear and precise. The lecture was followed by an hour-long period of questions and answers. Before the lecture, I was introduced to the Spanish Ambassador, who sat in the front row, and at the end stepped up on the podium, shook my hand, and said that he knew of the Input Output work sponsored by the Spanish government, and that articles on that subject published in the Journal of the Ministry of Commerce were familiar to him.

  1. 1

    This is a special mathematical technique of economic analysis developed first in the United States but now used both in centrally planned socialist as well as in western private-enterprise economies. The “input-output tables” and “coefficient matrices” referred to in my May 6 entry are based on largè-scale statistical computations required for practical application of this technique.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print