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Robert Buddan

Managing Crisis in Jamaica and Cuba

by Robert Buddan

8 September 2009

Cuba cannot receive loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the multilaterals. It is under a trade embargo from the United States. Its tax system is limited to foreign companies and currencies. It has great economic problems because its export markets, especially for nickel, have fallen out. It suffered catastrophic damage from three hurricanes in 2008 costing the economy US$10 billion. This is equivalent to every Jamaican and Jamaican business completely shutting down work for an entire year. Without loans, taxes and trade Cuba has to produce its way out of crisis, cut spending, impose austerity and conserve on imports.

Jamaica’s position is not dissimilar. The gravity of our debt situation is confirmed by the feared, but expected triple C rating by Standard and Poor’s, a brutal Independence Day report on the state of our economy. Our exports, too, are suffering from the global recession. But unlike Cuba, we can trade, tax and borrow, and we have certainly been overindulging in the last two. Unlike Cuba, however, there is no plan for conservation of energy and imports, mobilisation for production, and sacrifice of our conveniences and luxuries. The approaches to managing economic crisis in these two neighbouring countries could not be more different.

Economics and Politics

In Cuba, the economy is the top priority and food security is regarded as nothing less than a matter of national security. In Jamaica, the economy is the priority, although winning by-elections seems to come close. After all, Jamaica’s minister of finance was campaigning in local government elections when he should have been negotiating Jamaica’s national interest with the IMF. You would never see that in Cuba.

In fact, Cuban officials from the president and first vice-president down have been touring farms and factories islandwide to inspire, encourage and beseech companies to produce more, import less, conserve and use more local rather than foreign resources. The president and ministers have recently addressed the Cuban Parliament to report on the economy and debate the measures needed for the future, including consulting with the people.

In Jamaica, our Parliament has suspended business and gone into recess. The Opposition says Parliament should reconvene in these serious times. A Television Jamaica News unscientific poll showed that 84 per cent per cent of those who called in agreed. In Cuba, an important party congress scheduled for later this year has been postponed. The rationale is that you cannot have a real congress until you have a plan for the future, and you cannot have a new plan for the future until you consult widely with the people. In Jamaica, we have no consultations and we will have annual party conferences as usual. The parties should use their conferences to deal, not just with party business as usual, but with plans to address our crisis.

In Cuba, there is austerity, not imposed from abroad but consented to at home. Though there will be austerity there will be no shortages to meet basic needs. Government, in fact, has reduced prices for basic things. Cuba is rationalising its valued education and health system to make them more efficient and less costly.

There is no mobilisation for food and agricultural production in Jamaica as there is in Cuba, even though last year we imported US$760 million worth of food. There is no concept that national security is linked to emergency economic production either. Cuba will use less machinery like tractors on its farms because they cost foreign exchange to import and to fuel. It will rely more on oxen to conserve energy, provide transport and support diet. This is a form of self-reliance. Cuba has 265,000 cattle, more than there are people in most Jamaica parishes.

The Lecky Vision

Cuba is not returning to the past and to primitive forms of production. Oxen have always been important in Cuba, especially since the 1959 Revolution. Cuba is conserving energy through greater use of oxen even though it has some oil, expects to bring more into production, and is Venezuela’s top priority for supplying PetroCaribe members. Jamaica has no oil but continues to guzzle gas and run its air conditioners on high. We would probably laugh at the suggestion to rely more on oxen.

Even if we don’t learn from Cuba we can learn from ourselves. The late Thomas Lecky, the outstanding Jamaican scientist, had a philosophy of agriculture that would serve us well today. We don’t listen to our scientists. Cattle-breeding was at the centre of Dr Lecky’s vision. It would provide a more balanced diet. It would diversify farms and farmers would not have to rely on crops alone. Crops and cattle would be the backbone of the rural Jamaican family. But his plans needed scientific intervention. The cattle brought to Jamaica by the Spanish and the English were not the most suitable. They were slow to mature, too heavy for the Jamaican hillsides, produced too little milk and had too little meat.

Lecky studied genetics for his doctorate and in the 1950s he developed new tropical dairy breeds, the Jamaica Hope and the Jamaica Red. He proceeded to establish the basis for revolutionising agriculture and many countries in Latin America benefited from his research. Lecky would have received a Nobel Prize in another time. Genetics is now a huge industry and Jamaica could have literally made it its cash cow had we followed Lecky’s advice and seen his vision.

Jamaica’s Failures

Jamaica has never lacked the ingenuity of scientists, inventors, innovators, and visionaries. We have had sufficient basis for a knowledge economy for a long time. What we have not done is build the industries for such people to develop their plans. Rather, we spend our time facilitating importers who now leave us with an import-dependent economy in deep crisis.

Our other failure is that we have not consciously constructed a political system for crisis, one that could also develop knowledge and talent industries and one that could mobilise people for production and discipline them for sacrifices. Lecky discovered that the Spanish and English cows were not suited for Jamaica. We should have realised by now that the British political system is not the best for us either. We have resisted constitutional reform rather than experimenting with some suitable tropical breed the way scientists would.

Darell Levi, who wrote of Jamaica’s politics during the Michael Manley period, referred to what is an irony. In the 1970s the Cubans advised the Jamaican opponents of the IMF to accommodate themselves to it. I suspect they felt that the Jamaican political system was too divisive, the class system too indisciplined, and the economic system too import-dependent for any alternative to work. More than 30 years after, the political rhetoric is not as hysterical but the indiscipline of consumer taste, love of imports, refusal to sacrifice and the import fetish of Jamaican business have got worse.

Different though we are, the logic of our circumstances leaves us with little option than the ones Cuba is exercising. We cannot continue to tax and borrow and our trade must be more export- and much less import-oriented. The laissez-faire, laid-back leadership we have across politics and economy won’t work.

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