Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel sits down with The Nation

From The Nation

In late September, The Nation’s publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel (KvH), and its editor, D.D. Guttenplan (DDG), met with Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel (MDC) for an exclusive interview in New York.

It was the president’s first-ever interview in the United States. They discussed the economic crisis facing his island nation, the future of its socialist model, and the impact of continued hostility from Washington.

D.D. Guttenplan: You are the first Cuban president born after the Revolution. What does the Revolution mean today?

Miguel Díaz-Canel: First, I would like to thank you for doing this interview, which is taking place on the occasion of this visit we have made as part of the Cuban delegation to the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly. I thank you for allowing me to address the American public, especially the millions of Latinos and Cubans who live in the United States.

My generation was born with the Revolution. I was born in 1960 and celebrated my first birthday the day after the victory at Playa Girón [Bay of Pigs]. The birth and life of the revolution marked my generation.

From a young age, we were motivated to get involved in all the opportunities afforded us by the Revolution: to improve ourselves, acquire knowledge, partake in culture, science, and sports, and enjoy access to healthcare. We were also aware of the need to fulfill our duties and not just be the recipient of rights but also address the challenges the country was facing.

Of course, the Revolution has gone through different stages. My childhood memories are of very complicated years. Later, we enjoyed a period of greater economic ease in the ’70s and ’80s, when we had closer relations with the socialist camp and, in particular, with the Soviet Union. Then came the Special Period, which was another challenging time.

From 2000 onward, the country entered a new economic growth phase and the outlook improved. Today, however, we find ourselves in a situation you have yourself described as “complex.” International relations are complicated in such an uncertain world, especially with the problems brought on by the pandemic.
As the representative of an entire generation that has come to assume the responsibilities of political life and government, I feel an enormous commitment to the Revolution, to the Cuban people, and to Fidel [Castro] and Raúl [Castro], who have been visionary leaders to whom we owe our gratitude and recognition.

We define ourselves as a continuity generation, although not a generation of linear continuity. Continuity does not mean a lack of transformation, but just the opposite: a dialectical continuity, so that, as we transform, advance, and try to perfect our society as much as possible, we do not abandon our convictions about building socialism in our country with as much social justice as possible.

That is our lifelong commitment and vision. It requires great effort, achievement, and altruism, and this demands much from us, especially under difficult circumstances.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: There are many young people in Cuba today. In that context, I wonder how you envision the future of the Cuban economy. The blockade is brutal, of course, yet there is also a sense among young people that, without change, they may not see their future in Cuba.

MDC: There is something unique about the current moment. We have been living under a blockade since we were born. For example, my generation, that of the 1960s, was born with the blockade. Our children and grandchildren— I have grandchildren— have grown up under the sign of the blockade. However, the blockade changed significantly in the second half of 2019. It became even harsher than before.

The new, harsher blockade was the result of two factors. One was the application of more than 243 measures by the Trump administration, which strengthened the blockade by internationalizing it and applying for the first time Chapter Three of the Helms-Burton Act. In doing so, they cut off our access to foreign capital, international convertible currencies and remittances; North Americans could no longer visit Cuba, and they placed financial pressure on banks and financial groups that had business with Cuba.

And to top it all off, nine or ten days before leaving office in January 2021, Trump included us on a bogus list that says Cuba is a country that supports terrorism—which is absolutely false. The whole world knows about Cuba’s humanist vocation and about how we contribute to peace. We don’t send the military anywhere; we send doctors. And even then, when we send our doctors abroad to act in solidarity and provide services to other parts of the world, the United States claims that we are actually involved in human trafficking.

At the same time, just as the economic situation was worsening, Covid-19 hit and greatly affected Cuba, as it did everywhere. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the United States government acted in a perverse manner and tightened the blockade. I single out the government and not the people of the United States because we have deep respect and bonds of friendship with the people of the United States.

I believe that the US government thought the Revolution would not survive that moment. The pandemic peaked at a very high level in Cuba and lasted for the better part of 2021. When it began in 2020, we still didn’t have vaccines or even the possibility of obtaining the vaccine.

Then, there was a breakdown at the medical oxygen plant in Cuba. We ran out of oxygen and the US government was putting pressure on companies in the Caribbean and Central America to not supply us with oxygen. We also had to expand the intensive care wards, and the US government responded by pressuring companies that manufactured and marketed ventilators not to supply Cuba.

The situation was critical and came with a huge media campaign to discredit the Cuban Revolution. We turned to our health system—an efficient, free, and high-quality system that considers health a right—and we turned to our scientists, especially younger ones. Our scientists designed the ventilators and developed five vaccine candidates, of which three are today recognized for their efficacy. And that saved the country. However, we emerged from the pandemic with many problems, many of them accumulated since before 2019.

We have shortages of medicines, food, and fuel. We experience prolonged blackouts that harm the population and directly impact people’s lives, particularly the youth. I believe that our education process has impressed on the youth the importance of the situation we are going through. Still, we, as a generation, have an enormous challenge: to ensure that this momentary distancing of the Cuban youth—young people born during the Special Period who have lived all these years in a really difficult economic and social situation—does not lead to an ideological rupture with the Revolution and with the country itself.

It is true that there is a greater migration than at other times. But that has occurred periodically in the history between Cuba and the United States. The most intense migratory events have always been associated with periods in which the United States has applied aggressive policies that have worsened the Cuban economic situation. By means of the Cuban Adjustment Act [of 1966] and other measures, the United States has favored illegal, unsafe, and disorderly immigration of Cubans—while not extending those policies to emigrants from other countries.

I learned a lot when we overcame the pandemic; I came to understand the way Cubans resist as a form of creative resistance. To resist creatively means not just to resist by staying in place but to move forward by creating and taking advantage of the talent and strength of our people to overcome adversities. One example of that were the vaccines. Only five [other] countries in the world were able to develop vaccines, and all of them are developed countries. Cuba is the only developing country that was able to do that, and also with impressive indicators of 0.76 mortality. Cuba has applied more doses of vaccines per capita during the pandemic than any other country.

We are one of 20 countries with over ninety percent of the population completely vaccinated against Covid. And we were just the second country in the world to apply vaccines to pediatric populations two years of age and older. These forms of creative resistance are now being carried over into other areas of the economy and social life, to overcome the blockade with our efforts, talent, and labor.

We are increasingly involving our youth in that effort and offering them greater space for social participation. As a result, young people can see that it is possible to have life goals that coincide with the social project defended by the Revolution. Of course, there are those who migrate, but the majority of young people are in Cuba, working in the areas I’ve mentioned and others. They are the ones leading our scientific development. Young people are involved in the country’s main productive and economic activities. They are the ones who drive the digital transformation of society, the standard-bearers for social, political, and institutional communication. They are the ones that convince us of the need to work for the continuity of the Revolution.

DDG: I want to pick up on two things that you said, Mr. President. One is the cyclical nature of what you call the emigration from Cuba and the way in which that, in your view, responds to harsher sanctions. If I understand your argument, the US imposes harsher sanctions, which sends more people out of the country. Do you feel that that’s something that the Biden administration can do anything about?

MDC: We don’t expect too much to change with the Biden administration. We still have a diplomatic relationship with the United States; there is an American embassy in Cuba and a Cuban embassy in the United States. Relations were reestablished during Obama’s term, which was a completely different policy from the one implemented by Trump which Biden has maintained. I highlight it because, even if it was a Republican president who applied a policy of maximum pressure on Cuba, it is a Democratic president who maintains that policy.

Through direct and indirect channels, we have let the Biden administration know that we are willing to sit down to discuss our problems, including immigration to the US. But that has to be done from a position of equality, respect, and with no strings attached. We have not received any response from the US. Therefore, we do not feel like there is any intention on the part of this administration to work with us.

However, we do aspire to maintain a civilized relationship between the two countries, regardless of our ideological differences. Until that moment comes, we will continue to work to overcome that situation by ourselves. We are working to guarantee that young people are not subject to deception, manipulation, or misrepresentation about what kind of opportunities are available to them. Young people get caught up in a completely disorderly and illegal migratory flow—falling into human trafficking schemes—as they leave Cuba legally, only to become illegal in transit to the United States.

There is a lot of talk about Cuban migration, especially young Cuban migrants, but the fact is that migration affects all countries, and those migrating are generally young, able-bodied people with dreams.

KvH: You see small shops, private hotels, and restaurants in Cuba. How far do you believe you can go with this process within the framework of socialism?

MDC: We aspire to be a socialist economy guaranteeing the greatest possible social justice. We have to build, strengthen, and develop this socialist economy without forgetting the conditions of the world in which we live, which is full of uncertainties and complexities, a world where the gap between rich and poor is widening and where the countries of the South have many disadvantages.

Still, we will never give up on our ideal of socialism. But how do we do that with current conditions being what they are—including with the blockade and problems internal to Cuba? We defend the socialist economy as the way to achieve greater social justice, while we also defend greater efficiency, greater autonomy, and better performance of the socialist state enterprise, that is, the public enterprise within our social economic model.

We have also opened up a private, non-state sector of the economy as a complement to the state sector. On the one hand, there is a single entrepreneurial system, where there is one actor—the state enterprise—which today has the ownership and management of the main means of production; and there is a second non-state actor that also contributes to the development of the country, the national GDP, and absorbs part of the labor force.

Lately, we have witnessed a very interesting development: these non-state enterprises are beginning to link up with the state sector. For example, under blockade conditions, our state enterprises are unable to use their productive capacity to the maximum. However, the non-state sector, which has more possibilities to import despite the blockade, links up with that state entity, and together, they develop productive activities and services that ultimately benefit the people.

We aspire to give the Cuban people the prosperity that they deserve for all the heroism they have shown in resisting the blockade for all these years. How will we do that? With a concept of socialist construction that includes a state sector and a private sector. It is a challenge, but we are going to achieve it.

KvH: I had the good fortune to see former Foreign Minister Alarcón a week before he passed, and what he was most enthralled about were the changes in the region. Just the other day, Lula was in Cuba for a major gathering. The region seems to be moving in a more pink and less right-wing direction. Does that give Cuba more space to make changes or perhaps even recreate the nonaligned movement for a new era?

MDC: We defend the principle of Latin American and Caribbean integration. We also defend the principle that Latin America and the Caribbean should be a zone of peace. We have relations with all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.

We cooperate and collaborate with several countries that have requested our professional or technical services, among them our medical brigades and other specialists in branches like engineering. We try to work to develop trade relations. Also, when we participate in cooperation missions, we learn about those countries, which helps our own development.

Latin America is a very favorable place for progressive movements despite an ultra-right-wing current trying to undermine these processes. We have strong relationships with Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina, and those relations are being strengthened. Brazil is almost a continent within Latin America and one of the most important economies. We had extensive commercial and bilateral exchange under Lula’s and then Dilma’s governments. When these progressive governments take power, they also open up new possibilities for our country.

Cuba sponsored the peace process in Colombia, which has helped and contributed to peace throughout the whole continent. The Final Agreement to that peace process was signed in Havana a few years ago. Cuba has developed a coherent foreign policy based on cooperation and collaboration with other countries, of sharing what we have in a very altruistic way. When Covid hit, we shared our vaccines [with] the Caribbean and Latin American countries that asked for them.

DDG: Mr. President, you spoke about Cubans in foreign countries. Of course, we all know the long, distinguished history of Cuban doctors providing health services around the world. But some of us in the US were surprised by the recent headlines about Cubans in Ukraine being recruited to fight. I wonder if you could explain your government’s response to the situation.

MDC: First of all, our position regarding the war in Ukraine is that we are a country of peace. We uphold international law and the United Nations Charter. We do not like wars. We do not celebrate wars, and we do not support wars. It hurts us when human lives are lost on one side or the other, and we believe that dialogue and diplomatic solutions should be sought to end this war.

We are not part of the war in Ukraine, but we discovered through our investigations that an illegal network was hiring Cubans living in Russia and some living in Cuba to fight on the Russian side. Our Penal Code prohibits mercenaries, and we do consider this a case of mercenarism as well as human trafficking. Therefore, when we gathered all the evidence from that investigation, we informed the involved parties and publicly reported what had happened. Thanks to our close relations with Russia, both parties have been able to work in order to eliminate the illegal trafficking of people that turns them into mercenaries. I can certify that Cuba is not part of the war and that if we again discover an illegal trafficking ring like the one we saw, we would report it and act to stop it.

KvH: In the interest of clarity about Cuba’s position on the Ukraine War, have you tried to play a role in any offer of cease-fire? What is the Cuban government’s position on the Ukraine war?

MDC: We insist on using all international mechanisms and spaces for dialogue—there must be a solution through dialogue and diplomatic relations. The problem is that there are efforts to distort reality and impose a warped framework. For us, the United States government motivated the war by not listening to Russia’s grievances and warnings about the danger posed by the extension of NATO’s borders towards Russia. The United States, in my opinion, manipulated the situation. The conflict also involved many European countries, to the point that it is not a war between Ukraine and Russia but a NATO-Russia conflict.

Who is paying for this war? It comes from the budgets of the countries involved in the war, so the inhabitants of those countries are the ones paying. But it also harms those who are uninvolved but still see the consequences of this war. Problems with grain exports and food markets have shown how this impacts the world. We object to the war, as well, based on our humanist convictions that human lives are being sacrificed in the conflict.

But we believe that the United States has an enormous responsibility in this conflict. They have been able to distort the true essence of the war and then tried to appear as if they were the ones who were in the correct position. I believe that the correct response to end the war is by diplomatic means. There have to be objective guarantees of security in place for all the parties. I believe that with intelligence and sensitivity, we could all support the search for a solution rather than stoking the war and adding fuel to the flames of conflict.

DDG: You spoke earlier of socialist construction. I want to push you a little bit on the question about what balance you see in the future between the private sector and the state. During the Special Period, the subsidy from the Soviet Union was essentially cut off, and that was very difficult for the people of Cuba, particularly because of the blockade. However, the problem of socialist construction has not been solved in Cuba, nor has it in China, where they had to expand the private sector in order to raise the level of daily life. What is the balance you aim for between the private sector and the state going forward?

MDC: The fact that there is a private sector in a socialist economy does not negate socialism. Even the Marxist classics—or Lenin’s own practice within the Soviet revolution—conceived that there are periods of transition where a private sector will be present within the socialist construction. Recognizing a private sector does not in any way mean that we are renouncing socialism. Why? Because the greatest quantity and volume of the fundamental means of production are still in the hands of the state.

Those means of production can be managed in a combination of state and non-state forms. For example, in Cuba, more than 80 percent of the land is state-owned. However, approximately 80 percent of our land has been managed for years by private farmer cooperatives. This does not mean that we have stopped building socialism.

Where the economy is concerned, we feel dissatisfied with certain aspects of the current economic performance. But which has been the reality of the Cuban economy? A war economy that has had to face a blockade from the most powerful country in the world. We have to see what we would have achieved without the blockade. Of course, we also try to find ways to improve ourselves. When I say I am dissatisfied with the performance of the Cuban economy, I am referring to the fact that we still cannot produce the goods and services that would give our people full prosperity. But that same war economy is what has guaranteed free and high-quality state-subsidized healthcare and education, as well as access to culture and sports free of charge. Cuban professionals, even those who emigrate, are competitive in the labor markets in capitalist countries.

Cuba has an incredible system of social care that leaves no one behind or unprotected. One might ask: If people receive it for free, doesn’t that cost money to the state? And who covers these state expenses? Those expenses are covered by an economy that, on the one hand, has been hit hard by the blockade, but, on the other hand, has made major social achievements that capitalist and more developed countries have never done. Despite the tightening of the blockade, Cuba’s health and education indicators can be compared with those of any developed country in the world.

Where do we go next? We have to be less dependent on international circumstances. That is why we are betting on the creative resistance of the Cuban people, using our own effort and talent. We are working on an economic and social development model that will include a macroeconomic stabilization plan to deal with inflation, the distortions we have in the currency exchange market, and in prices.

We are betting on science and innovation as pillars of government administration. Look at what we did during the pandemic. We decided that, in order to assert sovereignty, we needed Cuban vaccines, so we designed a governance system based on science and innovation. That idea was tested during Covid-19, and now we have extended it to other areas of the economy.

One of those areas is food sovereignty. We are focusing on science and innovation to boost food production so that Cuba does not have to import or depend on external sources for food. We are also changing the energy matrix of the country so that there is less dependence on fossil fuels and a greater use of renewable energy sources. We aspire to have more than 24 percent of energy generated by renewable sources by 2030.

Amid difficult circumstances, we are developing social programs aiming to help populations and families get out of vulnerable situations. We are also embarking on a process of digital transformation. All these actions combined will deliver a much more stable present and future.

KvH: About the digital transformation, where is Cuba in your view in terms of access to the internet? My understanding was that there was a deal with US and European companies that fell through, halting the movement toward digital transformation. How do people get their media? Do you get a briefing every morning? I’m curious as to what media you look at.

MDC: I’m very active on Twitter. I think I have more followers than anyone else in Cuba, although I’m not certain.

KvH: How many followers?

MDC: They tell me I have around 760,000 followers on Twitter. We have started a project for the digitalization of society, focusing on two fundamental areas. The first is to develop digital platforms like e-commerce and e-government so that there would be a greater interconnection between the population, government institutions, and services, with greater democratic participation of the population. We are also working on the legal framework around electronic commerce. The blockade has an impact on this because, in order to move toward a digital society, you need financial resources and technology. So, we have to create the foundation for our digital infrastructure independently.

With the help of China, we were able to move toward the digitalization of television. As far as the Internet is concerned, the last few years have seen important advances. Already, more than 7 million Cubans have access to the Internet through their cell phones. In Cuba, and especially among the youth, it is very common to see everyone connected and actively working on social networks, even though, as a result of the blockade, there are sites and platforms that are denied to us.

There are times when one tries to update an application or enter a site, or a scientist wants to visit a research database, and they receive a message saying, “Your country does not have access to this site.” But we are making progress. We have computer science programs in all the universities throughout the country. We have also developed a Cuban applications store called Apklis, and we are also developing our own Cuban app systems. We have an operating system developed by the Universidad de las Ciencias Informáticas [University of Computer Science], which is being used in laptops, tablets, and cell phones that we are developing through a joint project with China.

Teams of young Cubans have participated in international computer programming events and have obtained outstanding results. We have to keep moving down this path of computerization for the following reason: in Cuba, there is a smaller economically active population, and that group has to support a larger economically inactive population because our population is aging at the same time that life expectancy has increased due to our social programs.

In other words, even though we are an underdeveloped country, we have a demographic dynamic typical of developed countries; with fewer people directly active in production and services, we have to achieve more efficient results, and the way to do so is through computerization, digital transformation, and automation. We have developed several popular programs to accomplish these goals. For example, there is a Young Computer Club program: institutions where children from a very young age are introduced to computers and other communication technologies. There are even courses for senior citizens so that they are not excluded from the whole process of digital transformation.

Of course, Cubans are also active on social networks. I believe social networks can be an instrument by means of which knowledge can be managed, which is very important for humanity. We aspire to create a country where people are not distinguished by their material possessions, but by their spirituality and by what they can contribute to society and culture. What I condemn about social networks are their manifestations of vulgarity, banality, and the type of online bullying that does so much harm, especially among young people.

I believe that the world also needs a more comprehensive and united approach regarding Internet governance. Cybersecurity issues are now an important issue in the world, and Cuba is developing its own cybersecurity platforms. Not to mention, the challenges of artificial intelligence are not only technological in nature but also bring important social and ethical consequences. We have to achieve a form of global governance of the Internet. We need to build a world that is emancipatory and inclusive, where the virtual and the physical are less distant and where the Internet can help people find answers to their problems.

DDG: On the subject of culture, everybody knows that Cuba is a cultural powerhouse in music, literature, and dance. Given that digital culture doesn’t respect borders, do you see any difference or change in your government’s attitude towards Cubans who perhaps are no longer living in Cuba but still feel very proudly Cuban?

MDC: This is the second time I have been in the United States—once five years ago, and now this time. Both times, I have come to participate in sessions of the United Nations General Assembly. During these visits, we have always found some room to meet with representatives of American culture. Yesterday afternoon, for example, in this very place, we had one of those meetings among American artists and academics, and Cuban artists based in Cuba and in the United States.

Like you, I have experienced the harmony that is created when Cuban and American musicians can share the stage. We have experienced it at jazz festivals in Havana, which always close with an orchestra combining Cuban and American musicians. The Cubans bring to the original strengths of American jazz and its virtuosity a certain latinidad.

Those are the kind of moments when one reaches a new level of spiritual well-being. Today, culture is one of the areas where bridges and not walls can be built between Cuba and the United States. Through cultural exchange, borders are broken down and our people are united. Our people can share the values of their history and culture.

A few years ago, during Obama’s time, the Kennedy Center held an exhibition of Cuban culture in Washington, D.C. That was a great event. Here, our artists felt very comfortable. We wanted to bring American artists to Cuba through a Kennedy Center project, but everything fell through with Trump’s restrictions. Still many contacts are maintained. For example, we spent time yesterday with some important Cuban musicians who have lived in the United States for many years. They have not abandoned their relationship with their country, and we feel that their success is also the success of Cuban culture. .

KvH: Is there an ongoing dialogue with the Biden administration? And what do you expect if Biden is reelected, in terms of US and Cuban relations?

MDC: You would have to ask Biden. Right now, there are diplomatic relations. We have conversations on some issues, but we have not seen a willingness on the part of the Biden administration to establish a different relationship with Cuba.

And we continue to insist on our vision. We are not going to give up on socialist construction. But we want a civilized, normal relationship between Cuba and the United States. However, in order to build that relationship, we have to sit down to talk. We need to evaluate all the issues on which we have different opinions and those on which we agree, and those on which we have no agreement, try to make progress. I believe that this would lead to a better relationship and greater possibilities and potential for our people. But we see no signs at the moment that this is the attitude held by the government of the United States.

KvH: One last question: have you seen Barbie or Oppenheimer

MDC: I haven’t seen Oppenheimer, but I’ve been recommended to see it, and I will soon. I’m interested in seeing Oppenheimer. I’m less interested in seeing Barbie. It seems to me that Barbie is very, very light.