Cuba could learn from Vietnam when it comes to the economy

Cuba could learn from Vietnam when it comes to the economy
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Nguyen Phu Trong, secretary general of the Vietnamese Communist Party, visited Cuba earlier this year, recognizing the strong relationship between the two nations over the years. Raul Castro, as Cuban defense minister, visited Vietnam in 1966 and met with Ho Chi Minh.

Both countries have common elements to their recent histories. They launched political and social revolutions based on Marxist ideology, engaged in conflict with the United States, and upon their victories, saw large numbers of their citizens flee to the United States.

While Vietnam eventually introduced profound economic reforms and pursued a strategy of normalizing relations with the United States, Cuba has remained faithful to the traditional communist model and sees the United States as a continuing threat to its sovereignty and system.

While serving in Cuba as chief of the U.S. Interests Section from 2011 to 2014, I met the Vietnamese ambassador on several occasions and asked him about a story I heard that Cuba had introduced the cultivation of coffee to Vietnam. The ambassador confirmed this, explaining that in the 1970s, Cuba sent agricultural technicians to Vietnam to introduce coffee.

Today, Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of coffee after Brazil. Ironically, Cuba is a net importer. When I remarked how extraordinary it was for Vietnam to have moved from zero production of coffee to a world leader in this commodity, the ambassador described the broader story of Vietnamese agricultural reforms.

Vietnam was a large importer of food, particularly rice. To understand how to overcome this dependency, the Communist Party commissioned a study in the 1980s on agricultural productivity. As in Cuba, Vietnamese peasants worked on state-owned farms but were allowed to cultivate small plots of land for their personal benefit. The study showed that these small plots, which accounted for about 5 percent of the arable land, produced half of the country’s food.

This prompted a decision to transfer state-owned land to private farmers with spectacular results. Today, Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of rice as well as coffee. I asked how a Vietnamese project to improve Cuban rice production was doing. The ambassador paused and said that his country was offering advice but needed to respect the Cuban way of doing things.

During his visit, Nguyen announced the donation of 5,000 tons of rice and wrote off Cuba’s official debt to Vietnam. The Cuban media gave prominent coverage to the meetings of the Vietnamese secretary general, but the most interesting event was a public speech at the University of Havana hosted by Cuba’s First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

Nguyen discussed Vietnam’s economic reforms saying, “To build socialism with success it is necessary to develop a market economy in an adequate and correct way.” In Vietnam’s case, this had lifted 30 million people from poverty in 20 years. Neither the official joint declaration nor the Cuba media mentioned the remarks about economic reforms.

The Cuban Communist Party has rejected the market economy, and the state-controlled media would not report anything that contradicted that position. What is surprising is that the Vietnamese secretary general would openly defend market reforms and insist that this does not mean abandoning socialism. This type of friendly encouragement is not typical of foreign visitors sympathetic to Cuba.

Was Nguyen asked to make these remarks as a way of advancing the idea of economic reform within the Cuban Communist Party? As the island nation inaugurates a new president this month, we will see whether it makes the hard choice to reform, or doubles down on the status quo.

John Caulfield is the former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and founder of the Innovadores Foundation, an American nonprofit that supports private sector technology and design entrepreneurs in Cuba.