Lula (Part 2)

Lula warmly reminded me of the first time he visited our country in 1985 to take part in a meeting organized by Cuba to analyze the overwhelming problem of the foreign debt; participants representing a wide spectrum of political, religious, cultural and social tendencies presented and discussed their opinions, concerned about the asphyxiating drama.

The meetings took place throughout the year. Leaders of worker, campesino, student and other groups assembled to examine the various subjects. He was one of these leaders, already well known to us and abroad for his direct and vibrant message, that of a young worker leader.

At that time, Latin America owed $350 billion. I told him that in that year of intense struggle I had written long letters to the President of Argentina, Raúl Alfonsín, to persuade him discontinue the payments on that debt. I knew the position of Mexico, unmoved in the payment of its enormous debt, but not indifferent to the outcome of the battle, and the special political situation of Brazil. The Argentine debt was sufficiently large after the disasters of the military government to justify an attempt to open up a breach in that direction. I did not succeed. A few years later, the debt with the interests rose to $800 billion; it had doubled and it had already been paid.

Lula explained to me how that year was different. He says that Brazil has no debt today either with the International Monetary Fund or with the Paris Club, and that it has 190 billion US dollars in its reserves. I assumed that his country had paid enormous sums in order to comply with those institutions. I explained to him about Nixon’s colossal fraud on the world economy, when in 1971 he unilaterally suspended the gold standard that had limited the issuing of paper money. Until then the dollar had maintained a balance in relation to its value in gold. Thirty years earlier, the United States had almost all the reserves in that metal. If there was a lot of gold, they bought it up; if there was a shortage, they sold. The dollar played its part as an international exchange currency, under the privileges granted to the United States at Bretton Woods in 1944.

The most developed powers had been destroyed by the war. Japan, Germany, the USSR and the rest of Europe had barely any of this metal in their reserves. One ounce of gold could be bought for as little as 35 dollars; today you need 900 dollars.

The United States, I told him, has bought up assets all over the world by minting dollars, and exercises sovereign privileges over such properties acquired in other countries. Nevertheless, nobody wants the dollar to devaluate any further, because almost all countries accumulate dollars; that is, paper money, that devaluates constantly as a result of that unilateral decision made by the President of the United States.

Presently, the currency reserves of China, Japan, Southeast Asia and Russia combined amount to three trillion dollars; an astronomical figure. If you add the dollar reserves of Europe and the rest of the world, you will see that all that is equivalent to a mountain of money whose value depends on what the government of one country decides to do.

Greenspan, who for more than 15 years was the chairman of the Federal Reserve, would have died in a panic had he been faced with such situation. How high can U.S. inflation climb? How many new jobs can this country create this year? How long will its machinery to mint paper money last before its economy collapses, besides using war to conquer other nations’ natural resources?

As a result of the harsh measures imposed on the defeated German state at Versailles in 1918, when a republican regime came to power, the German mark devaluated to such an extent that you needed tens of thousands of them to buy one dollar. Such a crisis fed German nationalism and contributed extraordinarily to Hitler’s absurd ideas. He was looking for a scapegoat. Many of the most important scientific and financial talents as well as writers were Jewish. They were persecuted. Among them was Einstein, the author of the theory stating that energy is equal to mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light; it made him famous. Also Marx, who was born in Germany, and many of the Russian Communists were of Jewish descent, whether or not they actively practiced the Hebrew religion.

Hitler did not lay the blame for the human drama on the capitalist system; rather he blamed the Jews. Based on crude prejudices, what he really wanted was “vital Russian space” for his Teutonic master race, dreaming of building a millennial empire.

In 1917, through the Balfour Declaration, the British decided to create the state of Israel within its colonial empire, located on territory inhabited by the Palestinians, who had a different religion and culture; in that part of the world, other ethnic groups coexisted for many centuries before our era, among them the Jews. Zionism became popular among the Americans, who rightly detested the Nazis, and whose financial markets were controlled by representatives of that movement. That state today is practicing the principles of apartheid; it has sophisticated nuclear weapons and it controls the most important financial centers in the United States. It was used by this country and its European allies to supply nuclear weapons to that other apartheid, the one in South Africa, to use them against the Cuban internationalist combatants who were fighting the racists in the south of Angola if they crossed the Namibian border.

Immediately afterwards, I spoke to Lula about Bush’s adventurous policies in the Middle East.

I promised to send him the article that was to be published in Granma the next day, on January 16. I would personally sign the copy he would be getting. Before he left, I would also give him the article written by one of the most influential U.S. intellectuals, Paul Kennedy, about the connection between food and oil prices.

You are a food producer, I added, and you have just discovered important reserves of light crude. Brazil has an area of 5,333,750 square miles and 30 percent of the world’s water reserves. The planet’s population needs increasing amounts of food, and you are great food exporters. If you have grains rich in proteins, oils and carbohydrates — be they fruits like the cashew nuts, almonds, or pistachio; legumes such as peanut; soybean, with more than 35% protein, and sunflower seeds; or grains like wheat and corn — you can produce all the meat or milk you want. I didn’t mention others on a long list.

I continued with my explanation saying that in Cuba, we had a cow that broke the world record in milk production, a Holstein-Zebu hybrid. Right away Lula named her: “White Udder!” (Ubre Blanca), he exclaimed. He remembered her name. I went on to say that she would produce 110 liters of milk per day. She was like a factory, but she had to have more than 40 kilograms of fodder, the most she could chew and swallow in a 24-hour period, a mixture in which soy meal, a legume that is very difficult to grow in Cuban soil and climate, is a basic ingredient. You now have the two things: safe supplies of fuel, raw food materials and manufactured food products.

The end of cheap food has already been announced. I stated: “What do you think the dozens of countries with many hundreds of millions of inhabitants who have neither the one nor the other will do?” This means that the United States has a huge external dependency which is also a weapon. It could use all its reserves of land, but the people of that country are not ready for that. They are producing ethanol from corn; therefore, they are taking a great amount of this caloric grain off the market, I added, continuing my argument.

On the same subject, Lula tells me that Brazilian producers are already selling the 2009 corn crop. Brazil is not as dependent on corn as Mexico or Central America. I think that the United States cannot keep up fuel production from corn. This, I say, confirms a reality with regards to the sudden and incontrollable rise of food prices which will affect many peoples.

You, on the other hand, can rely on a favorable climate and loose soil; ours tends to be clayish and sometimes as hard as cement. When we received tractors from the Soviets and the other Socialist countries, they would break down and we had to buy special steel in Europe to manufacture them here. In our country we have lots of clay-based black or red soil. Working it with dedication, they can produce for the family what the campesinos in the Escambray call “high consumption”. They were receiving food rations from the state and also consuming their own production. The climate has changed in Cuba, Lula, I said.

Our soil is not suitable for the large-scale commercial production of cereals, as required to meet the necessities of a population of almost 12 million people, and the cost in machinery and fuel imported by the nation, at today’s prices, would be very high.

Our media prints news about oil production in Matanzas, reductions in costs and other positive aspects. But nobody says that the prices in hard currency must be shared with foreign partners who invest in the necessary sophisticated machinery and technology. Besides, we do not have the required labor force to intensively take part in cereal production as the Vietnamese and Chinese do, growing rice plant by plant and often reaping two or even three harvests a year. It has to do with the location and the historical tradition of the land and its settlers. They did not first go through the large-scale mechanization of modern harvesters.

In Cuba, for quite a while now, the sugarcane cutters and the workers in the mountain coffee plantations have abandoned the fields, logically. Also, a large number of construction workers, some from the same origins, have abandoned the work brigades and have become self-employed workers. The people are aware of the high cost of fixing up a home. There is the cost of the material, plus the high cost of the manpower. The first can be solved, the second has no solution — as some would believe — throwing pesos into the street without their due backing in convertible currency, which would not be dollars anymore but euros and yuans, increasingly expensive, if all together we succeed in saving international economy and peace.

Meanwhile, we have been creating and we should keep on creating reserves of foods and fuel. In case of a direct military attack, the manual work force would be multiplied.

In the short time Lula and I spent together, two and a half hours, I would have liked to summarize in just a few minutes the almost 28 years that have gone by, not since the time he first visited Cuba, but since I met him in Nicaragua. This time he was the leader of an immense nation whose fate, however, depends on many aspects that are common to all the peoples on this planet.

I asked his permission to speak about our conversation freely and at the same time, discreetly.

As he stands in front of me, smiling and friendly, and I listen to him speaking with pride about his country, about the things that he is doing and those he plans on doing, I think about his political instincts. I had just finished quickly looking over a 100-page report on Brazil and the growth of relations between our two countries. He was the man I met in the Sandinista capital, Managua; he was someone who connected closely with our Revolution. I neither spoke to him, nor would I ever speak to him, about anything that could be construed as interfering in the political process of Brazil, but he himself, right at the beginning, said: “Do you remember, Fidel, when we spoke at the Sao Paulo Forum, and you told me that unity among the Latin American left wing was necessary if we were to secure our progress? Well, we are now moving forward in that direction.”

Immediately he speaks to me with pride about what Brazil is today and its great possibilities, bearing in mind its advances in science, technology, mechanical industry, energy and other areas, bound up with its enormous agricultural potential. Of course, he includes the high level of Brazil’s international relations, which he describes enthusiastically, and the relations he is ready to develop with Cuba. He speaks vehemently about the social work of the Workers’ Party which today is supported by all the Brazilian left-wing parties, which are far from having a parliamentary majority.

There is no doubt that it was a part of the things we discussed years ago when we spoke. Back then time flew by quickly, but now every year is multiplied by ten, at a rate which is difficult to follow.

I wanted also to talk to him about that and about many other things. It’s hard to tell which one of us had the greater need to communicate ideas. As for me, I supposed that he would be leaving the next day and not early that same evening, according to the flight plan that had been scheduled before we met. It was approximately five o’clock in the afternoon. What happened was a kind of contest as to how we would be using the time. Lula, astute and quick-witted, took his revenge at a meeting with the press, when, mischievously smiling as you can see in the photos, he told the reporters that he had only talked for half an hour and Fidel had talked for two. Of course, with the privilege of seniority, I used up more time than he did. You have to discount the time taking photographs of each other, since I borrowed a camera and became a reporter again: he followed suit.

I have here 103 pages of dispatches reporting what Lula said to the press, the photos taken of him and the confidence he communicated about Fidel’s health. Truly, he left no space for the reflection published on January 16 that I had just finished writing the day before his visit. He took up the entire space and this is equivalent to his enormous territory, compared to the miniscule land surface of Cuba.

I told him how happy I was that he had decided to visit Cuba, even without the assurance that he would be able to see me. As soon as I knew that, I decided to sacrifice anything, like my exercises, rehab and recovery, just so I could be with him and talk extensively.

At that moment, even though I knew that he would be leaving that same day, I was unaware of the urgency of his departure. Evidently, the health condition of the vice president of Brazil, according to his own statement, urged him to take off so that he could arrive in Brasilia at around dawn the next day, in the middle of spring. Yet another long and hectic day for our friend.

A strong and persistent downpour fell on his residence while Lula waited for the photos and two other bits of material, together with my notes. He left that night for the airport in the rain. If he had seen the front page of Granma: “2007, the third rainiest year in more than 100 years,” that would have helped him to understand what I had told him about climate change.

Well then, the sugar harvest in Cuba has begun, along with the so-called dry season. The sugar crop yield is only at nine percent. How much would it cost to grow sugar for export at 10 cents per pound, when the purchasing power of one cent is almost fifty times less than at the triumph of the Revolution in January of 1959? Reducing the costs of these and other products to fulfill our commitments, to satisfy our consumption, to create reserves and develop other production, is highly commendable; but not even in our wildest dreams can we find easy solutions to our problems; the solutions are not just around the corner.

Among many other topics, we discussed the inauguration of the new president of Guatemala, Alvaro Colom. I told him that I had seen the ceremony in its entirety and the social commitments made by the newly-elected president. Lula mentioned that what we can see today in Latin America was born in 1990 when we decided to create the Sao Paulo Forum: “We made a decision here, in a conversation we had. I had lost the election and you came to lunch at my home in San Bernardo.”

My conversation with Lula was just beginning, and I still have many things to relate and ideas to offer, which might perhaps be useful.

Fidel Castro Ruz
January 23, 2008