May 20, 2013

Veteran Cuba expert Carmelo Mesa-Lago: It’s time to retire

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After more than 50 years studying Cuba with meticulous detail, the dean of Cuban studies is retiring.

Carmelo Mesa-Lago, author of more than 30 books and founder of numerous research groups, said that at age 78, he no longer has the stamina to keep up his disciplined analysis of Cuba’s social economy.

His latest book in Spanish, “Cuba en la era de Raul Castro: Reformas economico-sociales y sus efectos,” will be his last, he recently told a packed auditorium at Miami-Dade College, his voice cracking.

“I can see the influence of the Pope on you,” joked colleague Juan Antonio Blanco, referring to this winter’s resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. “But take it easy. You don’t have to follow his lead.”

A master at spotting trends, Mesa-Lago never envisioned becoming an economist and professor who would influence generations of students and draw criticism from the left and right for defying ideology.

His father, a legal clerk, expected him to become a lawyer. But chance always seemed to intervene and take him on different paths than those he planned or pursued, Mesa-Lago told CubaNews in a wide-ranging interview peppered with anecdotes and belly laughs.

He studied law for five years at the University of Havana, but political turmoil in the late 1950s closed the school right after his dissertation was approved. On a scholarship in Spain to earn a doctorate in law, Mesa-Lago met a young Bolivian studying social security and opted to specialize in that subject too.

When the Cuban Revolution deposed the Batista regime in 1959, the recent graduate, back living in Havana, was asked to lead efforts to unify the government’s 54 pension plans. But politics upended that.

Mesa-Lago said he bristled when Fidel Castro kept asking the pension bank for hefty loans of cash that was supposed to fund retirees. And his own proposal to lay off thousands of social-security employees to boost meager pensions met with worker protests.

“I said, ‘I had enough. This is not for me,’ ” he recalled during our interview at his Miami Beach condominium.

Mesa-Lago taught for a while in Catholic universities, but the Castro regime railed against religion and closed religious schools. When Fidel kicked out hundreds of Spanish clergymen, he joined the group to cross the Atlantic on an aging ship long used to transport mining workers. “When we got to La Coruña, the ship was leaning halfway over. Shortly after, it sunk,” he said. “Ours was the last trip.”

Unmarried, in his mid-20s, Mesa-Lago left Cuba with only a box of cigars, three changes of clothes, three books (all on social security) and a former school ring that he had fashioned into “a wedding ring, which was allowed,” he said with a giggle.

But competition for jobs in Spain proved brutal for Spaniards, never mind immigrants. So, after contacting an American colleague he’d met at a law conference, Mesa-Lago figured he’d try his luck teaching Spanish where his friend found him work in Oklahoma.

He headed there from Madrid via New York in what he called “a flying coffin, a very old two-prop plane.”

From New York, he called his sister in Miami, who suggested an alternative: A job that had just been posted for researching Cuban labor and social-security systems as part of a new Cuban research project. Mesa-Lago switched his airplane ticket, interviewed and ended up working at the University of Miami.

Courses at the university were free, so he pursued a masters in economics, though UM only gave him credit for one year’s study for his seven years of law.

He started from scratch in statistics, math and other basics required in economics. The department chairman suggested he keep on studying, and next, came a scholarship to Cornell University for a doctorate to specialize in the economics of social security.

But Mesa-Lago was broke. He’d brought some 15 relatives from Cuba, including his dad, who had refused to leave the island unless the whole family did too.

In 1965, Mesa-Lago left everything for his Miami relatives and headed up to Ithaca, N.Y., to face “culture shock” and freezing weather.

In his second year of studies, he married Elena, a neighbor from Havana five years his junior who he’d met again in Miami. They lived in one side of a small postwar split-home built for veterans, a place so humble that it horrified his mother-in-law when she visited.

Mesa-Lago whizzed through Cornell, completing classwork in two years and quickly finishing a dissertation on problems of employment and under-employment in Yugoslavia, China, Cuba and the Soviet Union.

By then, he had a daughter and needed a job. He was offered a position with the U.S. Social Security Administration, but chance knocked again.

While at the typist for his thesis, a Cornell classmate mentioned that the University of Pittsburgh was looking for an assistant director for its Latin American studies program, someone who also could teach in the economics department. He applied and got the post. “You have to be ready in life for when opportunity presents itself,” he said, speaking in his typical fast-paced and impassioned Spanish. “If it hadn’t been for that job in the University of Miami, maybe I’d be in Oklahoma and have a doctorate in Spanish literature.”

From 1967 through 1999, Mesa-Lago forged an enviable career at Pitt, developing the Latin American Center into a full-fledged research institute, earning grants, building endowments, writing books, co-editing books, lecturing worldwide and becoming one of the go-to scholars on Cuban studies. His discipline and work ethic had German colleagues commenting, “You seem like a German.”

Ideologues both on the right and left assaulted his data-based work on Cuba. He recalls some attacks as especially painful.

At a Latin American Studies Association meeting in the United States, for example, pro-Castro forces berated him for forecasting that Cuba would not reach its goal of a 10-million-ton sugar harvest that year. (It didn’t.)

And at a meeting at the Inter-American Development Bank, hardline anti-communists booed him even before he spoke.

“It was very difficult. I’ve taken blows from the left and the right. Intolerance is the same on both extremes,” he said. “I’ve always been in favor of dialogue, respectful and serious without insults.”

Mesa-Lago first returned to his homeland in 1978, when Havana began to open dialogue with Cubans abroad. He returned yearly through 1980. He also visited China in 1981 and the Soviet Union in 1982 on trips financed by U.S. foundations.

Anti-communists in Miami derided him for the academic exchanges.

But it would take until 1990 and then, two more decades until 2010 before he would see his beloved Cuba once again. And it was only in 2011, when he and his wife first took their three daughters to the island in what became an emotional visit, complete with stops at his former home and his church.

“My ideal for Cuba is Scandinavian social democracy. The market dominates, though the state plays a key role and there’s full democracy,” he said. “And if you can’t get there right away, the path is China and Vietnam, so that at least living standards improve for the Cuban people.”

Today, Mesa-Lago sees Havana accelerating its market-oriented reforms for three main reasons: uncertainty over Venezuelan oil subsidies, lack of commercial petroleum finds in offshore Cuban waters and insufficient gains from reforms so far.

“It will be hard for them to turn back now,” he said. Though retired from writing books and the sleepless nights that book-writing brings, Mesa-Lago has no plans to stop studying Cuba. He aims to pen more academic articles and newspaper columns about changes on the island.

Voraciously reading novels, exercising several hours a day, keeping up with current events and spending time with loved ones isn’t enough for the active-minded scholar. He takes pride in raising the level of debate about Cuba on and off the island and aims to continue doing that, whatever the hurdles.

“Adversity is an incentive to work. If I’d had an easy life, I wouldn’t have worked like I did,” Mesa-Lago said. And away from Cuban studies, he confided, “I get bored.”

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