As a result of the dizzying 1989 collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the Cuban economy has had to reinvent itself. Despite these changes, however, sugar and tobacco remain as the island nation’s principal agricultural products. This photo, taken by Moritz Steiger, conveys the four sugar cane workers’ attitude of quiet abeyance, and expresses the disquieting and decaying sense of balance that pervades Cuban society.
The Intricacies of Transdisciplinary Research
by Lara I. López de Jesús
translated by Zachary Romansky
When Maribel Aponte García, researcher at the Social Research Center (CIS by its Spanish acronym) and professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus Graduate School of Business Administration, started a research project on Cuba in 1998, she thought she knew exactly what her object of study was and which methods she would employ. She also had a fairly clear idea of what the final product of her research would be, but she could not predict how that project would evolve and eventually span several disciplines.
“My study was the beginning of an investigation that, little by little, began to become immersed in transdisciplinarity, leading me to a deep and rich theoretic reflection on business alternatives in Cuba and Puerto Rico, everyday life, and pedagogy,” she says. Eight years later, Aponte presented the final product of her research: a series of 22 videos on two DVDs entitled Cuba. Una colección de videos de lo emergente como alternativa. Prácticas empresariales y sociales para una pedagogía dialógica.
Aponte García took the first of four filming trips to Cuba in 2001 along with a work team that included Professor Néstor Nazario, filmmaker Agustín Cubano, and Cuban liaison José Luis Nicolau. There, they were able to gain access to several businesses and film them on site. Research in Cuba is no easy task, given that external affairs, such as international regulations, obstruct the processes of obtaining permits and university collaboration. But Aponte García was certain that the analysis of Cuba should start from the “voices from within,” and that she needed to spend a significant amount of time in Cuba to record these voices. She adds that in order to “grasp the economy from everyday life’s perspective, along with its gestures, depth, and rumors, you have to live there.”
Unsatisfied with the original goal of creating a traditional research product presenting only one interpretation, Aponte García enlisted the help of ethnomusicologist Manuel Centeno and video artist Beatriz Santiago to create a dialogic video essay and a musical educational comedy that branched into a creative multivocal transdisciplinary pedagogy.
Aponte García has analyzed all four dominant business alternatives that emerged in Cuba during the Special Period: self-employment, mixed enterprise, agricultural cooperative, and business perfecting and remodeling. These models currently are undergoing some intense changes.
Aponte García says that the case of the Puerto Rican economy is much more complex than that of Cuba. “In Cuba, business alternatives are dictated from above. There you have four forms, but in Puerto Rico there are more than ten—you’ve got all the formal methods as well as informal ones, not to mention that you’ve also got transnational companies that form alliances with local enterprises, while that same local business may have an alliance with one or another local business or businesses independently internationalizing,” she says.
Venezuela and the Bolivarian Alternative
Venezuela, a country that has become, in just a few years, the Latin American nation with the second highest literacy rate and wide-ranging housing, community safety, and regional integration programs, is another case that has interested Aponte García. Venezuela is currently driving an economic, political, cultural and social plan called the Bolivarian Alternative (ALBA by its Spanish acronym). ALBA was born as a reaction and commercial alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA, or ALCA in Spanish) proposed by the U.S. government. Aponte Garcia currently is studying ALBA through a project that won her the prestigious Critical Thinking Award Scholarship sponsored by the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO by its acronym in Spanish and Portuguese) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). It is the first time that this distinction has been awarded to a Puerto Rican academic.
With this research project, Aponte García proposes to conceptualize ALBA as a model revolving around two fundamental axes made possible by Venezuelan petroleum wealth. The first axis is production and alternative enterprise. This conceptualization includes emerging business forms such as social production companies, endogenous development centers, cooperatives, and grand-national enterprises. The second axis is regional integration, cooperation, and solidary commerce, which includes joint energy, finance and telecommunications programs.
Venezuela has taken an international enterprise, petroleum, and channeled profits to social endeavors with the objective of keeping money inside the country. “Through PDVSA, Venezuela arranges agreements that are beneficial for both itself and other countries in the region.” Aponte García’s financial analysis shows how Venezuela has achieved this feat. The researcher also hopes the study will be able to serve Puerto Rico, as it will provide reflection on how to establish internationalization and regional integration processes at a time when their adoption is urgently needed.
The product of this investigation, a six-chapter book accompanied by a video, will be delivered to CLACSO in 2009 for publishing and worldwide distribution.
Since childhood, Maribel Aponte García has felt inclined toward social justice. During a trip to Cuba in 1978, that inclination became an interest in Caribbean and Latin American political economics. She earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in radical political economics from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, one of the few institutions with programs specializing in this area. She then returned to the UPR as a professor and researcher. During her second trip to Cuba, she came up with the idea for a multidisciplinary project that she would eventually take eight years to complete. She now is working on two projects: one that studies ALBA and another that examines business restructuring in Puerto Rico in the Post-936 period. Aponte García has five children, three who grew up watching videos and listening to songs about Cuba. She admits that balancing family and several research projects is no easy task, but she thanks her husband—coauthor and collaborator in her presentations and writings, and to whom she has been married for 15 years—for his unconditional support. “I had been praying seven years for the cosmos to send me an ideal partner with whom I could work on all those projects I had dreamt up… and he was sent,” she says cheerfully.
by Vivian Razzetto
translated by Zachary Romansky