Rickshaws are ‘bicitaxi’s’ in Cuba. There are thousands of them. They form part of the typical Cuban city-scape. Where they come from, we do not know. We’ve never seen them in other Caribbean or Latin countries. Perhaps they were blown over from socialist Vietnam, with which country Cuba maintains close ties. Nor do we know why they were introduced. Perhaps to create green jobs for Cuba’s unemployed? Perhaps because motorized taxi’s were not affordable? It does not matter. These symbols of inequality and capitalist decadence are very popular in egalitarian Cuba. The Cubans have no qualms whatsoever to sit comfortably in their bicitaxi’s, while a human ‘beast of burden’ is pedalling away for a few scanty pesos.

Now, suppose a young enterprising Cuban would want to buy a bicitaxi to squeeze out a living for himself. We presume he could go to a bank (there are banks in Cuba, but they function differently) and try and borrow the money. We were told (but have not been able to verify) a) that it is very hard or even impossible for the average Cuban to get a loan from a Cuban bank and b) that the interest rate is very high (20% or more). For the purpose of this article it does not matter if this info is correct or not, nor whether
the bicitaxi could perhaps be bought from the State on credit at a (much) lower interest-rate. The objective of this article is to concentrate on the practice of charging interest itself.

What is ‘usury’?

In all 3 world religions that originated in the Middle East (Judaism, Christianity & Islam), charging interest is frowned upon, if not unequivocally prohibited. Nevertheless, in Israel and all Christian countries the private banking system charges interest pretty much as it pleases, fully protected (even encouraged) by the State and the law. Even the view held until some 30 years ago that ‘usury’ means excessive interest (which used to be prohibited in Christian countries) has mostly been abandoned. The banking system in Islamic countries struggles much more with the Islamic ban on ‘riba’ (interest), but generally also finds ways around it (such as the semantic solution calling ‘interest’ a ‘commission’, or other ways; by the way, we acknowledge that some solutions found in Islamic countries are genuine).

But why do these religions have a problem with the institute of interest? Is it perhaps because charging interest tends to concentrate economic power in the hands of the money-lenders? Is it perhaps because interest (certainly excessive interest) causes inflation, driving up prices, whereas wages usually lag behind? If all men are created equal, is it reasonable to allow a practice that concentrates economic power in
the hands of a few private banks? We know that the concentration of political power in the hands of a king or dictator (fascist or socialist) or even an aristocracy is undemocratic. But is the concentration of economic power in the hands of an economic aristocracy not equally undemocratic? Especially when it is known that
the economic elite in democratic countries can and do buy politicians legally by financing their election campaigns?

These are awkward questions which make you wonder whether the founders of the Middle Eastern religions had a point after all? If a person by means of hard work and frugal living has put some money aside, it is justifiable that he should receive a reward for the risk he (and his family) takes when loaning out his savings. But if a bank could create money out of nothing - which they can and do constantly on a gigantic scale; read our next article -, would it then still be reasonable to charge interest on money so reated? And, if so, what interest-rate would then be justified?

Gentle reader, don’t miss our next article.