Failures of `war-time' socialist economy prompt a rethinking in Vietnam

Even if the Vietnam Communist Party leaders can avoid making any more mistakes, it will still take the nation at least a decade to resolve its serious economic woes, says one of Hanoi's top editors. The mistakes: a rush to socialism and industrialization.

The current challenge Vietnam's leaders face is how to correct these ``serious errors'' with a more ``realistic'' socialism, says Vu Can, acting editor of the Vietnam Courier.

His monthly publication, which has an overseas circulation of about 20,000, is printed in English, French, and Russian.

``Even though we call ourselves the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, we have only opted for a socialist orientation,'' said Mr. Can in a recent interview.

``After the war [with the United States], we acted as if we were socialist. That was forcing it too much,'' he said. ``The whole party wanted to go fast, until we hit reality.''

That ``reality,'' according to Can, was an economy in shambles, caused by a series of bad decisions made in the late 1970s, by a leadership more accustomed to fighting wars than building a modern state.

``We are a rather peasant people with peasant problems. As peasants, we thought that with only our will we could go fast on industrialization. We have not made good investments,'' said Can.

Huge amounts of aid from the Soviet Union were wasted, he said, because Vietnam thought that a nation that won a war could also industrialize rapidly.

These mistakes will not happen again, he said, although the party could make similiar bad judgments in the future.

``The old guard of the Vietnamese revolution was very experienced in national liberation.... But for building socialism, it is quite a different problem.

``Ho [former President Ho Chi Minh] is a national hero, but as for building the institutions of a modern country, he was a little simplistic,'' said Can, a graduate of Hanoi University and a former war correspondent.

``He wanted to give an example of heroism, simplicity, humanism, and so on. But, for instance, he did not build up a system of judicial institutions. A modern state must have such institutions. We only have the form of institutions.''

After the war, there was a certain liberalism and anarchy in different regions, he said, resulting in uncontrolled flow of currency and commodities, as well as corruption, said Can.

Another mistake was not making a shift from war-time to peace-time economic management.

``The war was run with central bureaucratism and with subsidized commodities. We had to produce basic articles for the people at any price. After the war, we should have put an end to this system, but when we realized the problem, it was too late,'' he said.

A new party leadership, which came to power last December, includes many cadres who worked in southern Vietnam, where they learned how to mix socialism with the existing capitalistic system.

The party's new secretary general, Nguyen Van Linh, was an underground military leader in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) during the war.

``He knew about the different commercial enterprises and applied that experience in Ho Chi Minh city after liberation [as the city's party chief],'' said Can.

But, he adds, Mr. Linh does not have ``a high level of theory and culture. He is rather modest. I am waiting for what he will actually do. The situation is now very complicated. We must wait 10 to 15 years for our economy to stabilize.''

Two recent changes are a new state policy allowing family-run enterprises and a shift from large industrial projects to small trade crafts.

The people's demands for consumer goods grow greater and greater as the country becomes increasingly acquainted with modern conveniences, said Can.

``Everyone now wants a refrigerator and a stereo.'' But progress in producing consumer goods has been slow. ``We have not even grown enough food to feed all the people,'' he noted.

Vietnam's three decades of war, said Can, should also be taken into account when considering the 12 years of slow economic growth.

And in 1979, Vietnam fought a short war with China after Vietnamese troops went into Cambodia (Kampuchea). Maintaining those troops in Cambodia continues to drain the economy, but party leaders plan to withdraw them by 1990.

Can, who is also a leading Vietnamese expert on Cambodia, says the Army of the People's Republic of Kampuchea may have a problem defending the country on its own. ``But it is not impossible,'' the editor says.

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