Corruption Versus Liberty: A Cuban Dilemma / Dimas Castellano

Dimas Castellanos, 18 November 2016 — The evil of corruption–the act of corruption and its effects–has accompanied the human species since its emergence. It has been present in all societies and in all ages. Its diverse causes range from personal conduct to the political-economic system of each country. In Cuba it appeared in the colonial era, it remained in the Republic, and became generalized until becoming the predominant behavior in society.

To understand the regression suffered we must return to the formation of our morality, essentially during the mixing of Hispanic and African cultures and the turning towards totalitarianism after 1959, as can be seen in the following lines.

The conversion of the island into the world’s first sugar and coffee power created many contradictions between slaves and slave owners, blacks and whites, producers and merchants, Spanish-born and Creole, and between them and the metropolis. From these contradictions came three moral aspects: the utilitarian, the civic and that of survival.

Utilitarian morality

The father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), said that utility is measured by the consequences that actions tend to produce, and came to the conclusion that all action is socially good when it tries to procure the greatest possible degree of happiness for the greatest number of people, and that each person has the right to be taken into account in the exercise of power.

That thesis of Bentham became a popular slogan synthesized in the phrase: “The greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Such a concept crystallized in Cuba as a creole variant of a utilitarianism that took shape in exploitation, smuggling, corruption, banditry, and criminality, which turned into the violation of everything predisposed as an accepted norm of conduct in society.

The gift of a plant by the sugar planters to the governor Don Luis de las Casas; the diversion of funds for the construction of Fortaleza de la Real Fuerza de la Cabaña, which made it the most expensive fortress in the world; the gambling house and the cockfighting ring that the governor Francisco Dionisio Vives had for his recreation in the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, whose government was known for “the three d’s”: dancing, decks of cards, and drinking, for which reason, at the end of his rule, there appeared a lampoon that said: “If you live (vives) like Vives, you will live!”; the mangrove groves; bandits like Caniquí, the black man of Trinidad and Juan Fernandez, the blond of Port-au-Prince … are some examples.

Utilitarianism reappeared on the republican scene as a discourse of a political, economic, and military elite lacking in democratic culture, swollen with personalismo, caudillismo, corruption, violence and ignorance of anything different. A masterful portrait of this morality was drawn by Carlos Loveira in his novel Generales y doctores, a side that resurfaced in the second half of the twentieth century.

Thus emerged the Republic, built on the symbiosis of planters and politicians linked to foreign interests, with a weak civil society and with unresolved, deep-rooted problems, as they were the concentration of agrarian property and the exclusion of black people. The coexistence of different moral behaviors in the same social environment led to the symbiosis of their features. Utilitarianism crisscrossed with virtues and altruisms, concerns and activities on matters more transcendent than boxes of sugar and sacks of coffee.

Throughout the twentieth century, these and other factors were present in the Protest of the 13, in the Revolution of the 30, in the repeal of the Platt Amendment, in the Constituent Assembly of 1939, and in the Constitution of 1940. Also in the corruption which prevailed during the authentic governments and in the improvement accomplished by the Orthodox Dissent and the Society of Friends of the Republic. Likewise, in the 1952 coup d’etat and in the Moncada attempted counter-coup, in the civic and armed struggle that triumphed in 1959 and in those who since then and until now struggle for the restoration of human rights.

Civic morality

Civic morality, the cradle of ethical values, was a manifestation of minorities, shaped by figures ranging from Bishop Espada, through Jose Agustín Caballero to the teachings of Father Felix Varela and the republic “With all and for the good of all” of José Martí. This civic aspect became the foundation of the nation and source of Cuban identity. It included concern for the destinies of the local land, the country, and the nation. It was forged in institutions such as the Seminary of San Carlos, El Salvador College, in Our Lady of the Desamparados, and contributed to the promotion of the independence proclamations of the second half of the nineteenth century, as well as the projects of nation and republic.

Father Félix Varela understood that civic formation was a premise for achieving independence and, consequently, chose education as a path to liberation. In 1821, when he inaugurated the Constitutional Chair at the Seminary of San Carlos, he described it as “a chair of freedom, of human rights, of national guarantees … a source of civic virtues, the basis of the great edifice of our happiness, the one that has for the first time reconciled for us the law with philosophy.”

José de la Luz y Caballero came to the conclusion that “before the revolution and independence, there was education.” Men, rather than academics, he said, is the necessity of the age. And Jose Marti began with a critical study of the errors of the War of 1868 that revealed negative factors such as immediacy, caudillismo, and selfishness, closely related to weak civic formation.

This work was continued by several generations of Cuban educators and thinkers until the first half of the twentieth century. Despite these efforts, a general civic behavior was not achieved. We can find proof of this affirmation in texts like the Journal of the soldier, by Fermín Valdés Domínguez, and the Public Life of Martín Morúa Delgado, by Rufino Perez Landa.

During the Republic, the civic aspect was taken up by minorities. However, in the second half of the twentieth century their supposed heirs, once in power, slipped into totalitarianism, reducing the Western base of our institutions to the minimum expression, and with it the discourse and practice of respect for human rights.

Survival morality

Survival morality emerged from continued frustrations, exclusions, and the high price paid for freedom, opportunities, and participation. In the Colony it had its manifestations in the running away and insurrections of slaves and poor peasants. During the second half of the twentieth century it took shape in the lack of interest in work, one of whose expressions is the popular phrase: “Here there is nothing to die for.”

It manifested itself in the simulation of tasks that were not actually performed, as well as in the search for alternative ways to survive. Today’s Cuban, reduced to survival, does not respond with heroism but with concrete and immediate actions to survive. And this is manifested throughout the national territory, in management positions, and in all productive activities or services.

It is present in the clandestine sale of medicines, in the loss of packages sent by mail, in the passing of students in exchange for money, in falsification of documents, in neglect of the sick (as happened with mental patients who died in the Psychiatric Hospital of Havana of hypothermia in January 2010, where 26 people died according to official data), in establishments where merchandise is sold, in the workshops that provide services to the population, in the sale of fuel “on the left” and in the diversion of resources destined for any objective.

The main source of supply of the materials used is diversion, theft, and robbery, while the verbs “escape”, “fight” and “solve” designate actions aimed at acquiring what is necessary to survive. Seeing little value in work, the survivor responded with alternative activities. Seeing the impossibility of owning businesses, with the estaticular way (activities carried out by workers for their own benefit in State centers and with State-owned materials). Seeing the absence of civil society, with the underground life. Seeing shortages, with the robbery of the State. Seeing the closing of all possibilities, with escape to any other part of the world.

Immersed in this situation, the changes that are being implemented in Cuba, under the label of Guidelines of Economic and Social Policy of the PCC, run into the worst situation regarding moral behavior. In this, unlike in previous times, everyone from high leaders to simple workers participates. A phenomenon of such a dimension that, despite its secrecy, has had to be tackled by the official press itself, as can be seen in the following examples of a whole decade:

  • The newspaper Juventud Rebelde on May 22, 2001 published an article titled “Solutions against deception”, where it is said that Eduardo, one of the thousands of inspectors, states that when he puts a crime in evidence, the offenders come to tell him: “You have to live, you have to fight.” According to Eduardo, neither can explain “the twist of those who bother when they are going to claim their rights and instead defend their own perpetrator.” It results in the perpetrator declaring that he is fighting and the victims defending him. The selfless inspector, thinking that when he proves the violation he has won “the battle,” is wrong. Repressive actions, without attacking the causes, are doomed to failure.
  • The same newspaper published “The big old fraud”, reporting that of 222,656 inspections carried out between January and August 2005, price violations and alterations in product standards were detected in 52% of the centers examined and in the case of agricultural markets in 68%.
  • For its part, the newspaper Granma on November 28, 2003, in “Price Violations and the Never Ending Battle” reported that in the first eight months of the year, irregularities were found in 36% of the establishments inspected; that in markets, fairs, squares, and agricultural points of sale the index was above 47%, and in gastronomy 50%.
  • On February 16, 2007, under the title “Cannibals in the Towers”, the official organ of the Communist Party addressed the theft of angles supporting high-voltage electricity transmission networks, and it was recognized that “technical, administrative and legal practices applied so far have not stopped the banditry. “
  • Also, on October 26, 2010, in “The Price of Indolence”, reported that in the municipality of Corralillo, Villa Clara, more than 300 homes were built with stolen materials and resources, for which 25 kilometers of railway lines were dismantled and 59 angles of the above-mentioned high voltage towers were used.

If the official newspapers Granma and Juventud Rebelde had addressed the close relationship between corruption and almost absolute state ownership, with which no one can live off the salary, with which citizens are prevented from being entrepreneurs, and with the lack of the most elementary civic rights, then they would have understood that repression alone is useless, that the vigilantes, policemen, and inspectors are Cubans with the same needs as the rest of the population.

In order to change the course of events, it is necessary to extend the changes in the economy to the rest of the social spheres, which implies looking back at citizens’ lost liberties, without which the formation and predominance of civic behavior that the present and future of Cuba require will be impossible.

 Ethics, politics, and freedoms

In Cuba, the state of ethics – a system composed of principles, precepts, behavior patterns, values and ideals that characterize a human collective – is depressing; While politics – a vehicle for moving from the desired to the possible and the possible to the real – is monopolized by the state. The depressing situation of one and the monopoly of the other, are closely related to the issue of corruption. Therefore, its solution will be impossible without undertaking deep structural transformations.

The great challenge of today’s and tomorrow’s Cuba lies in transforming Cubans into citizens, into political actors. A transformation that has its starting point in freedoms, beginning with the implementation of civil and political rights. As the most immediate cause of corruption – not the only one – is in the dismantling of civil society and in the nationalization of property that took place in Cuba in the early years of revolutionary power, it is necessary to act on this cause from different directions.

The wave of expropriations that began with foreign companies, continued with the national companies, and did not stop until the last fried-food stand became “property of the whole people”, combined with the dismantling of civil society and the monopolization of politics, brought as a consequence a lack of interest in the results of work, low productivity, and the sharp deterioration suffered with the decrease of wages and pensions. Added to these facts were others such as the replacement of tens of thousands of owners by managers and administrators without knowledge of the ABCs of administration or of the laws that govern economic processes.

The result could not be otherwise: work ceased to be the main source of income for Cubans. To transform this deplorable situation requires a cultural action, which, in the words of Paulo Freire, is always a systematic and deliberate form of action that affects the social structure, in the sense of maintaining it as it is, to test small changes in it or transform it.

Paraphrasing the concept of affirmative action, this cultural action is equivalent to those that are made for the insertion and development of relegated social sectors. Its concretion includes two simultaneous and interrelated processes: one, citizen empowerment, which includes the implementation of rights and freedoms; and two, the changes inside the person, which unlike the former are unfeasible in the short term, but without which the rest of the changes would be of little use. The transformation of Cubans into public citizens, into political actors, is a challenge as complex as it is inescapable.

Experience, endorsed by the social sciences, teaches that interest is an irreplaceable engine for achieving goals. In the case of the economy, ownership over the means of production and the amount of wages decisively influence the interests of producers. Real wages must be at least sufficient for the subsistence of workers and their families. The minimum wage allows subsistence, while incomes below that limit mark the poverty line. Since 1989, when a Cuban peso was equivalent to almost nine of today’s peso, the wage growth rate began to be lower than the increase in prices, meaning that purchasing power has decreased to the point that it is insufficient to survive.

An analysis carried out in two family nuclei composed of two and three people respectively, in the year 2014, showed that the first one earns 800 pesos monthly and spends 2,391, almost three times more than the income. The other earns 1,976 pesos and spends 4,198, more than double what it earns. The first survives because of the remittance he receives from a son living in the United States; the second declined to say how he made up the difference.

The concurrence of the failure of the totalitarian model, the aging of its rulers, the change of attitude that is occurring in Cubans, and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the US, offers better conditions than previous decades to face the challenge. The solution is not in ideological calls, but in the recognition of the incapacity of the State and in decentralizing the economy, allowing the formation of a middle class, unlocking everything that slows the increase of production until a reform that restores the function of wages is possible. That will be the best antidote against the leviathan of corruption and an indispensable premise to overcome the stagnation and corruption in which Cuban society is submerged.