Ivan Garcia, 10 February 2017 — Seven years ago, when the roar of the winds of a hurricane devastated Havana and the water filtered through the unglazed living room door of Lisvan, a private worker living in an apartment of blackened walls which urgently needed comprehensive repairs, his housing conditions did not interest the snitches on the block where he lives.
“When I began to be successful in my business and I could renovate the apartment, from doing the electrical system, plumbing, new flooring, painting the rooms to putting grills on the windows and the balcony, the complaints began. What is, in any other country, a source of pride that a citizen can leave his poverty behind and improve his quality of life, is, in Cuba, something that, for more than a few neighbours, arouses both resentment and envy so that it leads them to make anonymous denunciations”, says Lisvan.
So many years of social control by the regime has transformed some Cubans into hung-up people with double standards. “And shameless too,” adds Lisvan. And he tells me that “two years ago, when I was putting in a new floor, my wife brought me the ceramic tiles in a truck from her work, authorized by her boss. But a neighbor, now in a wheelchair and almost blind, called the DTI to denounce me, accusing me of trafficking in construction materials.”
Luckily, Lisvan had the documents for the tiles, bought in convertible pesos at a state “hard currency collection store” — as such establishments are formally called. But the complaint led to them taking away the car his wife was driving. In the last few days, while he was having railings put across his balcony, to guard against robberies, a neighbor called Servilio complained to the Housing Office that he was altering the façade of the building, and to the electric company for allegedly using the public electricity supply. Lisvan ended by telling me that “It all backfired on him, because everything was in order, and the inspectors involved gave me the phone number of the complainant, who, being a coward, had done it anonymously.”
According to Fernando, a police instructor, anonymous complaints are common in the investigation department where he works. “Thanks to these allegations we started to embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars in the United States.
“People report anything — a party that seems lavish, someone who bought beef on the black market or a person who drinks beer every day and doesn’t work. It’s crazy. Snitching in Cuba is sometimes taken to extremes.”
When you ask him what is behind the reports, he avoids the question.
“Because of envy or just a habit of denouncing. These people are almost always resentful and frustrated and tend to be hard up and short of lots of things. And not infrequently the complainant also commits illegal acts,” admits the police instructor.
Carlos, a sociologist, believes that large scale reporting, as has happened for decades in Cuba, is a good subject for specialist study. “But lately, with widespread apathy because of the inefficiency of the system, the long drawn-out economic crisis and the lack of economic and political freedoms, as compared to the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, informing has decreased.”
And he adds. “It’s true that in the beginning the Revolution was the source of law. But it also smashed to pieces deep-rooted traditions and social norms. Fidel Castro justified launching the practice of informing on people by reference to Yankee Imperialism, class enemies, and as a way of protecting the Revolution.”
In Cuba, the CDR (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) are the basis of collective vigilance in the blocks and neighborhoods of 168 municipalities on the island. Those same committees provide information to the State Security Department about dissidents, that elevates unfounded gossip and marital infidelities to the category of ‘secret reports’.
“In the 21st century, when inequalities have increased, the most diehard Fidelistas, who are still to be found in blocks and neighborhoods, continue with their complaints. It’s a mixture of several things, from base instincts to failure to adapt to new circumstances. It will take years for this dreadful habit to disappear,” concludes the Havana sociologist.
Diana, an engineer, recalls the time when the State granted a week’s holiday on the beach, a TV, a fan or a coffee. “The ancient squabbles in the union meetings to decide who should get the prizes were a theatrical spectacle. It was embarrassing. Yesterday’s shit gave us today’s smell.”
It is likely that in Cuba, if we bet on democracy and are lucky enough to choose good rulers, we will make progress in economic terms, and the country will start to develop and progress.
But the damage caused to Cuban society by informants, as approved by the olive green autocracy, is anthropological. Recovering a basket of interpersonal values will take time. Perhaps ten years. Or more.
Translated by GH