On the Edge of the Precipice

In Cuba we live on the edge of a precipice. If you want to get by, you have to take risks. In almost every sector of Cuban life you have to resort to illegal activity to be able to survive.

Market shortages in freely convertible currencies have become a frequent prospect. Furthermore, its normal to turn to to the black market to obtain the best selection and prices of goods.

In the street, hidden under a cloth you can even find a coffin if you need one, but you cannot forget that you are committing a crime by obtaining these goods. In Cuba, almost everything is illegal. If you sell or buy with the intention of re-selling the item afterwards, depending on the case you could be brought before the Commission for crimes involving the acquisition or the hoarding of goods.

The same thing can happen to you where you live. In each area a committee watches people 24/7. A culture of suspicion has been created, which doesn’t accept any proof of innocence. The reality is that no worker can live on just their monthly salary alone. You have two options, you live off remittances from your family or you improvise, you hustle and in Cuba this means you turn to the black market, like the illegal trade during the Franco dictatorship in Spain.

On Castro’s Island you can draw attention to yourself for the wrong reasons simply by painting your house, buying a television, eating meat from time to time, throwing a good birthday party for your children or owning 3 or 4 pairs of shoes. This would be considered as having a quality of life which is too high, which is enough to result in the confiscation of your possessions for making money illegally. In this case, the responsibility to provide evidence is reversed, as it is up to you to prove that your “riches” are not a result of illegal activity.

It’s rare not to know what certain neighbours are up to in your area; not out of curiosity, but mainly out of necesity. You return from work and you discover that your cooking oil has run out, so you can take an empty bottle and ask around the neighbourhood. Straight away someone informs you who is selling oil. The same thing happens if you don’t have the right money when you’re out shopping and you need to buy detergent, soap or sausages or if you need to get hold of a chicken for your child who is ill.

Despite having spent 51 years basically living illegally, Cubans allegedly have to denounce all acts which go against the law. A failure to do so is considered a crime under the penal code; in other words turning a blind eye is also illegal.

Could you imagine turning in the person who sells you chicken for a lower price than the state or pointing the finger at the people who enable you to buy food, clothes and shoes at prices which you can afford? These people let you pay in two or three installments with other advantages which the state-run businesses do not offer. As the people consider this law unfair, you will find that in Cuba today there is a great social tolerance towards illegal activities.

The government is also aware of this situation so as a result a complex network of anonymous informants has been set up. People are betrayed not only due to strict vigilance or a desire to obey the law, but also due to jealousy, quarrels or sexual passions. This demonstrates the loss of morals in Cuban society and above all, the way in which the government can interfere in the private lives of citizens with complete impunity.

The wealth of a neighbour can worry one person or irritate another, including those “Revolutionaries,” who over the years have become frustrated with a life which seems to be going nowhere. An argument about loud music, a fight between brothers, a confrontation over the boundaries of an adjacent patio or simply just being proud and not saying hello to anyone can be the catalyst for a tip-off.

In other cases, you can give information in return for being left alone by the authorities. In all the neighbourhoods there is no lack of unscrupulous people who say “I am involved in illegal activities, but I will also inform on what others are doing.” These type of people have become the main source of information for the authorities, to fight against the “new rich,” the Cubans who supposedly represent a real danger to the political power of the communists. This is a twisted way of looking at things, but the informers are also acting out of necessity.

Despite these areas of 24 hour vigilance and denunciations, the number of people breaking the law increases every day. This is normal when you forbid a person from doing something against their natural survival instinct. All the individuals who flout the penal code do so for this reason and come from all walks of life.

There are acts which do not represent a danger to society, as they already classified as illegal in the legislation. It is certain that the only thing that is legal in Cuba is to work in a state owned enterprise, study and go shopping with your ration card in the warehouse. To do anything else means to cross over into illegality.

What damage does it do to a society when a citizen cannot sell eggs and advertise his goods in the street? What kind of feeling is created when the government prevents its citizens from going into private business when it is unable to meet their individual needs? The state knows that it is irrational to maintain a ban on something which it cannot provide a substitute for. The authorities are also aware that the citizens need to resort to illegal activities to survive, and the economic situation makes sure that this vicious circle prevails.

Illegal activities and corruption are closely linked. The shortage of resources encourages the black market and all this contributes to the collapse of the economy, hinders law and order of the state and removes the necessary social consensus which legitimizes the state’s power. By allowing individuals to live like barbarians in an uncivilised society without rules which must be obeyed, the state contributes to the breakdown of the fundamental components of education and the moral code.

if there are so many disadvantages from the illegal sector and rational measures are not taken to stop them either, what is the real purpose of the Cuban government? Their intention is not clear except to remain loyal at any cost to a system built upon illegal activity.

From this point of view, the illegal actions suit the government as their excessive bans help them to completely control the population who are suffocated by a repressive police presence and the population will be loyal as they need to survive. Under these conditions their power could last for another half a century.

For people in countries where a government of laws and rights exist, it is very difficult to understand why Cubans have to break the law in order to achiveve their aspirations or realize a dream. You commit a crime whilst accepting the crimes of others or run the risk of being turned in simply on a whim or out of spite.

This is an incomprehensible and surreal situation, but this is how we have lived in Cuba for 51 years since Fidel Castro came to power.  Without civic values.

Ivan Garcia and Laritza Diversent

Photo: juanmrivas, Flickr

Translated by : Ellie Edwards