Surveys, to Please Expectations? / Miriam Celaya

“Someday”. Work of Cuban artist Alicia Leal

This week I had a brief involvement in a radio program, but, unfortunately, there was insufficient time for the issue which I was invited discuss. Of course, this is not the Cuban radio on the Island, nor do I want to make a critical assessment of the program in question in this post. I hold the show in high regard, and I’ve been honored when I was invited as their guest on more than one occasion. The radio has very peculiar characteristics, and the informative nature of the show prevents it from expanding into more substantial deliberations. But the truth is that, having just a minute or two to talk, I came away with –as we Cubans say- certain things inside me that I would not want to skip over, not because possibilities to sustain responses and counter-responses exist only in an extensive debate, but because the show’s subject revolved around the results of a survey conducted in Cuba by the International Republican Institute (IRI), an institution that has made a total of six surveys in Cuba in the past few months. Nothing about the current Cuban reality is alien to me, so let’s use our blog as virtual support to freely express considerations relating to the survey and its content.

I must start by acknowledging that, perhaps due to my academic training, despite my view of surveys as useful tools, I approach them with caution. To me, they are just that: tools, a means to an end. It is obvious that any survey implies an inevitable degree of subjectivity regarding the interests of the research conducted with the sample selection and other factors no less important, which is why sociological generalizations from a limited sampling is quite risky, regardless of the seriousness and professionalism of surveying institutions. The first thing, I believe, is that inquiries must involve arriving at new knowledge to transcend what is already known, and not merely to confirm issues already in the public domain. And though funds to conduct such inquiries do not come out of my pocket, I feel I am at liberty to question the results of this or any other survey, whether or not my opinion is welcome.

As for the distrust of government and the “socialist project” and the despair about the nation’s future, they are clearly validated in the increasing number of Cubans who leave the country, both legally and illegally, in a growing and constant wave. Viewed objectively, it could be stated that such exodus is the visible plebiscite that has been checking off a “NO” to the Castro-communist government. It can also be assured that the celebration of the VI Congress of the Cuban Communist Party this past April, with its disappointing results, has served as a catalyst that accelerated the stampede. This represents the people’s mute judgment about their faith in economic reforms. Cuba bleeds dramatically, losing in the exodus most of her young work force, many enterprising people, and the better portion of her best specialists. Isn’t this a more resounding truth than a thousand surveys?

As far as many Cubans here are concerned, it is not necessary to have survey results to verify the high levels of discontent and uncertainty we live under, or to confirm the mistrust over government dealings in the “implementation of changes” or “the renewal of the model”. And let’s not talk about the so-called reforms of the General! Just go to the license registration offices to verify the number of “permits” that are returned each day. One doesn’t have to be too clever to see that some of those who appealed to the law in order to maintain a small private business -be it a café, a restaurant or a jewelry stand- could not face high taxes and other economic challenges, and will try to survive in some other way going forward, not necessarily “legally”, given that the ultimate employer for half a century, Father State, has started, slowly but steadily, the swell (and not the “wave”) of layoffs and there aren’t many options. These elements of the frustrated proto-national business constitute, either on a conscious or subconscious level, a sector of critical and potential disaffects to the system.

At this stage of the game, Pero Grullo’s truth is valid, in that we Cubans have a miserable rate of Internet connectivity, an issue that has been published numerous times by institutions, agencies and international personalities, so it’s somewhat redundant to mention a (very fabulous) 7% rate of connectivity on the island, especially if it is known that many Cubans who have an official e-mail account in a strictly controlled national network say they “have Internet”. As it is, this figure is generous and does not reflect the true and lamentable extent of the lack of access of the vast majority of Cubans who have never had a chance to even glimpse at a web browser.

As an additional factor, a sample of 500 individuals as the number representative of a population of more than 11 million people makes me doubt the survey. The argument that “the number is valid because “these are the standard approved by prestigious international level survey agencies, therefore the results are accurate” does not sit well with me. Standardization of the knowledge or of the research can only lead to the ignorance of important factors, especially when we are dealing with sociology and politics. I don’t think, for example, that the responses of 500 Cubans living here can be as reliable and accurate as those of the same number of individuals in France, Germany, the US, or any other democratic society … those that set the standards. I regret that my answer to the IRI specialist‘s question of was so superficial, with my apologies to all the titles and coats of arms that decorate her, but I do not usually resign myself to the graces of acceptance, nor do I meekly assume the supposed intellectual superiority of an entity because there are simply pre-set standards (“unquestionable” by others) and, therefore, “good”.

Another element to consider in the Cuban case is the national paranoia, which generates a climate of self-censorship that often prevents real answers by the respondents. Reaching rates of 80-90% of anti-government criticism in Cuba is truly very difficult to achieve, even by independent Cuban journalists. On numerous occasions I have listened to evasive answers from people I’ve known for a long time, with whom I have a relationship of trust and who are critical of the Cuban reality. “I’m not interested in politics”, “I do not know anything about that, what we want is to leave”, “what’s important to me is to work out my life and my family, I don’t get involved”, or lately, they respond by imitating a trendy musical number: “I just want a little bit* so I can live”. So, I can only think that the survey takers of the Institute found the most civic 500 Cubans in all of Cuba. Such lucky guys! I don’t know if the institution fully understands their great responsibility in creating a false expectation in a nation (composed of Cubans everywhere) that has been subjected to such a long and anxious wait. Some will believe, based on these results, that reaching the end of the Cuban dictatorship is only a matter of procedure.

My well-respected colleague, who participated in the show, granted absolute credibility to the survey and dismissed my reservations because, as he stated, “We Cubans have lost our fear and express ourselves publicly in queues, in metropolitan mass-transportation, etc… “, which is absolutely true, as this writer has been able to experience in her daily strolls. However, cyclical collective catharsis amid a stressful situation and taking a survey (however limited it may be) without fear, in front of strangers, for a foreign institution to boot …is not the same. Does my colleague really believe that the two situations can compare? Does he think that the verbal explosion alone, in the presence of a host of frustrations can imply an anti-government political attitude or civic maturity? So what are we missing? Just will power? I think not.

For my part, I also want to believe that at least 500 anonymous, common Cubans, assumed their responsibility to express themselves conscientiously and without fear when responding to a survey, but frankly I “find it hard” to believe. Not a problem of lack of faith, but of realism. As for me, though I am convinced of the irreversible failure of the system and the inevitable end of the Cuban dictatorship, I prefer not to mislead or to sweeten the pill. I reject the triumphalism of any color or trend, and I will have validation of the rates obtained by the International Republican Institute on the day that the number of Cubans who publicly defend and support the Ladies in White is at least half of the repudiators contracted by the government to harass them; when the number of voters attending the polls in the fake elections of the so-called “people power” falls by at least 50%; when in any official meeting -of the CDR, of “accountability” of a union, of any nucleus of the Cuban Communist Party, etc.- at least 5 or 10 Cubans get up to question government policy or “higher” decisions or when simply someone shouts “I oppose the proposal.” That moment may not be too long in coming, I’m such an optimist, but, so far, Master Pollsters, what is true is that, beyond the good intentions and wishes to please, the results your surveys pose, just like the General Raul’s “reforms”, do not offer any certainty of changes.

*Translator’s note:
The traditional meaning of “cachito” is “a little bit”, but it’s possible that, when used in the song, it could refer to “a little joint” (marijuana cigarette), an alternate meaning in some parts of Latin America.

Translated by Norma Whiting

November 25 2011