The Morality of the Survivor / Dimas Castellanos

At an extended meeting of the Council of Ministers held last Friday, May 13, the head of Foreign Commerce and Overseas Investments reported finding irregularities in business operations involving foreign capital and international contracts. Likewise, the minister of Finance and Planning spoke of irregularities and evidence of criminal activity related to fuel sales. Meanwhile, the Comptroller General of the Republic acknowledged that, though recent audits have shown the situation is improving, serious problems and vulnerabilities persist.

Any objective analysis of this issue must begin by banishing euphemisms that just serve to sugarcoat reality. It is not an issue of irregularities but of marked ethical deterioration, of corruption, that while it did not begin in 1959, it was only after that date that it moved from the arena of political administration to all aspects of society, becoming not only part of the culture but an impediment to the government’s own efforts. This phenomenon which began with the economy and later seeped into Cubans’ spiritual consciousness is one of the factors pointing to the structural nature of the current crisis and the failure of attempts to overcome it through limited changes to the economy.

Among the factors contributing to this situation were the disappearance of tens of thousands of business owners and their replacement by “bosses,”[1] making absolute the “property of all the people,” and inadequate salaries and pensions, a combination of noxious factors that has led to theft, bribes and deceit in order to survive. It happens this way because morality is an amalgam of socially accepted standards of conduct which evolve in response to changes in goals, interests and social conditions; therefore, survival has become part of our morality stemming from the profound structural crisis in which we find ourselves.

The changes being implemented in Cuba under the title of Political, Economic and Social Guidelines of the Communist Party are stymied by the worst decline in moral conduct ever seen in our history. The struggle to survive, which stems from multiple frustrations, has led to apathy, hopelessness and escapism as reflected in a morality that employs various forms of patriotic vocabulary. The struggle now is not about abolishing slavery, achieving independence or overthrowing tyranny; it is simply about surviving. Nor is it a matter of “Freedom or Death” or “Fatherland or Death” but rather “Life or Death,” the slogan of the survivor.

The explanation for all this is that the primary moral and human imperative is the preservation of life. When social conditions preclude any hope of fulfillment, people are left with only two options: to renounce life or to survive. This is why Cubans, faced with inadequate salaries, turned to illegal activities; faced with the impossibility of being entrepreneurs, to the “Estaticular[2]” way, in other words, expenses for the State and dividends for the individual[3]; faced with shortages, to theft from the State whose property actually belongs to “all the people.” To the absence of opportunity, they respond by escaping into exile. To ideological entreaties, they respond with apathy. Certain verbs — to escape, to struggle, to resolve — have come to mean acquiring that vital “something extra,” in other words, to survive.

Faced with this obstinate reality, the State’s only option is repression: more police, more surveillance, more restrictions, and inspectors — actions which only address the symptoms without taking into account their causes, among which was the turn toward totalitarianism, that erased the citizen from the Cuban political scene. But what is most striking, as we can see from the examples below, is the stubborn focus on effects and the disregard for causality.

On May 22, 2001 the newspaper Juventud Rebelde published an article, “The Hunter of Deceptions” about a popular inspector in charge of rooting out instances of fraud in the quality, weight, price and sale of unauthorized goods in State stores. According to this inspector, when a violator was presented with evidence of his crime, customers became upset and actually came to the the man’s defense. In other words the victims stood up for their victimizer, demonstrable proof that the morality of the survivor enjoys popular acceptance.

On Saturday, November 28, 2003 Granma published “Price Violations and the Never-Ending Battle.” In it an official with the Ministry of Finance’s Office of Price Supervision reported that in the first eight months of this year there were irregularities found in 36% of the establishments inspected. In the case of farmers’ markets, festivals, outdoor food stalls and other points of sale for produce, the figure was 47%. In the food-service sector it was over 50%.

Granma reported that on Saturday, December 24, 2005, in an address to the National Assembly of People’s Power, Pedro Ross — then Secretary General of the Workers’ Central Union of Cuba (CTC) — said, “There are workers who respond but there are others who don’t and who continue to justify theft and other wrongful conduct.”

On February 16, 2007 Granma reported in the article “Cannibals on the Towers” on the theft of the metal braces that support the transmission towers for high voltage electricity. In 2004, 1,648 pieces of bracing disappeared from a 220,000 volt power grid and 545 from a 100,000 volt grid. In 2005, 532 and 544, respectively, were stolen from these two power grids. In 2006 — after stepping up surveillance, applying technical solutions and imposing sanctions — 267 and 1827 disappeared. There was a decrease in thefts from the 200,000 volt network only because screws and bracing up to a six-meter height were welded together, but the tenacious “fighters” climbed higher. Similarly, electrical transmission cables were stolen from the power grid for their aluminum and copper.

On Friday, October 26, 2010, Granma published an article called “The Price of Indolence” which reported that in the Villa Clara’s municipality of Corralillo 300 homes were built using stolen materials and resources. Some 9,631 meters of roadway material had been used in 240 of the inspected homes; 82% of them had train tracks taken from the Ministry of Sugar, disrupting 25 kilometers of rail lines; and 59 pieces of steel bracing from high-voltage electrical towers were used.

Even more recently, February 19 and 26, 2012, Juventud Rebelde, published an article containing an interview of the Comptroller of the Republic where she said: “According to our findings, the causes of corruption range from the fact of not having contracts overseen because the person who was supposed to do it didn’t do it,  and the person that had to ensure they had reviewed it didn’t review it, or didn’t review it properly.

To that you have to add the constant pocketing of resources, the endless legal processes even to to the level of high ranking officials.

What the newspapers (i.e. Granma, Juventud Rebelde) have failed to show from the journalistic point of view, is the relationship that exists between, on the one side, corruption, and on the other the absolute State ownership of resources, the low salaries and the impossibility to be entrepreneurs.  If they had addressed this, they  would have shown the uselessness of repression if is not accompanied by measures that tackle the causes, because the police, the informers, the simple inspectors, integral inspectors or the inspector of the inspectors are all Cubans with the same needs as the rest of the population and thus they practice the same prevailing morality.

To change the course of the events, the economic changes will have to be extended to the rest of the social spheres, even if quite late; which means that they will have to look again to the civil liberties without which the formation and predominance of the civil morality required by the present and the future of Cuba will be impossible.

[1] That is, administrators, managers, directors.

[2] This is a play on words:  It combines the words Estado (State) and particular (private individual in this context).

[3] Through theft of State property