HAVANA TIMES, January 27 — As if it involved Venetian traffic regulations, political critics in Cuba must always express themselves through what are called the “appropriate channels,” otherwise they can be taken as ill-intentioned or even counter-revolutionaries.
It’s true – there is no lack of channels on the island. These take the form of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, delegate report-back assemblies, meetings of the Communist Party and the Young Communists, the Federation of Cuban Women, unions, the student association, workplace assemblies, etc.
All Cubans have at least one “appropriate channel” through which they can express their opinion on the most diverse issues. Things get complicated, however, when the criticism that needs to be made has to go through the official being criticized or some friend of theirs.
It’s also difficult because the channels always end up merging. In a workplace, for example, it’s the same to use the channel of the party, the union or the administrative, because in the end these individuals all wind up getting together for coffee with the company’s management.
A closed brotherhood of complicity
I have a friend, a professional, who without warning brought up a very simple criticism in a staff meeting on the job. Her immediate supervisor, as well as the leader of the union, later criticized her saying, “Can’t you see how you made us look to management?”
The problem is that all of them — managers, union leaders and party activists — wind up as a brotherhood that “backs each other up,” because if one thing is clear it’s that “one hand washes the other and both hands wash the face.”
In this way — though there are more channels here than in the city of Amsterdam — the problem is whoever controls them ends up being the being absolute owner of the flow of ideas. They have the power to allow the circulation of only those ideas they judge opportune.
A friend told me that the pilfering of chicken meat in his neighborhood butchery will remain a chronic problem because to raise it with the Popular Power delegate (the city councilperson) only serves in this official complaining to the butcher, who in turn will “cut off our water and light” to get back at the whistle-blowers.
I asked him why they didn’t report it to the police if someone was stealing from them, which seems the most logical response. But, it doesn’t work like that. The “appropriate channel” is a different one, so it wouldn’t occur to anyone to use one that’s different, even though it’s an institutional channel.
The fact is that life in Cuba is more political than legal. A good example of this is how during the 17 years that entry into most hotels by a Cuban was prohibited, no one turned to the courts to challenge that violation of the Constitution.
What Raul Castro is seeking
Raul Castro wants to change this order of things and is proposing to do this in three steps: institutionalizing the country, giving power to the municipalities and re-directing the activities of Communist Party activists to political-ideological tasks (and therefore discontinuing their activities in the government and state administration as such).
This idea is revolutionary in a society that works top-down. Never since I came to Cuba have I seen a horizontal initiative spreading out from the mass organizations; not even for a simple neighborhood clean-up, a block party or a meeting in support of the Revolution.
Everything comes directed from “above.” It is to such a degree that the Cuban press is able to accurately predict — two days in advance — the number of Cubans who will be in the annual May Day parade.
If you go to any little village, you will probably find that the municipal leaders are university graduates; some might even have master’s degrees. Notwithstanding, they have very little real decision-making power.
They need approval if they want to sign an agreement with municipalities of other countries, to send a delegation abroad or to open an account in a Cuban bank. They even need permission to receive a donation!
Institutions failing to fulfill their roles
Cuban institutions do not fulfill their roles. The parliament didn’t call the minister of Health on the carpet last year following the deaths of dozens of mentally ill patients. But the legislators are not the only ones at fault, nor did the citizens demand their representatives to raise the question.
What’s more, the relatives of the victims went 12 months without receiving explanations, and none of the family members with whom I spoke had filed any legal complaint against those responsible at the psychiatric hospital, an institution that should have protected the victims.
It’s evident that these “appropriate channels” weren’t working while hospital staff stole the food of these ailing individuals. Perhaps it’s time to activate those “institutional channels,” those that have always existed: the police, the courts, the prosecutor’s office, the finance office, the municipalities, the Parliament, etc., etc.
The Constitution gives Cubans the right to turn to those institutions to seek redress to their problems and to force these bodies to give satisfactory responses to the citizenry. Paradoxically, the dissidents are the ones who use these legal provisions the most.
Cuba, just like other countries, can succeed in institutionalizing itself, but for this to occur it will require the will of its political leadership, the independence of its institutions and the determination of its citizens to defend the rights granted to them by law.
An authorized HT translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.