Corruption in Cuba: an External Curse or Inherent to the System?

In spite of the constant and widespread anti-corruption campaign, the doubt remains as to whether the system that the government wants to continue to uphold is capable of existing without corruption.

By Alejandro Armengol  (Cubaencuentro)

A meeting of Cuba’s Council of Ministers. Foto: Raul Abreu/

HAVANA TIMES — One of the most defining aspects of Raul Castro’s government is his fight against corruption. Of course it can always be alleged, and especially in Miami, that the main corrupt people in Cuba are members of the ruling elite, but trying to constrain this argument to a problem that from the beginning of the Republic has formed part of Cuban reality doesn’t emphasize the debate, but reduces this to a simple political declaration.

During Fidel Castro’s leadership, uncovering a corrupt person was rather falling out of the Jefe’s grace than the result of a real investigative operation, report and punishment of their wrongdoings.

Raul Castro has changed this around, and prosecuting different kinds of corruption has become a priority in today’s Cuba. Since he became President, not only have some important government officials been brought down but foreign businessmen too, as well as businessmen who were considered “friends” up until a few years back.

However, in spite of this constant and widespread anti-corruption campaign, the question remains as to whether the administrative system, which continues to exist on the island, is capable of existing without corruption; if the mechanisms of diverting resources, theft and disorder aren’t also a source of stability for the government.

Getting rid of all this prevailing corruption is extremely difficult, if not impossible, without providing alternative ways to obtain resources, investments and even profits.

With Cuban people’s lives being based on the principle of shortages, both economic and psychological, Cubans have been ruled by corruption ever since the Revolution triumphed.

One of the Cuban Government’s allies for decades now has been scarcity. Shortages of everything, to both feed people’s envy and resentment as well as occupying the greater part of the Cuban people’s everyday lives.

Ever since shortages began, the black market has flourished and the main source of its supplies has always been theft. Sometimes, goods are directly stolen from the State, taking them out of their warehouses, but at other times, it’s the customers themselves who are robbed, who receive less than they should. The classic example of this is the butcher who fixes his scales and gives a few ounces of meat less to each of his customers, so that at the end of the day, he has some extra pounds which he can sell on the black market for a higher price.

This was where the myth was born which was based on the more or less common practice in the country before Fidel Castro came into power – long before 1959 folklore and gossip were linked to the store owner figure, who messed with the scales, and the existence of inspectors to fight this crime- and which has always been very convenient for the regime.

Firstly, it takes away the “currentness” of the problem, as it moves the appearance of this crime to a distant time in history which could be considered a scourge of the past, and secondly, because it created a vulnerable culprit: not only external but also against the ruling ideology. Thieves are converted into counter-revolutionaries and the victim in accomplice: the neighbor who lets a portion of his food rations be stolen so that he can then go and buy a part of what was taken from him and others on the black market.

Selfishness and inequality are identified as the main reasons for committing this crime, while the desire to create an equal society has driven the guardians of law and order.

All of this does little more than cover up the root causes of the problem – the black market as the result of a monopoly economy and shortages – and has tried to focus people’s attention on the con artist on the corner (the bodega store worker, the butcher) while the greatest thefts are being overlooked which take place at distribution centers and warehouses, managed by officials of a certain political standing.

During Fidel Castro’s time as president of Cuba, accusations of inefficiency or moving away from the official line never managed to take the place of corruption as the Cuban leaders and bureaucrat’s imperfect crime. When his younger brother came into power, this situation changed. Raul Castro has bid farewell to all those he believes to be incompetent.

None of the above denies or justifies the proliferation of corrupt people in all of Cuba’s government institutions, but rather highlights the fact that these are the result of and not the exception to the system.

The top two men in the Cuban Communist Party: Juan Ramon Machado Ventura and General Raul Castro. Photo: Oscar Alfonso Sosa/ACN

While Fidel Castro was president of the island, political factors had greater weight than administrative capacities, when it came to choosing somebody to head a company. Now, a mix of capitalist reality under the wrapping or guise of socialist services is becoming more and more apparent, where inefficiency is no longer justified with rhetoric.

However, the supposed results of Raul Castro’s battle against corruption haven’t done away with doubts about the justice and depth of the problem. Like what normally happens on the island, very little is published about the trials that take place – because corruption is an inherent process to the regime that his brother introduced: something endemic to the system, but passed off as something external.

With Cuban people’s lives being based on the principle of shortages, both economic and psychological, Cubans have been ruled by corruption ever since the Revolution triumphed, which loathes and practices it in equal amounts. Since the firing squad shootings in the Ochoa case (1989), corruption has been an excuse and scapegoat; the reason for envy and bitterness.

Ever since the beginning of Raul Castro’s campaign against corruption, some foreign investors have privately stated that such a commitment has become a destabilizing factor. Many of them have communicated their doubts and fears in the face of the fact that while the regime puts a “Cuban manager” in charge of their company, over time it is revealed that said “manager” is involved in a corruption investigation, with the subsequent process of freezing accounts and paralyzing all operations.

Worse yet, though, is that these investors have seen that this campaign against corruption has also been a settling of scores, as certain businesses who belong to specific groups, families or members of the ruling elite are favored or wronged, in a kind of war between Mafioso families.

One of the Cuban regime’s mistakes is not publicly and widely recognizing the renunciation of political ideals when it comes to managing the country, and to return the meaning Max Weber gave to the concept “bureaucracy” when he said that there were two kinds of officials: administrative and political.

Bureaucratic officials should carry out their duties in an impartial manner, while political leaders should take sides and show their passion.

A “routinization” of politics transforms Government resolutions into what refers to most national administration matters, into routine administrate decisions which are carried out according to established standards, which an official adheres to in a bureaucratic way, and which are essentially external to the demands of politics. In this way, a politician is reduced to being an administrator who governs a country, a State or a city, with honor and who is limited to a normal working day who goes home like any other worker and forgets about work. In everyday life, political importance loses its greatness and it becomes an everyday activity.

Getting rid of all this prevailing corruption is extremely difficult, if not impossible, without providing alternative ways to obtain resources, investments and even profits.

Of course, none of this prevents corruption from existing, and the political refuge that the party in power provides, like in any democratic system. However, there are legal aspects to this problem – which continue to be limited on too many occasions because of political factors -, and it doesn’t subordinate them to the existence of a nation or homeland.

So, ultimately, everything is resolved when we rectify the function – or as a last resort the replacement – of those who are in charge of the government post, but without this leading to a debate about the existence of the State as such. Only when corruption, government management and national projects or models create an unbreakable bond, in which it is impossible to rectify the situation without the system falling to pieces, it reaches the extreme of a failed State.

Raul Castro’s government has been unable to take the necessary step forward in order to overcome the situation created in January 1959. Fidel Castro’s messianic autocratic leadership has been replaced with backscratching. The “militant and fighting” attitude demanded of its citizens is still upheld. With Raul, this autocratic leadership has been partially transformed into the mentality of the pitiless leader, who oversees the behavior of those who hold administrative roles in government institutions and companies. However, at the end of the day, control of the country is still exercised in a fanciful and personal way.

The authoritarian facade, which is apparently seeking to replace totalitarianism and allow spaces of greater economic freedom, hasn’t been able to shake off the irrationality that stops the government from acting in an unbiased way. Contemplating this situation doesn’t mean hanging onto a rhetorical question or a sociological argument, and much less becoming wrapped up in political critique. It once again proves the ignorance of those who rule our island and highlights their stubbornness to cling to power.

3 thoughts on “Corruption in Cuba: an External Curse or Inherent to the System?

  • When reports emerge of voter intimidation of minority voters in the US, it is particularly egregious because the US has held itself out as a bastion of open, free and fair elections. Likewise, the everyday stories of corruption in Cuba are particularly disturbing because the Castros have cackled about egalitarianism y justice in Cuba for nearly 60 years. The truth is that Cuban life is rife with corruption. Worse yet, the higher up the food chain you go, the more corruption exists.

  • My opinion is that corruption in Cuba is inherent to the system. Corruption occurs across the world in almost every society, but in Cuba corruption by those who act within the Castro family communist regime is inviolable.
    Yes people get charged and put on non-public trial for corruption, but many of them are foreign business people who have signed agreements with the regime to accept the level of payments to Cubans dictated by the regime and who have made additional payments to good employees. But when was a member of the regime and its PCC support last put on trial?
    Fidel Castro was supposedly a virtuous man living a similar life to his subjects, but in reality he lived like the millionaire which he was. The five house complex in Siboney with swimming pool and tennis court, the two island retreat of Cayo Piedra with his yacht Aquarama II and his investment in partnership with little brother Raul in ETECSA. Raul’s son ‘Tony’ is an international style playboy – how can an ordinary Cuban achieve such status? But don’t talk of corruption.
    MININT can build substantial office blocks and then new houses for the goons it employs providing superior living conditions, but don’t talk of corruption.

  • The powerful don’t see it as corruption.

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