HAVANA TIMES — Cuban President Raul Castro recently acknowledged that “what we do isn’t perfect. Sometimes, lacking experience in some areas, we make mistakes. That is why every matter must be constantly subjected to critical observations.” (1)
He criticized the type of centralism practiced for decades harshly, insisting that “we’ve grown used to having instructions come down from above, and that has to change. All administrative bodies, from one end of the island to the next, must express their opinions.”
He added, however, that these criticisms must be voiced “at the right place and time and in an appropriate manner” – a notion that, for years, has constituted one of the most powerful weapons the bureaucracy has wielded to silence criticisms from citizens.
Anyone who knows what Cuba is like today knows that people express their opinions when, where and the way they please. Suffice it to approach a bus stop in the morning, stand in line in front of the ration store when the food quota arrives or at the bank when retirees collect their pensions, to confirm this.
Note even god can reverse this situation, but Raul Castro’s statements could be used to curtail such practices. In the hands of corrupt or inefficient officials, those 16 little words could be used to prevent people from speaking at the right place and time.
This is what happened, at least, during the debates surrounding the Party Guidelines held in Havana’s neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, where residents sought to express their opinions about professional sports and were told that the issue couldn’t be discussed. Months later, the government would do precisely what people had been suggesting.
This brought to mind a young professional who was told by the managers in her company she could not express criticisms regarding the production process during a meeting, because high officials from the Ministry of Fisheries would attend. “It is neither the time nor place,” they told her then.
The willful young woman expressed all her criticisms regarding the company’s hygiene processes anyways, and, from that moment on, her life in the workplace became so difficult that, some months later, she was forced to quit, to the joy of some higher-ups.
Rabindranath Tagore used to say that, if you close the door on all your mistakes, you’ll end up leaving the truth outside. If Raul Castro is serious about getting people to participate in debates, it would help to clearly define the terrain and the rules of the game.
If he does not clarify his comments, the bureaucracy will use his words at its convenience and in accordance with its interests. Jose Marti, who wrote about practically every subject, said that all reforms bring about change, and all change invariably undermines interests – which is why such interests tenaciously oppose reforms.
The same thing that happened with the press could happen here. While the government invites journalists to put secrecy behind them, other high officials recommend that cases of corruption go unpublished, thus protecting the “reputation” of the criminals and thieves that are emptying the State’s coffers.
Reforms and Unanimity
Cubans haven’t only become accustomed to receiving instructions from above, as the president says today; they have also become accustomed to the unanimity that exists in the high spheres of power, a unanimity that projects the image of a monolithic leadership.
For decades, parliamentary debates in Cuba ended with the unanimous support of the country’s 600 deputies. In 2013, for the first time in all these years, the assembly approved a law by majority vote – a magnificent leap from the official discourse to everyday life.
Many don’t know what to make of these contradictions. Some believe there’s still unanimity and think that it is all a political game. The majority, however, has begun to suspect that there are different opinions as to the course the nation should take.
There may be a bit of truth to the two opinions: Cuban leaders are skilled players (surviving 50 years of US hostility demonstrates this); however, differences in the leadership didn’t come about with the reform process, they’ve always existed.
How else could we explain the destitution of so many high-ranking officials in the course of these past fifty years, from those who didn’t like the taste of tropical socialism at the beginning of the revolution to the beekeepers of recent years?
Cuba’s challenge today isn’t to try and restore that false image of unanimity but in creating spaces where people can participate in the country’s changes. As Jose Marti explained, “reforms are only fruitful when they penetrate the spirit of the people.”
(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.