Rogelio Manuel Diaz Moreno

Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — A new short film invites Cuban citizens to take a more active attitude towards the poor services and mistreatment caught sight of in certain State institutions.

The entire plot unfolds in the waiting room of an unspecified government institution, where a secretary “keeps” the order. Before her, we see a group of people, presumably waiting in line to go through a bureaucratic procedure of sorts. There is something strange about all of their faces: they have no mouths.

A person enters the waiting room through a back door and hands the secretary a package. Obviously, it’s a bribe that opens the door to the solution to his problem. Only one person among those who wait patiently, the only one whose mouth hasn’t been scrubbed off, reacts on seeing this. He rubs the faces of the other people in the waiting room, making their faces full again and thus rescuing them from their condition of defenseless citizens. It looks as though justice will prevail at last.

What nerve.

The underlying thesis of this short film is that the main reason behind such corruption and mistreatment is the indolence of lower officials, that the problem lies at the base of Cuba’s pyramidal system, and that citizens interested in improvement have the power and the obligation to fix the problem.

A similar viewpoint was expressed by the press in connection with the issue of swindles at different food and other goods markets. Cuba’s official press insists that, in order to solve the problem, consumers must simply begin to defend their rights at that level.

But it’s not that simple.

Let us suppose that the secretary and all other government officials in this short film did their jobs professionally, there, at the base of the institutional pyramid, without accepting bribes or any kind of compromise. Cuban citizens would continue to be just as helpless under a totalitarian bureaucracy that subjugates them with a whole range of laws, resolutions, circulars, prohibitions, regulations and other provisions.

We should add that these same citizens approach these institutions knowing that they are dealing with “higher authorities”, that they are going to trade blows with the State, who’s always right, and that the mechanisms designed to process any complaints are operated by people who have the same interests as those responsible for the problem in the first place.

Beyond sharing some superficial or angered comments about the problems they have in common, they are on their own, divided. It is the exact same dilemma prisoners face, and it is the result of the system that has been imposed on them, where the strongest prevails.

To directly confront the government official that holds the solution to your specific problem is, thus, something of a bad idea. To top things off, those who have these problems and approach a government office to solve them don’t identify with one another and generally mistrust each other. What they are thinking, rather, is that the others will do any egotistical thing to solve their own problems.

Beyond sharing some superficial or angered comments about the problems they have in common, they are on their own, divided. It is the exact same dilemma prisoners face, and it is the result of the system that has been imposed on them, where the strongest prevails, through a position of power established, encouraged or tolerated by the State itself.

On the other hand, bureaucrats, venders and market administrators, like functionaries who make decisions in the spheres of housing, communications, health, education, employment and others, show remarkable unity. In the meantime, the possibility of “pulling strings” through friends, bribes and other measures rifts applicants, users, customers, students, patients and others apart.

The hero who takes out a measuring scale at a market to verify the weight of the product sold to them arouses surprise and concerns over possible reprisals. State employees are afraid to rock the boat at their place of work.

The poor fellow who has no connections and doesn’t even have enough to buy some peanuts on the street, languishes while waiting decades for the system – the same system to which they have devoted a lifetime of work – to fix their roof, which threatens to come crashing down at any moment.

In the best of cases, someone sends a letter of complaint to a newspaper, which publishes it and makes a big fuss about the whole business. On occasion, this gets a prompt reaction – but under no circumstances does it get rid of the problem.

How different things would be, however, if consumers, students, patients and applicants didn’t hesitate to approach an entity that defended their rights, or to found one, on seeing that the existing institution didn’t exactly meet their needs.

How different things would be, however, if consumers, students, patients and applicants didn’t hesitate to approach an entity that defended their rights, or to found one, on seeing that the existing institution didn’t exactly meet their needs.

A network, or more than one network, organized by the interested parties, a horizontal and democratic institution recognized under the law, independent from the State or government, responding only to the interests of the population – would be an organization worthy of any society that considers itself democratic.

It would certainly not be a miracle cure, but the rights of citizens would profit enormously from a structure of this nature. Its services, sustained by debates, complaints, negotiations or, failing all that, legal proceedings, would force the government to re-think how it treats those who today get the run-around.

Such a process would question more than the manner in which a specific problem is addressed or a given bureaucratic mechanism. It would question the very validity of these oppressive mechanisms that deprive individuals of their freedom. State and government institutions would have no choice but to listen and abide by the people’s will, offer solutions to their daily problems, rather than create new ones.

Of course, such mechanisms are far removed from the interests of the authoritarian strata, intent on maintaining and improving their privileged situation. Such a threat to their position would simply be inadmissible. Imagine citizens unsatisfied by the State services they’re getting? This could be a threat to the powers that be, but not anywhere near as big of a threat as empowering citizens, which they clearly don’t want.

Let citizens exhaust themselves in their quibbles with corrupt shopkeepers and inspectors, the State seems to say. It’s a way of killing two birds with one stone, for those bribable shopkeepers and inspectors also perturb the peace and undermine the profits of the ones at the top. Protect yourself, citizens, the State appears to be saying, but only against those that are also my problem, not against me, mind you.

Thankfully, this cannot go on forever.


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