Cuba’s Black Hole of Public Opinion

by Milena Recio  (OnCuba)

Asambla-El-Hueco-Negro-OnCubaHAVANA TIMES – We really don’t know here what interests our people, at least not with any certainty. Our Cuban “public agenda”, as the sociologists call it, is secret, confidential, and obscure.

We lack independent pollsters interested in measuring and describing our collective thinking. At the same time our press is at the service of our institutions, addressing “on the street” topics only occasionally and on tiptoes. Hence, we Cubans are left to process “what we think we think” with great uncertainty.

In Cuba we have erected that institution known as “Radio Bemba”, or the grapevine, as the most propitious entity for representing ourselves through rumors and thus attaining shared notions about the things that occur or should occur.

Daily we adjust a good part of our world view in response to the list of issues scaling the Bemba hit parade on the streets. Recognizing how important a topic really is and how many people it touches may depend on how near or far we are from the “grieving” parties. Most of the time, the only feedback we get on “public events” comes from our own kitchens and intimate family circles, those discussions that are held peacefully or fought out tooth and nail amid the clatter of pots and pans at the hour of being at home.

We also receive some assistance from the open shouts in the aisles of the buses, crowded to the point of exploding, when a speaker– sane, or maybe not quite – decides to announce their truths; or, perhaps the opposite, when certain ideas are passed from mouth to mouth in increasingly caustic whispers.

In this discontinuous and indistinct flow where oral opinions are configured, we are also helped by the leading role that humor and our popular music plays in our daily doings; even though the jokes and stanzas must keep to the limits established by media censorship.

The information available regarding what we Cubans think and want ends up so vague and imprecise, is so open to interpretation, so much bend and spin, that it’s frightening.

Who today would dare to assert what the majority opinion is, and what its different shades might be, for example with respect to the consequences of last December 17th and the progressive rapprochement between Cuba and the United States? Who can define how people in Cuba see the process of economic reordering, or the performance of a minister, or the perspectives for a new electoral law, and what criteria they base themselves on?

It’s no coincidence that public opinion is barely studied and the results of any inquiries are never publicized, nor is this a mere side product of carelessness. The black hole of public opinion has been the ideal board of operations so that the decision-makers can make decisions that are per se exonerated from commitments that can be measured, quantified or scrutinized. They are accustomed to assuming the good intentions and expertise of those who administer resources and design policies in the context of a state economy. And, more serious yet, they assume that they have consensus.

In Cuba, many decisions have been molded in the wake of massive public assemblies. I remember this well, since I was a conscious participant in the meeting process that led up to the IV Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in that parting of the waters that was 1990. The same occurred during the Workers’ Parliaments and more recently during the discussions of the economic Guidelines, and of the Labor Code. In all these cases the quantity of participants was overwhelming as well as the volume of the proposals. But in the end, in none of these experiences was any statistical examination presented back to the public of the criteria offered by the hopeful participants.

The way that the institutions appropriate the balance of public opinion in those events and the dearth of any dissemination of the results – not as a final processed summary document but with the statistical data and without interpretations – distorts the value of these experiences as a consultation.

Within that panorama, the small group of Cubans (about 25% of the population) that connect to the Internet or internal Cuban networks have seen how a new space for expressing opinion has been growing in this virtual zone of life: the zone of commentaries in the digital press where the users, anonymous or baring their chests, from the Island or from outside, all search for the cat’s fifth paw in a rather freewheeling form, despite the lack of custom.

Although almost all of the forums – including of course OnCuba – are moderated, the users of websites such as Cubadebate or even Granma have managed to come ever closer to a vision of the heterogeneous spectrum of opinions that we are developing day by day; and not only regarding strictly political issues. The principal value of these spaces is that they convert the exercise of oral communication into writing.

The written word, even in digital letters, can be recuperated, cited, responded to and for that reason it’s more powerful: an ad hoc gathering place, we could call an agora. And while we are writing, the act of sharing our criteria feeds our own self-image, adding protein to our agreements, forging them in the collective reshuffling between the real world and the virtual one.

Nonetheless, we still see that the world could end while the forum participants argue with wise interpretations or scream their head off without that expression generating any response. The public agenda gathered there, this small evidence of what we think, seems to affect the institutional agenda of the public servants little or not at all.

The majority of times, as has occurred recently, as a result of errors in the University entrance exams, the institutional actors don’t seem to feel themselves under any obligation to reply, and remain elusive. In the face of these many times exemplary debates, those from the ministries or millionaire state enterprises lounge at a safe distance, certain that one byte of opinion won’t affect their course. But the sum of them? On that magnificent day when today’s 75% who are currently not connected become digital citizens, such puffed-up pride might be at an end.

8 thoughts on “Cuba’s Black Hole of Public Opinion

  • Cloud Cuckoo land exists at UCLA!
    The academics involved in the discussion have determined that there is change in Cuba. Methinks that few if any of them have been there. Cuba last year had a record number of tourists – over 2 million, but at UCLA that translates to over 40 million in the last ten years, simple arithmetic demonstrates that that figure is bogus. The fact that no one challenged the figure shows an ignorance of Cuba and its main source of revenue.
    The academics are oblivious to the power and control of the economy of Cuba developed by Raul Castro Ruz as Minister of Defence commencing in October 1959. There is potential for his son-in-law to challenge Diaz-Canel as future President of Cuba. He controls at Raul’s behest over 80% of Cuba’s economy. It is significant that it was not the government but Gaviota as a subsidiary of GAESA that announced the intended construction of a further 16,000 hotel bedrooms in 2015-2017 – that is where Raul hopes to obtain foreign investment. Those who consider the GAESA/military combination as synonymous with the Government are blind to reality.
    Cuba currently has some 87,000 serving in the military, along with the State Police, they are the only people with weapons.
    Raul Castro Ruz remains a dedicated communist but is as dictator and originator of GAESA, the leading capitalist in Cuba. There are those who are mentally confused and say that the administration in Cuba is “state capitalism” and ignore the reality that it is the Castro family not the government that holds both economic and political power.

  • There are no “successes” in education and health. All with family and friends in Cuba know that since the Soviet subsidies ended both are decrepit and corrupt. More than half of Cuba doctors is reported to have been rented out
    Education and health are as decayed as the infrastructure in Cuba.

  • The buaracracy should fear an honest appraisal. While they do indeed have successes with education and medical care, the decaying infrastructure and unreliable utilities are a toil for average folk.

  • “Socialism is not free” One has to agree that those who are ruled by socialism pay a heavy price. I see no evidence that the Government (read Castro family regime) is tired, let alone exhausted. Having watched hour after hour of the Communist Party of Cuba Congress in December and Marino Murillo extolling the virtues of his supposedly new economic policies I can vouch that the faithful appeared as vigorous as ever. Raul Castro Ruz is popping up in different countries and attended the Putin Parade in Moscow yesterday. That is not a sign of exhaustion! It is less than two weeks since I returned from Cuba having been there for several months, and I find it difficult to reconcile with your view which reflects most of the Western media.
    Raul Castro Ruz is a dedicated communist. To think that he has or will change is folly. He has a bucketful of political street smarts – and Western politicians should not be suckered into underestimating him.

  • Today it warms my heart to see the executive leadership of Russia and China
    together during the most celebratory VICTORY DAY in Moscow. Cuban people who have stayed true to the successess and recent Cuban VICTORY should rejoice in the knowledge that they are free from the diseases that would even drive Texas to want seperation.
    God has reached the many people and awaken them to Cubas freedom from, along with China and of course the forward thinking of Russia to
    avoid unnecessessary problems of the excessive uncontrolled nightmare many peoples existence has become in the world that is free from nothing and shackled to the unspeakable acts of out of control lifestyle that is difficult to escape.They wish they had Cubas problems and are in denial as to what is important under GOD.
    Trust in the people around you embrace each other as God has meant you to do
    naturally with the love of Christ and be thankful that you do not know of this disease and help to keep your miracle safe.There is hope for those like Texas who would like to go with God in these times of over indulgence.Amen
    Thank you

  • Expression of private and public opinion is repressed in Cuba. The regime’s repressive laws and social control systems ensure auto-censorship through fear.
    The Castro regime fears the true expression of the public opinion of the Cuban people, that is why it has such a repressive system.

  • I was just in Cuba. The folks I meet are disengaging from the past in many subtle ways. They are prideful and put a good face on successes, but they are eager to correct past errors. Socialism is not free is a lesson well learned.

    My biggest take away is how exhausted the Government feels. They are ready to allow a measure of self dependency to take hold. It is a very interesting time.

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