Cuba’s Hopes for a New Era of Public Criticism and Debate

Esteban Morales*

Esteban Morales

HAVANA TIMES — Cuban President Raul Castro’s address to the closing session of the National Assembly of the People’s Power (Parliament) marks, without a doubt, the beginning of a qualitatively new stage in the process of public critique he has decided to push forward.

Though I was pleased to hear such pronouncements, I was also concerned about the fact that Cuba’s accumulated social ills had to be publicly condemned by none other than the country’s president, something which reveals how inept our institutions are at detecting and addressing such problems.

It would be fair to say that many institutions in the country – the press, political and grassroots organizations, intelligentsia, academia, government, social and cultural institutions – aren’t doing their jobs when the country’s top leader is forced to expose these problems himself.

We must set all of the potential of these institutions in motion so as to avoid such dramatic moments as when the Cuban president stated that “(…) we have taken steps backwards in terms of culture and common civility. I have the bitter impression that, as a society, we are increasingly more educated, but not necessarily more cultured.”

This issue is not new. Many have been alerting us to the ethical and moral decline of Cuban society for some time. Fidel Castro’s address at the University of Havana in November of 2005 is a particularly resonant case in point.

Nothing published in the press over recent years has given us reason to think that, in their many assemblies and meetings, the country’s political and grassroots organizations have undertaken an analysis of the negative trends that have gained momentum in our society.

Conversing on the El Prado promenade in Havana.

Criticizing and analyzing a problem publicly serves to immediately set in motion an effort to contain that problem. It constitutes a first step towards raising the public awareness needed to address the issue and lays the groundwork for tracing the plan of action needed to overcome it.

It is also true, however, that those who have alerted us to these negative trends have often been reprimanded and punished, by those who, far from analyzing and discussing the nature of the problem brought to light, have focused on the supposed untimeliness of its public exposition. In this regard, as many know, I can speak from experience.

While it is true we should not follow those who remain quiet so as to avoid problems, we mustn’t lose from sight the fact that such fears stem from a lack of democratic freedom which would encourage the frank and open debate, and condemnation, of illegalities, from the intolerance that different opinions have all too often met with and the impunity with which many – many who, if there was any justice, would be the first to be reprimanded – continue to act.

Though President Raul Castro has, on several occasions, insisted on the need for open, timely and anticipatory criticisms, it is clear not all Party cadres have fully understood this. This is the reason he is now calling on them to put behind all conceptions that prevent them from criticizing our weaknesses openly and unflinchingly.

We must criticize our deficiencies promptly, without concerning ourselves with how our enemies will use such criticisms. Silence, in fact, is what transforms these into instruments of a subversive diplomacy. We have to come to the realization that speaking about our problems doesn’t mean handing anything over to anyone. We can even share our problems. What we can’t do is neglect the need to tackle them ourselves.

In response to Raul’s speech, the Cuban media has once again resorted to the hackneyed and by now rather boring formula of interviewing people on the street in search of reactions to the president’s remarks – reactions which are invariably favorable.

What I have yet to see in any interview is something that clearly expresses the critical spirit with which we ought to address the speech. This holds as much for government officials (at all levels) as for those who have always opted to keep quiet, so as to avoid problems.

Regrettably, while Raul Castro encourages open criticisms, some bureaucrats, who stand to lose from this process, “inspire fear” in the population to hold back the tide. Ultimately, this is nothing other than a subtle and at times unconscious form of counterrevolutionary action.

Few are those one can turn to in order to report antisocial behavior, corrupt practices or cases of wrongdoing perpetrated with impunity. This is because the ills of our society do not stem exclusively from individual behavior, but also the practices of some institutions, organizations and officials, precisely those who are tasked with combatting such problems and cases of social indiscipline.

We know prostitution has been on the rise, but we also know that, on occasion, police officers are bribed so as to leave prostitutes alone. We also know about the public official who hastens some paperwork in exchange for money, the teacher who facilitates cheating at exams, or the manager of a commercial establishment who turns a blind eye on the fact his employees are selling store products under the table.

There’s also the butcher, who sells meat destined to specific customers to anyone willing to pay a higher price. Many are the people involved in these kinds of activities, but those who must begin to preach with example are the country’s high officials.

While it is true that the economic crisis the country went through in the nineties has played a decisive role in the emergence of these trends, overcoming our economic problems – something we have not yet managed to do – will not make these problems disappear automatically. Such practices, once they take root, are difficult to eradicate.

A whole system of moral justification has come into existence in Cuba. Within this system, stealing is no longer stealing, bribing someone is merely wriggling out of a tight corner, and misappropriating something is working to make ends meet. This has given words and expressions such as “surviving”, “working hard” and “getting things done” very specific connotations in Cuban society.

The call to battle has been given out. The president himself has called on us to get ourselves into trouble, ultimately the only way we can defend what rightfully belongs to the people, not the group of corrupt officials who are getting rich at the expense of other people’s work and are contaminating the rest of society with their activities.

The attitude we are demanding requires, however, the full support of the government. This support must assume the form of greater freedom to be able report on illegal activities, greater protection for those who justifiably report on such activities, and prompt government responses.

It must mean greater discipline and State, government and political control, more honesty and transparency from those in leadership positions, including those who are called on to give a report on the resources they manage. It must spell a tougher stance on those who have hitherto managed State property as if it was their own, with impunity.

It will also require stricter monitoring of and demands from institutions, so that all levels of government respond to a single policy, not the policy they see fit to follow, or, worse, the one they consider in their interests to adhere to.

People need to start feeling that timely criticisms, a lack of tolerance towards wrongdoing, and reporting on cases of bribery and corruption will not be punished and they will always be able to rely on someone who, no matter what political, State or government position they hold, is also willing to get into trouble, so as to prevent an offense against the government, the State, or the people.

Because, when all is said and done, it is the people who are, not the perpetrators of these crimes, but their true victims.
(*) Read Esteban Morales’ blog (in Spanish).


2 thoughts on “Cuba’s Hopes for a New Era of Public Criticism and Debate

  • So Esteban condemns the intelligencia for not identifying and speaking out about the social ills plaguing Cuba, thus compelling the President to do so. This is the height of hypocrisy given that Professor Morales is himself a highly honored member of this negligent intelligencia. Why has he not spoken out?

    He has not spoken out before because he knows full well that to have done so would have brought the full weight of the oppressive police state apparatus down on him. Professor Morales would have lost his job, his status and his carefully circumscribed freedom, as has happened to thousands of less subtle members of the intelligencia who did dare to speak out.

    Those who did speak out were silenced. Their voices were last heard echoing down the fetid halls of El Morro prison or the sanguin walls of La Cabana.

  • The tone of Professor Morales’ post appears to applaud President Castro for acknowledging the moral and intellectual bankruptcy that permeates Cuban civil society. But what ‘da hell is that? It is because of the Castros and their failed policies that these problems exist in the first place. Secondly, acknowledgement isn’t enough. Corruption and thievery run too deep in Cuban culture to simply state that it exists and then hope it will go away all by itself. Why didn’t Raul publicly declare that because of the ridiculously low salaries he instituted, normally honest Cuban workers are encouraged to steal from their state jobs? Why didn’t he admit that because he and big brother mumbles are so thin-skinned, the Cuban press serves as government public relations instead of a press function? Finally, because he and his brother abolished religion in Cuba, the undergirdings of a moral society were destroyed leaving most Cubans to follow a personal moral compass based on doing whatever they can get away with instead of what’s right? Kissing Castro’s behind for acknowledging the elephant in the room is par for the course for the typical pseudo-intellectual in Cuba. I had hoped that Morales would have shown more cojones than that and lay blame where it truly belongs.

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