Esteban Morales (or the Agony of the Flying Fish)

Alfredo Fernandez

Esteban Morales. Photo: Patricia Grogg, IPS

After setbacks in trying to obtain a copy, I’ve finished reading the article Corruption: The True Counterrevolution by Cuban academic Esteban Morales.

I was also able to read a later letter by him protesting his expulsion from the ranks of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) as a result of publishing the article.  In the two documents I found points I agree with but also others that I don’t and would like to comment on.

I found the article a bit simplistic to view the corruption that Cuba is currently experiencing as being the greatest enemy of the Revolution, although it’s true that corruption today has reached proportions that have never been seen during the Cuban revolutionary process.

As one example we could cite how common it has become for workers to look for jobs which will allow them to steal, because the monthly wages paid by the State (around $25 USD) guarantee them only enough to live in poverty.

After reading the article, one would think that once corruption was eliminated the country would promptly set itself back on the road that would lead it to a certain degree of economic comfort.  The author’s conclusions cast real doubt in my mind.  I’m not economist, but a certain amount of logic gleaned from my training in socio-cultural studies tells me that society is a complex system in which several problems converge.  Accordingly, to study it, there is a need to conceive of any social system as affected by multi-causal forces in which appearances are often not reality.

A few days ago, while I was on a bus I heard a person say something that left me perplexed: “Hey,” they said, “if the government has now gone after him for taking on corrupt individuals, then what’s going to happen to us?”  Dr. Morales is worried about “corrupt leaders” who somehow open the doors of warehouses so that products like powdered milk, for example, can be sold on the black market for 70 pesos a kilogram (about $3.50 USD). From the vantage point of workers, that same kilogram costs would otherwise go for the equivalent of 128 pesos ($6.70 USD) in the State-run stores that sell in hard currency.

I don’t want to be a spoilsport in relation to Professor Morales, but I admit that it frightens me to think that once corruption were ended in Cuba, workers would have to pay almost half of the monthly minimum wage (around 270 national pesos) if we wanted to have our daily breakfast with a glass of milk.

Cuban flag.

I would like to see the elimination of corruption that enriches a few while the rest of the population lives trapped in a subsistence economy, but to prevent that virus from mutating and then resurging with even greater force, the State will have to either lower the price of basic staples or increase wages to levels that will at least allow people to live off of them.

President Raul Castro recognizes efficiency as being the key that will allow Cuban socialism to escape from its current crisis, that’s why he announced in early August the need for the country to eliminate one million jobs in the State sector.  However, so that this desired efficiency is achieved, the State is obligated to take measures to increase employment opportunities in the self-employment and small business sectors, since these are the areas where undoubtedly attempts will be made to find employment by most of those laid-off surplus workers – if not many other workers as well.

The rules will have to change

Contrary to the 1990s (when licenses for self-employment were issued, but without the establishment of warehouses with merchandise at wholesale prices at which the vendors could acquire the necessary supplies to operate their businesses effectively), this time the State will have to relax the legal system so that certain prohibitions and excessive taxes do not force those “cuentapropistas” (self-employed workers) and small businesspeople to turn back in their licenses and return to the black market on a fulltime basis, something that would be fatal for the future of Cuban society.

In this way, the new small “entrepreneurs” would be able to earn profits that would allow them to pay decent wages to their workers at rates where they wouldn’t feel exploited.  I also think that the State will have to establish a minimum wage for these new jobs so that private sector workers aren’t taken advantage of by their new employers.

This has to happen if in fact what is wanted to give fitting alternatives to workers who leave the State employment system and acquire licenses of self-employment.  They will have to struggle with the anxiety that always creeps into the thoughts of someone who owns a business and is faced with having to sell their product or not.

On the other hand, a vital question for study (an aspect that I can’t address in these notes due to its complexity) will be the fact that among the million workers found to be excess in the next few months, there will be many blacks(*).  Although the job-reduction measures have still not been defined, this disproportionate impact can be foreseen because blacks continue to be the group within the Cuban population that is still the least educated.  This is a fact that further complicates any study on the creation of the package of measures needed to accommodate the new sector of the work force.

The damned allure of corruption

From 1997 to 2003, so that I could pay my rent —which as a State employee I’d never be able to afford— I worked illegally at whatever job I could get at the Cuatro Caminos Farmers Market. Over those years I saw this market go through three directors (all Party activists) who were initially appointed to their positions by the State itself. They each ended up being fired from their jobs (and of course from the Party) always for the crime of corruption.  Two of them went to prison.

Personally, I think they had the best intentions as directors when they assume their post.  However, the system —with its characteristic of depositing excessive power and resources with a single person— led to them feeling like untouchables and consequently seeing their critics as enemies from which they had to free themselves.  Here I agree with Dr. Morales in his second article, because I remember that the Party activists from the market who dared to criticize the tremendous level of corruption were not listened to (though later audits only confirmed what they had alleged).

The comedian Carlos Gonzalves, (better known on Cuban TV as El profesor Mentepollo, or “Professor Birdbrain”) compares corrupt Cubans with those who have been abducted: people who are selected by extraterrestrials to be studied and are later returned without receiving the slightest injury.  Around these corrupt individuals is a “protective aura,” notes the astute professor, that is as supernatural as those who have been abducted. That protective aura allows corrupt individuals to live the lives of squanderers, even in view of the workers.

Professor Birdbrain justifies his thesis saying that he has observed the difficulties of workers who have to explain to “uncompromising” housing inspectors how they were able to purchase a sack of cement or a wheelbarrow of sand, when only a few yards from them is an abductee who is building an entire mansion without the slightest questioning.

I doubt that there exist people who have been abducted by Martians, but what is evident is that there exist many who, with the consent of some high-level government official (I don’t know why they almost always place them in positions above the law), freely take advantage of what are basic necessities for citizens trying to live their lives.

Although I already referred to this, I want to emphasize the fact concerning something that, to my understanding, has as much an impact as corruption: excessive power concentrated in the hands of our leaders.

This endows Cuban society with a rigid hierarchical structure that would undoubtedly allow corruption and bureaucracy to be easily revived if a miracle were to occur and these disappeared one day.

In fact, Morales himself exhibited an ambiguous posture in the face of these towering figures when criticizing leaders for becoming corrupt as a result of being excessively powerful.  At the same time he points out as dangerous those workers who paraded on May Day in Revolution Square carrying signs that “while not counter-revolutionary, were not guided by the CTC [the only authorized labor federation].”

The independent action of a few workers in making posters that they want to carry on May Day —far from threatening the Revolution— energizes it and gives off fresh oxygen in a country where for some time many workers have been questioning (in the hallways at least) the role of the union in their workplaces.  In addition, I believe that the real possibilities for the survival of socialism will be where less hierarchical societies are constructed, in this way constantly facilitating the building of consensus among citizens.

Medieval style violence

Force is the resource of the weak, goes an old saying.  If there is something that I always like to distance myself from it’s violence.  This cannot be a solution to anything given that it only evidences desperation and especially a lack of intelligence.  Nor do I believe that a state that aspires to build a new culture (this has always been attempted by the Cuban State), and is undoubtedly superior to the previous state, has to foment violence in the worst medieval style.

Professor Morales, in what could be his worst moment —not only of his second article; “El Misterio de la Santisima Trinidad: Corrupción, Burocratismo, Contrarrevolución” (The Mystery of the Sacred Trinity: Corruption, Bureaucracy, Counterrevolution) but also of the previous one— calls for the punishment of those who are corrupt urging the application of “the death sentence or life in prison.”  I agree with the second form of punishment but never with the first, because the death penalty deprives the State that carries it out of any possibility of being seen as a government for the future.

In a world where countries are making progress daily in sanctions against those who infringe upon the rights of even animals, it would be stupid to maintain the death penalty within the legal system.

It goes without saying that Professor Morales allows a similar call, even after recognizing that the trial which ended with the execution by firing squad of the Hero of the Republic of Cuba, General Arnaldo Ochoa, “was and continues to be a political trauma for the nation.”

He argues his position using the fact that in China any leader who has been found guilty of such a crime is shot almost immediately.  I wonder, given the absence of mercy on the part of the Chinese government for the life of someone who has made a mistake, isn’t the same error being made today by those who conceive of nature as a means and not as an end?

The technological and economic progress being made by that country is real, but many analysts note that in the next few years the Chinese —more than in the United States— will face its worst enemy in the form of the tremendous environmental deterioration that is taking place there today and that puts in doubt the possibility of sustaining the “Chinese miracle.”

What’s more, while Dr. Morales has upset the Party in Cuba by writing an article titled Corruption: The True Counterrevolution?, I imagine that there exists someone in China who has now written another similarly uncomfortable tract titled Environmental Deterioration: The True Counterrevolution? Hopefully that comrade, after being kicked out of the Party, isn’t shot on charges of “ideological corruption.”

Criticism as a possibility

Among the voices that have risen in defense of Dr. Morales in the light of his unjust expulsion from the Communist Party, we can hear one that defended both the Party and Morales saying something like “the party should turn to another type of less severe punishment.”

As the Bible says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”; meaning that if you’re a revolutionary with enough vision to warn of possible wrongdoings that threaten your organization and your country, after expressing them —far from anticipating to see these facts checked or debated— you should only expect punishment as your reward.

Something such as this makes one doubt the capacity of this institution to solve the problems of the country in a future that will certainly be much more complex than the present.  Unfortunately, Esteban Morales is not the first activist in Cuba to be expelled from the ranks of the Party for criticizing —from a position of revolutionary principles— specific problems that affect the Revolution.

I will never forget the strong impression I had when I read that Jean Paul Sartre, after hearing “Fidel’s Speech to the Intellectuals” delivered in the National Library in June of 1961, concluded that he didn’t care that those who were not with the Revolution couldn’t speak, but what worried him immensely was that those who were with the Revolution couldn’t speak.

Along these fifty years, the State has ended up branding anyone who raises their voice critically (be they a party activist or not) as being misinformed, naive, confused or worse – playing the enemy’s game.

I don’t know, but after expressing my points of views about what happened around Professor Morales, I would like to compare this fact with a sad mistake that is made concerning flying fish, which are sometimes sighted from Havana’s Malecon seawall.  We tend to think that these fish fly only because they like to, when in fact they fly hopelessly trying to escape the larger fish that are chasing them, often landing in the beaks of birds that await them in the air.

Hopefully, in the future, those who criticize misdeeds will not be afforded such an agonizing death as that of our flying fish.

(*)For further information, see the book “The Racial Problem in Cuba”, by Esteban Morales Domínguez himself.