Five Ways for Cuba to Combat Corruption

Fernando Ravsberg

Gladys Bejerano, Comptroller of the Republic of Cuba. (Photo: Raquel Perez)

HAVANA TIMES, Dec 8 — President Raul Castro recently praised the work of the comptroller general of Cuba in the fight against corruption. It’s no wonder.

Though scams have always existed, never have so many been “uncovered” as in recent years.

Dozens of executives, managers and businesspeople (domestic and foreign) have gone to jail. The most obvious effect of this policy has been the contraction of the black market since it has lost some of its leading suppliers.

To further tighten the nut would be to question the alleged inefficiency of the bureaucracy. Castro has placed the responsibility on each manager for what’s happening within their purview.

As he put it, “Those who can’t comply should say so, because we’re not going to allow people to commit the same mistakes over and over again.”

Nevertheless, despite the legal pressure, the thieves can’t stop. “I know that years in prison are awaiting me, but if I were to stop now, I couldn’t cover up the dealings I’ve already done, plus my family’s standard of living would plummet,” said one of them.

Among the preferred mechanisms to prevent corruption in Cuba is centralization, but an exaggerated dose of this medicine leads to the paralysis of economic activity, as occurred with the former single government bank account for foreign exchange.

A specialist explained to me that five elements influence corruption: a monopoly over any activity, the rules and discretion of officials, public access to information, accountability of leaders and society’s control over the government.

In the meeting on corruption held in Havana it was demonstrated that the problem affects all countries. Photo: Raquel Perez

A monopoly over any economic activity allows those who direct the opportunity to manipulate it at their convenience.

A good example is the Cuban telephone system. Thanks to the ridiculous prices they charge users, a lot of money has been embezzled while maintaining profitability.

Another key is to limit the discretion of officials by establishing rules that regulate their activity. But when a plethora of these are created, as often occurs in Cuba, the officials are left without the leeway to solve problems.

They end up giving greater priority to those regulations than to efficiency.

I know of a communist campesino who was gifted a new tractor by someone overseas, but the ministry of Agriculture — without considering the shortage of such equipment — prohibited the import because it “violates the rules.”

Another element is transparency, whose almost non-existence is the best cover for corruption. Having media such as those in Cuba, unable to report on the actions of any political or business leader, is the dream of every white-collar crook.

But the truth is that transparency isn’t enough, as can be seen in countries that are less “opaque” than Cuba but which are much more corrupt. There must also exist real accountability on the part of the authorities.

A few years ago, students asked the speaker of parliament, Ricardo Alarcon, why ministers don’t inform the people about their plans. The student posed the question of why these officials weren’t given a grace period for people to take stock of their performance so that the decision could be made whether they deserved to remain in office.

Cuba's Attorney General assures that the fight against corruption has thus far been successful. Photo: Raquel Perez

To achieve this, control mechanisms must be created that enable people to question the plans, reports and statements of their officials, ensuring that criticism from citizens is responded to with concrete actions that are made public.

In every country, the harmonious, intelligent and adapted application of these five elements to reality serves to deprive corruption of its oxygen while allowing other economic activities to continue for the benefit of the rest of the people.

A good example is nepotism. It’s considered appropriate to prohibit ministers from hiring their relatives, but “the umbrella jams” when it turns out that one of their cousins is the best person for the job in question.

That’s when officials should modify the rules, but in a completely transparent and publically accountable manner. No one will question a minister of finance who hires a Nobel Prize laureate in economics as a consultant – even if it’s his brother.

In addition, “rules” against nepotism are very easy to break. All you have to do is hire the son or daughter of another executive in your industry in exchange for that executive doing the same for your family member. Here again, transparency would be more effective than regulations and procedures.

Meditating aloud about the complexity of applying such a system to the situation in a country, the specialist smiles and replies that if it were so easy to eliminate corruption, it wouldn’t be spreading around the world at the level and speed that it does.

An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.