Morbid Individualism Invades Cuba

Haroldo Dilla Alfonso*

Water Thieves

HAVANA TIMES — In straightforward language, understandable by Muzhiks and Cossacks alike, Lenin noted that a revolutionary situation occurred when those above can no longer govern as before, and those below can no longer bear their government as before.

This is an image that always reminded me of a failed rape attempt, but that in its essence aims to describe a historical tipping point that changes the correlation of political forces in a particular society.

Obviously, there’s nothing like this in Cuba. Although it’s true that those above can’t do things like they always did, they still have the energy to keep themselves on top. At the same time, though those down below don’t seem to want those on top, they’re not sure what they want.

When this happens, Italian communist Antonio Gramsci said society is faced with an organic crisis characterized by the emergence of “morbid phenomena of the most varied kind.”

Our society is experiencing this. An example is the emergence of unhealthy individualism, where people have no sense of responsibly for what happens beyond their familiar circle, which is complemented by a no less irresponsible technocratic line that speaks of winners and losers.

This is a paradoxical situation in a system that has worked hard to present the collective above everything else, crushing the individual. In this, individuals have wound up escaping forced collectivism but are unable to build voluntary associations, even the most basic ones.

This is not a random or unexpected result. As part of their strategy of social dominance, the post-revolutionary elite charged itself with instilling in Cubans the dreadful idea that collectives only serve to respond to a superior level and that those below only exist to the extent that they are part of a vertical command and control structure.

Nothing outside of this top-down structure is of any worth, and nothing outside can exist that is not exposed to repression.

The possibilities for horizontal interaction, for there to be initiatives outside the official environment — even if it’s a pro-workers slogan on May Day — and for people to freely associate were (and are) considered disruptive and punishable.

The most genuine public settings in Havana (those in which people interact freely, socialize and form communities for certain purposes) are little more than tolerated and controlled ghettos along the Malecon seawall or on the wide avenues of the Vedado district or in public parks.

Therefore these anomalous covens of “weirdoes” — gays, freakies, gothics, lesbians, emos, dissidents, critics, artists and free thinkers — are separated from “normal people” by a perimeter guarded by “friendly” police officers.

The other settings, the official public ones, are actually “non-places” where people go for something specific and leave as soon as they can, like one does from a bus station. This applies to the inhospitable Revolution Square and the “Protestodromo” (a downright macabre site built on the ruins of an exquisite complex designed by Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier nearly a century ago).

Sunset in Havana.

It is a problem that not only concerns the possibility of engaging in politics, but it is also related to questions of everyday life.
A few days ago I received information from a friend (an almost “winner” who has joined the emerging middleclass) about the distressing situation of water in her apartment building located on the edge of the upscale Miramar community.

The situation begins with the poor supply capacity but is exacerbated by the fact that the building’s residents, unable to meet and come to an agreement, have been installing “water thieves” (individual pumps) in their apartments, resulting in a situation in which half of the residents are often deprived of any water.

This same friend of mine, with a young daughter, is already preparing her budget to pay for a tutor as the only way to compensate for the decline of the Cuban educational system.

Later I saw an article in Havana Times by the astute Erasmo Calzadilla concerning a young disabled woman (Mercedes), who has to live and raise her son on the equivalent of $10 USD, which the government gives her as assistance.

Though she has a technical school degree, she can’t find work because of her physical condition, and therefore lives in a hovel with 16 other people. What’s more, her orthopedic boots (essential for her being able to move around) cost $40 or a four-year wait.

Mercedes — a typical “loser” to our beloved technocrats — doesn’t see a way out of her situation, especially since she says that there is corruption in the management of the Housing Department.

As an example, she cites the fact that though they are required to supply two homes per year to disabled people, they have never fulfilled that obligation – instead they sell the units under the table.

This is something that the Cuban Association of Persons with Physical Disabilities (ACLIFIM) should protest, but instead they do nothing.

I live in a liberal country (the Dominican Republic), among whose many virtues is neither a high level of democratic civility or sociability. Nonetheless, in the building where I live there’s a neighborhood council that makes decisions that affect all the residents, and it functions effectively.

Society has taken in its hands a constant struggle for the improvement of education, and when problems are presented at any school it is normal for parents and students to mobilized around the issue.

They will form coalitions of parents, students, teachers and activists who demand better education by demonstrating in the street or picketing outside of parliament. But my friend and many other disappointed parents could never do that in Cuba.

Just recently I read about hundreds of people with disabilities who took over a downtown public square in one South American capital and forced the government to revise its social assistance policies.

They simply converted their physical weaknesses into strengths in a public setting.

Havana newspaper seller.

But Mercedes — and hundreds of people in her same situation — cannot protest because ACLIFIM is a vertically controlled social welfare organization whose leadership would never consider taking over a public square (if they even thought about such an action they would be removed from their positions ipso facto).

So when — in the greatest act of cynicism — the Cuban leaders and their poorly paid bloggers began to denounce paternalism and nestlings-with-their-beaks-wide-open, Cubans had no choice but to begin dealing with all of their problems individually, purely on their own.

This includes even those basic problems that require a minimum degree of cooperation. It’s like a society in retreat where the notion of collective action smells of imposition and obligation.

It is a circumstance where those who are able rush to get on the train — like my friend who has already installed her own personal “water thief” — while those who are unable, like Mercedes, die while living in shacks with 16 other people.

I sincerely believe that among the historical responsibilities for which the post-revolutionary political elite will have to answer is having dissolved the sense of association as the basic element of citizenship.

They destroyed the wealth of a civil society that organized all kinds of associations and went back to this drama of atomization and banality.

For this same reason, reconstructing that fabric should be a priority for Cuba’s democratic future.
*Published originally in Spanish by



One thought on “Morbid Individualism Invades Cuba

  • The negative aspects of Cuban socialism were and are inherent in the Marxian revision of the socialist vision and program into full state monopoly ownership of all things product. But even the loyal opposition in Cuba cannot break with that poisonous revision and straighten things out, because Marxism transformed long ago the socialist movement into a quasi-religion and intellect paralyzing cult-of-personality.

    And so, if the well-meaning leaders have destroyed much of what was already good in Cuban society, they have done it because they themselves are victims of a false and covertly poisonous ideology and economic program.

    The good news is that, if the PCC leadership could ever reformulate the core mechanism of workable socialism as a modern cooperative, state co-ownership republic, Cuba could solve all its problems virtually overnight.

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