Once Again on So-Called Call ‘Petty’ Corruption

Esteban Morales*  (photos:Caridad)

HAVANA TIMES — A few days ago I wrote an article titled “A Subtle Form of Corruption,” which has thus far been reproduced in Cubarte and Havana Times.

It deals with “petty” corruption, which has little to do with penny-ante wrongdoing. Rather, millions and millions of pesos are being lost to the country’s economy through these devices instead of circulating within normal trade, where all of us would have the opportunity to purchase those goods with our money.

This isn’t about a simple incidence of robbery in which one person happens to appropriate something that doesn’t belong to them. This is a widespread practice in which individuals and officials, taking advantage of their positions in which they are supposed to protect social (public) goods, instead divert those resources for their own advantage.

This is why corruption isn’t a simple act of theft or appropriation, but the systematic deviation of material assets from the normal operation of a society that creates, distributes and consumes, according to the rules governing the economic system in question.

If you look more closely at the article I wrote, one will note what I described the characteristics of these occurrences and their multiple consequences, even political and ideological ones. However I didn’t identify its root causes.

I don’t want to get “in over my head,” as they say, because these causes are quite complex and touch on aspects that go far beyond corruption as such, as these problems touch at the core of the deficiencies and inadequacies of an economic model that we want to change.

Besides, this is a phenomenon that is not unique to our country, though in our case it has particular causes that respond to the particular situation being experienced by the Cuban economy.

Our economy has already undergone three strategic restructurings, each occurring when it broke its economic dependence from a major power: Spain, the United States and the USSR.

Fast Food.

We now find the Cuban economy in a historical moment in which it wants to definitively break this cycle of dependency and build its own economically efficient and sustainable model. Therefore the phenomenon of corruption in Cuba cannot be separated from that context in which we live today.

The root causes of this corruption, which existed previously, have to do now with several very important issues that touch squarely on the capacity of many of our people (too many up until now) to meet their needs. Among others these are:

– The so-called “inverted pyramid” within the economically active population, which allows people without any training be employed in the dollar economy and tourism, where they receive wages, special pay and tips. These increase their opportunities for obtaining incomes in ways that aren’t feasible for any employee in the state economy, regardless of the skill level a government worker might possess.

Trunk drivers, taxi drivers and service workers receive their incomes in hard currency, which is several times more than the salary of an employee in the state economy – even when we compare these to highly qualified professions, such as doctors, university professors, specialists, researchers etc.

– The confusion over the years (which isn’t only theoretical) between social property and state-owned property, which has meant that workers don’t relate to the means of production as their own property, while the state cadres manage the means of production as if it were leased to them for their own benefit. This has come to be reflected by the popular expression “Everything belongs to everyone and nothing belongs to anyone.”

– Many people holding positions, even within the state economy, of low rank and low pay but who have access to the distribution of certain material goods, use their official positions to “make ends meet” through the diversion of resources.

Neptuno St. in Havana.

They create networks within which the managers of different operations exchange favors and privileges for the access to material goods, whose cost [to the state-owned business or institution] has no effect on their personal incomes. This activity becomes a kind of corruption that permeates even our political and mass organizations in workplaces.

Low-wage workers — in whatever government, private or semi-privately environment and in whatever industry — continuously engage in theft, quite often with implicit acceptance of this by their own higher-ups, who also benefit from it. In this way they create mechanisms of permanent misconduct in the management of assets belonging to society.

– In our case there is a gap between wage levels and prices, whereby the latter remain high and sometimes rise, even surprisingly so, while wages remain stagnant.

– Nor is it possible to expect more pay resulting from more work. There also exists a complete impairment on the part of the working masses to pressure for wage increases; nor is an adequate response made by trade union organizations to resist downward pressures on workers’ real incomes.

-The existence of the dual currency keeps people who don’t possess hard currency at a constant disadvantage, especially if we consider that there are staples that can only be purchased with that form of money. While all of the basic necessities are received through rationing, these are in such small quantities that they don’t meet the minimum needs of the population most in need.

Therefore the root cause of this “petty” corruption is within the very functioning of our own economy, one which is incapable of satisfying needs at the wage levels required nor offering prices of unsubsidized products that meet the needs of the general population, who in addition don’t have access to hard currency. There are many consequences of this situation and these not only cause corruption but other social distortions as well.

Neptuno St. in Havana.

This situation is what explains this widespread phenomenon, although we can’t say that it includes the entire population. Firstly because there are some people who don’t need to engage in this practice, while others refuse to participate in it for ethical and moral reasons.

This phenomenon evidences indications of not being controlled by our economic system, which can generate moral deterioration at the level of the society as a whole.

Legal and economic control isn’t sufficient because this helps only to a small degree to repress criminal practices. The only real possible solution is the existence of an efficient and sustainable economic model, one that imposes limits by converting corruption into a negative practice only from the moral point of view, offering the foundation that would eliminate a phenomenon that is justifiable to a certain extent on grounds of material survival.

In other words, the massive non-satisfaction of the basic needs of the population generates the corruption practiced by many people. A completely different matter is the illicit enrichment practiced by top and mid-level government leaders — since these don’t steal for immediate needs, since for the most part they have those met.

I believe that neither this type of corruption nor any other type could be eliminated entirely; it could only be reduced to some minimal level. This can occur only after a long struggle that would fundamentally involve economic building, cutting out corruption, making it a criminal offense, so that society could fight against it – correctly and without any moral justifications.
(*) An HT authorized translation of the original published by Esteban Morales on his blog.