Cuba: The Gloves are Off

Raul Castro’s Remarks on Cuba’s Social Crises

Fernando Ravsberg*

Raul Castro speech was more in touch with reality. Photo: Raquel Perez
Raul Castro’s speech was more in touch with reality. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — Making Cuba’s official discourse reflect more and more aspects of everyday reality may well be one of the most important political processes undertaken on the island today. President Raul Castro’s pronouncements Sunday to the parliament were a clear expression of this process.

He began by saying his criticisms would help the international press disparage Cuba, but went on to suggest that restricting the public debate of economic, political and social problems simply to deprive the enemy of potential weapons is misguided.

He called “to discuss reality unflinchingly”, because “the first step towards overcoming any problem effectively is acknowledging its existence, in all its dimensions, and looking for the causes and conditions which have brought about the phenomenon.”

I admit I was somewhat surprised he publicly criticized such a broad range of domestic problems. Half-jokingly, a good friend of mine, an avid reader of Letters from Cuba (“Cartas desde Cuba”), said to me: “he’s left you without any topics for your blog.”

To tell the truth, I don’t believe Raul Castro’s speech will deprive national or foreign newspapers of any work. On the contrary, his diagnosis invites journalists to delve more deeply into some of the ills which Cuban society continues to endure and to explore possible treatments.

“The first step towards overcoming any problem effectively is acknowledging its existence, in all its dimensions, and looking for the causes and conditions which have brought about the phenomenon.”

Countless pieces of investigative or sociological journalism could be written about the “marked decline of such moral and civic values as honesty, decency, shame, decorum, integrity and sensitivity towards the problems of others.”

I don’t particularly believe these problems are more severe in Cuba than in other societies and feel there is still time to revert their effects. Cuba has “modernized” slowly and, for better or for worse, Cubans still do many things the old-fashioned way.

Till last year, cars and houses were still being bought and sold without any paperwork; supporting a relative is part of a deeply-rooted national culture; any neighbor “throws you a lifeline” when your food runs out before the end of the month and, for most people, loyalty among friends is still more important than making a profit.

Raul Castro called on the citizenry to defend the country's laws.  Photo: Raquel Perez
Raul Castro called on the citizenry to defend the country’s laws. Photo: Raquel Perez

It is also true, however, that Cubans began to shed many of these qualities during the economic crisis of the 1990s, and that this process could well pick up speed with the inevitable liberalization of the “market” and as a result of the social toxins this will invariably inject into society.

Frankly, I am unsure as to whether the fight against the demons awakened by modernization can be won. The Cuban president is proposing a long-term strategy, mindful of the education of new generations through the culture the reform process intends to build.

“I have the bitter impression that, as a society, we are increasingly more educated, but not necessarily more cultured,” he stated. This impression could be taken as a point of departure for the redesign of Cuba’s education system, as a call to stop extolling its achievements and begin rethinking it as a cultural instrument.

Little was left unsaid by Raul Castro, who spoke of the country’s low salaries, the two-currency system, the generalized practice of stealing from State companies, the corruption of public officials, cases of fraud in education, vandalism, illegal construction work and the degradation of civic customs.

The president got the gist of the matter when he blamed part of the prevailing social chaos on “the lack of respect, in the first place, towards State entities of the country’s institutional framework, something which undermines their authority and ability to demand that the population adhere to existing regulations.”

Without a doubt, Cubans must start to put their house in order at the top, because, socially speaking, a high official who gets rich on bribes is far more noxious that 1,000 workers who “pinch” here and there to stretch their salaries some and be able to make ends meet.

Without a doubt, Cubans must start to put their house in order at the top, because, socially speaking, a high official who gets rich on bribes is far more noxious that 1,000 workers who “pinch” here and there to stretch their salaries some and be able to make ends meet.

Managers who steal from their companies are, after all, the main suppliers of Cuba’s black market, and most illegal practices are carried out with the blessing of public officials who, in exchange for a bit of hard currency, would authorize the building of lofts in the Capitolio building itself.

The president criticized the fact “this happens right under our noses, meeting with no condemnation or opposition from citizens.” The truth, however, is that people do not have access to, or are unaware of, the institutional mechanisms though which they can claim their rights or demand adherence to the law.

There is no ombudsman’s office, in Cuba, which protects the rights of citizens or consumers, and few people know how to proceed when an inspector requests a bribe, where to submit a complaint against a police officer or who to turn to when a manager steals from one’s company.

Some of the old mechanisms currently in place are out of date, rusty or corrupted. If the government has any intention of having citizens participate “in a permanent civic movement”, it would help to provide these citizens with institutions capable of addressing, processing and giving legal form to such civic actions.

These challenges notwithstanding, speaking about the crisis faced by society in a straightforward manner will help Cubans identify with their government’s political discourse, particularly if it begins to address their everyday life and the problems they face.
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(*) A Havana Times translation of the original posted in Spanish by BBC Mundo.


15 thoughts on “Cuba: The Gloves are Off

  • July 20, 2013 at 11:25 am
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    Cuba imports less than 30% of total food and much of the imports go to the resorts / hotels. Smoked salmon in resorts is not from Cuba.

  • July 18, 2013 at 9:09 pm
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    Gosh, what an original name for a bar! And so fitting for Cuba.

    Let me get this straight, your children aged 12 and 10 own houses in Cuba? Are they Canadian or Cuban citizens? You might do some research on Cuban real estate law. It’s illegal for non-Cuban’s to own houses in Cuba. You and your children may be in for a big surprise one day.

    Safety & return on investment are more important than price per square feet.

    Still, your Cuban friends who helped you buy your houses will be grateful for your naivety.

  • July 18, 2013 at 4:23 pm
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    My cildren now have four houses in Cuba which I gave them the $$$ to purchase. One is a duplex and on one side they are going to make it into a patio bar for tourists – Name – Hotel California Bar and Grill. New condo – Vancouver $ 1000.00 sq. ft. Do your home work – Si !!!

  • July 18, 2013 at 11:19 am
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    “Caliban”…That’s a good one, never heard it and I hope within 4 years the Caliban will be “fueron”.Like Alarcon….”se fue”

  • July 17, 2013 at 9:51 pm
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    You cite a random assortment of economic statistics without comprehending what they mean. So what if the average house price in Vancouver is $1million (it’s not infact, it’s much lower) but lets run with that. As a ratio to the average
    Income, $46k, a million dollar home is 21 times the annual income. The Cuban example you gave of $5000 is 45 times the average Cuban income. Furthermore, Canada has a developed & well managed mortgage market. Cuba has no mortgage market, no legal real estate lawyers, no propert insurance and a highly dubious state of title law.

    It sounds like you’ve recently bought a property in Cuba, through a local intermediary no doubt, as its illegal for a foreigner to buy a house in Cuba. In addition to your legal hypocrisy, you can look forward to being swindled very soon.

    You are a fool. I pray for your children’s sake you can get them out unharmed.

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