Our Man in Havana

Two months ago, while addressing the National Assembly at a biannual conference, President Raul Castro surprised his audience by focusing at length on the “social indiscipline” that could no longer be tolerated within Cuba. He spoke of the economy’s reliance on “a consistent climate of order, discipline and rigour” and of the need to avoid “counterproductive retrogressions,” and his criticisms should be seen in this light rather than as the musings of a discontented patriarch — which is how they were generally treated in the foreign press. Even so, the tone and specificity of the criticism offer a glimpse of the Revolution’s discontents with the society it has created.

Prefacing his remarks with a previous warning from “compañero Fidel” — about “the need for an energetic struggle without respite against the bad habits and errors being committed daily by many citizens”— President Castro took aim at an unusually wide range of inappropriate activities. These included “propagation of illegal constructions”; “non-fulfilment of working hours”; “illegal cattle rustling and slaughter”; “utilization of the art of over-fishing”; “the hoarding of products in short supply and their resale at higher prices”; “participation in games outside the law”; and “preying on tourism.”

Acknowledging that his speech would likely be music to the ears of “the corporate international press [that] specializ[e] in degrading Cuba and subjecting it to frenetic scrutiny” Castro said he preferred to voice his concerns rather than yield to the temptation to “restrain ourselves from discussing the reality with due harshness, when what motivates us is the firmest intention to overcome the atmosphere of indiscipline which has become rooted in our society and is causing by no means insignificant moral and material damage.”

Some of Castro’s most widely reported concerns were the prevalence of “[c]onduct previously associated with marginality, such as shouting at the top of one’s voice in the street [and] the indiscriminate use of obscene language and vulgar talk”; the emergence a culture in which Cubans considered it normal “to throw garbage onto the street; relieve one’s physical needs in streets and parks; to deface walls of buildings or urban areas; to consume alcohol in inappropriate public places and to drive under the influence of alcohol”; the playing of loud music, and the vandalization of “parks, monuments, trees, gardens and green areas; public telephones, electricity and telephone cables, drains and other components of aqueducts, traffic signals and metal highway buffers.” At the end of this extraordinary survey, the president added: “When I meditate upon these lamentable manifestations … I have the bitter feeling that we are a society constantly more instructed, but not necessarily more educated.”

Leaving aside whatever reservations one may have about the repressive aspects of Cuban politics, one cannot but admire the idealism that lies at the heart of President Castro’s rant. However shabby the buildings in Havana may look, its general appearance puts Georgetown and most other West Indian capitals to shame. It hardly needs saying that the same is true, only more so, for the complaints about loudness, vulgarity, vandalization and public urination. Most of the president’s other concerns read like a laundry list of routine abuses in modern democracies, and they sound surprisingly similar to conservative critiques of the decadent culture of entitlement that has taken root in prosperous capitalist countries.

Castro’s speech seems at once charmingly innocent of the wider world and surprisingly indifferent to many of the Revolution’s real triumphs: universal adult literacy, low infant mortality, a surfeit of doctors, a remarkable depth of cultural and athletic achievement, and enviable success in eradicating racism from the society. Of course, these should not be assessed too naively, nor in a political vacuum. Ten years ago, the society was still reeling from the Black Spring arrests of dozens of dissidents, including 29 journalists. All things considered, however, Castro’s willingness to speak candidly about his society’s shortcomings is a welcome change from the usual backslapping political rhetoric. We could all use a little more political candour in these parts, especially in light of the many instances of “social indiscipline” that have become the new normal throughout the Caribbean.

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