On Cuba, fear and institutions

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Monument to Wi-fi, Havana

Spending some time in Cuba recently was a good opportunity to consider the problems of trying to common institutions from the inside, that is to say, bring them under the control and effective ownership of those who they affect, and particularly those who work within them. Applying this to the institutions that structure our daily life would require a radical transformation in the way we think. It is not natural for us to think of them as our institutions, to take responsibility for them, to work together with others to nurture them. It is tempting, given the radical change needed, to say that we should scrap the old institutions and start again. Yet in societies as complex as ours, it doesn’t seem viable to suggest a clean slate. We are up to our necks in authoritarian, undemocratic institutions – workplaces worst of all – and we are entirely reliant on them. We can’t abolish them and start again, for ordinary people would suffer at least as much as the owners of the institutions. So it seems we have no option but to change them to suit ourselves.

To be in Cuba is to remember how difficult it is to change authoritarian institutions. It is difficult, and not always illuminating, to talk to Cubans about politics directly, but most people are happy to talk about the economy. Many are appreciative of the welfare state elements of the Cuban economy, and as someone who has been to many Latin American countries it was a pleasure to see so much less deep poverty in Cuba than in most of the continent. But it seems that nobody, including the government, knows how to get an increased standard of living out of the state economy. Increasingly then the government response has been to open up to the private sector, with a mixture of large infrastructure contracts and small businesses for everyday services. Having a tightly controlled private economy would be the dream of many people, and some Cubans are undoubtedly happy with the government’s direction, but for many Cubans the centrally-controlled market/state economy is a constant obstacle course to negotiate. They do not feel in control of the decisions the government makes about which parts of the economy to privatise and how much, or where the resources of the nationalised parts of the economy are to be spent. The markets that develop out of the privatised sectors can be highly anomalous – second hand cars costing tens of thousands of dollars being an example.

Our own markets are equally full of such strange distortions: the price of houses, the failure rate of small businesses due to rent, the externalisation of environmental damage. This gets naturalised as something we can do nothing about. In Cuba, people at least know it is a result of government decisions, and to some extent a result of the US embargo. They know too that they can do almost nothing about it, for the government reacts to protests with violence. This seems to me to be very sad, because people have an instinct to make institutions they are part of work for them. It is one of the failures of Cuba that it has not permitted this type of institutional democracy. But no less sad is the resignation many people feel at market strangeness and authoritarian work environments in Western economies. They can’t be put in prison, it is true, but poverty is another type of prison, and not playing the game means exactly that.

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