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Graham Sowa: I've been living in Cuba for three years now. I would like to blame my obvious hair loss seen in this updated photo on the rigors of life here and medical school, but it is probably just genetic. I've made some of the strongest friendships during my time in Cuba from other writers on this website. The strength of those friendships has almost restored my faith that the online world can lead to offline and real life change. On that same note I've adjusted to using internet one or two hours a month. In the meantime I have rediscovered things like flipping through the pages of books, writing stuff down by hand, and having to admit that I don't know something instead of rapidly looking up the answer on Google while the teacher isn't looking.

Pyramids in Cuba, Pyramids in Egypt

July 15, 2013 | Print Print |

Graham Sowa

The Cuatro Caminos market in Havana.  Photo: en.wikigogo.org

The Cuatro Caminos market in Havana. Photo: en.wikigogo.org

HAVANA TIMES — Within 24 hours of arriving to Cuba almost three years ago I made the following conclusions about the society at large: smoking is allowed anywhere, even the airport and public transport; yelling long distances is an accepted form of social interaction; and it is never acceptable to snitch on someone stealing something from their work, no matter how obvious it is.

This week President Raul Castro, in a moment of sincere cultural introspection, alerted Cubans all over the country that his government was ready to make a go at restoring honesty, decency, decorum, and sensibility to Cuban society.

His plan to do so rests on the solitary pillar of economic policy; to redistribute wealth from the swindling class to the working class.

Since the beginning of the Special Period, and the subsequent promotion of tourism as a solution to the post-Soviet economy, the most handsomely rewarded workers are those who either have very little responsibility or those who break the law.

When Cubans talk about the “inverted pyramid” this is what they are referring to.

People who take on jobs with a lot of responsibility neither have free time to work in another sector that pays in hard currency (usually tourism) nor does their job give them access to some commodity which they can take home (out the back door) and sell.

The fact that the pyramid got inverted in the first place is a grand architectural metaphor to the absolute failure of state planning.

Since the beginning of the Special Period, and the subsequent promotion of tourism as a solution to the post-Soviet economy, the most handsomely rewarded workers are those who either have very little responsibility or those who break the law.

During the previous twenty or so years, Cuban society, acting in a manner well outside the official “Party line”, has taken the socioeconomic pyramid apart, block by block, and reassembled it upside down.  Everyone participates, rather they like it or not.

To illustrate: last month I was buying eggs near Cuatro Caminos, a large market in Havana.  Since there were no eggs at the government store I had to buy them on the street, from a person illegally reselling eggs she had acquired, somehow, earlier.  At one point during the transaction we had to duck into a dark stairwell because the person was being watched by plainclothes police.

I don’t want to buy eggs like I’m buying cocaine; especially from someone who is taking advantage of others by upping the price of a commodity relied on my millions of people here as a source of protein.  But I’m obliged to participate, otherwise no eggs for me.

If even eggs are an item on the illegal market it is obvious that the state has lost control of a sizeable chunk of the economy, no matter how thorough and brilliant the centralized planning is.

Now President Castro wants to right the wrongs by righting the pyramid.

The first moves, over the past few years, have been to bring economic activity that had previously been illegal into the scopes of government regulation. This includes the list of approved private economic activities ranging from opening lemonade stands to selling cars and houses; to the more recent overture of allowing workers to form collectives.

But if the goal is really to do away with the inverted pyramid the government will have to go after those who flaunt the law and continue undermining the popular economy.

If even eggs are an item on the illegal market it is obvious that the state has lost control of a sizeable chunk of the economy, no matter how thorough and brilliant the centralized planning is.

The good cop routine of making more space in the economy for different types of activities will need to be tempered with the bad cop routine of punishing people who refuse to play by the new rules.

The process will be a long slog.

The pyramid will need to be taken apart and rebuilt block by block.  Some especially heavy lifting will be needed when it comes to the phenomenon of dual currency.

Even if everything with the economy works out this is no guarantee that the Cuban social practices of lighting up a cigarette anywhere, conversing by shouting, and getting the five finger discount at work will change for the better.

In my opinion this upside pyramid, as awkward as it may appear, has a deep foundation that won’t be broken up by only changing the economy.

Of course with all this talk of pyramids it seems logical to consult with Egypt on how to advance.  But looking at the recent news from that North African country I doubt that many in the Cuban government would be eager to follow its lead.

 


What's your opinion?

  • Griffin

    Graham wrote: “His plan to do so rests on the solitary pillar of economic policy; to redistribute wealth from the swindling class to the working class.”

    The irony of course is that the swindling class is composed of the regime and high officials who benefit from the centrally planned economy. The Cuban working class are the victims of this swindle called “socialism”. Raul’s call to end corruption is nothing more than a desperate attempt to grab hold of the few bits of the economy that still escape the clutches of the ruling oligarchy.

    That is the true inverted pyramid in Cuba.

  • Moses Patterson

    Anyone who has spent any time ‘living’ in Cuba has similar “egg” stories, whether they want to admit it or not. People who have only traveled as tourists to Cuba can remain largely above this lifestyle, but all others, as Graham noted, have participated. Eradicating this larcenous aspect of Cuban culture is difficult. Raul’s speech acknowledging the pervasiveness of the problem is a start. The honorable thing would have been for him to also accept blame for the problem, set a date for open and free elections and then resign. But if honor had anything to do with it, Cuba would not have this problem to begin with.

  • Charles A. Bailey

    To be educated, is to be made aware of what is necessary to do and survive.
    People will function in a manner that improves their lot in life. The system that provides a limited education, for the benefit of the governing body, must eventually fail, as no matter what type of people are in control, they will always be less than 3% of the population and are willing to restrict the general population of sources of political power!
    Chuck Bailey