Changes From Below: New Dynamics, Spaces, and Attitudes in Cuban Society

Katrin Hansing

It is 7 a.m. and Gabriela, a 43-year-old Afro-Cuban woman, is anxiously waiting for Camilo, a local street vendor, to pick up her freshly made pastries. (Pseudonyms have been used to protect the safety of all individuals interviewed and mentioned in this text.) Over the past few years, Gabriela has stayed up late every night making about 100 guava and coconut pastries, which Camilo then sells for two pesos each on the streets of Santiago de Cuba. Gabriela, a single mother of two, is an accountant by training and works for a Cuban state company during the day. Although she enjoys her work, her meager monthly salary of 290 pesos, about $11, is not enough to feed her and her two sons. By making pastries Gabriela has been able to supplement her income and get by. However, with the looming state layoffs she is now reassessing her situation. Realizing that she may lose her job, she is considering becoming a full-time pastry maker. “I am nervous and worried,” she admits, “but if they lay me off, what choice do I have? I have no savings, no family abroad, and my boys have to be fed.”

Similarly, Jorge, a middle-aged former state factory worker, could no longer provide for his family on his monthly income. He and his wife, Berta, now sell underwear and makeup out of their small living room. Taking advantage of the unusual fact that Cubans don’t need a visa to visit Ecuador, Jorge, like many other Cubans, flies to Quito every four to five months to stock up on goods, which he buys at wholesale prices. Given the lack of consumer goods in Cuba, Jorge can resell these items for up to 500% of their original value. Over the past few years these tiendas ecuatorianas, or Ecuadoran shops, have quietly mushroomed all over the island. They are run illicitly, without a license, but despite the risk of being fined, Jorge continues traveling back and forth and selling his goods. “What can I do?” he says. “We need to live, and there are very few real opportunities. I don’t like working illegally, but the state has literally pushed us all into being dishonest.”

As examples like these show, the continuing economic crisis in Cuba that began after the fall of the Soviet Union has not only changed people’s lives in very practical, everyday ways, but has also provoked major changes in their attitudes toward their lives, their futures, and the state.

Before the crisis, most Cubans relied on the government and arguably many still had some faith in the system. But the failing economy and the eroding quality of health care, education, and other social services, coupled with the growing corruption, crime, and repressive state policies, have led more and more people to no longer count on the state to help them solve their problems but instead forced them to look for alternatives. Although apathy, depression, and migration are some of the more dramatic consequences of this, many if not most Cubans have been responding by carving out their own spaces, whether economic, social, or cultural, that are independent or at least parallel to the state.

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As on every Sunday morning, the Salvación Pentecostal Church’s 11 a.m. service in Boyeros, a suburb of Havana, is packed. Most congregants have already attended Sunday school or Bible-study classes since nine in the morning, and many will spend the rest of the day on the church grounds taking part in one of the many recreational activities and meals on offer. “The church has become my second home,” says María, who has been a member of the congregation for five years. “I come here almost every other day, sometimes to eat, to see my friends, watch a film, and of course to pray.”

Since the early 1990s more and more Cubans like María have been joining religious communities. During this time, faith-based organizations, ranging from Catholic and Protestant churches to Afro-Cuban and Jewish groups, have grown in size, visibility, and influence all over the island. By providing programs and services the state can no longer offer its citizens, religious institutions have become important alternative spaces where people seek spiritual refuge, social upliftment, and material support, as well as information and entertainment. Some religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church and a number of Protestant denominations, have expanded their influence beyond the confines of their parish walls through a number of important publications. Widely circulated and popular among a diverse readership, these journals offer important alternative views on local and international issues.

Similar observations can be made about the various subcultures that have captured the interest of Cuban youth— like hip-hop, roquero, hippie, freakie, Rastafari, and others. These subcultures offer many youths, who are arguably among the most frustrated Cubans, the possibility to question and explore who they are and what they want beyond the dominant political discourse. Unlike their parents and grandparents, who fought for the principles of the Revolution or at least witnessed its better days, Cuba’s contemporary youth are products of the Special Period, as the post-Soviet time of austerity and opening to foreign investment is officially known. Their main point of reference is the economic crisis and its many social contradictions. As a result, many have a strong craving to be different and to discover and consume new ideas and lifestyles—in short, a desire for options. From Alamar, an eastern district of Havana that is considered the capital of Cuban hip-hop, to the Cuban countryside, kids are sporting tattoos, piercings, and dreadlocks, openly listening to songs by controversial local groups like Los Aldeanos; organizing private, underground concerts and parties; and longing to connect to the Internet and open their own Facebook account.

The search for news, information, and knowledge beyond what is provided by the state has become an important endeavor for Cubans of all ages. The more established forms of doing so include making contact with family members and friends abroad, as well as with doctors and other professionals who have completed internationalist missions; interacting with tourists; listening to Radio Martí, the U.S.-financed propaganda station; and reading the aforementioned religious publications. In recent years, however, clandestine cable TV antennas, Internet connections, and video rentals have also become more common.

Pedro, for instance, is set up with what is locally referred to as un cable. For the equivalent of $5 a month, he, like dozens of his neighbors in Central Havana, is connected to a cable TV antenna through which he has access to movies, news and sports programs, talk shows, and telenovelas from Mexico, the United States, and elsewhere. Although such cable connections are highly illegal (and relatively costly), more and more Cubans are taking the risk in order to connect with the outside world and experience, albeit momentarily, a completely different reality.

In carving out alternative spaces and parallel mechanisms to the state, Cubans are acting independently and taking initiatives, as well as responsibility, for themselves, after decades of depending on a cradle-to-the-grave system. Given that many of their activities are illegal, people have to be very creative in outwitting the system and must constantly be on their toes not to be caught. These are skills that can and should not be underestimated, let alone the energy and determination that go into them. Moreover, such activities are acts of defiance against a system that prohibits people from making an honest, decent living. And that takes courage. In short, a qualitative difference in how many people think and act toward the state, as well as among themselves, has emerged and is growing more and more each day.

There are, however, other, more worrying effects of the economic crisis on people’s behavior and values.

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The special period and the many prolonged scarcities it produced has forced people to seek a number of informal and illicit means to resolve their daily problems. These survival strategies have in turn encouraged corruption and criminality. In fact, breaking the law has become standard practice on all levels of Cuban society, as has the phenomenon of la doble moral or la doble cara, which refer to a dual set of behaviors and opinions—one for public, the other for private consumption. In a society like Cuba, where daily survival and state surveillance are omnipresent, la doble moral can be interpreted as an act of resistance, as a “weapon of the weak,” in the phrase of political scientist James Scott.1

However, the level of corrupt, manipulative, and opportunistic behavior not only toward the state but also among people themselves has taken on worrying proportions. Whether it be in the workplace, schools, the health care sector, on the street, or in the marketplace—at the official, unofficial, or private level—cheating, stealing, bribing, lying, and cutting corners have become a facet of everyday life. In fact, despite being acknowledged by many and even openly criticized by the Cuban leadership, la doble moral has become an unchecked modus operandi and has greatly affected the social and moral fabric as well as work ethic of Cuban society. Although its effects and consequences can be felt on all levels of society, they are especially visible among Cuban youth.

Take, for example, Raúl, an officially unemployed 20-year-old. He spends most of his time at home, hanging out with friends and watching movies. After completing his military service, he started an apprenticeship as a carpenter but quickly dropped out. “I was bored and the commute was far,” he explained. Having access to an illegal cable TV antenna, Raúl records and then illicitly rents foreign films to people in the surrounding neighborhoods. By doing so he earns enough to get by and occasionally go out, as well as to help his mother a little. “Why should I study and work when I can make much more money renting out movies?” he says.

When asked about his aspirations, Raúl shrugs. “We’ll see,” he says. “I am fine for now.” For many young Cubans who were socialized during the crisis years of the 1990s and thereafter, thinking and acting this way have become common. Growing up, they saw their family members and others leave their professional jobs to find more lucrative work in the hard-currency tourist industry, get involved in some form of illicit business, constantly say one thing but do another, or make the difficult decision to leave the country for good. These are just some of the many practices that this generation has grown up with and often uncritically adopted.

In this context, the state’s longtime propagated revolutionary values—education for all, patriotism, political participation, social responsibility, and solidarity—have become of little interest to most Cuban youth. Instead, they are mainly motivated by a strong urge to consume, make a quick and easy buck, and live in the moment. Many if not most also hope to leave the island and migrate to the United States, Spain, or elsewhere. Seventeen-year-old Emilia, for example, has decided not to pursue a university degree, even though she recently graduated from high school with high grades. “What for?” she says. “To study for years on end only to land a job that doesn’t pay well? Look at all the professionals in my country. None of them can live on their salary. I would rather do something else and make money or best of all get out of here and go somewhere else.”

Reflecting on this generation, Jorge, a seasoned secondary school teacher, explained: “These kids have grown up in a time when everything in our society, including our values, has been turned upside down. Most youngsters today lack a moral compass and work ethic and mainly just dream of going to La Yuma.”* In short, it is individualism and materialism, rather than loyalty and commitment to the state and larger society that seem to matter most to young Cubans.

Thus, on the one hand we find a growing sense of personal agency among many ordinary Cubans, agency that has not only produced new social spaces and networks but also profoundly transformed the relationship between the individual and the state. It is here in these increasingly independent attitudes and actions that seeds of a nascent civil society can also be observed. On the other hand, however, we are confronted with an alarming growth of social disengagement, political apathy, and a stark deterioration of civic values, especially on the part of young Cubans.

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Given these challenges, some foreign observers have been wondering whether Cuba might soon follow in the footsteps of the recent popular uprisings in the Middle East.2 In their eyes, some of the socio-economic, political, and demographic conditions may seem similar enough to pass on the baton to the Caribbean island. Moreover, island-based critics of the Cuban government, ranging from hunger strikers to prizewinning bloggers, have recently grown in size and stature as well as seriously stepped up the intensity and diversity of their activities. (Public access to the internet is very limited in Cuba. As a result most Cubans cannot follow internationally celebrated bloggers such as Yoani Sánchez, who are much better known outside of Cuba than on the island.) These are seen as encouraging developments to critical outside observers of the Cuban government, including some foreign governments, human rights organizations, Cuban exiles, and foreign journalists, to whom Cuba’s organized opposition groups are often perceived as the country’s greatest potential for political change. Viewed from this distanced, outside perspective, Cuba may seem to be on the brink of social change.

However, speculations like these are not new. In fact, ever since the Cuban Revolution, and especially since the beginning of the Special Period, numerous foreign observers have been predicting popular unrest and the downfall of the Cuban government. With the exception of the maleconazo in August 1994—when hundreds of Cubans took to the streets of Havana in protest against the government but were quickly dispersed by the police—Cubans have never collectively taken to the streets and risen up against their government since the revolution, let alone tried to turn Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución into another Tahrir Square.

The reasons for this are complex and numerous but may include such factors as lingering loyalties to the Revolution, especially among party members and older Cubans; a fear of drastic change and potential chaos; the ongoing use of migration as an exit strategy; and the regime’s sophisticated and omnipresent security system. Furthermore, the ongoing economic crisis that began more than 20 years ago has been and continues to be the number one concern for most Cubans. Making ends meet is their main daily preoccupation, which in turn keeps their minds off other more politically oriented concerns and activities.

Yet most Cubans are neither passive nor complacent nor indifferent to the political, economic, and social situation on the island. On the contrary, they understand that they live in a highly controlled society where there are clear, albeit shifting, limits on what they can and cannot say and do, and that stepping over these limits can have harsh consequences. But precisely because people know this, they have created mechanisms to deal with these circumstances. And it is here, in their everyday struggles for survival that we can find important changes taking place in Cuban society, changes that are not only producing new social spaces, dynamics, and values but also fundamentally altering the relationship between the individual and the state. These subtle yet profound changes are often overlooked by the international community, whose analyses tend to emphasize the Cuban government, the United States, its embargo, and other foreign pressures, as well as the island’s internal opposition, as the primary actors and potential agents of change.

What these diverse and complex grassroots transformations will lead to and what impact they will continue to have on the development of Cuban civil society is unclear. What is certain, however, is that Cubans are on the move. Although they may not be pouring out into the streets and demanding radical, political changes, they are shaking off decades of state paternalism and dependency, and increasingly taking their destinies into their own hands. It is this increasing grassroots independence that may also turn out to be among the greatest challenges to the Cuban state. As such, both the Cuban government and the international community would do well to include ordinary Cubans as key social actors when thinking about the island, both now and in the future.

 


 

Katrin Hansing is an anthropologist and professor of Black and Latino Studies at Baruch College, City University of New York.


 

1. James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale University Press, 1987).

2. See, for example, Andres Martinez, “We Support Democratic Uprisings in the Middle East. Why Not in Cuba?” (editorial), The Washington Post, April 7, 2011.

 

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