Monday, November 21, 2011

Translation: A bureaucrat? Me?

Here, the ever-candid and perceptive Luis Sexto examines Cuban society as a doctor would a patient. He diagnoses the illness of bureaucratism and warns that the replacement of individuals, necessary as this may be, treats only the symptoms. He prescribes "the decentralisation of the economy" as an antidote to "the opacity and sterility" of excessive administrative prohibitions. 

I've also translated the first four comments by readers in response to Sexto's commentary as they appear on the Juventud Rebelde website. 

Cuban journalist Luis Sexto
A bureaucrat? Me?

By Luis Sexto, Juventud Rebelde, September 22, 2011

Translation: Marce Cameron

Clearly the bureaucratic mentality isn’t an abstraction. Rather, it is a conduct, an approach, an attitude towards people and things. And if we tried to be more precise, and therefore more correct, we’d say that it’s a swelling of the public function of the bureaucracy. Like a social illness that is acquired structurally.

On the “medical” plane, one would have to ask some basic questions: what is bureaucracy? What do we know about the vocation of the bureaucrat, a word whose usage those who are not bureaucrats demand and those who are protest. About bureaucracy, we know that it exists because it’s necessary. No society can detach itself from “the body of public functionaries”, as the dictionary defines its first meaning with great justice. The problem begins when this becomes a caste, with its members seemingly disconnected personally, though attached precisely to one and the same narrow, rarefying and rarefied vision: bureaucratism.

This sickness, according to my “clinical manual”, consists of certain extreme ideological characteristics, certain sores in the ethical fabric and, above all, a tendency to curl up in one’s shell, snail-like, to the point of affecting the conscience; so that one day the suffer will no longer be able to discern the difference between right and wrong, honourable from dishonourable, truth from lies, the useful from the useless. And above all – in its most pernicious manifestation – it ends up nonchalantly substituting the interests of the community for the interests of all those who fill out and sign paperwork, give instructions or administer collective wealth...

I know: all this has been spoken about, yet I have no other recourse than to attend to the case at hand. I’d been preparing for this in my notebook. Just imagine: would this “doctor” refuse to treat a patient just because he treated another person with the same condition beforehand? It seems to me our country must subject bureaucratism to public scrutiny. And I'm not talking about the bureaucrats. Because if these were to be replaced – though we'd have to apply the forceps or scalpel to he or she who errs frequently – I’d like to point out that while the individuals may change, if the conditioning structures remain intact then this remedy will only eliminate, for a while, the symptoms. 

From this conclusion, which is readily apparent, it follows that we must recognise the urgency of understanding the need for and supporting the decentralisation of the economy and of social services. Perhaps many small entities will then be able to become strong pillars of the central structure, the socialist state, whose old role of accumulation in both the vital sectors as well as those of lesser importance prevented it from exercising its core function: taking the pulse of society [rather than trying to run it] in those sectors that are more distant from the centre. 

So, of course, every point, every service was constructed as a vertical replica of the great centre: to pass down the rules. Those lower down the chain had a double mission: to receive from above and at the same time continue passing down the instructions, so that the chain would begin to twist itself up for lack of democratic control. And with the twists came the labyrinths, the clerical retreat into one’s shell and the glut of service windows and forms and, above all, so much impunity as if to amend the law and to apply it, or not, as convenient.

But let’s not kid ourselves. I wrote this paragraph in passing because I set out to convey the conviction that our society is determined to shake off the obsolete structures. And if I’ve referred to the inevitable transformation of that part of the social order that fosters the bureaucratic mentality, I include, as a basic antidote, the strengthening of socialist democracy. Do we not believe that our democracy has suffered from the opacity and sterility of the bureaucratic prohibitions?

This equation, therefore, has to be turned on its head: rather than the bureaucracy controlling democracy, let democracy monitor the bureaucracy. To achieve this we’ll have to rehabilitate the half-clogged channels of horizontality, and the Peoples Power institutions will have to watch over, alert, criticise and denounce, so that the necessary verticality is less prone to something or someone becoming corrupted and distorting our efforts and our aspirations for improvement. Because if we don’t defend them from within, they could be snatched away from us from without.

Comment No. 1 by “Pepe” 

We’ve been talking about bureaucracy for almost 50 years, yet it has grown like the marabu bush* in the countryside. To get rid of this evil, or to at least reduce it to the indispensable minimum, we have to change everyone’s perception of reality, from the most humble citizen to the highest levels of leadership. In my opinion, if there had been a true self-critical spirit this evil wouldn’t have persisted for so long. When thousands of directives and prohibitions are issued, when it’s all about controlling everything, from a large enterprise to a simple newsstand, it’s inevitable that people are going to be employed to carry out these functions, and that many of these people are going to take advantage of their position to obtain privileges at the expense of society through becoming corrupt or corrupting others. 

When, in order to access certain food items, a pregnant woman, a sick person, a child or an elderly citizen must get such a simple procedure approved by having it signed and stamped by various institutions, it’s inevitable that this is going to create an indecipherable thicket of administrative entities, which end up acting as an immense spider web in which the economy and services get entangled. Let’s get rid of everything useless and we’ll see how the economy, on the basis of everything else, develops, and this will render unnecessary hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats who could dedicate themselves to production or services. This is the opinion of someone whose greatest desire is to see our country prosper and for it to become an example for the rest of the world to follow.

*Marabu is a tropical thorn scrub that has overrun large areas of farmland in Cuba – translator's note.

Comment No. 2 by “kirenio81” 

There is bureaucracy in Miami just as there is in Havana, or anywhere else in the world. It’s a necessary evil that governments need in order to run the state. The situation in Cuba is worse, because its dependence on bureaucracy is much greater given that almost all the means of production and services are state property. This creates an enormous parasitic body that restrains any economic development, whatever the inconveniences it causes the citizens and themselves, who are part of the citizenry.

Comment No. 3 by Alfredo Viamonte Marin 

I agree Luis, particularly with the last sentence of your commentary. The bureaucracy corrodes and hollows out the structure just like termites, gradually and without making any noise, and this does more harm to us than 100 blockades all at once because it fortifies the internal blockade: you can’t do that, this is incorrect, this is not permitted, that isn’t legal, NO to this, NO to that, NO to the other. But in my modest opinion, to cast aside the obsolete bureaucratic structures it’s necessary to decentralise and separate out the three powers: legislative, executive and judicial. For as long as these are one and the same, as they’ve always been, we’ll never win this Cuban fight against the demons.

Comment No. 4 by Carlos Gutierrez 

I’ll repeat it here to see if anyone listens to me, because a little while ago they censored my comment on the same topic. In that ill-fated attempt to help the Revolution I basically said: (1) Bureaucratism has become an obstacle between the government and the people to the implementation, as they wish, of laws and other general directives. (2) This capacity to “adjust” general directives has given bureaucratism such power that it is almost impossible for either the government or the citizenry to confront it. (3) On the basis of this power, corruption thrives. (4) You can’t combat something that has no clear delineation. Nobody has been able, or had the audacity, to define a bureaucrat so we’d be able to point the finger at them. (5) Despite the repetition of many slogans during the past 50 years there isn’t, as far as I know, a single law for punishing the bureaucrat as there are, for example, laws for the punishment of absence from the workplace or theft. For as long as we can’t identify and punish the bureaucrat, he or she will keep laughing at our infantile and never-ending campaigns against bureaucratism. Bureaucratism, as the endemic evil that it is in Cuba, will only disappear when the causes that gave rise to it disappear, the first of which is excessive centralisation with its consequent hyper-control. I hope this humble reflection has more luck than its predecessor. Saludos.

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