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A view of Havana’s sprawl

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Castro’s less visible legacy

On “anthropological damage”

A view of Havana’s sprawl
| Brian Crecente/Polygon

A short drive through the streets of Havana is all it takes to realize that Fidel Castro’s most obvious legacy is the devastation of Cuba’s infrastructure. The city that for centuries was one of the most important capitals of the Western Hemisphere lies in ruins, as if it had suffered the ravages of a protracted civil war. The city that once prospered despite pirate raids, a British occupation, two wars of independence, and two popular revolts against domestic tyrants, could not withstand the wanton neglect and sheer incompetence of Castro’s regime.

As bad as it is, the physical devastation is not the worst legacy of the Castro regime. Europe’s recent history shows that infrastructure can be rebuilt in a decade or so. There is a far more pervasive and ominous legacy left by almost 60 years of Castroism, one that cannot be easily perceived by the casual traveler, one that has left an indelible imprint on the Cuban psyche, values, and behavior. Dagoberto Valdes, the sophisticated leader of the Centro de Estudios Convivencia in Western Cuba, has labeled this invisible legacy as the “anthropological damage.”

“Anthropological damage” refers to the long-term behavioral changes caused in the population caused by a fundamentally immoral, pervasive and long-lasting regime. This is not exclusive to Cuba or Castroism, but common to all totalitarian regimes. Vaclav Havel, the renowned Czech dissident intellectual, made numerous references to the “loss of the ethical compass” developed by people under communism.

Inspired by an earlier Ortodoxo Party campaign against political corruption, the revolt against General Batista combined the powerful ―and volatile― elements of democratic aspirations, nationalism, populism, and the idealism of a proud but immature nation. Fidel Castro rode to power atop a popular wave of optimism and altruistic fervor rarely seen before. Wealthy Cubans paid their personal and corporate taxes in advance to help fund the new government, and average Cubans contributed countless hours of volunteer work ―the real kind, not the one eventually mandated by the regime. This immense reservoir of good will was exploited and squandered by Fidel Castro, who channeled all this positive energy into the building of his own absolute personal power.

Post Fidel Castro government poster
Post Fidel Castro government poster
Brian Crecente/Polygon

After Castro’s abuse, whatever was left of that reservoir was crushed by the imposition of the totalitarian model. The State swallowed every private business, from sugar mills to barbershops. After generations of sustained material and spiritual progress, Cubans found themselves prisoners of an all-powerful State that took everything from them and gave back little beyond relentless propaganda and demands for yet more sacrifices. The new ideological State decoupled material progress from competence and hard work, and linked upward mobility to ideological loyalty and naked opportunism. As the Russians before them, the Cubans learned to live by the motto “They make believe they pay us, so we make believe we work.”

Many who believed in the revolutionary project were crushed by a sense of betrayal and disappointment, and felt used and abused by the regime. The State had stolen everything from them, from personal freedoms to personal property. Perceived as illegitimate, repressive, arbitrary, and immoral, the State became an enemy to be feared, circumvented, and cheated whenever possible.

Since everything belonged to the State, then everything belonged to nobody, and nobody cared. Thus the “Tragedy of the Commons” became a common tragedy. In the face of permanent and widespread scarcity, stealing from the State ―the Cuban verb for this is resolver (make do, hustling, foraging)― became the formula for survival, and the only way to prosper outside the regime. The stigma associated with public corruption ―one of the original pillars of the revolution― slowly reversed into admiration for those clever enough to prosper outside ―and despite― the State. Worse, by the late 1970s Cubans began to realize that the ruling elite enjoyed living standards that were unattainable even for professionals and middle-rank government officials, let alone average workers. The obvious hypocrisy of the new oligarchy only increased the disappointment of the population.

Around this time, after almost twenty years of self-imposed isolation from the world, the regime began to offer glimpses of American TV shows and films on national television. Nobody knew how these had been obtained, but rumor had it that they were pirated via satellite TV, a luxury available only to the State and the oligarchy. I was able to confirm the rumor only after watching HBO in Miami. The sophisticated, computer-generated images and music on so many Cuban TV shows of that time had obviously been stolen from commercial American TV. If the righteous State that relentlessly preached “revolutionary morality” behaved like this, what could be expected from its impoverished subjects?

After the end of the Soviet subsidy in 1991, the Cuban economy collapsed by more than 50%. The ensuing “Special Period” deepened the chronic scarcity Cubans had suffered since 1959. The collapse of the Soviet empire demolished the regime’s ideological foundation, and with it, to the Marxist ethical code that upheld “revolutionary morality.” “Survival of the fittest” became the unofficial motto, and public corruption reached new heights. Repressed by an immoral State, the only way for Cubans to survive was to become amoral. The already blurred boundaries between public and private, right and wrong, simply disappeared. Stealing from the State was not just accepted but expected. Instead of virtues to extol, integrity and ethics became a liability, and obstacle to survival and progress through the daily resolver.

Havana’s main theater and the Habana Libre hotel
Havana’s main theater and the Habana Libre hotel
Brian Crecente/Polygon

Most Cubans’ disappointment and deep sense of betrayal reached its nadir during the Special Period. Their leaders had asked them to forsake all of their traditional beliefs in democracy, capitalism, and religion for the ideology of the future, Marxism. Now Marxism was dead, and these same leaders were living in the former homes of Cuba’s old oligarchy, driving expensive cars, vacationing in the Mediterranean, and running luxurious restaurants and nightclubs in Havana. Betrayed, confused, without a reliable belief system, it is no surprise that Cubans have become cynics.

This explains why Cubans are responsible for a large proportion of Medicare fraud cases in South Florida. Raised under a State they consider illegitimate, repressive, arbitrary, and immoral, Cubans ―especially those who suffered through the Special Period― have developed a predisposition to ignore laws and regulations, and are remarkably suited to exploit any government welfare program. The reader must keep in mind that I am generalizing. What I am describing does not necessarily apply to a majority of the population, but it is true for a significant fraction of it.

This disregard for intellectual property rights, at the State and population level alike, is something that foreign companies interested in the Cuban market should keep in mind, especially companies operating in the media and entertainment business. Media piracy in Cuba is rampant, from TV shows and movies included in the popular “paquete” ―a selection of digital media that circulates weekly in the underground market― to computer software and video games. Creative Cubans have developed local networks where neighbors share TV and play computer games for a fee, using just one legitimate account from a relative abroad. This practice is officially illegal, but the government ―despite its notorious repressive capacity― is hopelessly losing the battle because it lost the moral high ground long ago by engaging in media piracy at the State level.

Someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, the Castro regime will end. Freedom will return to Cuba, and with it a renewal of the legendary entrepreneurial spirit of the Cuban people, molded by the influx of hard-working immigrants from many different cultures over three centuries. Infrastructure will be rebuilt, and the island will prosper once again. But it will take at least a couple of generations to repair the profound anthropological damage caused by Castroism.

Sebastian A. Arcos, M.A. is the associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University.

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