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Cuba and the Tyranny of Groupthink

By: José Azel - Jul 4, 2013, 11:39 am

A Freedom House assessment of “Freedom on the Net” reports that Cuba remains one of the world’s most repressive environments for the internet and information and communication technologies (ICTs). Rather than provide unfettered access to the web, the Cuban government has created a dual system with a national intranet and the global internet. Most Cubans have access only to the national intranet which consists of an in-country e-mail system, a Cuban encyclopedia, websites that are supportive of the government and the like.

Freedom House

Cuba’s only two internet service providers are owned by the state and surveillance is extensive. It is estimated that less than 2 percent of the population — mostly government officials and foreign companies — has access to the internet. Even a generous estimate, including black market internet use, only pushes that up to 5 percent. Whatever connectivity is available costs around $12.00 per hour in a country where the average monthly salary is less than US$20 per month.

Additionally, Cuba is also one of the few countries to have issued laws and regulations explicitly outlawing certain online activities. Decree-Law 209 states, among other restrictions, that “e-mail messages must not jeopardize national security.” Resolution 127 – on network security – bans the spreading of information that is against the social interest, the integrity of the people, or national security. Resolution 56/1999 provides that all material intended for publication on the internet must first be approved by the National Registry of Serial Publications. And Resolution 92/2003 prohibits ICT service providers from granting access to individuals who are not approved by the government and requires the providers to enable only domestic chat services, not international ones.

Underscoring the country’s self imposed intellectual isolation, Boris Moreno, Cuba’s Deputy Minister for Information Science and Communication, noted that “Cuba is not concerned with the individual connection of its citizens to the internet. We use the internet to defend the Revolution…”

The extent of Cuba’s political cyber police efforts and its concern with controls over information was vividly captured in a recently leaked fifty-four-minute video of a conference identified as “Enemy Campaigns and the Politics of Confrontation with Counter Revolutionary Groups.” The video shows a June 2010 lecture delivered behind-closed-doors to an audience, mostly in military uniforms, officers of the Interior Ministry (in charge of Cuba’s domestic security). The topic of the presentation was: the dangers internet access poses to the government.

The lecturer, counter-intelligence cybernetic specialist officer Eduardo Fontes Suárez, defines the internet as a field of battle that the government must use to its advantage. He boasts of a new special section created within the Interior Ministry to work against bloggers. He warns of the dangers of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter labeling them “classic combat networks” and citing as examples of how Iran’s Green Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution were “created” when social networks were used to call people to street protests.

He highlights, in military jargon, the risks to the Cuban government of bloggers like Yoani Sanchez and youth groups like Raices de Esperanza (Roots of Hope) — a US group of university students that seeks to establish youth-to-youth contacts with their peers in Cuba. We can only wonder what the Cuban leadership must be thinking following the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Cuban government has been remarkably successful in sealing the consciousness of the Cuban people from the outside world with a doctrine of intellectual isolationism in support of a self-sufficient and all encompassing revolutionary dogma of intellectual autarky. Fidel Castro made this intellectual self-sufficiency policy explicitly clear in his 1961 speech, “Words to the Intellectuals,” in which he famously warned that “Within the Revolution, everything, against the Revolution, nothing.”

But this pursuit of intellectual autarky has also produced a classic case of what social psychologist Irving Janis called “groupthink,” a condition that will ultimately prove to be the regime’s undoing. Groupthink is a type of thought characteristic of cohesive in-groups, whose members try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Decision-makers affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to follow irrational programs of action.

A case in point is General Castro’s new economic program formulated, in his words, “to save Cuba from the economic abyss” and outlined in a 32-page document that comprises the economic platform for the VI Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba to ratify the General’s economic directives.

A centerpiece of General Castro’s program is the firing of up to 1,300,000 government workers — something in the order of 20 percent of the workforce — and allowing them to make a living by becoming self-employed “outside the government sector.” In the Cuban version of Orwellian doublespeak, the measures are labeled as an “actualization of socialism” and outside the government sector stands for the unspeakable private sector.

The dismissal measure assumes that everyone is temperamentally suited to be an entrepreneur and able to make a living in fields that may be far afar from their work experience and professional training, and to do so without access to cash, credit, raw materials, equipment, technology or any of the inputs necessary to produce goods and services.

Groupthink is also evident in how those selected for dismissal will be chosen. According to the plan, a commission of experts will decide the optimal number of personnel required for each state entity, and specially trained workers’ commissions will decide the positions to be eliminated. It is unclear what role seniority, patronage, friendship, ideology, or socialist merit will play in the decision-making.

But perhaps most illustrative of the Cuban government’s groupthink (and as Dave Barry might say, I am not making this up) is the specificity with which the Cuban economic “reformers” have decided to allow those being fired to solicit permits to become self employed in precisely 178 activities, such as:

Trade number 23-the purchases and sale of used books; 29-attendants of public bathrooms (presumably for tips); 34-pruning of palm trees (apparently other trees will still be pruned by the state); 49-wrapping buttons with fabric; 61-shoe shinning; 62- cleaning of spark plugs; 69-typists; 110-box spring repairs (not to be confused with number 116); 116-mattress repairs; 124-umbrella repairs; 125-refilling of disposable cigarette lighters; 150-tarot cards fortune telling; 156-dandy (technical definition unknown, male escort?); 158-natural fruits peeling (separate from 142-selling fruits in kiosks).

In his economic dreamland of surrealist juxtapositions and non sequitur, General Castro and his team believe that allowing this bizarre list of self-employment activities is the way to save the communist system. This surrealistic disconnect — the product of the nomenclature’s incestuous intellectual inbreeding — flows from Cuba’s doctrine of intellectual isolationism where Cubans are unable to receive information freely and exchange ideas openly.

Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Ceausescu’s Romania, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Afghanistan under the Taliban, and North Korea with its official state ideology of Juche (self-sufficiency) are all examples of tyrannical groupthink regimes that pursued policies of economic and intellectual autarky with disastrous results for its peoples and often its leaders.

In Cuba, long-held Marxists-Leninist assumptions will not be swapped for another set of beliefs without a democratically inspired leadership. A genuine transition requires a leadership moved and sustained by the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, petition, and religion, that can defeat the tyranny of groupthink.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.