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The Cuban “Cargo Cult”

By: José Azel - Apr 14, 2015, 12:41 pm
Melanesian cargo cults attempt to obtain material wealth through magic and religious ritual.
Melanesian cargo cults attempt to obtain material wealth through magic and religious ritual. (Vlad Sokhin)

EspañolIn March 2014, hoping to attract new investments, Cuba adopted a new foreign-investment law it described as “strategic and transcendental.” As of this writing — a year later — only one new investment has been reported as approved. The law, part of Chieftain Castro’s economic reforms, is based on the idea that one can influence something based on its resemblance to another thing — a delusion social scientists call a “cargo cult.”

A cargo cult involves the performance of various ritualistic acts that practitioners believe will lead to the appearance of an abundance of material wealth (cargo). Cargo cults often emerge and develop under conditions of social stress and usually involve leadership with a new myth-dream.

The cargo cult of Pacific Melanesia offer the most widely known real-life examples. During World War II, the Melanesian islanders — many of whom had never seen outsiders before — saw the prodigious amounts of war material, canned food, clothing, and other goods that were air-dropped and landed to supply US military bases.

The islanders were astounded by the wondrous possessions of the US visitors who, incredibly to the islanders, enjoyed these belongings without making them themselves. The goods simply arrived from airdrops and aircraft that descended from the sky. No US visitor was ever seen making them. This observation confirmed for the islanders the metaphysical nature of the goods. They learned that this abundance from the sky was known to the Americans as “cargo.”

When the war ended, the military bases were abandoned, thus ending the miraculous and seemingly effortless flow of goods from the sky. To summon the cargo back the islanders mimicked the rituals they had observed US servicemen use. They cleared their own landing strips, and erected control towers with rope and bamboo, carved headphones from wood, lit torches to light up the runways, and even waved the landing signals while standing on the runways.

Renowned physicist Richard Feynman popularized the metaphorical use of “cargo cult” to describe attempts to recreate successful outcomes by replicating circumstances associated with those outcomes when the circumstances are either unrelated or insufficient.

In the Caribbean island of Cuba, using effigies for correspondence — not unlike the sympathetic magic (sorcery) of the Melanesian islanders — Chieftain Raul Castro hopes to attract the material goods that flow from US investments with his version of metaphorically fabricated airstrips and control towers. The general, poorly mimicking a few random characteristics of a free market, seeks the landing of the US cargo. He will be as unsuccessful as the Melanesian islanders.

Investors will be intrigued by the Cuban fabrications, but after taking a closer look they will reject the chieftain’s simulated runways. On paper, the new Cuban investment law purports to allow 100 percent foreign ownership of a project. But this has never been permitted, and foreign investors have been reduced to being minority shareholders in partnership with the Cuban military as the controlling shareholder.

The law also stipulates that the foreign investors’ assets may be expropriated for reasons of public utility or social value. All this, in an environment of systemic corruption, where there is no independent judiciary to adjudicate any claims by a foreign investor.

The Cuban foreign investment law also imposes an Orwellian staffing process in violation of international labor protocols. Foreign companies are not allowed to hire their own employees. Instead, they must request whatever staff they require from a Cuban government agency.

The agency will provide the employees and will invoice the foreign company for the employees’ salary to be paid to the government agency in convertible currency. In this “worker’s paradise,” the government agency will then pay employees in Cuban pesos, retaining, for the state, approximately 92 percent of the employees’ salary.

This exploitative practice is “slavery by another name,” to borrow the title of Douglas Blackmon’s book, which explores the forced labor of imprisoned black men and women through the convict lease system used by state governments, white farmers, and corporations in the southern United States after the Civil War.

No responsible US company — particularly one publicly traded and subject to governmental oversight and investor scrutiny — is going to be enticed to invest under these conditions to serve a relatively small and impoverished market of 11 million with an average monthly income of US$20.

The Cuban chieftain may believe he has recreated, with his voodoo doll replica of economic reforms, the correspondent conditions to attract foreign investments. But, puncture, pinch, and squeeze as he might, the US cargo will not be forthcoming.

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.