Where a Simple Suggestion Equals Dissent

Photo: RobinThom, Flickr

He raised his hand and asked for the floor in the middle of the meeting. At first he seemed nervous but then he explained, more calmly, why the factory hadn't met its goals in for the production of sugar. Few looked up from the chairs around him while he described the obsolete machinery, the poor organization of shift work, and the few incentives for the workers. After his tirade, at the other end of the table, the director was openly irritated with his frankness and hit back saying, "He only criticizes but he doesn't offer any solutions." The man sat down again and told himself that he'd never say another word in these boring monthly meetings. The best thing, next time, would be to keep quiet.

Over time, the frustrated engineer came to see that his arguments were only well-received if they were accompanied by certain verbal bows. The incisive opinions would be accepted when they came with verbal flourishes such as "the wise direction of our leaders," or supposed remedies in the style of "what we need is more sacrifice." But he wanted to shed light on the inefficiencies that were holding back production in his company and he felt that the mere fact of describing it was the first step to fixing it. He believed -- and this was his big mistake -- that he should illuminate with the lantern of his remarks all that was hidden in the shadows of apathy. What he didn't account for in this exercise of opinion was the fact that the heads of the mill where he worked were more interested in maintaining the slippage than in eliminating it.

One of the great dramas defining the daily life of Cubans arises from the punishment of dissenters, the stigma under which they live. To publicly share incisive observations about the social, economic or political state of the country is synonymous with asking for trouble. But it is the Nation itself that suffers most from this restriction on communication, losing a wealth of ideas that could help to remedy our problems. It is obvious that more than a few swallow their judgments rather than face being seen negatively, thus, many recommendations are confined to conversations between friends, or lost in the back of some drawer. The whispering heard in the hallways rarely rises in decibels when the authorities -- whether in the workplace or the country -- call on people to speak openly, to "let it all hang out." The last call for true sincerity was heard in 2007, when Raul Castro himself promoted a kind of "national catharsis" in a national call to bring to light complaints and suggestions. It was as if a Pandora's Box had been opened, but it was quickly closed again after they failed to publish the results of a national survey, let alone apply any of the urgent measures that so many clamored for.

Hence, the man in this story took many years to realize that many of his colleagues had passed through a similar phase of enthusiasm for transformation. Others had raised their voices in this meeting or that to denounce what was wrong and in response felt the cold water of doubt, suspicion and stigma for daring to question. Finally, like so many millions of Cubans, they had been content to make no further comments contrary to the triumphalist slogans, to ensure they would not be put in the "hypercritical" category and perhaps be taken as dissidents.

The sugar mill was going from bad to worse, waste and indiscipline conspired against its performance, but who would want to point the finger at what was happening. Once the last "idealist" gave up trying, the meetings had become shorter and the yawns wider. The director smiled happily as he listed only the achievements and future promises.

Yoani's blog, Generation Y, can be read here in English translation.