On a recent trip to Havana, I experienced first-hand some of the tricks of the trade of corruption in today’s Cuba. Loaded down with gifts, I discovered that my 59 kilograms of luggage was nearly three times the permitted 20 kgs. One particularly accommodating immigration officer volunteered to be my guide, but still made a show of emphasizing the inflexible rules. “I’m sorry but we only allow 20 kgs. of overweight for which you will have to pay $10 for each kilogram,” she said. “Anything beyond that will be confiscated.” Shocked, I quickly calculated that I would have to give up $200 to the authorities and still be forced to surrender the remaining 19 kgs. of my luggage. The custom’s official, however, proposed a solution: “The charge is $200 for which you will be assured of getting through customs with all your luggage intact. Take it or leave it.” Realizing that she had me in an awkward position, I quickly slipped her two $100 bills and allowed her to play interference with the throng of customs officials guarding the airport exit.
While this brief episode is laden with lessons about how petty corruption functions in today’s Cuba, it highlights the central argument presented by Díaz-Briquets and Pérez-López in their volume, Corruption in Cuba: all else being equal, the potential for corruption increases when state monopoly and bureaucratic discretion over the allocation of goods and services are maximized, while accountability to the pubic is minimized. Translated into the jocular language of Cuban Spanish, “El que parte y reparte coge la mayor (y mejor) parte” (He who divides and distributes takes the biggest, and best, part). [End Page 172]
In the book’s excellent third chapter, “Roots of Corruption in Cuba,” the authors describe in detail the corrupt practices first implanted by Spanish colonialism (infamous for the ineffective mercantilist policies that caused officials to “always obey but never comply”) and later deepened during almost sixty years of notoriously rapacious republican politics (1902–1958). However, they argue that this “national culture of corruption” has only been exacerbated during almost fifty years of adaptation to the fertile environment of state socialism. According to the authors, after 1959 Cuba has
“excelled in adopting the institutions of socialism that are particularly prone to corruption […] public ownership of the means of production, central planning and government control over most economic activities, absolute political control by the party, generalized privileges for the ruling class, and extremely limited government accountability.”(17)
More importantly, Díaz-Briquets and Pérez-López point out that Cuba now faces new challenges as it begins to court foreign investment and incorporate selected capitalist management practices into its nominally socialist economy. Both traditional and socialist forms of corruption now coexist in Cuba with other “transitional” forms of fraud and state capture peculiar to countries passing through the no-man’s-land that separates centrally planned economies from market economies.
Throughout their original and exhaustively researched volume (but especially in chapters 4 and 5, which constitute the deeply analytical and richly descriptive heart of the book), the authors reason that episodes of petty corruption like the one described above are not simply isolated incidents of “bad behavior” on the part of those lacking revolutionary values. Instead, they are the result of the size and structure of the socialist state itself. In other words, both the petty, administrative corruption that has become rampant at all levels of Cuban society, as well as the more corrosive and hypocritical misuse of office and misappropriation of resources commonly practiced by elite Communist cadres are the consequence of three fundamental characteristics of Cuba’s socialist system: (1) the almost absolute monopoly exercised by the Cuban government over the supply of goods and services, (2) the very high degree of discretion exercised by Cuban officials and...