Are Cubans Satisfied With their Government?

Economist/blogger Michael Stastny has recently returned from a trip to Havana, Cuba, where he was surprised by the extent of the "misery and decay" that he found (hat tip Arnold Kling). He has some interesting observations for those who still believe that Castro's Cuba is a paradise for the common people. It's worth keeping in mind, also, that Havana is likely to be far better off than the most of the rest of Cuba. Like other communist regimes, the Cuban government pours a disproportionate share of its resources and public investment into the capital and areas likely to be frequented by foreigners. Other parts of Cuba are likely to be much worse off - especially those where foreigners are not allowed to go.

Stastny is no apologist for Castro. But I think he may be somewhat misguided in this passage from his post:

Unfortunately, Cubans don't have access to "world news" (no foreign newspapers, no internet, no satellite dishes), so the people I talked with were actually quite happy with their situation ("We don't earn much, but as opposed to other countries education and health care is for free!" (translation mine)) and couldn't see that people in developed countries who are considered as dirt poor have a way higher living standard (I didn't have the impression that they were afraid to speak openly).

There is no way to know for sure whether these particular Cubans were genuinely ignorant of the higher standard of living in other countries. However, I doubt that such ignorance is generally prevalent in Cuba. After all, if they didn't know that life in many other nations is far better, why would thousands of Cubans be risking their lives to flee the country? Not only for the wealthy United States, but even for much poorer destinations, such as Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and even Haiti.

If the Cubans Stastny spoke too were not as ignorant as they seemed, why would they lie to him? Perhaps because Cuba has an extensive secret police that regularly tracks down and punishes dissenters, especially those who air the regime's dirty laundry to foreigners. As the Black Book of Communism notes (pp. 655), Cuba's DGCI has "thousands" of agents and anyone coming into contact with foreigners is particularly likely to be monitored; there is even a special division of the agency specifically tasked with monitoring foreign visitors (a standard practice in communist states, which the Cubans likely copied from the KGB).

I'm not saying that the DGCI is so efficient that it can detect and punish any Cuban who says anything critical to a foreigner. But even a small chance of being caught and punished is likely to be enough to deter many people from expressing dissent. How many Americans would be willing to openly criticize their government if doing so carried even a 5% chance of arrest and imprisonment by a brutal secret police?

It's true that Stastny had the "impression" that the people he spoke to were "not afraid to speak openly." But people living under a highly repressive regime learn to be skillfull liars and to keep their innermost thoughts to themselves - especially around foreigners or in other situations where the secret police are likely to be watching.

Stastny's understandable error is part of a more general problem that Westerners have in assessing the statements of people living under oppressive governments. Too often, they take parroting of government propaganda at face value.

None of this means that there aren't lots of Cubans who genuinely support Castro's regime. Even the most oppressive government has its beneficiaries. Moreover, fifty years of communist indoctrination has surely left its mark on Cuban public opinion. Just as there are Russians who even today remember Stalin fondly, there are probably Cubans who feel the same way about Fidel.

Be that as it may, it is important to be very cautious in interpreting pro-regime statements by Cubans and others who live under repressive governments. Some may genuinely love Big Brother. But others are only saying they do because they know Big Brother is watching.