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Money laundering, drug trafficking, weapons ... Is this what awaits us in Cuba?

Vidal Romero has overseen a study on the present and future of security and illegality on the Island. In this interview he issues some distressing conclusions.


Vidal Romero - Head of the Political Science Department at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico- has headed a study focused on how a liberalization process in Cuba would affect public safety and illegality. How would this affect a society and a country characterized by various factors, such as a high corruption rate, its strategic geographic location for international crime networks, and its population's dire economic situation?

In this talk with DDC, Romero cites some risks that we will need to face in the immediate future.

Mr. Romero, you understand the need for reform leading to economic liberalization and the democratization of Cuba's political life. At the same time, you point out the risks that these steps could entail. Can you tell us a bit about that?

It is certainly important to emphasize the need for Cuba to continue and expand on the economic liberalization reform that it undertook in 2011, and to begin to democratize its political life. That said, it is also important to understand that liberalization processes are rife with risks and potential setbacks, as they are usually periods of instability and changes that alter the social order.

To the extent that we keep these risks in mind, we can take actions that minimize the negative impact of economic (and possibly political) liberalization on security in Cuba. This is very important, because if the process of liberalization and democratization has a negative effect on security, this will negatively impact popular support for a more liberal regime than the current one, as many will long for the order under the previous one, hampering the transition process towards democratic consolidation.

Disassembling and rendering the institutions of the current Cuban State more efficient, orienting them more towards the welfare of citizens, and less towards political interests, is no small task.

How do you see the current situation in Cuba in terms of security and illegality? 

Cuba features a peculiar combination: an acceptable level of public safety (in Latin American terms) and rampant illegality (even for Latin America). Although your average Cuban can walk the streets of his country with little risk of being the victim of a crime, a large number of that same Cuban's activities are actually illegal.

This illegality is largely induced by state regulation, which has a political and not an economic or social logic, coupled with a corrupt and inoperative bureaucracy. This illegality is related to the Cuban's concept of ​​"getting by". Cuba's circumstances have spawned multiple black markets and illegal business networks to meet different needs. 

It is very important to note that there are few up-to-date public statistics on the crime situation in the Statistical Yearbooks published by the Cuban Government. The crime with which countries are usually compared is homicide. The most recent data for Cuba in the statistics of the UN's Office for Drugs and Crime is from 2016. There is no recent data on other crimes, such as theft, for example. Cuba's official news sources rarely report criminal events on the Island; they do not have (as is common in other countries) such a criminal activity section.

It is also important to contextualize the current level of crime in Cuba. The homicide rate per 100,000 people in 2016 was 5.0, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. If we compare this with the Caribbean or Central American countries in 2014 (which is when there is data for the rest of the countries in the region), this is a relatively low rate. For example, for the same year in the Caribbean, only Aruba had a lower rate than Cuba (1.9 vs 5.2 in Cuba); the rate in the Dominican Republic was 17.4, Puerto Rico's was 19, and Jamaica's was 35.1. 

Compared with its neighbors in the Americas Cuba was the country with the lowest homicide rate in 2016 (5.0). Nicaragua had a rate of 7.4, Mexico, 19.3; Belize, 37.6; Honduras, 56.5: and even Costa Rica - a country known for its order - had a higher rate: 11.9. The rate for Miami in 2016 was 12.2.

But, if the criterion is not geographical, but rather based on the type of regime (which is a logical relationship, given that the type of State should affect public order), then crime in Cuba is not that low. Among the countries that Freedom House classified as "non-free" in 2016, Cuba had the highest homicide rates, second only to Yemen, Kazakhstan and Russia. Cuba's rate is also high if we compare it, for example, to that of China, 0.6; and Vietnam, 1.5 (for 2011, the last available year), which are some of the models followed by the Cuban elite in the Government.

What are the most important elements that could lead to an increase in crime rates in the event of liberalization?

There are several elements present, or potentially present, in Cuba that put this nation at risk for an escalation of crime and violence: a precarious economy, a weak State, the existence of multiple black markets, a deep-rooted culture of illegality, young people and entrepreneurs at a disadvantage to compete in a more open economy, and Cuba's strategic location for the illegal activities of criminal organizations in the United States and Central and South America.

If one considers these elements as a whole, an increase in crime rates seems imminent as Cuba liberalizes its economy (and eventually its political regime). Hence the importance and urgency of taking concrete measures that reduce the effects of these variables.

In Cuba, according to the statistics mentioned, the homicide rate is currently low. However, there is a large number of guns in the hands of an army that is disproportionately large relative to the size of the population and that of the country. Could this pose a risk in the future?

Yes. One of the reasons for the low violence rate in Cuban lands is the limited possession of firearms by the population. The scarce press reports and accounts by inhabitants tell us that many homicides and actions of violence are perpetrated using knives, machetes, bats, sticks or manually. 

While this is positive for security and coexistence within Cuba, there is another side to it: an excessively armed State. This is a characteristic shared by authoritarian regimes. The Cuban government seems to pay a lot of attention to this issue, not for reasons of public security, but to avoid an overthrow by armed means.

In a more democratic future, this situation will be problematic, as it is likely that these weapons (as well as intelligence and security information) will lie in the hands of those who now hold power in Cuba, and use it to structure criminal organizations. This was what happened in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, and now these countries are paying for it, with undemocratic governments and high rates of crime and violence.

You have pointed out the potential links between the current black market, of a national scope, and possible criminal networks in the future...

Yes, definitely. As I mentioned, largely because of the restrictive regulation and scarcity, there are already black markets in Cuba for practically all goods and services. The fundamental question in this issue is whether, once the rules are normalized, these businesses that now traffic in harmless goods (such as sugar, coffee, fish and clothing) will disappear and become legal ones, or mutate and begin trafficking in high-profit illicit goods, such as drugs, prostitution, or stolen goods, given that they already have the structure, connections and knowledge to engage in illegal activity. This second scenario seems highly probable.

Moreover, there are multiple criminal organizations in the United States, Mexico and other countries in the region, with evidence indicating that they are already trying to do business in Cuba. And, although there is no solid evidence that have achieved this, as entry into Cuba becomes less restrictive, it is possible that these organizations will manage to infiltrate Cuban soil.

You also view money laundering and privatizations as potential hazards...

We see money laundering and failed privatizations in many of the countries that have liberalized their economies and/or democratized under difficult initial conditions, such as those of Cuba.

Regarding money laundering, it is a phenomenon that we can already observe in Cuba, in different ways. A form that has probably existed for a long time is that of foreign investments or investments by other governments in Cuban property, with the State participating using capital of dubious origins. 

The other form is that of individuals from other countries who have taken advantage of economic liberalization measures to invest money of unlawful origin in legal businesses in Cuba. There are multiple reports in the media about Cubans living in Miami who flee to the island to evade US justice when they have committed a criminal act. Many other residents abroad send their families in Cuba money earned illegally in other countries to start businesses as self-employed workers.

It should be noted that not all the investments by individuals in Cuba are of illegitimate origin, but many are suspicious. The amount of investment observed in many private businesses in Cuba, especially in tourist areas ... it seems impossible that it was amassed by Cubans on the island, given the depressed wages.

As for privatizations, this was a particularly problematic issue in the transitions by the countries of the former Communist bloc in Eastern Europe, and in the processes of economic liberalization in the Latin American countries in the 1990s. The dismantling of state enterprises presents a great business opportunity, which can be exploited (illicitly) by officials of the current regime. 

The result would be an uncompetitive economy, concentrated in a few hands, with no benefits for the bulk of the population. Russia is the best example of how a process of state enterprise privatization can go wrong. In the case of Cuba, the companies operated by the Ministry of the Armed Forces are a potential danger if, in the event they are privatized, they end up as property of the regime's military.

We know that the phenomenon of corruption undermines democracy. Could it also, in a context like the Cuban one, delay or suppress the arrival of that democracy?

Yes, for sure. Corruption creates very strong incentives not to abandon power, both to continue with the illegal extraction of income, and to avoid being prosecuted for illegal activities. 

Liberalization processes are a great opportunity for the economic development of societies, but they are also great opportunities to enrich oneself if one has the capacity to establish rules that favor certain groups over others. This economic power is transferred to politics; and then political and economic power intermingle, which is highly pernicious to democracy, especially in its earliest stages of consolidation.

You mentioned the main risks for Cuba in terms of security and illegality. Are there others? Finally, what steps should be taken now and in the future to mitigate them?

Although a good number of the actions to be carried out in a democratic context would involve the State, in the case of Cuba, this is problematic. Still, there would be a lot to do.

There are subgroups of the population that are more vulnerable than others of falling into criminal activity, for reasons of need and opportunity. Young people and Afro-Cubans stand out. These subpopulations need to receive support in the form of business training and integration into economic activities.

Another fundamental issue is to overturn the current culture of illegality that exists in Cuba. Violating the rules has become something accepted when it comes to a necessity, but the line between what is a necessity, and what is not, is blurred and increasingly flexible. Organizations of all types operating in Cuba should have as basic aims to change this way of thinking. Otherwise it will be impossible to establish the rule of law in Cuba, even if the nature of the regime changes.

It is also important to establish a monitoring system for investments in the country in order to detect money laundering and criminal organizations’ potential infiltration into the region.

Finally, a necessary asset to decide on actions that mitigate an escalation of insecurity is up-to-date information, whether through networks of local informants or some kind of pressure on the Government, as it is very important to know what is happening in the country in terms of security.

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