Sociolismo

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Sociolismo
Informal practice commonly found in Cuba
Cuba map.png
Map of Cuba, where Sociolismo commonly takes place.
Cuba flag.png
Flag of Cuba.
Entry written by Matthew Cherneski.
Matthew Cherneski is affiliated to School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.

Original Text: Matthew Cherneski, alumni, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London

The use of social networks (family, friendship, or other network connections) in Cuban society to obtain goods and services that are in short supply due to state rationing and the inefficiencies of the command economy [1][2].

The name of the concept is derived from the root word socio, which in Spanish means ‘partner’, ‘member’, or ‘buddy’. The best simple translation for the word is roughly ‘buddy-ism’. Furthermore, the word sociolismo is a pun on the commonly known Spanish word socialismo, which in English means ‘socialism’[3].

‘Murals in Santa Clara, Cuba. Translation: ‘To victory, always.’ Photograph by Ramon Rosati.’Source:[1]

Sociolismo is based on three important concepts within Cuban society: simpatía (likability), confianza (trust from familiarity) and ser buena gente (being a good person)[4][5]. Damién Fernández views sociolismo as developing from the concept of lo informal (‘that which is informal’). He states that:

Lo informal is composed of groups of individuals who know and like each other […] These groups bring together peers, superiors, and subordinates […] Informality depends on the possibility of bending rules and bypassing legal norms because I/you am/are special and real.[6]

Cubans do not tend to use the word sociolismo explicitly when describing their own behaviour, but rather utilise normal words that carry an alternative, loaded meaning. Many of the words took on their second meanings during the ‘Special Period’ of the 1990s, a time of economic crisis in Cuba following the dissolution of its old economic partner, the Soviet Union[7]. Firstly, the verb luchar (‘to struggle’) changed from its original, communist meaning of ‘struggling’ against imperialism and capitalism, to ‘struggling’ to survive everyday life. Nowadays, the word implies the ability to use connections in order to adjust to shortages in daily life. Sometimes this word can mean taking a little extra from the government warehouse for a friend or selling such goods for a higher price to people that need them[8].

The second word within the lexicon of sociolismo is the verb resolver, which literally means ‘to resolve’ or ‘to settle’. However, within the context of sociolismo it means something more akin to finding some type of good and taking possession of it[9]. It can also be described as a mechanism of ‘getting things done’ and ‘to make ends meet’[10].

Conseguir in the context of the language of informality means ‘to obtain’ or ‘to get’. It is comparable with the use of the Russian verb dostat’ in the context of the practice of blat in the USSR, which literally means ‘to reach’, but within the context of informality took on the meaning ‘to obtain through the use of contacts or connections’[11]. Interestingly, in everyday Cuban-Spanish, the word conseguir often takes the place of the word comprar (to buy), because obtaining a good in the shortage economy often requires some other means than simply going into a shop and buying it. Weinreb gives the following example:

People say, “Voy a conseguir oregano” (I’m going to find some oregano), instead of “Voy a comprar oregano,” [(I’m going to buy some oregano)] because in practice this undertaking means checking the availability of oregano in the aisles of dollar shops; asking about the availability of a secret stash kept behind the counter; finding out which neighbour has some available to borrow, barter, or sell; finding it growing wild on a bush, or giving up until word arrives that some has become available.[12]

Finally, the meaning of the verb inventor (‘to invent’) is stretched when used as part of the lexicon of sociolismo. The main connotation the term carries is the ability to make anything from nothing in order to survive [13]. Often it implies the ‘invention’ of a new way around a stifling law or restriction by the government[14]. For example, as the Cuban economy tried to transition through the 1990s, the government experimented with some forms of market reform and capitalism. However, what came about was a situation where the government would allow privatization and then decide to go back on its reform[15]. This created an environment of ever-changing bureaucratic regulations, which in turn resulted in an ever-changing amount of ‘invented’ loopholes to the system[16].

Even today, Cuba’s economy is still about 80 per cent controlled by the state (Bloomberg Businessweek 2012). Furthermore, the rationing of goods is still in effect, which creates country-wide shortages. This, in effect, creates the need for systems of informality and sociolismo.

Cuba’s system of sociolismo is a product of the fall of European socialism. In the 1960s and 1970s, Cuba’s economy was growing at a rate of 5 per cent per year[17]. However, by the 1980s the Cuban economy was beginning to stagnate, along with the economies of European socialist states. This is largely because Cuba was economically tied to the Soviet Union, being close trade partners and relying on cheap goods and financial help[18]. By the 1980s, Cuba was no longer able to fulfil its trade requirements and by the 1990s the Cuba economy was in complete freefall [19]. Under these conditions, Cuba’s second economy developed and is where the practice of sociolismo thrives. According to George Lambie, ‘[…] the state that supplied virtually everything to the population was suddenly disconnected from its main sources of provisions, and had to let people try to resolve their own shortages’[20].

Another political issue in Cuba that creates a safe haven for sociolismo practices is the extensive abuse of power by the leadership in Cuba, as well as high levels of state capture by politicians who influence government policies for their own private gain. Because of the elite’s abuse of their power in the communist party and the ever-increasing tax levels on the few privatized business on the island, everyday Cubans are frozen out of the system [21]. The general population faces shortages and cannot afford to shop at dollar stores; they are left to survive for themselves, thus leading to the expansion of sociolismo. The introduction of the U.S. dollar as a legal currency in Cuba in 1993 exacerbated this situation, leading to the greater stratification of society, and sociolismo practices expanded exponentially[22]. When societies become stratified, those in every stratum begin to stick with their own group, thus tightening their social connections. In addition, with the introduction of the U.S. dollar sociolismo seemly became international. With remittances coming into Cuba, the trust networks that many Cubans had with their families in the United States became even more deeply-rooted. These trust networks, which are a vital base for sociolismo, transform social structures by making society more stratified from bottom to top (Tilly 2007:10). Because remittances play such a major role in the Cuban economy (and act as a vital source of income to individual Cubans), the trust networks in place to transfer these sums were strengthened, further entrenching the practice of sociolismo in Cuban society.

Notes

  1. Lomnitz, L. and Sheinbaum, D. 2004. ‘Trust, social networks and the informal economy: a comparative analysis’. Review of Sociology of the Hungarian Sociological Association [e-journal], 10 (1): 5-26, www.colbud.hu/honesty-trust/lomnitz/pub03.doc
  2. Díaz-Briquets, S. and Pérez-López, J. 2006. Corruption in Cuba: Castro and beyond. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  3. Díaz-Briquets, S. and Pérez-López, J. 2006. Corruption in Cuba: Castro and beyond. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  4. Díaz-Briquets, S. and Pérez-López, J. 2006. Corruption in Cuba: Castro and beyond. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  5. Fernández, D. 2000. Cuba and the politics of passion. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  6. Fernández, D. 2000. Cuba and the politics of passion. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  7. Weinreb, A, 2009. Cuba in the shadow of change: daily life in the twilight of revolution. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.
  8. Weinreb, A, 2009. Cuba in the shadow of change: daily life in the twilight of revolution. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.
  9. Weinreb, A, 2009. Cuba in the shadow of change: daily life in the twilight of revolution. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.
  10. Azel, J. 2010. Maana in Cuba: the legacy of Castroism and transit. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse.
  11. Ledeneva, A. 1998. Russia’s economy of favors: blat, networking and informal exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  12. Weinreb, A, 2009. Cuba in the shadow of change: daily life in the twilight of revolution. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.
  13. Weinreb, A, 2009. Cuba in the shadow of change: daily life in the twilight of revolution. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.
  14. Smith, B. 1999. The self-employed in Cuba: a street level view. Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, 9: 49-59,http://www.ascecuba.org/publications/proceedings/volume9/pdfs/smith.pdf
  15. Smith, B. 1999. The self-employed in Cuba: a street level view. Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, 9: 49-59, http://www.ascecuba.org/publications/proceedings/volume9/pdfs/smith.pdf
  16. Smith, B. 1999. The self-employed in Cuba: a street level view. Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, 9: 49-59, http://www.ascecuba.org/publications/proceedings/volume9/pdfs/smith.pdf
  17. DeFronzo, J. 2007. Revolutions and revolutionary movements. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  18. Valdéz Paz, J. 2005. ‘Cuba in the “special period”: from equality to equity’, in J. Tulchin, L. Bobea, M. Prieto and R. Hernández (eds) Changes in Cuban Societies since the Nineties. Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: 103-122.
  19. DeFronzo, J. 2007. Revolutions and revolutionary movements. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  20. Lambie, G. 2010. The Cuban revolution in the 21st century. New York: Pluto Books.
  21. Erikson, D. 2007. ‘Strategy Escaping the corruption curse’, in M. Pérez-Stable (ed.), Looking forward: comparative perspectives on Cuba’s transition. Notre Dame, IN: Sheridan Books Inc: 212-239.
  22. Erikson, D. 2007. ‘Strategy Escaping the corruption curse’, in M. Pérez-Stable (ed.), Looking forward: comparative perspectives on Cuba’s transition. Notre Dame, IN: Sheridan Books Inc: 212-239.