The Tyranny of Groupthink

Sunday, February 27, 2011
A great column by University of Miami Professor Jose Azel:

Cuba's Internet repression equals groupthink

Cuba remains one of the world's most repressive environments for the Internet and information technologies. The Cuban government has created a dual system with a national intranet and the global Internet. Most Cubans have access only to the national intranet which consists of an in-country e-mail system, a Cuban encyclopedia and websites that are supportive of the government.

Cuba's only two Internet service providers are state owned and surveillance is extensive. Less than 2 percent of the population (mostly government officials) has access to the Internet. Whatever connectivity is available costs about $12 per hour in a country where the average monthly salary is less than $20.

Additionally, Cuban regulations state that e-mail messages must not jeopardize national security; forbid the spreading of information that is against the "integrity" of the people; provide that all material intended for publication on the Internet must first be approved by the National Registry of Serial Publications; and prohibit service providers from granting access to individuals not approved by the government.

The extent of Cuba's political cyber police efforts was vividly captured in a recently leaked video of a 2010 behind-closed-doors lecture to an audience mostly in military uniforms. The lecturer, a counter-intelligence cybernetic specialist, defines the Internet as a field of battle that the government must use to its advantage. He boasts of a new group created within the Interior Ministry to work against bloggers. He warns of the dangers of "classic combat networks" such as Facebook and Twitter and notes how protests in Iran and Ukraine were "created" when social networks were used to incite people to protest.

What must the Cuban leadership be thinking of the events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere?

The Cuban government has been remarkably successful in sealing the consciousness of the Cuban people from the outside world with a doctrine of intellectual isolationism and an all encompassing revolutionary dogma of intellectual autarky. Fidel Castro made it explicitly clear in a 1961 speech in which he famously warned intellectuals: "Within the Revolution everything, against the Revolution, nothing."

But this intellectual autarky has also produced a classic case of what social psychologist Irving Janis called "groupthink," a type of thought characteristic of cohesive in-groups whose members try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. In a groupthink environment decision-makers ignore alternatives and tend to follow irrational programs of action.

A case in point is General Raúl Castro's new economic program formulated, in his words, "to save Cuba from the economic abyss" and outlined in a 32-page economic platform for the upcoming Communist Party Congress.

A centerpiece of Castro's program is the firing of up to 1.3 million government workers — about 20 percent of the workforce — and allowing them to become self-employed "outside the government sector." In the Cuban version of Orwellian doublespeak, that stands for the unspeakable private sector.

This assumes that everyone is temperamentally suited to become an entrepreneur and to do so without access to cash, credit, raw materials, equipment, or technology. Groupthink is also evident in how those selected for dismissal will be chosen. A commission of experts will decide the optimal number of personnel required for each state entity and workers' commissions will decide the positions to be cut.

But perhaps most illustrative of the Cuban government's groupthink (and as Dave Barry might say, I am not making this up) is the specificity with which the Cuban "reformers" have decided to allow those being fired to solicit permits to become self employed in 178 activities such as:

Trade No. 23, the purchases and sale of used books; 29, attendants of public bathrooms (presumably for tips); 34, pruning of palm trees; 49, wrapping buttons with fabric; 61, shoe shining; 62, cleaning of spark plugs; 110, box spring repairs (not to be confused with number 116); 116, mattress repairs; 124, umbrella repairs; 125, refilling of disposable cigarette lighters; 150, tarot cards fortune telling; 156, dandy (technical definition unknown, male escort?); 158, natural fruits peeling (separate from 142, selling fruits in kiosks).

In his economic dreamland of surrealist juxtapositions, Castro and his team believe that allowing this bizarre list of self-employment activities is the way to save the communist system. This surrealistic disconnect — the product of incestuous intellectual inbreeding — flows from Cuba's doctrine of intellectual isolationism where Cubans are unable to receive information freely and exchange ideas openly.

In Cuba, long-held Marxists-Leninist assumptions will not be swapped for another set of beliefs without a democratic leadership that, inspired and sustained by freedoms of speech, press, assembly, petition, and religion, can defeat the tyranny of groupthink.