Monday, April 27, 2009

Why not move Cuban small businesses toward some semblance of legitimacy?

From CubaNet:

Allana la policía bancos de videos

LA HABANA, Cuba, 27 de abril (Aini Martín Valero, Agencia Libre Asociada / – La policía del municipio Guanabacoa allanó algunas casas donde funcionaban bancos de alquiler de videos, el pasado 23 de abril, con el propósito de acabar –según dijeron- con la piratería de películas clandestinas.

Varios inmuebles del barrio Santa Fe fueron registrados minuciosamente, mientras los autos patrulleros y miembros del Departamento Técnico de Investigación (DTI) rodeaban una manzana completa de la localidad. Los agentes decomisaron más de mil DVD’s que contenían películas, variedades, musicales, y programas de opinión.

También cargaron con cuatro equipos reproductores y tres computadoras. Según los vecinos del barrio, algunos mensajeros, junto a los propietarios de cinco viviendas, fueron detenidos y conducidos a la estación de policía de Guanabacoa. Hasta el momento se desconoce qué ha pasado con ellos.
Click here for the original link.

This is, to me, one of the more interesting issues in the Cuban black market. On the one hand, you can't help but applaud the enterprising nature of Cubans on the island. And, really, who is it hurting on an island where many (if not most or all) of the movies are banned anyway and couldn't be legally sold even if Cubans could afford them at market prices.

On the other hand, isn't piracy piracy no matter which way you slice it? I mean, is it really "wrong" of Cuban officials to crack down on piracy? Aren't there certain principles regarding intellectual property that make this sort of business, in a very cold way of observing them, morally wrong?

I think this is the sort of thing where Cuban ingenuity and Cuban-American access/freedom should be coming together. I, for one, don't care what the Cuban regime's rules are so long as disregarding them doesn't result in chaotic and self-defeating lawlessness. Why not work with people in Cuba to establish connections with DVD distributors on the outside? Why not seek official permission from the major studios (or whomever grants these rights) to distribute movies on the island — for a nominal fee that even Cuban entrepreneurs could afford?

Encouraging piracy and theft of intellectual property can't be our answer, but we also shouldn't just be content to see Cubans resign themselves to the salaries the regime is generous enough to give them.

I can't say I know where to start with this. I just think it's insane to combat oppression with disregard for the rule of law. Instead, we should be moving Cuban civil society toward something better: adherence to their own, just laws.

Thoughts? Anybody out there know people in high places who could grant Cubans the rights to copy and distribute movies?


Sissi said...

Nick, although I love your idea, so far it only proposes a way to get this movies to Cuba legally, but it still doesn't solve the problem of distributing them in Cuba. It only benefits whoever owns the rights to the movies, those renting them in Cuba still would have to put up with the same abuses, no matter how (legally or illegally) they acquired the movies to begin with.

Nick "El Periodista" Jiménez said...

Thanks for the comment. I think you're missing the point, though, Sissi.

I'm not suggesting that getting consent from distributors and studios solves the problem of crackdowns in Cuba — as if the government there will care that there is some kind of agreement between the business owner and the creator of the intellectual property. Al fin y al cabo, Cuba's law is that they can't run that business, and that supersedes whatever contracts or consent might exist.

But isn't that what anyone in civil society does? We encourage artists to do their art and independent press to report the facts. I think the same sort of encouragement should come in these small businesses.

The issue is that it's more nuanced in that sector. You run into perfectly legitimate legal issues, safety concerns, etc. Even in a free country, I can't just start selling food out of my apartment without permission. Who knows what the condition of my kitchen is?

But if Cubans establish their own rules and play by them, it
(a) prepares them for a post-revolutionary world where — we hope — just laws that are designed to protect rather than limit the people exist.
(b) makes the oppressor the only bad guy. If the regime is arresting you for stealing property... and you stole it... what moral ground do you have to stand on?
But if you are arrested for selling something you obtained with the original owner's content, who can the regime say you wronged?

Granted, I'm no economist or intellectual property attorney. I'm just saying that steps can be taken to make these practices more respectable, more legitimate, and more defendable... Better to be oppressed on the moral high ground than give your oppressor just cause to call you a thief.

Sissi said...

I agree with you, I think Cubans are far from understanding how these international laws work, and they should, because there will hopefully come a day when they will have to abide by these laws. Nonetheless, my point was that in the case of Cuba todo se lleva a los extremos. You say "even in a free country, I can't just start selling food out of my apartment without permission." But unfortunately that is not the case with Cuba, where people DO sell food out of their houses without permission. And like I said, I love your idea, the more means of communication Cubans are provided with the better, and if it can be done in legal ways then even better, pero al fin del dia, la realidad, en mi opinion aun mas grave que la legalidad de estas peliculas, es el hecho de que los cubanos no tienen la libertad de formar estos pequenos negocios legales o no. Call me a hypocrite pero aqui si creo que the end justifies the means, when we can come up with a way to legally provide them with movies, documentaries etc. count with me para lo que sea, pero until then, I will not reproach them for doing it illegally.
And I think we could all agree that the oppressor is still the only bad guy. Don't take me wrong, as a future lawyer I would like nothing more than to see Cubans abide by the same rules as the rest of the world, but until they can be provided with the means to do it, I say they should keep doing the best they can with what they are given to begin with.

Nick "El Periodista" Jiménez said...


Maybe I should have been clearer and said that, even in a free country, you can't LEGALLY sell food out of your house without permission. People in this country do it illegally, too.

In many cases, I would agree with you: When you're hungry, yes the end justifies the means. Your saying that you "will not reproach" Cubans for distributing movies illegally makes it seem as though I was reproaching them.

I don't. I won't. I never did. So I want to clear up/point out that that insinuation is baseless.

As for the bad guy thing, yes, yes yes, the oppressor is the bad guy here. My point is that it's better/preferable not to leave so much room for the oppressor to make a case that you are one, too.

Sissi said...

I agree with you on so many points you failed to point out, but the point is that as sad as it sounds, moral grounds have lost meaning in Cuba, and that practicality is the norm.
Yo estoy completamente de acuerdo contigo, y quizas me pase con lo del opresor, pero me parece que the same way you argue (or at least I think you do) that Cubans could lose that battle on moral grounds, that they really are "committing a crime" by renting movies etc. Anyone could also argue that the regime would not even be able to (morally) start such accusations. Yes, it happens every day, they accuse people for the most ridiculous things, but as far as the international community is concerned, such "criminal" acts are justified!

Nick "El Periodista" Jiménez said...

That's where you're wrong.

What you haven't grasped all along is that the whole reason for my suggesting this might help is that it could sway public (domestic and international) opinion in the favor of the Cubans who engage in this sort of thing.

Where is the public outcry from the international community that thinks these people are in the right? Nowhere, because it doesn't exist.

The whole point here is to remove any and all possible doubt. No matter how "right" you might be, it means nothing when the time comes that only pressure from other people can help you. And at that point, all your observations about the realities of life in Cuba (which I agree with) mean absolutely nothing, as they take a backseat to perception. What doing business criminally (necessary as it might be) does is leave a perception of moral bankruptcy.

Rather than encourage and resign ourselves to lawlessness because we don't like the existing laws, I'm proposing an alternate set of "laws" for civil society to adopt.