HAVANA TIMES — In Cuba, the social contract is different from that in the rest of the world. The State pays miserable wages (between 20 and 30 dollars a month) and, in lieu of this, offers free or subsidized services to the entire population.
Every Cuban, for instance, is entitled to a quota of bread under the rationing system, a public service that was established with the economic crisis of the 1990s. The “unicorn,” as the bread roll is also popularly known, must weigh 80 grams per unit and is sold at State bakeries for the ludicrously low price of 5 Cuban cents. People of humble means (that is to say, the majority) depend on this and other subsidized products for their sustenance.
This social pact, however, has been degraded, to the detriment of the poor. Food products aren’t reaching the population with the stipulated weight and quality parameters. The general attitude is one of apathy and resignation.
All of the people I’ve consulted suspect that our daily bread is becoming increasingly lighter, but they have no way to prove this. One day, I decided to weigh the three buns we get at home and I was so surprised at the results that I decided to undertake a more profound study. I was interested in finding out what the quantities of bread ingredients “embezzled” represent for the economies of the people in Havana and the city in general.
With this aim, I collected samples from different populations, taking the city’s municipalities as my groups. Thanks to the help of friends, I managed to collect and weight 106 bread rools, of the kind distributed through the ration card system. The first sample was collected on March 17 and the last on April 1 this year.
The average weight of the buns, which ought to be 80 grams, was of 55.47 grams. Someone, whose identity we have not yet revealed, is keeping around 24.5 grams per unit, 31 % of the standardized quantity.
Bread is baked using different raw materials (flour, oil, salt, yeast and water). The 24.5 grams less mean some 14.96 grams of flour and 0.15 grams of oil. We will focus on these two components alone below.
The following table shows the amount “embezzled” every day for the course of a year, in Havana alone.
Every day in the country’s capital, “someone” steals some 32 tons of flour and a third of a ton of oil from the population. This means that, in a year’s time, every consumer is robbed of 5 kilograms of flour. We would we talking of about 12,000 tons of this raw material, and around 115 tons of oil, leaving the State sector and entering the black market, for the whole of Havana.
To get a better sense of this, let us translate this into figures.
Through this bread scam, some US $5,000 dollars go from State to private hands in Havana every day. In a year’s time, every resident of Havana has been denied the equivalent of a dollar, which represents one day’s wages. For the entire city, this amounts to 2 million dollars every year. Split among the 145 bakeries in the city, we’d be talking about a monthly embezzlement of US $1,100 dollars for each bakery.
Cuban workers receive measly salaries (probably some of the lowest in the world). They accept this because they are confident that the State will make an effort to offer free or subsidized services to the whole of the population. At first, things worked this way, but, today, much of the money that workers aren’t being paid end up in private pockets.
If the bread scam were nationwide (this remains to be proven), we would be talking about 10 million dollars a year, at least. This is a considerable sum for a poor country. Something similar is probably taking place with other rationed products.
People know they are being robbed, and they should be upset, complaining, looking for culprits and for solutions, but that is not the spirit I’ve come across in the course of my brief study. Why this apparently irrational behavior? Who is keeping all of this money? These are the questions we will try to answer.
- The samples were collected from 13 bakers in 10 different municipalities, of 15 that exist in the capital. Buns were 12.73 grams lighter than the standard on average. The top value was 82 grams and the lowest 39.6 grams.
- For the price of flour and oil we used data from the world market, an average for the past six months reported by Index Mundi. For a more realistic calculation, we included the price of transportation and storage. In Latin American countries that do not produce wheat flour, the price upon arrival at the bakery is as much as two or three times higher than the world market price. The same holds for oil. Since we don’t know how much speculation is at work there, we decided not to include this factor and round downwards. It is therefore important to stress that the 2 million dollars embezzled every year in the capital through this bread scam represent a minimum.
- The bread rolls were weighed using a previously calibrated scale. The absolute margin of error for the measurement process was of less than 0.1 grams.
- The population in Havana used for the calculations was of 2,119,722 inhabitants, data taken from the 2014 Yearly Statistics Report. I assumed that was the number of rationed rolls prepared every day.