A Typical Cuba Scam

Osmel Almaguer

One of Cuba's private "paladar" restaurants. Photo: Caridad

A few weeks ago I walked into an Infotur restaurant in the Cojimar community ready to spend some time with friends downing a few beers. I can’t tell you how disappointed we were when an ill-mannered clerk told us that he couldn’t sell us any beer because the refrigerator was broke.

Only a few yards away we found a paladar [a small, family-owned restaurant] that had apparently just opened recently. A beer there cost 1.50 CUC, which is .50 CUC more than the price of the same beer at a state-run bar or restaurant.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the refrigerator in the paladar worked fine (“fortunately” because at least we were able to get something to refresh us in the sweltering heat, and “unfortunately” because it came out to be 50 percent more expensive).

I had to ask myself: How is it that a family-owned business that’s starting up can do a better job than an operation owned by a government that practically monopolizes all the business on the island?

Let’s remember we’re talking about Cuba: a country where capital typically doesn’t circulate through private hands and where the “petty-bourgeoisie” was uprooted (at least apparently) more than fifty years ago.

Although this issue of a few nickels and dimes might seem trivial, one has to remember that coming up with 1.00 CUC (about $1.10 USD) in Cuba is equivalent to two days of wages.

There are small communities in Havana where it’s impossible to conceal things. Cojimar is one of them. A few days later the questions that were bouncing around in my head were cleared up thanks to a friend who knows one of the clerks at the paladar.

It seems there’s a pact between the Infotur manager and the owners of the paladar. The manager makes sure that his clerks tell people the refrigerator is busted while he sells the beer to the family-owned business; they can then sell it for more and pay a kickback to the crooked manager.

The upshot? The sales level of the government-run business stays high and the owners of the paladar — with no competition from the Infotur restaurant — are able to inflate their prices and their profits. The Infotur manager and clerks simply pocket their cut.

So, who comes out losing in this apparently enriching deal? The customers, which is to say the people, who like always are the ones who work and pay.

What’s sad is that this is hardly an isolated case in how businesses operate here on the island; I can say this from direct experience after having worked for a tourism company for two years.

5 thoughts on “A Typical Cuba Scam

  • U got classically scammed by all Cubans involved. The two places conspired against you to make more money, and commission all round would have be dispersed in your absence. Think about it, who paid? es Cuba no? Wha happan tu u mon!

  • There is no probably in this case Miller, the Paladar didn’t reflected the true cost. They are just selling it to a higher price since now they have to pay 40% of their profits in taxes.

    At the end the one who suffers this corruption by the people, is the people.

  • I thinks that what goes around comes around, that Bartender probably has to pay his “fee” to somebody else like taxis, farmers, or even the same state shops. In other words the money he earns goes from one hand to another.

  • One factor left out is that the state store price was probably subsidized and the paladar price reflected the true cost, but the story is a microcosm of the problem Cuba faces in turning a moribund economy into a flourishing one by allowing a freer business atmosphere. Cautiously, steps are being taken as the society moves from an egalitarian one to a capitalist one where some end up with more wealth than others, but the state benefits such as health, education and housing continue.

  • I met a guy in Florida that recently arrived from Cuba. He was an industrial engineer who through his father connections, (the father was a retired member of the PCC) got a job working in a bar located in a pool area in a hotel owned by the government. He told me that while he was working in the hotel he kept hidden in the plants around the pool, bag-packs fill with ice and beers that he sold to the costumers instead of the beers supplied by the administration of the hotel. Once he sold out all his beers then he started selling the beers from the hotel. He said he was discrete and only made about two hundred dollar a day with the scam. He used that money to pay an emigration official for the white cards that allow him, his wife and a daughter to get out or Cuba. With the rest of the money saved from the scam he was able to start a new life in Florida, where his is working as forman in a private construction company. He now sends money to his father who still live in Cuba.

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