By Jimmy Roque Martinez and Isbel Diaz Torres
HAVANA TIMES – The scoops of ice-cream served at Havana’s Coppelia parlor, though seemingly full, are actually hollow. The newly created independent Consumer Protection Group has approached the ice-cream parlor’s Customer Services office on several occasions to register our complaint over this, but nothing changes.
In view of this, we presented this office with a modest proposal aimed at addressing the issue, given the management’s clear inability to do so. The concrete measure we proposed is the following:
When a customer gets bad service, their bill should be covered by the ice-cream parlor as compensation. The measure would place employees in a difficult situation, as Coppelia would not tolerate any waiters that caused the company losses.
This way, we would also involve consumers in the solution to the problem and civil responsibility and customer self-protection would be encouraged.
However, Antonio Reyes, president of the ice-cream company, as well as the manager, the customer service representative and the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) secretary all totally rejected the idea, giving rise to an interesting debate.
The only measure the management suggests for such cases is a 25 percent cut to the salary of the employee involved.
However, the problem doesn’t have to do with individuals alone. It stems from bad organizational schemes, the scant sense of belonging among workers, insufficient material incentives and generalized corruption at companies. It is a systemic problem that, needless to say, is connected to larger, nationwide problems.
The president and PCC secretary felt offended because our letter suggested they were incompetent. In the heated debate, they even threatened to approach the “competent authorities.”
“The opinions you’ve expressed are rather disquieting. I believe you’ve questioned the integrity of everyone here, and this letter is offensive to us. We therefore would first like to know who you are, where you come from and what you do,” Reyes replied to us.
“It may seem like a very good idea to you, but it can’t be applied in our company, plain and simple,” he concluded, not without first acknowledging that “neither I nor anyone can fix it, for this has happened throughout Coppelia’s history, for more than fifty years. I’ve had these types of complaints since I first got here,” he added, referring to the problem of the hollow scoops of ice-cream.
We informed the official that, given the fact our proposal “could not be applied” through company channels, we would make it public and return to the parlor to tell customers about it, so as to encourage people to demand their rights as consumers.
The president’s response was clear: “We’ve already made it public. We passed it on to the Central Committee and I’ve informed all levels of it. I am also going to inform the pertinent authorities about this, as they must be aware of the situation, that you’re going to mobilize and do that in here,” he said in a threatening tone.
After thanking him for his help in promoting our humble proposal, the members of Consumer group came to the understanding that we would profit little from that exchange.
That said, at a different point in the debate, while pointing out the national problems that have led to the current crisis in the services industry, the official acknowledged (from an authoritarian perspective) that the country faces other systemic problems.
“We have personnel problems because we’ve allowed workers to do things we shouldn’t have for many years, we’ve encouraged habits which aren’t the most proper, problems you see throughout the food industry in this country, in all businesses, because even the self-employed have problems,” he said.
“All these restaurants start out very well and go to shit in a month. I’ve been lucky enough to have visited some of these business. What business remains afloat in Cuba? Not one. They all start out well and none is any good after a month. Not even cooperatives have shown they can fix Cuba’s problems. So, what are we talking about here?”
Judging from this spiel, it is clear this management lacks the creativity needed to confront the challenges that arise.
Coppelia is run by essentially fearful officials that respond to all initiatives with threats and yelling. They are unable to advance a novel proposal at the national level and reject those advanced by others.
They will continue to apply a failed strategy and customers will continue to be cheated, not only by the employees but also by the managers, who are incompetent and jointly responsible for these problems, as they are unwilling to consider proposals advanced by customers (who, ultimately, are the ones paying for the stolen ice-cream).
It is common citizens, through pressure, activism and demands – and by overcoming fear and self-censorship – who will solve the country’s problems, even if they only start out by addressing those of an ice-cream parlor.
CUP will continue to monitor and report on these practices and will soon set in a motion a number of legal, non-violent strategies, with a view to raising awareness among consumers.