By Eileen Sosin Martinez (Progreso Semanal)
HAVANA TIMES — “Forget about it, I’m not going to die of hunger,” this is Yanet’s motto. She hadn’t even bothered to get a license to cook, until an inspector came knocking on her door.
She pretended she was doing something else; she made up a story about how she was cooking to help people who had asked her to. “I gave him five dollars and he left,” she told us. A short time later, another inspector came, although this time he was content with a plate of rice with chops, root vegetables and salad.
Finally, she decided to get a license, and she was already a month into the process of getting this when private licenses were suspended. “Look here, girl, I got one… I went there and I asked them: “how long until I get mine?” And on top of that…,” and she rubbed her thumb and index finger on her right hand together, in a gesture that means money. “Of course,” her husband added, “because they make a mess up of the papers so that you have to ‘give a bit’.”
Because the word “bribe” is ugly. But, if in addition a synonym implies “present”, “help” or “quest”, there isn’t only bribery, but also cynicism.
Recently in Cuba, tackling corruption has centered around million dollar thefts, especially at state-run enterprises. However, there are also “leaks”, small fish that eat other small fish. The questionable behavior of some state inspectors has been picked up on by national press: once, twice and three or more times. Until today, it seems to be quite a mainstream phenomenon.
David and his vegetable cart
“They’ve been giving us fines for a while now because you have to keep moving. They took away my papers after receiving several fines, they took them off of everyone (in a municipality in Mayabeque), but we continue to sell “in the shadows”, because a whole lot of people make a living off of this. It’s a risk, but what can I do? We have to sell on the slide, as if we were criminals. And I’m not selling marijuana, I’m selling root vegetables.
“They’re giving us fines every month or two, they are almost always scheduled. Inspectors see you in the same place every day, and sometimes you give them something, other people used to give money: 50, 100 pesos, or a bag full of things, to put off the fine.
“You can’t defend yourself, you don’t have anybody’s support. We were paying the labor union, but you just do that for the sake of it, there’s no help there. It’s the business police who are really in charge, and who can stand up to them?”
Esteban, a bodega ration store worker
“Having numbers super exact is a very difficult thing to do, you have to live as a slave to make everything square up in the bodega everyday, and that’s impossible. Depending on the shortcomings they find during the inspection, you have a talk with them, to see if we can understand each other as good Cubans do: they get something and I get something.
“Before, they used to come and I would give them a bit of oil, a small packet of coffee… But, they don’t want products anymore, they want money. Depending on the inspection, some can cost more dearly than others. There are two inspections that always take place: in August, so they can buy their kids’ backpacks for when the school year begins; and in December, for New Year’s.
“Once, they pointed out a few problems, I proposed 20 CUC, and they said no: that it was 30.
“These people are real professionals, honestly, that’s why they see little things that sometimes you never think about. But, as people… up until today, the inspectors I’ve had to deal with have all been good people.”
Julia, former bookseller
“If (the inspectors) were nearby, people would give a warning and everybody would put away whatever they couldn’t sell on their tables. They would come as a surprise sometimes, and it was all last-minute. They would go directly to the sellers who had forbidden goods: surgical stainless steel, industrial items…
“I remember a girl had to give a chain that cost 7 dollars, plus money, horrific abuse. All of the tables who had forbidden items would give something.
“They were two women, always the same two. They don’t care if you sell it or not; they aren’t mixed up in the business of society, of lawfulness in Cuba… No, no; they are just resolving their own financial problems, you see? Giving them something has become an established practice, because sellers need to continue selling, even if it is illegal.”
“When they come, I give them the company papers, and I also pull out 10 dollars, five for each of them.
“But then, for example, they catch you removing debris and they give you a fine. They are always looking for a way to give you a fine so as to justify their work, but they come here “looking” for something, nothing else.
“Last month, it was 10 dollars for each inspector, and we are 18 butchers and 20-something bodegas in one area alone, not even in the whole municipality! I have been a butcher for 15 years, and it has always been this way. I haven’t given a lot, because I’m a hard nut to crack. Three inspections have gone by where they called me in and I don’t go anywhere, nor do I give them anything.”
Don’t kill the messenger… or the inspector
Even though various institutions have their own inspectors (Public Health Ministry, Ministry of Finance and Prices, Physical Planning, etc.) those who have a greater authority to operate belong to Cuba’s Comprehensive Supervision Department (DIS), which is subordinated to municipal and provincial supervisory boards.
While I wait for the vice-president from a local governing body to authorize my interview with the DIS director, an official tells me that the Cuban people have a very bad opinion about inspectors. “My income doesn’t get me to the end of the month either, but that’s not reason enough for me to be corrupt.”
My interview doesn’t happen in the end.
In another municipality, an intermediate level boss agrees to answer a few of my questions. A supervisor earns 385 pesos as a basic wage, plus 125 pesos as an incentive for a total of 510 pesos (around 25 USD). If somebody complains about a fine, and has reason to, this is taken from the inspector’s salary. An unjustified absence costs them 62.50 pesos.
Before beginning to work as an inspector, a committee of experts assesses and screens applicants. “There is a series of requirements, because this is a official government role, not anyone can take on the job,” the supervisor claims. Whoever meets the conditions, studies a course that lasts between 45 days and six months. Then, they have to sign a Code of Ethics.
Although they work their eight hours, their work can last until late at night if there are public holidays/activities; or include weekends, due to summer activities. When there are agricultural fairs, inspectors begin their working day at 5.30 AM.
Of course, nobody responds well to a fine. “People are very undisciplined. Cubans are worried about their next meal, and that’s it; they aren’t worried about the park, or painting. You put a 100 peso fine to somebody who has dirtied a wall with their shoe and you’re looking for a problem.” The day before, an illegal seller hit a supervisor and ran off. The manager assures me that physical attacks are commonplace, even among women.
“They might even tell you horrible stories, they might ask: can’t you help me? And the answer is no, you are standing before a government official.” However, you can’t deny it. “Every sector leans towards corruption. When there is a case, drastic measures are taken.
In 2016, 142,500 fines were paid, equivalent to 22.8 million pesos (1.1 million USD). The antagonism between inspectors and people is hard to sort out. Even without being corrupted, their work is awful.
For example, the supervisor showed me the record of a 1500 pesos fine given to a woman who used to sell plastic bags. Because Decree Law No. 315 states that you can’t without a license, and this is the corresponding sum for such a violation. Now, let’s think about just how many bags she is going to have to sell in order to earn those 1500 pesos. “It seems unfair, but the Decree bans it.”
Of course, there needs to be order, but the law isn’t enough to resolve a problem. A law which doesn’t take into account the current reality of things winds up being arbitrary, ridiculous. Inspectors are attacking the consequences of this. If they become corrupt, this is also a symptom of something. Meanwhile, the root causes remain the same.