HAVANA TIMES, May 27 – The removal of Cuban Transportation Minister Jorge Luis Sierra was a surprise to me given that his ministry was one of the few sectors in which one can say the country has advanced ostensibly, both at the urban and the inter-provincial levels.
I wondered what the errors were that Sierra made, so I began looking for information among government officials. When they told me the reason, I found it so difficult to believe that I continued looking for additional sources to confirm what was said.
It seems that the sin committed by the former minister was authorizing the importation of automobiles without payment of taxes by those Cubans who had had an old vehicle to offer in exchange and who also have enough money to buy a new one abroad.
I was familiar with that measure and I found it an intelligent way of renovating the nation’s automotive inventory without investments on the part of the government. However, things went beyond what was foreseen by the transportation authorities.
Most of the automobiles bought by Cubans were deluxe: late model Mercedes Benz, Audis and BMWs. Some artists bought vehicles valued at more than $50,000 (USD). However, there were also State employees —with monthly wages of $30 (USD) — who were importing $15,000 vehicles.
Immediately, all the alarms sounded and imports were suspended exactly when those who had the least money were prepared to get new cars. The wealthiest don’t have anything to worry about; their deluxe cars already distinguish them.
I could speak hours of anecdotes of this case and of Cuban idiosyncrasy, but what’s certain is that the problem is much greater at the roots; it exists in the mechanisms created by the system in relation to automobiles.
Typically, for a citizen to buy a vehicle they needed permission from the vice-president of the country. I don’t know who authorizes it now but for years it was the job of VP Carlos Lage to decide who deserved a car.
Theoretically, as has often been said, the sale of automobiles should be oriented toward those who need one to carry out socially beneficial labor. Authorities affirmed that the ecosystem would collapse if all inhabitants of the planet had their own vehicle.
However, later these same authorities reward citizens with automobiles. During the good years, cars were sold for a highly subsidized price to outstanding workers and more recently they have been given out to retired athletes.
In Cuba, a vehicle is the Premio Gordo (the Grand Prize). I have an acquaintance who —due to his technical contributions during the economic crisis of the 1990s— received a motorcycle. The following year he came up with additional new inventions so he was awarded another motorbike; and as he continued to stand out, in this millennium he was allowed to buy a car, a Russian Lada.
No one asked this outstanding Cuban technician if he needed a house, a pay raise or if he wanted to take a trip. No, he deserved a grand incentive – and these are vehicles. Consequently, this gentleman will have to decide between enlarging his garage and ceasing to invent things.
Absurdities and Exceptions
The absurdity is such that to prevent the rewarded from reselling their cars to third parties, who don’t “deserve” them, there exists a guideline that prohibits these sales by owners, although this is a regulation that Cuban law itself authorizes.
To complicate things even more, there are exceptions. Sailors, artists or diplomats can buy automobiles whenever they can justify their income. However, farmers are not allowed to do the same, even when they can prove that the money they accumulated was the product of their labor.
What’s more, we’re not talking solely about automobiles; farmers cannot buy trucks or tractors. I know of a case of someone who was given a tractor when he was abroad, but Cuban authorities denied him the right to import it onto the island.
As foreigners do have the right to buy vehicles, some Cubans will offer them money to buy a car in the non-native’s name. An islander might invest thousands of dollars knowing that when the legal owner returns to their country, the car can no longer be driven.
The resulting chaos has become a fertile soil for the black market, where every year automobiles are sold by taking advantage of gaps in the law and by bending the rules with money (discreetly putting cash in the hands of corrupt officials).
The relationship between Cuban authorities and automotive vehicles is strange, almost traumatic. They have transformed the automobile into the citizen’s greatest material aspiration, which someone can only access after accumulating high merit.
President Raul Castro already eliminated some of the prohibitions that weighed on the citizenry —access to hotels, cell phones, the Internet— and the universe remained intact. Equally, an opening in terms of the sale of cars would only affect the bureaucracy, the black market and corruption.
An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.