HAVANA TIMES — In Cuba, there are two ways of doing things: the easy way and the bureaucratic way. No matter how positive a law might be, the bureaucrats will always find a way to transform it into an all-consuming bog, one from which you can only escape with their assistance – which of course is never disinterested.
Last year the government approved the selling of cars, but it established three categories of citizens: those who are entitled to purchase a brand new vehicle, others who can only aim to pick up a used one from a rental company, and those who will only be able to buy one from another Cuban individual.
A trumpeter for a salsa group is entitled to buy a new car, but a campesino who works all day under the blazing tropical sun can only buy an old car from another Cuban. The same thing happens with doctors, though in their cases they’ve earned their dollars by saving lives in the African bush.
With the network of prohibitions that was established, one didn’t have to be Nostradamus to guess that some bureaucrats were going to engage in parallel business activities. The government created a captive market saying it would issue more than 2,000 letters authorizing the purchase of modern used cars.
The problem arose because they only put up 20 of those vehicles for purchase weekly. This reminded me of a Cuban psychologist who spoke on TV about the chaos caused by “the politics of the funnel,” referring to supermarkets where there are 10 checkout registers and a single exit door.
It’s not uncommon for there to appear endless lines when the authorities create a demand that is tens of times greater than the supply. Whoever has the last turn in the line today will be able to buy their car in the middle of 2014, provided that no one cuts in front of them over the next two years.
If that wait was in person — like at the bakery or the corner store — a line extending seven blocks would be formed. That calculation doesn’t have to be scientifically rigorous; it can be made on the basis of citizens’ average corporal volume, which occupies no more than 50 cm in any line.
Notwithstanding, you needn’t get discouraged, the bureaucrats are there to pluck you out of the mire. If you want to buy a “demobilized” rental-company car more quickly, you simply have to reward the employee who — “at great personal risk” — will facilitate the transaction.
The rates are very flexible, depending on the resources of the “client” and the price of the car. But in the selling of a car, where I was present only by chance, I observed that the “thanks” expressed to the attentive state employee took the form of $500 (USD).
Taking that figure as the average, I multiplied it by the number of cars sold each week and discovered that these people are pocketing more than $40,000 (USD) a month, not an insignificant bonus, even if they have to split it with their bosses and other fellow workers.
The bad part is that this money doesn’t come from the pocket of some millionaire or a few wealthy individuals. It comes from ordinary Cubans who worked outside the country, away from their families, reducing their expenses to the bare minimum to save every penny to acquire the “carrito” of their dreams.
In this case, corruption is facilitated by the government itself in its attempt to exercise control over citizens around issues that should be left to each individual. Paradoxically, it’s at those moments when people come up with the best mechanisms to avoid scrutiny.
The reality is that the “state” is an abstraction that is represented in concrete practice by functionaries of varying ranks, abilities and ethics. Without a doubt some of them are among the truly virtuous, but I know others who would sell their grandmother if they could succeed at getting a good “commission.”
It’s true that we can’t live without them, but we have the possibility of clipping their wings and limiting their discretion and power to decide about the lives of average citizens. Of course this can only be achieved if the state institutions are also willing to relax their control over society.
For non-Cubans it’s almost impossible to understand the state-citizen-car relationship, but I can sense that it’s a very sensitive issue, so much so that it cost the position of a minister when he wanted to renew the stock of autos by allowing the importation of modern cars that would be traded for older ones.
It’s a mystery when one contrasts the amplitude of the law allowing the sale of houses to the prohibitions that remain on cars. Vehicles continue to be a kind of prize reserved for the select few, and undoubtedly cars have become the hallmark of the most visible class that exists in Cuba.
It would be interesting to hear the explanation about what economic, ideological, political or security problems would result if they eliminated restrictions on the trade of automobiles and allowed citizens to buy their carrito without having to be bled dry by the employee-parasites of the state.
(*) An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.