HAVANA TIMES — One of the most surprising comments prompted by my previous post came from a Cuban émigré, who warns his compatriots on the island that Cuba’s anti-corruption campaign may be part of an enemy strategy designed to “have us persecute each other and fight amongst ourselves.”
I believe, however, that, when the majority of Cubans living on the island hear talk of corruption, there is a clear ethical line separating “us” and “them” in their minds, the same line of separation that has always existed between those who live to steal and those who steal in order to survive.
Some people would have us look on the bricklayer who steals a bit of concrete mix for some unofficial job needed to make ends meet as a case of corruption. The fact, however, is that the sum total of the tiny thefts “we” commit every so often is most likely less than the sum “they” steal in a single scam.
In a video that Cubans began to circulate via USB memories (1), we saw how a group of garbage collection officials embezzled US $1.5 million, inflating the allocated State budget by declaring non-existent employees.
Construction workers would have to steal 300,000 sacks of cement to cause the country’s economy the same damage this group of public officials is responsible for – and we’re not even talking about the big shots that have been charged, but of “small-time” con-artists.
The brains behind Old Havana’s Waste Management Office scam confesses that he spent US $50 thousand in rental cars. He says that he would rent the most expensive vehicles because smaller cars would have deprived him of social status – something he believes we should all understand.
Speaking about the scam, he says that “the trick was the easiest thing in the world,” explaining that financial and accounting controls are minimal. A letter to the bank from the Waste Management director was all he needed to increase biweekly withdrawals from US $700 to US $20,000.
The accused himself admits he was surprised no higher official responsible for regulating his activities looked into such a significant rise in the amounts issued by a municipal waste management office.
This is perhaps what Raul Castro meant when, in his speech (which closes the video), he said that “the negligence, non-fulfillment of duties and ignorance of administrative officials (…) are the cloak with which all acts of misappropriation and the thefts (…) of hundreds of millions of pesos are covered.”
With his ill-gotten earnings, the accused lived like a king: he had a 3-story house built, refurbished an additional 7 homes (belonging to his accomplices), buying all manner of electrical appliances for these. He was particularly thoughtful with his superior, the Waste Management Officer superior, buying him a car and boat. That’s the way the corrupt operate.
His modus operandi was simple: “I come to you and do some favors for you, (…) who have the huge needs everyone has. I start by bringing you a snack. Then I invite you to lunch. Before you know it, you’re completely in my debt.”
The corrupt dig their hands into the pockets of their fellow citizens, taking advantage of the “needs everyone has.” In another video (2), we see how a group of people led by the top managers of Havana’s Carlos III Commercial Center operated.
The operation was so large that the police, Ministry of the Interior and Military Counterintelligence took part in the crackdown. The video shows searches of nearby homes that sold the products stolen by store managers.
The general manager herself confesses before the cameras that, through fake invoices, they would also “overcharge” for the products sold, charging customers 25% more than the established price – a sum that fattened the pockets of corrupt officials and their accomplices.
In Cuba, these incidents also have political costs for the government. A State manager who becomes wealthy by stealing from the public or an official who makes city residents live surrounded by garbage generate more social discontent than all enemy propaganda put together.
No State is free of corruption, but it is just that citizens be informed of what their governments are doing to prevent it. The videos being circulated clandestinely should be aired on television, such that the entire nation knows what the corrupt are doing and how their actions are being combatted.
Conducting anti-corruption campaigns in secret appears to be the worst of strategies. Nothing undermines the government’s credibility as much as secrecy, which can be interpreted by common citizens as passivity in the face of white-collar crime.
(*) An HT translation del articulo original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.