Cuba Puts the Cart Before the Horse

Fernando Ravsberg

The farmer's got it right. Photo: Mattew Siffert

HAVANA TIMES, March 24 — A few days ago we learned that foreign journalists working in Cuba would no longer receive duty-free exemptions on our work needs (understood as vehicles, spare parts or professional equipment).

Hearing this news, I called the representative of the KIA automobile dealer here in Havana to ask management if there is a store where one can buy spare parts.  They responded that a store as such doesn’t exit, and nor was there the perspective of its existing in the near future.

What I’m noting is that it’s becoming a custom to implement measures without foreseeing the consequences.  It’s not unusual for some of the remedies to end up being more harmful than the illnesses they seek to combat.

Most automobile parts were already sold in out-of-the-way places, so the new guideline now leaves us just one sole supplier in Cuba: the black market.  If the government was losing tax revenue previously on foreign journalists, now it’s running the risk of more “missing” inventories.

We might think that this is a temporary situation — with political content — directed to complicate the lives of the foreign press corps.  However this lack of forewarning occurs much more often than what economists advise.

Concrete cases

It’s enough to think about how self-employed work was authorized and the government issued 171,000 licenses – but without having bought the necessary supplies.  You don’t have to be a fortuneteller to know where 80 percent of the products sold on the street come from [stolen from the state].

The biggest crisis is with bread.  Daily, self-employed workers clean out the stock of the bakeries, while the citizens are forced to endure endless lines seeking a basic food item for breakfast and snacks for their children.

The shortage could be foreseen, however there’s less and less bread because the flour is sold on the black market.  A former manager of a bakery explained to me that this was his principal source of income and that to maintain his position he paid kickbacks to his superiors.

The authorities refuse to open wholesaler warehouses for independent workers and it’s too expensive for the food vendors to pay retail.  No one can sell a personal pizza for 30 cents while having to buy the ingredients from hard currency stores whose products carry a 240 percent tax.

In another example, the state has implemented a program of massive land redistribution benefitting more than a hundred thousand families, however those people have nowhere to buy the tools, fertilizers, seeds, wire and irrigation systems they need to make the properties productive.

It doesn’t make sense

The campesinos say that it’s putting the cart before the horse, and that seems to be precisely the case.  A few days ago a letter from an agricultural specialist was published in the country’s official newspaper.  In it he assured that to prepare food in Cuba using electricity is much more expensive.

His arguments were technical, pointing out that gas has more caloric value and it’s cheaper to store, in addition to how electric power stations suffer greater drains and that the losses produced in transferring energy from a power station to an appliance are enormous.

Notwithstanding, the government spent tens of millions of dollars in buying electric cookers and pots to “conserve energy” and later discovered that cooking with gas — as was done previously — is cheaper.

A good mechanism for conserving resources would be to make an analysis of consequences before taking the concrete measures.  To achieve that, decision makers must listen to the specialists, those who too often lack power but have plenty of knowledge.

Discussing the issue with foreign businesspeople confirmed for me that this is the general tendency.  They verified that the famous story about the manager who purchased a snow sweeper here is repeated time and time again without anyone losing their position.

“In no other part of the world do journalists receive duty-free exemptions,” the government functionaries told us, and the reasoning would have been impeccable if it weren’t that this was another instance of putting the horse in back.  The problem is that it’s much easier to prohibit than to seek solutions.

We journalists have now come face to face with the situation of the self-employed workers unable to buy at wholesale prices, of parents who must endure daily bread lines, of families who lost their economical gas stoves and of the campesinos who have nowhere to buy tools.

But in the end, the twists and turns for those of us who will now have to adjust will bring us closer to the ordinary people, and that — especially for a journalist — is always something good.

Havana Times translation of the Spanish original authorized by BBC Mundo.


One thought on “Cuba Puts the Cart Before the Horse

  • March 24, 2011 at 4:53 pm
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    “A good mechanism for conserving resources would be to make an analysis of consequences before taking the concrete measures. To achieve that, decision makers must listen to the specialists, those who too often lack power but have plenty of knowledge.”

    A better idea will be to let people make the decision themselves. So they can purchase what they can afford or want.
    The Cuban regime is always in this paternalistic/dictatorial role of deciding for everyone.

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