Cuba’s Heartless Market

Fernando Ravsberg*

Food sold by black market dealers placed a few centimeters away from sewage. (Photo: Raquel Perez)
Food products being sold only a few centimeters away from sewage. (Photo: Raquel Perez)

HAVANA TIMES — Eleven Cubans have died at the hands of other Cubans who thought stealing alcohol from their workplace and selling it on the black market was an easy way to make a quick buck. It’s not the first time something like this happens, and it probably won’t be the last.

During Cuba’s severe 90s crisis, I visited a small town in the province of Matanzas, where a man who sold fried junk food on the street caused the death of many of his neighbors, and even his own daughter, because his “suppliers” had transported the ingredients in sacks of insecticide.

More recently, about thirty people with mental disorders died of hunger and exposure at an institution in Havana because a group of criminals with medical degrees and nurses were selling the patients’ food (supplied by the Ministry of Public Health) on the black market.

Once, someone came to our house offering to sell us powdered milk and, when we asked about its quality, the man, with an air of satisfaction about him, told us: “It’s top quality, we’re getting it from the special needs school.” In other words, they were stealing it from disabled children.

Speculators have no soul. During the Special Period, they took advantage of people’s hunger to sell the meat of scavenger birds as chicken, breaded “meats” made out of floor mops, pizzas covered with melted condoms instead of cheese and even human kidneys, stolen from the morgue.

The truth of the matter is that, even today, it is extremely difficult not to rely on the black market somehow: acquiring wood, iron for gates or fencing, oxygen and acetylene for auto body repairs is impossible, and, sometimes, such basic products as shaving cream, shampoo, mops and diapers simply “disappear” from stores.

Once, someone came to our house offering to sell us powdered milk and, when we asked about its quality, the man, with an air of satisfaction about him, told us: “It’s top quality, we’re getting it from the special needs school.” In other words, they were stealing it from disabled children.

The high prices and poor quality of the clothes and footwear sold at State chains has encouraged the blossoming of a whole network of private shops stocked with garments brought from Ecuador, Miami, Panama and even Russia as contraband.

It is easier (and cheaper) to buy an air conditioning unit or a television set using the Revolico on-line classifieds  page than to go to a State store. These sellers even offer better warranty terms because they fear they will lose their business if an unhappy customer publicly complains.

In one way or another, what pushes us into the arms of speculators is the inefficiency of the State’s commercial system. In order to satisfy needs that cannot be addressed otherwise, you must invariably resort to them at one point.

Cases like this recent incident remind us that the most dangerous aspects of the black market aren’t its economic or moral repercussions but the serious risks to our very life posed by the existence of an economic sector that is crucial to us but devoid of any sanitary controls.

In this connection, one of the most significant things Cuba has gained by authorizing a self-employed sector is having drawn many illicit businesses into the open and, by making them visible, allowed Public Health and other institutions to apply the pertinent regulations.

Reducing the scope of the black market has always been a government priority, but the systematic use of the police force has not yielded positive results. Now, the government appears to be trying other methods, such as the creation of wholesale markets to avoid temporary product shortages.

Other important steps still need to be taken. One is the creation of supply shops for the self-employed that carry the variety of products demanded by the market and offer these at competitive prices and with the required quality, whose stocks are attractive enough to guarantee that businesses will purchase their supplies there.

In one way or another, what pushes us into the arms of speculators is the inefficiency of the State’s commercial system. In order to satisfy needs that cannot be addressed otherwise, you must invariably resort to them at one point.

The containment of the black market or the end of product shortages is no guarantee we won’t be seeing any more incidents of this nature in Cuba. Stores in Spain had plenty of everything when colza oil was sold to the public, intoxicating thousands of people.

In the meantime, Cuban authorities would do well to inspect the system used to recruit and train security personnel; because the guards who stole the methanol are not the exception (I have seen many of them turn a blind eye on thefts in exchange for a “commission” with my own eyes).

If anything positive has come out of this latest incident it is the parallel investigation undertaken by the press in order to provide the public with information. This investigation is something novel for Cuba, and it could represent the first steps towards turning the country’s media into a truly public service.

This type of journalistic involvement brings Cubans closer to the cause of the country’s problems, shows them how these take place and the human costs and consequences for those implicated. In cases like this one, making citizens think is a preventive effort of the first order.
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(*) An authorized HT translation of the original published by BBC Mundo.


4 thoughts on “Cuba’s Heartless Market

  • August 12, 2013 at 12:38 pm
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    Walter, you are creating a false dichotomy. What you criticize about capitalism may arise only when there is little or no regulation. In a society where the infirm and vulnerable are protected, capitalism will prosper and society as a whole advances.

  • August 8, 2013 at 11:18 pm
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    Fernando Ravsberg deserves credit for not just criticizing, but suggesting how a more engaged and functional population and government agencies can work together. I don’t know if Allan is suggesting a sort of naive “libertarian” belief in the “free market,” but you have only to live in one of the many societies dominated by unrestrained market forces to know how dangerous and cruel they become. The challenge if to not only resist those who want Cuba to fail, but also those who selfishly take advantage of others. “Socialism” ultimately must mean a safe place for children, those of a certain age and each of us when we need good neighbors and honest and capable government resources. Fernando has suggested what seems to me some positive steps: Face reality and then together try to fix it to work better for all. The other methods really don’t work, unless you like being a kind of vampire.

  • August 8, 2013 at 2:54 pm
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    Let the free enterpriser’s do their business with little involvement from a disfunctional bureacracy.

  • August 8, 2013 at 10:55 am
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    This definitely makes me think twice of buying milk powder from the tias who work in my school… Good read.

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