HAVANA TIMES — A European newspaper reports that a new breed of “self-employed match-maker” has emerged in Cuba, offering “services to first-time, impatient investors.” These individuals promise entrepreneurs that they will guide them in this process, all the way down to the “approval or rejection of hotel projects in keys, golf courses in Trinidad, cranes in Matanzas, toilets in Havana and turbines in Ciego de Avila.”
The paper adds that “the generosity or cheapness of the hasty entrepreneur is expressed by the quality and quantity of the feasts and tips advanced to the charlatan, it is a measure of the latter’s eloquence.” The article concludes that this is “the blossoming scam of the Cuban facilitator.”
We have to acknowledge these con artists are very good at what they do. They play in the big leagues, conning seasoned businesspeople. Some manage to “suckle at the teat” of these companies for as long as a year before the foreign investor realizes what’s going on.
Generally, these people were once involved in politics, were State Security agents or even members of People’s Power Committees. These positions allowed them to meet or learn of important figures in the country.
Contacts are a tool that, properly used, can earn one a lot of money. “I met the son of so-and-so and he mentioned they’re studying the possibility of making investments in your sector, and he can guarantee your name is at the top of the list.”
Of course, “the son of so-and-so is asking for money in exchange for this, and it can’t be a small amount, because he has to share with the Minister of this-and-that, who has to sign the document.” Entrepreneurs are wary of handing anything over before a contract is signed, but, if they don’t, they are told that “the competition is going to get the cake.”
On occasion, the son of so-and-so doesn’t even know they’re using his name or that of his father, but, no few times, they are also part of the scam. Their family ties with powerful men and women allows them to develop a profitable and bourgeoning “influences” business.
It’s hard to determine whether they act as intermediaries for their parents, in order to improve the family’s finances, or whether they do it “on their own,” but the fact of the matter is that there are more “pampered children” involved in dealings with foreign businesspeople than is recommendable in terms of preventing corruption.
No one offers any precise information: they speak without mentioning names, with half-sentences and codes, giving the foreigner the impression that they have to be careful and that asking too much could be dangerous for everyone. “Do you know how many people have been busted?”
Many of these “match-makers” are the contemporaries of the children of Cuban leaders, sometimes even the grandchildren. They’ve gone to school or military academy together and actually do know many of them personally, such that they can greet them in public.
These spoiled rich kids move in the same “circles” foreign businesspeople do, such that making contact with them is easy. Nothing reassures the victim more than seeing his “intermediary” get up from the table at a posh restaurant and go over to say hello to the son of so-and-so, who is dining at another table.
They may in fact be partners in the deal but, even if they’ve only just said hello, the match-maker will return with the news that “the son of so-and-so agreed to present your offer, but there can’t be any direct contact, for obvious reasons.”
The lack of transparency in the economy makes it difficult to know what the normal procedures are, who are responsible for approving contracts and projects, or why a bid is ultimately lost. As it happens, the government is in no obligation to inform the entrepreneur why their operational permits are cancelled.
To make matters worse, foreign companies are barred from any direct contact with the Cuban client. All contact is made through an import company that acts as intermediary, even if this company has never even heard of the product being sold.
Knowing the officials who work in these import companies is worth gold, literally. This is also fertile ground for the “match-maker,” who will always pocket part of the bribes, even when the deal isn’t sealed because the “another company gave my partner’s boss more money.”
This way, the leave the door open for an even bigger bribe next time around, “as the boss also has to get a cut.” Some businesspeople desist the first time, others continue to bet and to lose their money.
The one who always wins is the “match-maker,” even if this means the Cuban economy is denied good business, corruption spreads and, what’s worse, the false impression that Cuba is a “banana republic” is given foreigners.