Honor Among Thieves

Fernando Ravsberg

A store in Cuba (Photo: Raquel Perez)

HAVANA TIMES — The Ministry of Finance of Cuba has just given people the best news of 2012, at least with regard to ordinary Cuban citizens. It announced that it will standardize the prices of 100 commodities — from soap to chicken — that are sold in hard-currency stores.

This measure will increase the purchasing power of citizens while attacking those store administrators who are inept and corrupt. To some degree this will counterbalance price increases, the recent creation of a tax system and the tightening of customs laws.

In Cuba, all commerce is in the hands of the government and monopolies, both private and public, which generates economic inefficiency.

Shopkeepers will now find it more difficult to add “multas,” the premiums they apply to the prices of products for their own benefit. This has been an exceedingly immoral form of corruption because it hurts primarily the poorest citizens, those who live off of their wages paid in Cuban pesos.

Among the store employees are also decent people; but crime has reached such levels that to protect some store managers, an official TV crew was recently denied access into one store. I myself was victim of a blow from guards at the Carlos III shopping center to keep me from filming a story.

The multa isn’t a new crime. Almost a decade ago we published an article in BBC entitled “Cuba: sufrir para comprar” (Cuba: Suffering to Buy). During our investigation we found a gas stove with a $200 premium tacked on top of the established price.

Likewise, the same model of a children’s bicycle was sold in stores with prices as varied as much as $34, $60, $80 and $120 (USD). While in Old Havana they were selling a comforter for $49 – twice its real price. Amazingly, this is a practice that continues nine years later. 

The money from the “multas” ends up in the pockets of the shop managers. Photo: Raquel Perez.

People jokingly say that you can tell how many years someone has been working in a Cuban hard-currency store by the number of gold chains they’re wearing. Business is so good that some people will spend thousands of dollars to buy a job there.

In addition to corrupt staff are inept managers who raise prices to compensate for their poor management. Products under such managers go unsold and spoil, are stolen by their own employees or accumulate because the quality fails to relate to the price.

Now, thanks to the Ministry of Finance, they will now be forced to maintain the same prices. From this moment on, the public will know that they’re stealing US $2 when shopkeepers are asking $6.50 for a kilo of chicken breast.

The Granma newspaper should put out a special edition on better quality paper with the list of the 100 products so that every citizen can carry it around in their pocket. Plus, it would be quite practical to make the public display of the list in stores mandatory so as to tie the hands of commercial crime.

In any case, these people are creative and will find other ways to gouge their fellow citizens. Not too long ago they wanted to sell me an underweight bag of washing powder full of holes, trying to convince me that the factory put the holes in it “so the product could breathe.”

In few parts of the world are customers so abused, and the worst part is that they’ve gotten used to it. Consumers even accept being treated like criminals, as they’re prohibited from entering stores with their purses and have their shopping bags searched when they leave.

For many Cubans, the prices in “dollar stores” are way too high. Photo: Raquel Perez

There’s an old saying that “thieves think that everyone is just like them,” an idea that is perfectly suited to this story. All one would have to do is go inside the house of some shopkeepers to confirm that they live well above their salaries.

But nor does this mean launching a crusade against them because — as the famous cigar maker Don Alejandro Robaina once told me — if a person agrees to work for such low wages, it’s because they were thinking about how to steal from you from the very beginning.

However nothing can justify stealing money from Cuba’s poorest people, this is why controls have to be put in place to contain the excessive ambition of some. Even among thieves, they must have some degree of honor or ethics.


8 thoughts on “Honor Among Thieves

  • My definition of authentic socialism includes: a workable, dynamic and democratic economy, with private property primarily in the hands those who do the work.

  • Hello from NYC, NY, in the USA. Because prices for the one hundred items are now standardized and word-of-mouth, then people can calculate and plan and put money aside for other things. Poor people can and will benefit. This really is no different from here in the USA!

  • moses, you are a believer in far right wingnut capitalism, yet you criticise cuban bartenders for making quite a lot of money by cuban standards. the first principle of economics is…………………..get as much as you can for as little as you can. a popular business maxim is………….charge as much as the traffic will bear. a fool and his money are soon parted. the drinkers have a choice. buy a bottle of ron and drink in their hotel room. that is freedom. america is the land of the free………….refill. p.t.barnum said…………there’s one born every minute. mcdonald’s has put the boot into starbucks by asking if $4 is a good price for coffee. the ingredients for a value meal are 20% of retail. eat at home. and whatever you do, don’t drink in the peninsula hotel in hongkong unless you take your life savings. the cheap hotels have mercedes benzes. the peninsula has rolls royces. cuba has stretch limos too if you don’t like the bus. i think that the limos are russian. ZIL may the brand.

  • A good point ‘Grady’, constructively addressing how to improve the system. ‘Moses’, of course, champions corruption, not surprising coming from a died-in-the-wool capitalist. I was once told by a bartender in the US I knew that when ordering a mixed drink to always specify the brand of alcohol you wanted in the drink. Otherwise you got not only a no name rotgut brand, it was likely watered down. You gotta not love American dishonesty.

  • What is authentic socialism? words mean whatever i want them to mean, neither more nor less. humpty dumpty in alice in wonderland.

  • Yes, the price equalization is a good thing for working people; but, I wonder why consumers in a socialist republic have not been organized to defend their interests as consumers.

    The most logical thing under authentic socialism would be for the people, led by party activists, to establish retail cooperative chains, co-owned by both consumers and coop workers, and provide commodities at fair prices.

  • @Moses, It amazed me how many ways Cubans find to make money. You have the people selling plastic bags outside of the produce stands, the woman selling plastic cups outside of the liquor store in front of the Malecon, there’s the rest room “attendants” (many of whom get upset if you don’t give them some change, even if said rest room is filthy and stinks like it hasn’t been cleaned for several weeks). The list goes on and on…

  • Cuba, world famous for mojitos, may not have an honest mojito on the island. Let me explain: Cuban bartenders will typically purchase from “the house” a bottle of rum using their own money to use to make their customers’ mojitos. The math is simple. A single bottle of rum sells for 3.95 cuc. You can make 6-8 drinks from one bottle. Two shots of rum, a sprig of yerba buena, a splash of lime, dollop of sugar and some soda water are mixed together and voila! Mojitos range in price from 2.50 cuc to 6 cuc depending on the bar and the bartender’s capacity to rip off the tourist. The initial investment of 3.95 cuc can yield up to 48 cuc plus tips of course. The state sells a bottle of rum that day and the bartender sells mojitos. You gotta’ love Cuban ingenuity!

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