Pilot Projects, Fools & Masterminds

Fernando Ravsberg*

Cuban street.

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 29 — Undoubtedly, General Raul Castro is a man of few words, so much so that journalists must remain on the prowl hunting for some loose phrases, new facts or rumors to piece together our “puzzles” as to what has happened here over the past two years.

I was surprised to find out that Cuban companies are presently associated with firms abroad and show up listed as co-proprietors of medical industries in Asia, hydraulic works in the Sahara, an ice-cream factory in Angola and a five-star hotel in China.

A colleague stated that these add up to more than 100 companies around the world, and that they’re part of a new strategy to take advantage of the scientific and technological knowhow of the island to create mutually beneficial South-South economic relationships.

In addition, more things are occurring in the country than are discussed.  From contacts in the provinces, I discovered that “pilot projects” are being undertaking throughout the length and width of the island.  Indeed, the country has become a great test lab.

An example of this is in eastern Cuba, where campesinos have now been authorized to sell produce along the roadways and to even set up stands – an activity that today remains prohibited and persecuted by the police in the rest of the country.

Likewise, a number of State-run hairdressing salons were converted into cooperatives, and their operation was permitted for six months.  Some shortcomings were discovered —they were not paying their water or light bills— but those were corrected and they now hope the initiative can be generalized.

In my neighborhood, a taxi fleet-garage transformed the State-worker relationship by eliminating the bureaucratic apparatus with other companies.  The drivers rent the automobiles, pay a daily fixed commission, and keep the rest of the earnings for themselves.

This has been such a success that there is now a list of a hundred people with money in hand waiting to fill any driver’s slot that might open.  Unofficially, a transportation employee told me, very soon another fleet office will be created, which will bring the total to 60 vehicles.

Those who work in that business tell me they need to cautiously measure each step they take. “If we make a mistake, we’ll bog ourselves down and give arguments to those who fear that these transformations can destroy our form of socialism.”

An academic compared the Cuban economy to a network of waterlines. “It’s a pipeline full of holes, one that for years Cubans were supplied by through the leaks.  Now, to change it, it’s necessary to resign oneself to going a few days without water.”

There are so many absurdities that even the official newspaper, Granma, reported on economic mechanisms that appear to be in place with the sole purpose of entangling things.

The Pinar del Rio provincial soda factory, for example, had its central warehouse in Havana. Because of this, sodas that are consumed in that far western province traveled to the capital —some 200 kilometers— and then returned —the same 200 kilometers— to be sold in stores, bars and restaurants very near the place where the product originated .

However, the managers of the company have now corrected the error and created a local storage facility in the provincial capital – 70 kilometers from the production center!  You can’t deny that fact that they’re gradually “getting closer” to a definitive solution.

Those who make jokes about people from Pinar del Rio should give it a rest, because such absurdities take place across the whole country.

Another good example is the delivery of food —boxes of pork and chicken— to workers as wage supplements. The problem is that these are national enterprises that when buying meat containers, must organize their transfer, build refrigeration units, and finally allocate vehicles and fuel to distribute the meat across the entire island.

A manager explained to me that they find it costs less because they buy wholesale, though he didn’t know how much the real cost actually was; they had never added up the wages and costs of transportation, facilities and losses due to theft.  The complexity of all this, he admitted, recently resulted in all the meat going bad.

A much simpler and perhaps even cheaper approach would be to provide money to the workers so they themselves could buy what the company was needed.  But this is a mechanism that is too transparent; one which hinders the deviation of supplies onto the black market, and therefore one which would reduce the “revenues” of some managers.

Therefore, behind these absurdities there’s not always some “fool”; on the contrary, there’s often more than one “mastermind” who is trying to continue taking advantage of those “pipe leaks” in order to bring home significantly more water than the rest of their fellow citizens.

An authorized Havana Times translation (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.

2 thoughts on “Pilot Projects, Fools & Masterminds

  • I hope the Cuban revolution wasn’t fought for and brought to fruition and kept going for 50 years so that some people NOW could “freely” invest in small businesses, make individual profits, peck away at revolutionary gains, pervert the purpose of socialism, and forget the goal of a civilized state with social and economic equality. Among the reliable symptoms of failure all over Latin America is the proliferation of ambulantes and desperate small businesses of all sorts. Do you understand that? Are you regretting the compromise with capitalism you’ve seen in some places or are you upset that all Cubans aren’t getting in on it? I don’t read you very well, Fernando. Are you Cuban or BBC? Your articles seem devoted to sticking pins in the government, but to what end? To chastise them for compromising the revolution, or to promote what I see as decay and what you see as – what? I just posted an open letter to HT on my website, iammyownreporter.com that I suggest you read.

  • Excellent article. It brings to mind the line “know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Perhaps we can tweak the line a bit as “know the truth and the truth shall save the Cuban revolution.”

    All of these old, imported-from-the-Soviet-Union-form-of-socialism absurdities Fernando refers to might be wiped away quickly if the baby steps of experimentation referred to should develop into a cautious, mature stride.

    Hopefully the party and state will experiment with employee-owned cooperative corporations–on the Mondragon model–with “preferred,” non-controlling, partial stock ownership for the socialist state.

    Experimentation is the heart of science . . . And the official ideology of the Cuban Revolution seeks to be scientific . . . Doesn’t it?

    Best wishes to Cuba.

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