The “Minor” Details of Cuba’s Reforms

Fernando Ravsberg

Havana supermarked that sells in hard currency. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 23 — A few days ago I went shopping in a small supermarket in a neighborhood here in Havana.  It’s a storefront that’s barely 25 steps wide and 20 steps deep.  Since the issue of impending mass layoffs across Cuba was fresh on everyone’s mind, I counted the number of workers there and observed how they worked.

Outside there was a young woman who checked people’s handbags, because it’s absolutely forbidden to bring them into the “super.”  At the door, two guards examined purchases in the javitas (plastic bags) of each customer who left; this control is used to prevent us from stealing any of the merchandise.

Two other guards wandered between the half-empty rows of shelves, monitoring our every move carefully; the surveillance of 16 customers seemed indispensable.  Could it be that it would have been easy to steal since the products were collected in people’s hands, given the nonexistence of shopping carts or baskets.

The place is small and offers fewer products than any neighborhood supermarket in Latin America; nonetheless, it’s organized “scientifically” like a large mall and includes a checkout register in each “area.”

As such, the customers who buy chicken, spaghetti, beer, toilet paper and condiments will have to pay at five different registers and get in their respective lines, though I counted half a dozen clerks.

One would think that with the low wages the staff is paid, they could hire twice the number of workers, but that’s not the case.  Each clerk has their own “hustle” (theft, purchases and re-sales), which result in huge losses by the State.

The employees increase their incomes substantially through those “hustles.”  Cuban citizens, who all look at this as a joke, say they can calculate the amount of time a clerk has worked by the number of gold chains they have around their neck.

Higher wages for surviving workers, lower prices for consumers

Many of these people will be laid off soon and therefore the store’s outlay for wages and thefts will decrease.  This will improve productivity, which is what they say is needed to increase wages, and it seems fair that if the store can operate the same with half the number of employees, their pay levels should increase.

Consumers could also benefit. The store’s cost reductions would allow it to lower prices, especially on products of basic need, those on which an enormous 240% tax is currently applied.

Because of this tax, a liter of soy or sunflower cooking oil —which can only be bought in stores that sell in hard currency— enters the port of Havana costing around $0.80 USD and is later sold to the public for $2.30 USD.

Authorities maintain that they receive these dollars from the rich to subsidize the poor.  However I’ve never met any tycoons in this neighborhood store; to the contrary, on more than one occasion I’ve seen elderly individuals counting their coins to buy a bar soap.

You don’t have to be Robin Hood to accept taxes on rum, cigarettes, perfume or jewelry, but it’s not the rich who are robbed when products are taxed that poor people need to eat or to clean and dress themselves.

What’s more, if the rumors are confirmed, in the 2011 ration books —which allow Cubans to buy products subsidized by the State— people will no longer be able to use these to get coffee, eggs, pasta or personal hygiene articles.

Missing “minor” details

I imagine that the people in charge of the economy are taking into consideration all these details; but these don’t appear when you read about the proposed workforce reorganization, nor do the mechanisms for applying those macro-ideas to people’s daily lives.

The new workers in the private sector will be offered credit, but there’s no mention of who will grant them this, how much or in which currency.  Nothing is said about the sale of supplies or work tools.  It all gives the impression that these are issues that those who are responsible have given little thought about.

Because of this, auto-body workers continue to be prohibited due to the shortage of welding gas.  What’s curious is that the Ministry of Basic Industry has the capacity to sell them oxygen and acetylene, with the latter costing only $12 USD a tank (a very acceptable price since these cost $20 on the black market).

It wouldn’t be the first time that plans were made while overlooking those “minor details.” The families who were given land are still waiting for the stores where they can buy the needed wire, tools, fertilizers and seeds.

By the way, they’re also waiting —after 50 years of trial and error— for the State to recognize its inability and to authorize a new distribution system.  They’re not asking for a lot; it would be enough if they didn’t have to watch their crops rot while sitting on the side of the road.

A while ago the official newspaper, Granma, described the Cuban people as “nestlings,” waiting for the State to solve their problems and drop food in their mouths.  To me, it seems like it’s more than birds that are unable to lift themselves up in flight, but in this case it’s due to the burden of proverbially inefficient bureaucracy.

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

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