HAVANA TIMES, August 19 — In the middle of the 1990s economic crisis here, I knew a Cuban TV cameraman who would travel 13 miles by bicycle from his house to buy milk out in the outlying community of Santiago de las Vegas.
He would sell some of it to his neighbors in Havana and with the profit would feed and take care for his two young daughters.
His “business” was very difficult. The milk would sometimes arrive sour, and on more than one occasion it was confiscated by the police.
According to the authorities, he was carrying out an “illicit economic activity,” for which he was lucky they never gave him a fine. The fact was that this guy knew he wouldn’t get a fine since the seizure of his products would not be reported; after all, the children of police also drink milk.
These were exceedingly difficult years. No one escaped the effects of the crisis, and everyone had to “get dirty” in one way or another.
A gusty article
I recently recalled the cameraman’s situation in an article in the Juventud Rebelde newspaper titled “Between Legality and Legitimacy.” This addressed one of the nation’s most delicate social issues: the fact that citizens are forced to commit crimes to satisfy their basic needs.
The journalist took care in selecting his words; he knew that any slip could wind him up to his neck in quicksand. However he had the courage to write about this and to explain that Cubans lead two parallel and contradictory lives: an honest and public one, and another that is secretive and at odds with the publically proclaimed values.
Product shortages, the lack of services, towering prices and low wages force everyone who lives in Cuba to commit offenses. Sometimes, even when one has money, the sole form of buying a product is to turn to the black market.
A Cuban who wants to have Internet in their house can only access it with a surreptitious account. The sole form of replacing broken glass in a window is to pay someone to steal it, and it’s impossible to legally buy a simple wooden window frame.
As there do not exist State repair workshops where a citizen can have a simple welding job performed, it’s necessary to appeal to an underground operation – taking for granted that the oxygen and acetylene are stolen, since it’s known that these tanks are not sold to the public.
Not too long ago I went to look for a kitchen faucet at a hardware store that sells products in hard currency. The salesperson told me that they didn’t have any in stock, but she herself recommended that I talk to one of the vendors outside of the store, that “surely they can take care of it.”
Any clamp down on these “crimes” has been useless up to now. Security companies were created, with the net result being that the guards have been added to the chain of theft. One of them who worked for the Ministry of the Transportation received eight years in prison for stealing a bus’s money box containing $18 USD.
Low wages compel citizens to engage in crime. No government employee with their own vehicle has enough money to buy tires and spare parts for their car legally, yet “miraculously” they all continue driving around.
Not even the whistle blowers escape
The national press generally simplifies the phenomenon, typifying “corruption” as a lack of revolutionary consciousness. What’s ironic is that those journalists are later seen forced to undergo the same “evolution” as the rest of their compatriots.
Nonetheless, I was surprised by the article in Juventud Rebelde for its realism. It begins by saying that any Cuban can see themself obligated to violate the existing laws because “the instinct of self-preservation is stronger than any other motivation.”
The core of the matter is that no one will respect the laws as long as they prevent citizens from satisfying their basic needs. In this instance, surely it would be easier to adapt the legal system to the reality of the country than to do the contrary.
A positive example are the legal changes envisioned for the expansion of self-employment and the allowing of small mom-and-pop companies, something that will be indispensable given the State’s plans to lay off one million workers. If the “State socialist model” suffers, then let it suffer, because those who should not suffer are the people.
The problem is that the laws are not well formulated when they accuse a man who pedals 26 miles in search of milk to support his daughters as engaging in an “illicit economic activity.” What that father did could still be considered illegal today, but in Cuba or any other country of the world it remains a legitimate act.
Havana Times translation of the Spanish original authorized by BBC Mundo.