By Circles Robinson*
With Gustav and Ike, Cuba’s proven civil defense system once again demonstrated how well Cubans can organize. Despite the hurricanes’ enormous destruction, only seven people died. The population responded with a high level of family, neighborly and community solidarity, customary among Cubans during times of crisis.
However, the storms have greatly magnified the shortcomings in the island’s economy and addressing them has become all the more pressing.
One problem that most everyone agrees has reached epidemic proportions is workplace pilfering. Although by far not the only problem in the Cuban economy, it has combined with other factors including low productivity to keep the country from operating anywhere near capacity.
Workplace theft and cheating of consumers is widespread in both the service sector and industries. The problem exists in many countries, but management oversight, at best, or complicity at the worst, has greatly exacerbated its magnitude in Cuba. It seems particularly contradictory with a people known for their solidarity, and a system whose profits are earmarked for the public good.
A common topic of my co-workers and friends is the habit of overcharging at stores, cafeterias and restaurants. It is so common that being on guard has become the norm. Like my neighbors, I am also wary of adulterated products sold at state-owned facilities, be it a bottle of rum, stick of butter or a bottle of dishwashing liquid.
For those of us who have attempted to report problems to the supervisors, the frustration has only deepened, as their low level of concern indicates that they too may be involved.
Time and time again I’ve personally had the experience at supermarkets, agricultural markets, cafeterias, restaurants, bars and taxis, even most recently at the airport duty free store. Surprisingly though, most Cubans don’t complain about being overcharged, which makes a foreigner doing so seem even more out of place.
Eating at the Soul And Society
Over a month before the hurricanes, economic analyst Ariel Terrero pointed out that “theft is corrupting both the individual soul and society.” Terrero was addressing the issue of disappearing building materials and shoddy construction work at different job sites.
His statement rings all the more true today as Cubans begin to feel the impact of the damage caused by the hurricanes that struck between August 31 and September 10.
Hard times, including shortages of some foodstuffs and an even greater lack of building materials are expected.This makes even more troubling the practice of treating state property as booty ripe for the taking and consumers as victims to be fleeced.
Likewise, while price gauging often accompanies the shortages that follow major disasters anywhere, in Cuba such price hikes are likely to serve as even greater incentive to buy or sell goods of a dubious origin.
On September 19, former President Fidel Castro wrote in a newspaper commentary: “It’s now, in the aftermath of the devastating blow dealt by the hurricanes, when we must show what we are capable of.”
Without directly pointing any fingers Fidel Castro wrote that “every manifestation of privilege, corruption or robbery must be eradicated” and that “for a true communist, there can be no possible excuse for such conduct.”
Where to Begin
How to change the widespread practice of workplace mismanagement and stealing is a matter of contention and opinions abound. Some pessimistically believe it’s impossible to deal with at this point, while others think it’s never too late to begin.
In discussions in my living room, some friends have said drastic punishment is needed for the higher ups involved, which would also serve as an example to those below them.
Others say an incentive system for sound management is needed so the managers will feel motivated to do their best to benefit the state coffers. Most would extend that proposal to labor, saying that employees should have a better grasp on the finances of their workplace, participate in decision making, and then have a clear stake in its performance through pay incentives.
No one is certain exactly where the culture of deteriorated workplace ethics began. Most blame the low buying power of salaries and fewer extras since the early 1990s. Some say the seeds were already there before but hadn’t gotten so out of hand.
Despite the social benefits of free education and health care, subsidized public utilities, transportation and some basic items, the reality is that today’s workers still scramble to feed and clothe their families. The contradiction between resolving ones personal problems and a country that needs to save on resources and make the most of what it has is rarely discussed.
It’s obvious that a major salary increase is not going to happen without increasing production, and most believe that such an increase in production is unlikely to occur without attractive pay incentives.
The idea of economic incentives for those that make a greater effort in a given workplace makes sense and is consistent with the earliest notions of socialism. Such a system should help increase productivity, thus boosting revenue for the recovery effort and for social and economic investment programs.
However, if a manager or employee that is stealing obtains considerably more than what they could earn through incentives I highly doubt they will stop their habit without much tighter controls and strong disciplinary measures.
While the problem is light weight compared to the financial crisis currently sweeping the United States and Europe, failing to put a dent in workplace mismanagement and theft in Cuba will act as a counterweight to the attempts to rebuild from the extensive hurricane damage and continue on the road to a healthier socialist economy.
*Circles Robinson’s reports and commentaries from Havana can be read at: www.circlesonline.blogspot.com