Sunday, August 12, 2012

Honor Among Thieves

Honor Among Thieves
August 9, 2012
Fernando Ravsberg

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

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.

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