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Everybody's A Criminal In Cuba
Tuesday, May 23, 2006 By: Juan Paxety
Maria and fidel - a contrast
We all know of the massive crimes of fidel castro, but the Toronto Star prints an article on the economic situation in Cuba, and the small crimes the situation forces everyone to commit. For instance, Maria, whom the paper describes as a sexagenarian matriarch.
She's the kind of Cuban who lacks a reliable source of hard currency, the kind who tries to earn a little convertible cash by engaging in one scam or another — in her case, by selling phony three-peso Cuban banknotes to gullible tourists.
The notes bear the likeness of fallen revolutionary hero Ernesto (Che) Guevara and are actually worthless, but at least they can be kept as souvenirs. Even so, there aren't many takers.
"Cuba bella," Maria sourly declares, as she strides along a street called Neptuno at the edge of Old Havana, carrying a ragged denim shoulder bag and a furled parasol. "At least, it was beautiful. It isn't anymore."
Maria's problem is a common one here. She doesn't have much money, and what she does have is worth next to nothing.
Forty-seven years after the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista and the launching of Cuba on the uncertain road to tropical communism, no issue hobbles the revolution as thoroughly or perhaps as fatally as this — a cold question of hard cash.
Some Cubans have it, while most Cubans don't, and the members of the second group are damned unhappy about scrounging for their keep in a socialist paradise where foreign capitalists and local schemers seem to have all the fun.
Jorge, at The Real Cuba, has written about and shown photographs of the apartheid in Cuba which separates the Cuban people from the tourists. The Star article points to the apartheid between two groups of Cubans themselves - those with hard cash and those without.
Even fidel admitted in an interview that The Revolution may have hit a rough spot. Of course, he fails to take the blame.
"We ourselves, we could destroy it," he told a Spanish interviewer last December, "and it would be our fault, if we are not capable of correcting our errors, if we are not able to put an end to many vices, much theft, much diversion of money, and many sources of funding for the new rich."
That's the trouble with a top-down managed economy, fidel. One person can't control everything, can't think of everything, can't manage everything. There are problems with a free market, but those problems seem to correct themselves with time. The market - the collective wisdom of everyone - is much smarter than any one person.
Ordinary Cubans, such as Maria, know the prices of goods sold in the hard currency stores - goods she can never hope to buy.
Maria uses her fingers to enumerate the scandalous unaffordability of it all: a pair of pants for $30 to $40; a pair of shoes for $50 to $60; a container of milk for $5.80; a bar of soap for 45 centavos .In fact, the furniture, electronics, toys, and clothing currently for sale at Harris Brothers or at hundreds of other hard-currency retail outlets in Cuba would be unlikely to impress most Canadian shoppers — prices are high and quality is generally low — but they are a galling affront to most people here, a reminder of all that they cannot afford and never will be able to afford, not unless something drastic happens.
For the present, a great many Cubans have little choice but to resort to some kind of fiddle in order to get by, working a la izquierda, as it's known here, or "on the left."
They divert goods from their workplaces for resale on the street, for example, or use state-owned vehicles for a little undocumented private enterprise, or target free-spending tourists for incidental bribes.
"In Cuba, everybody is guilty of a crime of some sort," says a Western official.
"Otherwise, you wouldn't be able to survive. But this permits the government to maintain a climate of fear."
All the while, Forbes reports that fidel's worth is about a billion dollars. fidel says the story is repugnant slander. Humberto Fontova, writing in Human Events, says Forbes estimate is far too low.
Actually, Castro has a point. He has no business being lumped in with measly millionaire chumps like Mobutu Sese Seko and Queen Elizabeth.
Forbes admits that its estimate of Castro's wealth is "more art than science," and is based on his partial ownership of state enterprises, among them the Havana Convention Center, the Cimex retail conglomerate and Medicuba. But as Cuban-American scholar Eugenio Yanez asks: Why not include many other, and much larger, Cuban state enterprises like Cubatabaco, Artex, Cubacatricos, Cubatecnica, Gaviota, Acemex, Cubatur, Antex, Caribat, Cubatur, and many more? The list is much longer than those singled out by Forbes.
Another method used by Forbes was calculating that Castro owns roughly 10% of the Cuban GDP. Why only 10%?
All enterprises in Cuba are state enterprises, including so-called "joint-ventures" with foreign investors, as shown by a Miami Herald headline from June of 2005: "Many Foreign Investors Being Booted Out of Cuba" it read.
"It's outrageous!" the Herald quoted a Spanish businessmen leaving Cuba. ''I've gone through endless meetings for more than a year with no result in terms of recovering our investment!"' he whimpered.
"What I can't accept," wailed another European businessman," is simply being booted out of here with no solid guarantee I will ever get my money back!''
Folks who want the US trade restrictions dropped fail to recognize the danger. Under current law, the US is the largest exporter of food to Cuba, but Cuba has to pay cash up front. Companies and groups such as the US-Cuba Trade Association want the cash up front restriction dropped. They fail to understand, or ignore, the fact that fidel has a long, long history of nationalizing businesses. Would the members of the US-Cuba Trade Association go away quietly if fidel failed to pay them? Or would they go crying to the US Congress for a bailout?
Our hearts bleed for these unfortunate gentlemen. Also notice: the investors were being booted out of Cuba. But the investments remained, as did those of the 5,911 businesses valued at close to $2 billion stolen at gunpoint from U.S. owners and investors in 1960. A few owners who resisted like Howard Anderson, who had his Jeep dealership stolen, and Tom Fuller, whose family farm was stolen, were promptly murdered by Castro and Che's firing squads
fidel's financial polices are now spreading to other Latin American countries.
Interestingly, new Bolivian President Evo Morales had a lengthy meeting with Fidel Castro recently. Immediately upon returning to Bolivia, Morales announced the "nationalization" (looting) of all the foreign-owned (primarily Brazilian) natural gas companies in Bolivia. Rafael Dausa, Cuba's brand-new ambassador to Bolivia, is among Cuba's highest-ranking intelligence officers.
Meanwhile, ordinary Cuban try to get by.
Down by the harbour in Old Havana, for example, a young woman works as a waitress in a restaurant patronized mainly by tourists. Trained as a nutritionist, she says she could earn no more than the equivalent of $15 (U.S.) a month by toiling in her former profession — the same amount she must now pay each week for two hours of private English instruction. Result: she waits tables so that she can pocket the hard-currency tips.
Behind the wheel on the Malecon, the meandering boulevard that traces the length of Havana's sprawling waterfront, a grey-haired taxi driver explains that he studied for a decade in Moscow in the 1970s, earning a master's degree in engineering. Back in Havana, he rose up the ranks of the state-run taxi company until he reached the top management rung, where his salary amounted to about $20 a month. Now he earns four times that much, working one day out of two, driving a car for tips.
He's lucky. He has a job and a source of hard, convertible cash.
Read both articles.
Update - The Real Cuba has added a page entitled castro - the multimillionaire. It appears that fidel may have his own bank.