Cuba’s Heartless Market
August 8, 2013
HAVANA TIMES — Eleven Cubans have died at the hands of other Cubans who
thought stealing alcohol from their workplace and selling it on the
black market was an easy way to make a quick buck. It’s not the first
time something like this happens, and it probably won’t be the last.
During Cuba’s severe 90s crisis, I visited a small town in the province
of Matanzas, where a man who sold fried junk food on the street caused
the death of many of his neighbors, and even his own daughter, because
his “suppliers” had transported the ingredients in sacks of insecticide.
More recently, about thirty people with mental disorders died of hunger
and exposure at an institution in Havana because a group of criminals
with medical degrees and nurses were selling the patients’ food
(supplied by the Ministry of Public Health) on the black market.
Once, someone came to our house offering to sell us powdered milk and,
when we asked about its quality, the man, with an air of satisfaction
about him, told us: “It’s top quality, we’re getting it from the special
needs school.” In other words, they were stealing it from disabled children.
Speculators have no soul. During the Special Period, they took advantage
of people’s hunger to sell the meat of scavenger birds as chicken,
breaded “meats” made out of floor mops, pizzas covered with melted
condoms instead of cheese and even human kidneys, stolen from the morgue.
The truth of the matter is that, even today, it is extremely difficult
not to rely on the black market somehow: acquiring wood, iron for gates
or fencing, oxygen and acetylene for auto body repairs is impossible,
and, sometimes, such basic products as shaving cream, shampoo, mops and
diapers simply “disappear” from stores.
The high prices and poor quality of the clothes and footwear sold at
State chains has encouraged the blossoming of a whole network of private
shops stocked with garments brought from Ecuador, Miami, Panama and even
Russia as contraband.
It is easier (and cheaper) to buy an air conditioning unit or a
television set using the Revolico on-line classifieds page than to go
to a State store. These sellers even offer better warranty terms because
they fear they will lose their business if an unhappy customer publicly
In one way or another, what pushes us into the arms of speculators is
the inefficiency of the State’s commercial system. In order to satisfy
needs that cannot be addressed otherwise, you must invariably resort to
them at one point.
Cases like this recent incident remind us that the most dangerous
aspects of the black market aren’t its economic or moral repercussions
but the serious risks to our very life posed by the existence of an
economic sector that is crucial to us but devoid of any sanitary controls.
In this connection, one of the most significant things Cuba has gained
by authorizing a self-employed sector is having drawn many illicit
businesses into the open and, by making them visible, allowed Public
Health and other institutions to apply the pertinent regulations.
Reducing the scope of the black market has always been a government
priority, but the systematic use of the police force has not yielded
positive results. Now, the government appears to be trying other
methods, such as the creation of wholesale markets to avoid temporary
Other important steps still need to be taken. One is the creation of
supply shops for the self-employed that carry the variety of products
demanded by the market and offer these at competitive prices and with
the required quality, whose stocks are attractive enough to guarantee
that businesses will purchase their supplies there.
The containment of the black market or the end of product shortages is
no guarantee we won’t be seeing any more incidents of this nature in
Cuba. Stores in Spain had plenty of everything when colza oil was sold
to the public, intoxicating thousands of people.
In the meantime, Cuban authorities would do well to inspect the system
used to recruit and train security personnel; because the guards who
stole the methanol are not the exception (I have seen many of them turn
a blind eye on thefts in exchange for a “commission” with my own eyes).
If anything positive has come out of this latest incident it is the
parallel investigation undertaken by the press in order to provide the
public with information. This investigation is something novel for Cuba,
and it could represent the first steps towards turning the country’s
media into a truly public service.
This type of journalistic involvement brings Cubans closer to the cause
of the country’s problems, shows them how these take place and the human
costs and consequences for those implicated. In cases like this one,
making citizens think is a preventive effort of the first order.
(*) An authorized HT translation of the original published by BBC Mundo.
Source: “A market in Cuba that endangers the citizenry in a heartless
manner” – http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=97587