Desde Dentro de Cuba.

Distribuido por Cuba Free Press, Inc. -

Sept. 1, 1999.


HAVANA - A couple of years ago, the Cuban government created two national currency service chains: "Imagen" ("Image") and "Oferta" ("Offer"). They were born to ease the "drought" of food and beverages that the incompetent local gastronomy is suffering from. But the inefficiency of Cuba's socialism, or Caribbean Communism, turns all that it touches into a disaster. Up to this moment, besides being expensive, the results from those chains are meager.

If there is something that Cubans lack - besides freedom - it is places to take the family for a stroll on weekends, where the family could have a meal and drink a beer that they could afford buy with pesos.

The minister (secretary) of the Ministry of Internal Commerce, Bárbara Castillo, thought she had found a solution to help supply consumer goods. With the leftover Cuban and foreign products that were not sold (or "found no outlet") in the "hard-currency-collecting stores," Bárbara Castillo created and supplied those two chains. She hoped to overcome the absence of items offered in the national currency. Although perhaps too expensive for many, some people, like José Ortiz, a 41-year-old worker, were not displeased by the idea - in the beginning. Ortiz sometimes received some dollars from a brother in Miami and he had preferred to exchange them in the state-run offices (CADECAS) at the official exchange rate of 20 to 1. According to Ortiz, this new way, going to the new chains, would save him money.

For instance, with dollars, one can buy a can of beer in the new chain stores for 85 U.S. cents (US$0.85), while in pesos, it costs 10 pesos (US$0.50). The same happens with poultry, soft drinks, cooking oil, chocolate and personal hygiene items. People thus might save some money, a very important thing in a crisis-ridden country where dollars are essential for survival.

Ortiz thought that he had discovered an effective formula. But he was mistaken. The reason is simple: The island socialism which still demonstrates its inability after 40 years obstructed the efforts of Minister Castillo.

"Like everything in Cuba, those chains started well, but now they don't work," says Ortiz, who had the habit of going to them every week with relatives and friends. "I had to stop going. Nowadays they sell the chicken - poorly cooked - without condiments. Beer is always warm and I have noticed that some goodies, like cookies and chocolates, show an expired date."

One of those goodies caused his seven-year-old son to have diarrhea. But Ortiz did not try to complain to any organism, which is the customary reaction in Cuba. Consumers' rights are trampled upon on a daily basis.

Marta Sánchez, a 31-year-old engineer, had the same thing happen to her Children. A liquid chocolate that she bought to flavor the milk made the kids sick. "The product expiration date was December 1998, and I bought it in July 1999. Of course, after what happened I threw it away."

Ever since then Marta prefers to buy merchandise with dollars. The products are more expensive but of a better quality. The average Cuban is not in the habit of reading the expiration date on the label of products and this has caused more than one intoxication or poisoning. Until now, this kind of ailment has not reached the official government press which is so docile to the commands of the Communist hierarchy.

Another malaise suffered by consumers is the result of nearly frantic robbery on the part of those entrusted to offer a good service. Managers, waiters, clerks and even housekeeping personnel sharpen their teeth at the opportunity of making easy money at the expense of gullible and helpless consumers.

A warehouse chief working in one of those chains remarked that chicken portions ordinarily weigh 522 grams when raw and lose weight when fried. A fried portion size is 348 grams, but he admits that the portions served to the customer in the cafeteria weigh less than 200! This person, who asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, also highlighted the big business that administrators do with beer.

The beer brands sold there are domestically manufactured (Hatuey, Tínima, Polar and Mayabe) and their sales price is 10 pesos. But those cafeteria chiefs manage to acquire beer of a lesser quality (generic), which is sold for two pesos in other cafeterias in unlabeled bottles.

"How?" he asked. "Easy. Hundreds of packs of these cheap beers are bought and labels from the brand beers are stuck on them. Then we sell them for 10 pesos each." This warehouse chief said false representations are not done only at "Imagen" and "Oferta" but at many other facilities if not all of them.

The proceedings from those maneuvers are high. From a 24-pack of beer costing 48 pesos, the chiefs make a profit of 192. A good deal. So much so that some affluent people are trying to find the way to get a job in those chains and share in this "new piñata" or giveaway.

René, 25, who has saved US$400 so as to buy a position as a clerk in one of these two chain stores says, "It is easier to get a job here. The controls are less rigorous than in the 'for-dollars-only' businesses, yet in the end, you get to make the same amount in pesos, or even more, than is made by those working in tourism."

Corruption, which is rampant all over the island, will not make it difficult for René to see his dream come true: To work in "Image" or "Oferta" and amass a fortune, that is, put money together at the expense of the customers. Therefore, what was once thought to be an alternative for those people "sin dólares" ("without dollars") has become spoiled by robbery, poor service, lack of controls and slovenliness.

Also, the high cost of the products is beyond the reach of many pockets. Héctor Paredes, 77 and retired with a monthly pension of only 80 pesos can not aspire to drink one beer for 10 pesos or eat fried chicken for 25.

Cuba is an ideal country for things not working. And that is the case of "Oferta" and "Imagen." Luis Díaz, a 54-year-old economist, summarizes it this way: "Bad service, high prices and expired products. But Cuba is not Belgium where a big scandal started over one Coca-Cola in bad condition. Worst of all is that we have to keep consuming from these chains since we have no other alternative."

As Luis says, Cuba is not Belgium and fraud to the consumer and the consumers' lack of protection may only be mentioned in an off-the-record anecdote.

Iván García, Cuba Free Press.

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