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Cuba - Corruption

Because most Cubans work for the state, the entire system - from petty officials to Castro's closest advisors - is rife with corrupt practices. Given state control over all resources, corruption and thievery have become one and the same. Corrupt practices also include bribery, misuse of state resources and accounting shenanigans. In its post-Soviet incarnation, Cuba has become a state on the take. Cubans have grown unaccustomed to hard work. The Cuban economy stays afloat by paying nearly nothing in salaries and misappropriating everything in goods. The lower the salaries, the more goods are stolen and the less people work. People show up for work when they chose to and leave on a whim. Every one wants dollars, but no one wants to do anything for them.

Bribes are a common means of getting around suffocating controls. For example, Cubans are only allowed to swap housing ("permutar") if both residences are of equal value. Money is not allowed to exchange hands in the transaction, but often does. If a Cuban mother swaps a small apartment for a large one in a trade that obviously involved compensation, she must also be prepared to pay a GOC housing official several hundred dollars to look the other way. An additional fee may be required to push the deal through in a timely fashion. As always, Cubans must tread carefully; accidentally propositioning a clean official - or worse, a strident revolutionary - could result in disaster.

Block organizations (CDRs) have declined in prominence over the years (to the point where few Cubans have any interest in becoming CDR President), but still maintain control over the distribution of goods. On rare occasions, these goods are valuable. When televisions or refrigerators become available through the state system, CDR Officers are famous for giving preferential access to two groups: Those that maintain good revolutionary credentials... and those that can afford it.

Bribes are also key to getting good jobs (good jobs being those with opportunities to "resolver"). For example, a job with access to a fuel tank (gas station or other outlet) reportedly costs thousands of dollars, while a job in tourism (with access to tips) might cost in the hundreds. A job with elite state firm CIMEX (The Import-Export Corporation) would cost up to 500 USD.

Cuban police officers are famous for taking bribes. They pull drivers over for myriad transgressions, then describe their "sick child." The police are so corrupt that the GOC regularly fills their ranks with unsullied recruits from the East. As time passes, the new crop becomes as corrupt as the old, and a fresh batch is brought in to replace them.

Cash is not abundant in Cuba, such that bribes sometimes take a back seat to bartering, exchanging favors, and "tit for tat" deals. A Cuban might not enjoy control over anything easily stolen or sold on the black market, but putting resources to other uses can be lucrative. Transportation is a prime example. As every Cuban knows, anyone behind the wheel of a state vehicle (whether truck, bus, car or train) earns two incomes: a pittance from the state, plus additional income transporting people or goods on the side.

Certain sectors, including shipping, tourism, construction and food are notorious for generalized theft and corruption. For example, there is a thriving black market in cement, paint and wood. Or as one Cuban commented (in response to Vice President Carlos Lage's 2005 promise to build 10,000 new housing units), "the government can't build anything because it is simply impossible to collect enough supplies in one place." The ration system, which leaves bulk foods under the supervision of bodega employees, is also notorious for theft and corruption. The housing office, or "Vivienda," is also famous for corruption.

In Cuba's so-called "productive" sectors, much wheeling and dealing goes on behind the scenes as state managers swap goods, concoct inventories, fabricate receipts, and deal in imaginary resources. They are aided by an accounting system that equates the Cuban Peso (CP) with the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) on paper, though the real exchange rate is 26 to 1. (For example, some official state purchases are made in CUCs while others are made in CPs.) To aid in the confusion, Cuban managers and accountants still track their accounts with paper and pencils. The resulting morass of numbers is so incomprehensible that even "clean" managers are forced to play accounting tricks in order to do their jobs.

Some state installations are run by de facto "mafias." One manager of a bread distribution center put his friends in key jobs. He eventually came to control an entire chain of state bakeries.

The GOC stopped giving licenses to new paladars (home-based restaurants) several years ago, raising questions as to what the remaining operations had done to stay open. An American specialist on the topic posited that all upscale paladars were in some way "connected." For example, a supposedly "self-employed" owner drove a car with Ministry of the Interior (MININT) plates. A one-table paladar in the Santa Fe neighborhood (known as the "fish paladar") reportedly enjoyed an elite clientele - Raul Castro. In days of heightened state control, merely bribing inspectors is not enough to stay open.

The benefits of holding a position of power within the government can be lucrative. Cuban managers take kickbacks for awarding large contracts to foreign companies and then deposit those kickbacks in banks abroad. Just like everywhere in the world, a million dollar contract gets you 100,000 in the bank. These state managers are not so much members of the revolutionary elite, but rather pragmatists who have carved out a space for themselves within an otherwise rigid system. The former head of the Tourism Ministry might serve as an example - he was dismissed in 2004 due to "serious mistakes relating to control" and replaced with a military general.

Separate from this elite crowd of entrepreneurs stand Castro's cadres of regime faithfuls, some of whom are widely rumored to be corrupt (such as Castro clan insider General Julio Casas Regueiro). In 2005, Battle of Ideas Head Otto Rivero (a Castro protege) almost lost his job due to a corruption scandal. Battle of Ideas personnel were rumored to be dipping into the pie at all levels, from accounting shenanigans to making off with food and television sets destined for the "Free the Five" campaign.

Because the state controls - or tries to control - all aspects of life in Cuba, theft and corruption have become one and the same. The hotel manager who appropriates foodstuffs is both corrupt (he uses his state job for personal gain) and a thief (he steals). The more corruption grows, the more Castro tightens control, and the more Cubans turn to corruption to get what they want. The government leadership is well aware of the problem, but Castro can't seem to make peace with it. As one local diplomat ruminated, "Castro leads a saintly life, but saints are special because they are rare." And so the Comandante continued his struggle to wipe out corruption, seemingly oblivious to its irreversibility as long as profitable activity is illegal, individual success is cause for suspicion, and old-fashioned hard work gets you nowhere.

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Page last modified: 04-04-2013 18:08:29 ZULU