'I have to defend myself,' Cubans say as they rob besieged government

January 06, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

HAVANA -- Javier, an assistant manager at a state food distribution center, explains how Cubans make ends meet.

"When they're unloading the ships, the dock workers 'disappear' a few sacks or boxes of whatever comes in," he says.

"When the trucker brings it to my center, a few more vanish. While it's in my center, a few more get lost. And when the shopkeeper gets it, he takes a cut, too."

In Cuba, surviving means at the very least bartering, playing the angles of supply and demand.

But it often means stealing from an already besieged state, further undermining a desperate economy. These days, it seems that everybody, in one way or another, cheats the government.

"Me tengo que defender" -- "I have to take care of myself" -- is a popular expression among people explaining that, while they know they're cheating, lying or stealing, they must do it or do without.

"By the ration book there's nothing, but on the black market there's everything," says Olga, 45, a longtime Communist Party member whose commitment to the party line today is less than complete.

Food is scarce or unavailable on the official market because the chain of theft starts at the source and doesn't end until it gets to the state-run neighborhood store.

At each stage, people steal food both to eat and to barter for other scarce items. Even the bosses are forced to put their honesty on hold for their families' sake.

And Javier, 27, the deputy manager of the distribution center, does he steal?

"Me tengo que defender."

But Javier's center deals in staples only. For a little extra, like an occasional chicken, other measures become necessary.

Under the rationing system, children up to age 13 get a quarter-pound of chicken a week; the weight includes bones, skin and fat. If his neighborhood store had any chicken, it would cost him 40 Cuban cents a pound.

But Javier can't remember the last time he saw chicken in a store for the public to buy -- too much stealing -- and so he has to go into the black market.

His monthly salary of 148 pesos is worth $1.85 at the black market exchange rate. And chicken in the black market or in the government's well-stocked but dollar-only stores is going for $1.25 a pound.

The Cuban peso is so worthless that kids on the street give peso notes and coins to tourists as souvenirs -- perhaps hoping for a return gift.

So how does Javier get that chicken? "Now is when having

friends in strategic places is important," he says.

His strategic friend is a doctor who writes phony prescriptions. -- Javier takes the medicine -- this week it was tetracycline, an antibiotic -- and on his days off travels to the countryside to trade for a chicken. While there, he takes "orders" for other medicines from farmers.

Because of fuel shortages, public transportation is iffy at best. Javier hitches a lift or rides his bicycle to the farms.

A train that stops at Casa Blanca, a community across the bay from Old Havana, unloads people coming from the countryside, their homemade satchels stuffed with plantains, sweet potatoes, bananas.

At a cafeteria for tourists, Olga, the boss, sent away a Cuban who walked in asking for coffee.

"There's no coffee, and there's no sugar, either," she says brusquely,, not bothering to look at him.

The man has barely left when Estela, a friend of Olga's, comes in and is offered coffee and milk, with sugar. Free. Olga is Estela's strategic friend.

A $1 bill a tourist paid for coffee, instead of going into the state's zTC till, was grabbed by one of the workers who ran out and returned promptly with a can of milk, bought from the neighborhood black market provider. After some conversation, relations warm up, and the tourist is offered coffee and milk, for free.

"That's normal," says Rafaelito, who works at a shop that makes electrical spare parts. "If you're Cuban, they treat you badly when you go into a shop. Either they ignore you or they speak harshly to you.

"But if you're a tourist, with dollars, they greet you like a favorite cousin."

The government, trying to head off trouble, has allowed Cubans to become self-employed in a limited number of trades, provided they buy a license and pay a monthly fee. Many don't bother to register.

Esperanza, a retiree, strings together plastic beads into necklaces and bracelets, stuffs them in a bag and walks three miles from her home to the Plaza de la Catedral to sell her wares to tourists.

"No, I don't have a permit," she says. "I get 78 pesos a month for my pension, and the permit is 40 pesos a month. If I don't sell much one month, I can't afford it. So I sell very discreetly. 'Me tengo que defender.' "

What happens if they catch her without a permit?

"Fine me or throw me in jail, probably," Esperanza says with a wry smile.

"But if I don't do this, I don't eat. So I have no choice."

Jobs in tourism are lusted after, because of their potential for dollar tips, higher status and ability to deal with exotic foreigners. And the jobs can be bought, Javier says, for $200 and a "palanca," again the strategic friend.

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