Don't miss the translated Granma
article at the bottom here!
It precedes by five days the article which Karen, Walter and
Nelson are critiquing on this page. Please read it all through.
Pilfering: a little analysis needed here
by Karen Lee Wald
September 26, 2004
Lippmann gave an accurate and much-needed introductory analysis to the newest
"reality spin" by Tracy Eaton of the Dallas News, as we are treated to
a well-known fact: people who have little (and, as we know, many who have quite
a bit more than a little) often help themselves to things that aren't rightfully
theirs at work or other places where they are easily available. Every place in
Including in Cuba. But since we are talking about this openly, I am going to also put in a few extra comments. As we have often said, Cuba is neither hell on earth nor heaven on earth. And if we want to support the courageous attempt it is making to show that "a better world is possible", we also have to face honestly some of the problems it must overcome --believing, in historical perspective, that they CAN and must be overcome.
(When I was in Cuba for the first time --68-69 -- a friend and I weren't allowed to visit a male friend in the hospital because we were wearing pants --hospital rules forbade it since the sight of women in pants might unduly excite male patients.
The idea that a woman could be the Minister of Science, Technology and the Environment wasn't even thought of. Of course, they hadn't yet thought of a Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment then either. The idea that an openly gay male could be elected as district representative to Poder Popular, in the neighborhood where he lived with his gay partner, would have seemed as remote as jumping over the moon.
But again, Poder Popular didn't yet exist then, either. Everything is process. That's one of many reasons I like the title of Isaac Saney's book so much: Revolution IN MOTION...). Anyway, in addition to Walter's comments, mine are in blue... his are in italics.
"Walter Lippmann" <email@example.com>
Sent: Sunday, September 26, 2004 8:50 AM
Subject: Some things left out of "Cubans 'resolve' to make ends meet"
every critical article about Cuba is totally false.
[No, in fact, the opposite: the most sophisticated forms of Cuba-bashing target specific audiences who might otherwise be supportive of Cuba, take some kernel of truth in an area that might disaffect people from that sector, and then spin it or interpret it out of all semblance of reality. But that kernel of truth is what makes it such effective anti-Cuba propaganda, because people shake their heads and say, "Well, THAT'S true....".]
The reality which this reports, which people in the US
refer to as "employee pilferage", certainly IS a
widespread fact of Cuban life. Anyone who denies this
either hasn't been to Cuba or doesn't know what they are
talking about. And, as my fourth grade teacher, Miss Frances Bucellato used to say, "two wrongs don't make
one right". Stealing is stealing, of course.
However, what's missing from an article like Tracey Eaton's is any sense of context, comparative or historical, from which the reader might get a sense of WHY this phenomenon is occurring, or any way to reasonably gauge its genuine significance. Since Tracey Eaton says that it didn't occur earlier in the history of the Cuban Revolution, why is it happening now? And why is he reporting about it now?
[Actually, it's absurd to say it didn't occur earlier. Of course it did (and was reported on). Tracey Eaton has only been there for a few years and, admittedly, is relying on "anecdotal evidence" (which means a few people told him something and he is reporting it as fact -- a bad habit of most mediocre reporters.) Has it increased and become much more open and widespread since the economic crisis Walter describes below? Of course. But some of the roots lay in the moral confusion created in the earliest years of the Revolution when many people reasoned "Well, if everything belongs to all of us now, there is no real harm in taking this....It's mine anyway." More on this below.]
Absent from this is the fact that Cuba had a system economic stability under-written by a series of long-term trading agreements with the Soviet Union and the countries which were allied with it. That system existed for thirty years, and the problems which are reported here occurred infinitely less frequently in those days than it does now.
[Note Walter's last line: "less frequently" -- not that it didn't occur at all.]
The fall of the USSR put Cuba's economy into a tailspin from which it had to make numerous changes, including the legalization of the dollar and opening up to widespread foreign tourism and investment. THESE VITAL FACTORS ARE COMPLETELY LEFT OUT FROM MR. EATON'S ARTICLE, and so the impression is given here that somehow "crime is rampant in Castro's Cuba"...
[Added to the moral uncertainty of when petty dishonesty is "ok", are at least two or three other factors. One, during the first years of the Revolution, when all forms of major crime from theft to homicide went down drastically, most Cubans were living in a period of upwardly spiraling hopefullness.
Things may have gotten terrible for the minority elite, who mostly chose to leave until things could be put back on the "right track", but they were getting steadily better for the vast majority, who now had more food, better housing, steady jobs, education and health care (often for the first time). The incentive to steal was largely absent during that heady period.
A second, more complicated (and speculative) reason is that there was a widespread sense of equality. If not everyone yet had exactly the SAME of everything, they at least had the same opportunity, and there was a widespread perception that those who had more, deserved it -- they earned it through sacrifices made during the revolutionary war against Batista, from studying more (eg doctors) or working hard (cane cutters, for instance). So there was no moral justification in people's minds for stealing. Only the really anti-social could blithely steal and not feel bad about it.
of this was broken down in the 80s when the stigma against those who left was
dropped, Cubans abroad could send money to their relatives on the island, and
those who returned for visits came loaded to the gills with consumer goods
unavailable to most. Now, the differences in income and material goods did NOT
depend on how much a person worked or had fought for the revolution --
ironically, those who had NOT cut off relations with the "traitorous"
family members who left were better off than those who, out of revolutionary
fervor, had cut those ties.
on top of that, in the 90s the scarcity that came with the economic
situation Walter describes so well, when Cuba lost 85% of its trade with the
former socialist countries, brought a new, widespread justification not just for
taking what doesn't belong to you, but for BUYING from those who took.
This is a thorny problem that many people have been discussing in Cuba for years. People who are otherwise decent, honest, hardworking and revolutionary somehow justify to themselves buying items -- from powdered milk to car and computer parts -- because their children need the milk (and are past the age when they get the nearly free, subsidized liter of milk per day), or because they need the car part or computer in order to do their own work, which they see as very valuable for society as a whole, and "no hay" (there aren't any to be had in the stores).
So far, no one has found a solution for this mind-set and practice, although it has been suggested that the problem needs to be tackled from the time children enter childcare centers ("a parent who sees their child come home with an item of clothing or toy that doesn't belong to them must make the child return it, so children learn from the earliest age that they can not take what belongs to others.")
Discussions and debates about these moral values have taken place in schools, universities and workplaces, but so far the problem remains....]
Nelson Valdes, director of Cuba-L list reminded me of
a few more of the "missing links" from Eaton's story:
1. The US Pentagon cannot account for $3 TRILLION dollars,
they have disappeared.
2. The employee thefts within American corporations,
according to insurance companies, is $31 billion yearly.
3. The magnitude and volume of theft - by comparison - is
quite different in Cuba.
4. Moreover, in the US the costs of the thefts are passed on
to the American public which does not get anything in
return m(higher costs, and higher taxes).
5. In Cuba the theft is absorbed by the state although
indirectly the population suffers because the majority does
not get the items that were stolen.
[This point needs to be emphasized. I would argue that the majority suffers not only because they don't get goods that were allocated for them because they've "disappeared" from the warehouses and stores, or must pay higher prices for what remains because of the scarcity, but also because sometimes the goods are in fact stolen from other people who can't afford the loss.
The person who buys a cannister of natural gas from one of the men on the delivery truck or someone who comes door to door selling them means that someone -- maybe one of his or her neighbors -- had their cooking gas stolen, or received a cannister that was only half full.
The clothes that someone buys from one of those "door-to-door salesmen" may very well have left another family totally bereft (and I've seen that happen to everyone from a doctor who dedicated 20 hours a day 7 days a week to his patients, to an office receptionist who had no way to send her children to school the next day because they had no shoes to wear.
We are NOT talking about a society where the poor are stealing from the rich, but where the selfish and thoughtless are taking from others who don't deserve it and who can't replace what is taken.)]
6. In Cuba theft is a form by which state goods intended for [all of] the population is taken by [some of] that same population. [I added the words in brackets because what Nelson means here, of course, is that the intention is for every member of the population to receive an equal share, but that a selfish handful of the same population are taking more than their fair share, leaving others bereft.]
7. Topics like this are, indeed, covered in the Cuban media. For example, below you will find an English translation of a story on the very subject of employee theft in Granma, five days before Eaton's. Perhaps that is where Tracy Eaton got the idea for this story?
In conclusion: while the Cuban media DOES generally tend to look at the bright side, it DOES report on matters like this more quite a bit more often than people outside of Cuba might think. [And has been discussing it for years, in communities, schools, workplaces, the Party, etc.]
Walter Lippmann, Moderator, CubaNews list
Cubans 'resolve' to make ends meet
'This chicken stuck to me as I was leaving work'
12:38 AM CDT on Sunday, September 26, 2004
By TRACEY EATON / The Dallas Morning News
HAVANA - Hiding rocks in frozen chickens may seem like a
silly pastime. But for some folks, it's serious business -
a way to tip government weight scales and purloin poultry
Welcome to Cuba, where ripping off the socialist government
is a gentle, sophisticated art.
It's risky, too. Those who steal can lose their jobs or go
to jail. Despite that, employee theft is widespread,
anecdotal evidence suggests.
Population: an estimated 11.2 million
Gross domestic product: $31.59 billion
Revenues in tourism, the largest industry: $2.1 billion
Labor force: 4.7 million
Amount of employee theft: Unknown
A hypothetical: If 470,000 people - 10 percent of the Cuban
labor force - stole $1 in merchandise from the government
every week, that would amount to $24.4 million per year
"Almost everyone steals something, anything, to survive," a
former cafeteria worker said. "But we don't call it
stealing or robbing. Those words are too strong."
Cubans use a kinder term, resolver, meaning to resolve. So
if a man makes off with a chicken, he can proudly tell his
wife, "I resolved a chicken."
Or, "This chicken stuck to me as I was leaving work."
Unconvinced, government inspectors fan out across the
island every day trying to catch thieves.
The socialist government, many experts say, is not corrupt,
as President Bush alleged in a July 16 campaign speech.
In fact, it's seen as the fifth most honest government in
the Americas, behind Canada, the United States, Chile and
Uruguay, according to Transparency International, a
nongovernmental group that monitors corruption worldwide.
[Boy, if those other four are the unidentified "Transparency International" staff's idea of honesty, that doesn't say much for Cuba being fifth! We don't know what their measure of "honesty" is, nor how they would possibly have an idea how much or little of it exists in Cuba, but we can be sure they aren't counting electoral honesty if the US is second! (plus compare this with Nelson's figures above).]
But employee theft in Cuba is rampant, say many workers,
whose average monthly wage is $12. [We've been through this one before, but in case anyone new is receiving this, I would comment on the absurdity of equating a Cuban's wage with the going exchange rate for dollars by remarking, once again, how wonderful it would be if we could pay for our food, housing, clothing, health care, education, transportation, recreation, etc. with only $12 a month.]
Among the most common ways to steal:
. Falsely claiming a product is damaged, then taking it
home instead of throwing it away
. Overcharging, a practice known as "fining" the customer
. Diluting drinks with water or cheap liquor
. Reducing the size of customers' meals
. Buying goods at cut rates on the black market and selling
them at higher government prices
. Underreporting sales, then cooking the books.
Pilfering is especially common at cafeterias, refreshment
stands and other spots selling basic necessities, workers
say. So the government requires employees to inventory
those products twice a day.
"It's a lot of work," said Pavel Bermúdez, who was busy
counting five- and 10-cent candies at the thatched-roof
stand where he works east of Havana. "But we have no
Government officials declined to comment. They have said
employee theft is an isolated, yet growing problem. And
they have severely punished officials caught enriching
In 1989, for instance, authorities executed a Cuban general
and two others accused of doing business with Colombia's
Medellín cartel.[That, of course, is a vast understatement to describe the Ochoa-DeLaGuardia scandal, both in terms of what it involved and how extensive it was. It also could give the misimpression that they were involved in buying and selling dope in Cuba, which was not the case -- but it is much too complicated to go into here. There are whole books written about their trial.
See also my article from Z-Magazine "They Shoot Drug Dealers, Don't They?" -- a somewhat unfortunate play on the title of the then-popular film, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They" -- which at least goes into the extreme ambivalence Cuban people felt about the death penalty, even while feeling repelled and enraged by what these men had done.
It should also be mentioned that it was not the first or last time that high-level government or Party officials were "de-throned" and sometimes imprisoned for having stepped over the line in a society that still adheres, intellectually at least, to the puritan ethics of the Revolution.]
In July, Raul Castro reminded Communist Party members that
corruption would not be tolerated.
"Corruption will always be with us, but we must keep it at
our ankles and never allow it to rise above our necks," Mr.
Castro, the armed forces chief and second-in-command to his
brother, Fidel, told party militants in a May address,
Reuters news service reported.
But employee theft has proved especially difficult to
combat, according to a July report by the University of
Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.[That's probably the answer to Walter's question above about why Eaton is reporting this now. Although again, it should be mentioned that this is NOT the first time the issue has been discussed, inside and outside of Cuba. In fact, one Cuban ex-patriate discussed this very topic in her paper at a conference on Cuba in Halifax in 1989]
"Corruption, cheating and pretending" are part of daily
life in Cuba, according to the report, based on the views
of recent Cuban arrivals who took part in a series of focus
"Theft of food and merchandise from state enterprises is
seen as normal and necessary to make ends meet," the report
"No one asks where you work, but where you rob," one
The recent arrivals also reported a sharp rise in
It wasn't always that way, American scholars say.
During the early years of the revolution, materialism
largely disappeared along with "traditional forms of
corruption," according to a 1999 study by Beatriz Casals
and Sergio Díaz-Briquets of the Maryland-based Association
for the Study of the Cuban Economy.
"Puritanical revolutionary fervor" reigned, they said.
"Money was no longer the path to power."
An absolute commitment to socialism was the key, they said.
That ensured success and allowed at least some access to
such perks as travel, cars, imported electronics, beach
vacations and choice housing.
[That is a total distortion of what is taught in Cuba. Commitment to socialism, to working collectively and helping each other, is proposed as the way that all people in a society will benefit. It is NOT taught that socialism is the key to "perks". And in fact, the "perks" mentioned here are distributed through workplaces, by the votes of co-workers as to who is most deserving, based on their work and need, and NOT by the Communist Party to its members.]
Cuban officials have denied giving anyone preferential
treatment. But some outside experts question that, and say
some party loyalists enjoy more perks than the rest.
[Are some of those who are chosen to receive benefits at their workplaces also members of the Communist Party? One would have to assume so, since the same qualities that would lead workers to recommend people to become members of the Party would apply to choosing who should receive a vacation at the beach, for instance. With the difference being that in things like housing and household items, family need would be weighed in. Notice also Eaton's use of the term "party LOYALISTS" and think about what that implies.]
If someone falls from grace, however, the same perks are sometimes used to label the person as corrupt. [Again, the twisted spin: if a person was found to have a lot of these "perks" because of corruption, they would of course "fall from grace" -- not the other way around.]
No matter, many ordinary Cubans want a piece of the action.
The problem is, there aren't enough perks to go around
these days. So they say they "resolve" whatever they can
when inspectors aren't looking.
It's no easy task because the government's eyes seem to be
Over the past five years, inspectors have conducted 76,440
surprise audits and 53,300 price inspections at state-run
businesses, official Cuban media reported in June.
[And does "unofficial Cuban media" disagree with this, Tracey? Or are we to assume, from your gratuitous use of the adjective "official" that all media in the country is controlled by the central government or communist party???]
Cuba's National Association of Economists and Accountants,
along with government auditors and finance officials, also
recruit thousands of university students, professors and
other professionals for a flurry of inspections nationwide
When irregularities are found, all the employees on duty
when something is stolen - and not just the offender - face
"That's because the inspectors assume that the other
employees had to have seen something," explained Sylvia, a
gift-shop manager who asked that her last name not be used.
Retail losses are also a problem in the United States. In
2002, workers stole an estimated $15.7 billion in
merchandise, or 1.65 percent of total annual sales, a
University of Florida survey showed last year. Shoplifters
weren't far behind, making off with more than $10.7 billion
What makes Cuba different, experts say, is that the vast
majority of culprits are government employees, not
shoplifters.[Again, the spin: how often have we been told that almost all Cubans are "government employees" -- since the economy is structured that way? And in any case, why would this make Cuba "different", since Eaton himself has just pointed out that the major theft in the US was not by the shoplifters, who came in second, but by workers (should we say "corporate" or "capitalist" workers, to better describe them?]
The most successful thieves usually follow a few rules:
. They don't get too greedy.
. They cover their tracks.
. They change jobs frequently.
. They share their loot with willing inspectors, bosses,
co-workers and friends.
Some restaurant heists are quite elaborate, involving
precise measurements of such things as animal fat, number
of servings and excess bones.
Other thefts - including the frozen chicken caper - are
quite simple, a former restaurant worker said.
Say you receive a 40-pound shipment of chicken. An
inspector could arrive at any moment, so you act fast. You
take three or four pounds of poultry from the box and add
exactly the same weight in rocks, stuffing them inside the
You've suddenly got enough for dinner - and it didn't cost
September 21, 2004
and Protection of Resources:
Closing the Doors to Crime
[Translated for CubaNews by Maria Montelibre]
The presence of agents and guards from Security and Protection Agencies in the main Financial and Services sectors in the country, reduce still more crime elements and the possibility of committing crimes.
The security and protection of the country's assets is the reason these agents and guards are involved in this important activity.
In Cuba this work is only done by the State. In September, 1969, the first organization in that field was created in the Ministry of the Interior. Seven years later, the first Law of Protection was issued in the country, originating the Corps of Surveillance and Protection (CVP in Spanish), which still exists in many work centers, explains Benjamín MuZoz, chief of the Department of Physical Protection of MININT and founder of that line of work.
This legislation was in place until June 17, 1998, when it was promulgated in response to current changes in the economy, Law-Decree 186, which introduced new organizations and made possible the creation of Security and Protection Agencies which are part of the system of national corporations in the country. There are now 24 in the Central State Administration and 11 in organizations of the Provincial Administration. Besides, eight agencies are already applying improvement measures, there are Basic Units with their unique structure.
The Administrative Personnel for all these agencies has been approved by the Ministry of the Interior, but the agents are trained by the agencies themselves, at the technical and physical levels, because they are taught self defense or target shooting according to their work.
Another important form of protection - states MuZoz - are the Groups of National Security, created in budgeted centers and not covered by the agencies. Members of this second system are selected and trained by their own work center, but must also be approved by MININT.
"The work of MININT includes physical protection by men, and also by alarm systems. It also includes the protection of official State information on any financial, political or social activity which is classified, and needs certain restriction."
It also includes surveillance of imports, storage, transportation and use of hazardous substances, which include more than 80 types, as well as control of industrial explosives and hunting ammunition.
The current structure of the Revolutionary National Police - Benjamin states - which is in every municipality and People's Council, allows for the coordination and interaction of this organization with agents and guards in work centers, for collaborative work to face antisocial and criminal activities, not only in the work areas, but also in their environment.
IAmong current systems, there are alarms against intruders by sensors and infrared rays, closed-circuit TVs, magnetic entrance cards, viewfinders to read documents and credentials, and others. Most of these systems are connected to different agencies of Security and Protection, which receive automatic signals and can rapidly respond on that basis.
Organizations and others using agencies and groups of Security and Protection, have had a substantial decrease in crime, and it has been shown that there is greater control over State resources.
In the transportation sector, for example, in the first semester of this year, 1090 criminal events were detected before they occurred and were confronted, including 136 findings of hidden merchandise, to be taken from the work centers. Twenty two attempts were stopped in Agencies of Commerce, while in the Province of Havana, only 11 of 167 organizations with Protection Services, had theft attempts detected by the guards.
There are two specialized agencies, Security and Protection (SEPSA in Spanish), and Assets Transfer (Trasval in Spanish), which are part of MININT.
SEPSA offers protection in the form of men and techniques and detective services. Trasval, which derives from the first one, specializes in the transfer of all types of assets. The alarm headquarters for these agencies have patrolmen, arms and other technical resources.
There is also ACERPROT Corporation, which certifies the country's security and protection systems, and the standardization of the technology imported and installed in those areas.
According to Col. MuZoz, in spite of what has been achieved by the Security and Protection systems, there are still vulnerabilities in important financial sectors, the solution consists of strengthening the internal control of the respective organizations, the implementation of new organization styles and increased surveillance by guards, agents and work collectives.