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Alfredo Prieto: I was born in Havana, a fact that’s not so common around here these days. Most of my family emigrated a long time ago to the United States, something that motivated me to study that country a little to try and understand it. I learned some English, and later I improved a bit more through direct contact with US citizens in their homes and above all in their universities. Later I found out that this was called “sleeping with the enemy”, but I confess that I never saw one in front of me. I’ve had many invitations, but as of six years ago I can’t go back because they changed the rules of the game. I’ve been the editor of the magazines, Cuadernos de Nuestra América, Temas and Caminos. I now work at the publishing house of the Cuban Writers and Artists Association (UNEAC) and I’m writing another book. Like my aunt, I am a declared fan of strawberry cheesecakes… and of Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac’s ex. If any of you know her, please give her a flower for me.

Fixing a Broken Sound System

December 31, 2009 | Print Print |

Alfredo Prieto

Havana hotel photo by Caridad

Havana photo by Caridad

On December 24, I decided to get my boom box fixed. The CD reader didn’t work and apparently the cassette player’s rubber belt had broken.

With the system on my shoulder, I headed off for the repair shop that goes by the name of “Vostok,” the same as a satellite the Russians put into orbit during the Cold War space race. The shop is not very far from a dry cleaner’s called “Valentina,” named after the first woman astronaut in history, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereskova.

After waiting around for a half hour for the employee to finish with a customer, the technician told me he didn’t fix Phillips systems; the guy who specialized in that brand was on vacation.

Nonetheless, he referred me to another repair shop on Carlos III Avenue.  When I arrived with my Dutch-brand sound system on my shoulder, the place was almost deserted.  The clerk who attended me displayed a warm smile (which I had to thank her for, because those have almost disappeared from the map).  But her grin could have been interpreted in another way, since she told me they didn’t work on those types of systems either.  In any case, she sent me to a third repair shop, one on Infanta Street.

A woman, whose husband was at the door with a sound system similar to mine, was arguing with the manager.  It turned out that his boss at the main office, over in Old Havana, had given him the order to close at 10:00 in the morning.

For the reader not familiar with things in Cuba, I should clarify that December 24 here is a work day like any other, contrary to what occurs in other places.

During the 1970s, the celebration of Christmas was abolished because it was not compatible with the needs of the economy.  People were instead called upon to realize our tropical Great Leap Forward by harvesting ten million tons of sugar.

Something similar happened with the Havana carnivals, which had traditionally taken place in February along the Prado esplanade.  Since then, they’ve been held in July along the street skirting the Havana seawall.

However, after Pope John Paul II Cuba visited in 1998, December 25 returned as an official holiday in Cuba.

Citizens suffer from indifference and inefficiency

I’m telling this story about our sound system not because it’s is so significant in itself, but because it fits like a ring in illustrating the problem of services in Cuba.  This is one of the areas where citizens have to suffer the torments of slackness, indifference and inefficiency.

This fact is determined by several factors. First among them is the policy of full employment. As long as pressure from the labor market is absent, positions are filled by the incompetent, the lazy, dimwits and cheats.  Elsewhere, these people would normally be fired by any business owner if they failed to meet the job requirements.

Secondly are the wages, because we all know these are insufficient to make it to the end of the month, and consequently they don’t cover the requirements of “simple reproduction” (subsistence). It’s all the same, whether it’s a Phillips or a Sony, a LG, Daewoo or a JVC. In the end they all earn you an equal amount – even when there’re in gray areas of work, which are summed up in the expression “on the outside” (outside of the State system).

I guess it just wasn’t my day…

On returning to my apartment, I watched the news on the economic performance of the neighboring province of Havana in 2009.  They reported on the production of 815,000 tons of grain and vegetables, more than 400 million eggs, growth in cattle breeding (up more than 7,000 head), the over fulfillment of the milk production plan (more than a million liters) and of pork (more than a thousand tons).

Seeing this, it occurred to me to call to a friend. He got me in touch with a self-employed technician.  He came to my house and in a question of about fifteen minutes he cleaned my lens and changed the two belts for a price I thought to be reasonable, considering costs these days.

Only through this could I have dinner that night listening to “Ojalá que llueva café” (Let’s hope it rains coffee), a song by Juan Luis Guerra (who I’ve been a fan of since my youth).

Adam Smith once wrote: The person who provides a service does so to benefit themself, not out of altruism or love for their fellow being.

My economist friends are right, not for their Kantian academicism but because of their dictum on life: the State has to get out of these services -like the bull out of the China shop- and devote itself to something else.


What's your opinion?

  • Michael N. Landis

    While comical to many of your readers, your odyssey probably increased your blood pressure into stroke territory. It reminded me of the time when, for one reason or another, I hade to keep returning to the Division of Motor Vehicle Registration at least a dozen times, each time meeting rejections not unlike those depicted in the Cuban film “Death of a Bureaucrat.” I’m sure your example has been repeated millions, if not billions, of times by other Cubans. Why can’t the government end its fruitless involvement with and (attempted) control of the service sector, and allow the laws of the market place to prevail? If need be, they could take their pounds of flesh from these enterprises in taxes–but not too much, since it would “kill the geese which lay the golden eggs. Plainly most employees of these state enterprises are unresponsive to the public they are supposed to be serving. I think–or at least hope–the days of such idiocy are now finally numbered!

  • http://www.GRDPublishing.com Grady Ross Daugherty

    Why, indeed, can’t the Cuban state end its fruitless, attempted control of the service sector and allow the laws of the market place to prevail? I think it is b/c the core, so-called “principle” of socialism laid down by Engels and Marx is “centralization of ‘all’ the means of production in the hands of the state.”

    If the state owns all, then the market cannot do its natural, historically-evolved magic.

    Marxism became a secular religion, rather than the scientific method it claimed. The Party bureaucracy feels it must adhere to this state ownership and control of everything insight, or it will be violating “real” socialism.

    The simple truth is that real socialism is not state ownership and control of everything in sight–including the service sector. Real socialism would be a pluralistic, cooperative economic system where private owners of service enterprise, farms and ranches, restaurants, and the like are valued and assisted by the socialist state.