The ‘Outraged’ of Cuba

November 8, 2012 | Print Print |

Fernando Ravsberg*

Prices charged in Cuban stores are sometimes higher than in Europe. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — Lourdes Machado is a Cuban from Santa Clara who spent $20 USD — the equivalent of her monthly salary — on a pair of shoes that fell apart after only 30 days.

She went back to the store for a refund but the guarantee was only good for a week (obviously they knew the “quality” of what they were selling).

Outraged, she had to turn to Pepe Alejandro (a kind of Ralph Nadar of Cuban consumers), who had her story published in the Juventud Rebelde newspaper with the hope that some authority would reply.

Lourdes is not the exception – she’s the rule. In Cuba there are millions of “indignados” who don’t gather in protest but who can be found at bus stops, doing paperwork in government offices, at butcher shops, in warehouses and in hard-currency stores.

They have nowhere to turn when their own shoes fall apart, no one to refund their hard-earned money or to sanction stores for selling shoddy products or punish importers who spend millions buying foreign crap.

An acquaintance of mine (someone who used to import footwear and parts for assembly in Cuba) told me that all of this is the result of the deal made after bartering. When the purchasers ask “who makes the best offer,” he said they are referring to the money that goes into their pockets.

Illegal kickbacks received by Cuban importers from shoe factories are in the tens of thousands of dollars. These bribes ultimately define the quality of the purchases – with the higher the commission paid meaning the lower the quality of the product.

The customer in Cuba is never right. Photo: Raquel Perez

This doesn’t bother the importers. With the extra money they receive, they can buy “pacotilla” (an assortment of products) for their families while in China or on the return trips through Canada. I’ve never seen any of these buyers or their family members wearing shoes that they themselves selected for importing.

This happens everywhere. In the most expensive supermarket in Havana they sell the cheapest brands from Spain at prices that would make the most money-grubbing speculator blush.

From one day to the next they’ll tack on a 30 percent increase to the price of everyday rice, selling if for more than a $1.40 USD a pound.

They charge three, four, or five times more than what the products sell for in supermarkets in Europe; yet despite their staggering profits they fail to provide good customer service, they close early and they add on “multas” (“premiums”) to the prices of items.

The store managers are always “in a meeting” or resting because “they can’t spend all day here,” my contact explained.

When we complained about one of those “multas,” the management offered to give us another product for free in an attempt to shut us up, but they didn’t offer us the opportunity to put our complaint down in writing.

Outraged Cubans have a “voice,” but there’s no use in isolated protests as long as there are no institutional “ears” that will hear them. Citizens’ outrage and indignation should become the starter motor for putting solutions in motion.

The country is crying out for an Office of Consumer Advocacy, just like the National Office of the Comptroller was needed at the macro level. Moreover, the combined action of both institutions could serve to require importers and store managers alike to respect parameters of quality that are in line with prices.

Many products have a premium known as a “multa,” which here in Cuba goes into the pockets of store managers. Photo: Raquel Perez

I’m sure that many of the cases, which might begin with a simple protest about a sole that came off of a pair of shoes, would end up in the hands of the Comptroller General of the Republic and subsequently become part of major corruption trials.

The establishment of such a mechanism is important in all parts of the world, but in Cuba it’s much more vital because the state monopolizes all domestic trade.

Yet for those who are corrupt, it’s easy to label any protest as being “anti-government” or “political,” even if it only has to do with poor quality, overpricing or a “multa.”

A consumer advocate or ombudsman’s office would radically change this perception because it would be an instrument of the government directed at protecting its own citizens from the abuses of store managers. The government would cease being the “bad guy” and would be seen as an ally of the people.

When the Cuban Revolution began, it claimed itself to be of the poor, for the poor and by the poor. What we can see now is that the greatest beneficiaries of a Consumer Advocate Office would be precisely those people who are poor (the overwhelming majority), those who should be able to spend their meager incomes in the most efficient ways possible.
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(*) An authorized HT translation of the original in Spanish published by BBC Mundo.

 

 


What's your opinion?

  • http://www.wteague.com Walter Teague

    Finally, I see a complaint, but with a practical suggestion. A consumer affairs or protection office is needed in every country regardless of the economic and political system. And as a minimum, it should function transparently and within the legal system.

    Here in the US, a consumer advocate was just elected to Congress and Ralph Nader’s organizations keep working. Also we have various organizations that claim to be independent and pro-consumer. Then there are legal means to sue for damages, etc. All together it isn’t really a fair or transparent system, but in a thoroughly capitalist country where the press is 99% controlled by big money and various selfish interests, but still it helps.

    Ralph ran for president and of course he only got a small percentage of the votes and none of the mammoth financial support of the Republican/Democratic candidates. Obama wanted to appoint Elizabeth Warren as national consumer advocate and since she seemed to be an honest supporter of both consumers and capitalism, it scared the hell out of the Republicans and they blocked her.

    It is an ongoing battle with the built in conflict of interests that his article refers to. But a democratic, consumer movement supporting the interests of the majority in Cuba would be in line with both democracy and socialism. At least that is how I see it.

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

      Excellent post, Walter.

    • Moses

      Mr. Teague, the greatest difference between Cuban and American consumers is the wealth of choices that American consumers have. If, as you say, Americans are not much better off despite our consumer protection organizations, you can not deny that if a product in the US consistently fails to meet consumer expectations, consumers will simply choose a competiting product. In Cuba, there are often no other like products to choose from. For example, arguably the best women´s shoe sold in Cuba is a brand made in Brazil called ViaUno. There is a fancy ViaUno store on Calle Obispo in Old Havana. My wife bought a pair of shoes from this store in Havana during her last visit to Cuba last February for 80 cuc. This is a king´s ransom for a pair of shoes in Havana. When she returned to San Francisco, she found the same pair in Sears for $50 (40 cuc). It is unfair that Cubans must pay twice the amount for the same pair of shoes. Please don´t blame the embargo as Brazilian companies export directly to Cuba without fear of violating the US embargo. I believe the difference is owed to ¨multas¨ described in this post. In Cuba, Cubans often talk about two ¨bloqueos¨. The US embargo and then the self-imposed blockade in Cuba.

      • Luis

        If you go to Via Uno’s website you won’t find a shop located in the US. Gotcha. You manipulate the way the embargo works in order to diminish its effects. You have always did. And it never worked out. Give up.

        • Griffin

          Luis,

          I wonder when you will get around to removing the mental blockade you have imposed on your own mind, the one which divides political reality from ideological fantasy?

          Via Uno shoes are indeed for sale in the USA. http://www.women-heels.com/index.php

          • Luis

            You should lift your ‘mental blockade’. See the bottom:

            ‘Copyright © 2010 Women High Heels | Designed by Web Design em Salvador’

            Looks like an international website for heels from Brazil. Look at the links section, they are mostly Brazilian. I know my country, Mr.

            Anyways some products from around the Globe reach Cuba. The embargo makes it difficult to sell them in large quantities, thus making them more expensive.

          • Griffin

            The lack of competition makes things more expensive in Cuba, as does the importation monopoly controlled by the Cuban government through their trading companies.

        • Moses

          What a stupid mistake you have made. I never said a Via Uno shop in the US. I SAID she found the same pair in Sears for $50 (40 cuc)¨. You seem like an intelligent young man. Spend less time looking for ways to attack me and more time speaking to what is really taking place in Cuba. (not what you wish was happening to feed into your anti-capitalist eros).

          • Luis

            I know what you said. And more, I know the intentions of what you said by reading beneath the lines. If you wish for me to spend less time attacking you, you should hold your bile. It’s insulting. You have offended my intelligence here in such a manner that there’s no turning back. Sorry.

  • Michael N. Landis

    At least Cubans have the option of repairing the cheap Chinese crap they buy! The sound on the Chinese tv purchased by my friend, franco franco, died only a year after he purchased it, new. For a while he improvised; he was able to tune in the sound for one of the channels on is radio, so he could still see and listen to at least one channel. Fortunately, I arrived and was able to help him; he hired two repairmen who came out, took the chasis apart, and re-soddered a section of the board so that the sound again worked. They charged $20 CUC’s. Now if this had been here in the States, it wouldn’t have been worth the repairmen’s time to fix it for anything less than the equivalent of $150+ CUC’s; hence, the tv set would go to the dump (an additional $10 drop-off charge in my town). At least in Cuba there are still folks who can repair items for a reasonable charge (at least reasonable for us here in the States; I’m afraid for franco franco it would have been what he makes in one month to repair his set).
    If most Cubans had real internet access, however, they could go to some site like Yelp! (or create a similar site in Cuba), and describe their woes. Then, once word got out, only the rubes would purchase inferior brands.
    During my last two visits, I have noticed that there are some options. For example, there is locally produced furniture, sold in CUPS, and at much better prices than similar items sold @ “choppin” state stores; likewise, with some clothing, shoes, hand-bags, belts, etc. As long as these items are made from locally obtained raw materials, not merely re-assembled from imported parts or raw materials, then precious foreign exchange doesn’t need to be spent, and local craftsmen can earn more than the inadequate $20+/- per month pittance they receive from their work with state enerprises.
    One thing I have noticed is a certain lack of imagination; for example, with all the “cafeterias” opening up in each block, there seems to be an over-abundance of opportunities to buy a slice of pizza (this is also characteristic of my own town, here in Vermont). Time for these new entrepreneurs to be a litttle more inventive. OTOH, maybe they’re just giving the people what they want. Still, I think at least some of these entrepreneurs should be in the “vanguard” in offering new products. One example I would offer are all the new fast food East Asian noodle shops opening up in England, which have undercut the swill dished out by Burger King, MacDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. In Cuba, with its large population of African origin, why not rediscover some African dishes, for example? (In the town in Maine where my sister-in-law lives, for example, the local population of Somali refugees opened up such food stands and restaurants with their own couisine; at first it was just popular with their compatriots, but now demand for this food has spread to other sectors of the local population.