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.
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.
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.
(*) An authorized HT translation of the original in Spanish published by BBC Mundo.