14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 9 February 2014 – “The flour trail is easy to follow,” says a retired baker whose hands, for more than five years now, haven’t mixed ingredients nor added leavening to a dough. “I left it all behind, because the administrator of the bakery where I worked changed every six months and the last one ended up in jail,” explains this sixties-something man with long arms, wearing a white cap from his days in front of on oven.
The illegal market in flour has grown in recent years. With the revival of private businesses offering varied menus, demand for “the white powder” has multiplied. It’s estimated that three of every five pizzas sold in the private cafés and restaurants are made with flour acquired in the underground networks and not from the hard currency stores as required by law.
A recent TV report has revealed that the diversion of the grain starts at the mills where the wheat is processed and packaged for distribution throughout the country. Cienfuegos Combined Cereals supplies the product to 11 of the country’s provinces, and a high percentage of its merchandise ends up in the informal networks. The trail this traffic leaves extends from the ships of the Cienfuegos company, passing through the railroad cars of at least three provinces and also involving entities such as the Business Base Unit (UEB) and Cargo Transport (Transcar).
The Interior Ministry has an ongoing investigation in response to multiple complaints of shortages of flour. The Controller of the Republic herself has intervened in the matter and at the end of 2014 presided over a tense meeting in Camaguey Province attended by all the entities involved in the embezzlement. That meeting turned into a battlefield where each party defended their own innocence and accused the others.
In November 2014, María Victoria Rabelo, director general of the Cuba Milling Company, had sent a long missive with a detailed sequence of the thefts committed against the merchandise marketed by her company, pointing an accusing finger at the railroad authorities. According to the millers’ version, the sacks of precious grain go astray during the journey to numerous destinations in the region.
In July of last year, the Department of National Railways reduced the number of staff in the Loading and Unloading Inspection Division. Added to the spending cuts is the illusion that the security of the loads relies more on automated methods and the verification of the locks of every boxcar with merchandise. The result of this measure has been a real catastrophe.
Three of every five pizzas sold in the private cafés and restaurants are made with flour acquired in the underground networks
In a Provincial Food Company inspection of 60 boxcars, it was determined that between September and October alone, over 100,000 pounds of the precious product disappeared. “If before they reduced the manpower of inspectors they were losing between two and three sacks per boxcar, today we’re talking about losing as much as 17 tons fromone of them,” confessed one Cuba Milling Company official on national television.
Ledy Guerrero Ramírez, head of packing and stowage for Cienfuegos Cereal company, said it was impossible that the product was stolen during loading. “No way,” she responded before the insinuation that the main diversion was happening in her entity. “Here we have a computer with two automatic scales and here we have another computer where the number of sacks loaded to a boxcar is programmed in,” she added. Guerrero Ramírez also said that, when the full number of sacks is loaded, the conveyor stops automatically.
During the police investigation it was found that, despite the implementation of an automatic scale in the filling of the cars, the shipments arrive at their destination with between eight and ten tons less flour. An even greater mystery, and one confusing to the experts, is that this happens without the security seals placed on the door of each car showing any signs of being violated.
The railroad operators defend themselves, bringing up Ministry of Economy and Planning Resolution No. 2 of 2008. According to its provisions, the supplier is obligated to place the product in the warehouses of the customers and guarantee its arrival in good condition and without losses. Following the exact letter of the provision, it is the responsibility of Cienfuegos Cereals to take control of and transport the flour to every distribution center.
Centralized State control, however, obliges the millers and the railroad operators to work together in a forced relationship. The spotlight of the accusations is falling on the work of the UEB railway in Cienfuegos. Its chief of operations, Antonio Subí Claro, referred to the television official who had recorded missing sacks over the whole year, which have been “significantly increased (…), adding up to some 4,800 missing sacks as of December.”
Nothing here … nothing there
Getting the sacks of flour out of the boxcars can only be carried with the complicity – or blindness – of the train crew. Several farmers in the central area say that there are sites located on the outskirts of towns and cities where the illegal off-loading occurs. A non-scheduled stop allows the product to be transferred to trucks, which wait on both sides of the rail line. The security seals on the boxcars were never closed, which requires several accomplices in the loading areas at the mills. Once they take out the merchandise, they proceed to seal the doors, leaving no signs that they had been forced.
Despite the implementation of an automatic scale in the filling of the cars, the shipments arrive at their destination with between eight and ten tons less flour
The web of conspirators is so extensive that from the loading centers they convey the information to the off-loaders about which boxcars are marked by the police, to be inspected on arrival. A game of cat and mouse, where this time the rodents appear to have greater ingenuity and creativity than the stupid cat who monitors them without success.
Contrary to what many believe, a great part of the stolen flour ends up in the state institutions themselves. The bakeries are the final destination of thousands of these stolen sacks. It will be there where they concoct, with the implements and state infrastructure, the bread and baked goods that later will be sold by private vendors. A mix of state and private (estatal and particular) that people have jokingly baptized estaticular.
The phenomenon of undeclared production has become common in state institutions. However, it is in bread baking where it reaches its highest peak. The bakeries work at double their capacity, although the product offered on the ration book is poor quality and underweight. Inside the state entities, the ovens never stop and on the kneading tables they give shape to the bread sold according to supply and demand. This is marketed “under the counter” from the display cases of the bakery itself, or is supplied to private bakers, birthday party managers, café owners and casual shoppers.
Another part of the stolen grain goes to families who hide distribution centers where they package the merchandise in smaller portions and offer it to their usual clients. “We supply owners of private restaurants and cafés, mostly to people who sell Italian food,” says Amilkar, a young man of 28 who is part of the flour distribution network in the capital neighborhood of Puentes Grandes, very close to the Cuba Milling Company.
“This is a dangerous business,” says Amilkar, who has seen many “end up in the tank.” In mid-2013 an illegal flour distribution network was dismantled in the city of Camaguey. The police arrested two young men hiding five sacks and flour and two pounds of leavening in the false bottom of a tricycle. The investigators busted it wide open and ended up taking down a network of 17 people, who included some who were issuing false invoices to account for the grain transfers.
An illegal industry that is carried out with the stealth of those who traffic in cocaine, because all the flour circulating in the country has been stolen from the state network that imports the wheat and processes it in domestic mills. Attempts to cultivate the grain in Cuban soil have ended up being a sterile, and excessively expensive, enterprise.
If I were to buy all the flour I use in the hard currency stores, I would have to sell every pizza at a price no one could afford
In selling flour, so it can be processed by others, the suppliers try to find regular customers. They are offered each sack at a price that varies between 300 and 400 Cuban pesos. Much cheaper than the 2.2 pounds for 1 convertible peso (equivalent to 24 Cuban pesos), which it costs in the network of hard currency stores. Along with the illegal grain business, there also flourished a wide offering of counterfeit receipts so the self-employed workers can justify the product to the inspectors.
“In the absence of a wholesale market, if I were to buy all the flour I would have to sell every pizza at a price no one could afford,” says Norge, an electrical engineer who now runs a private pizzeria. “We have several empty containers labeled with the brand of flour sold in stores in convertible pesos and we fill them with what we get outside, in case an inspector suddenly shows up.”
On Norge’s kitchen floor, there is a trail of white powder that extends to the back door. In the words of an old baker, that footprint is like a betrayal, a most indiscrete and eloquent track left by the illegal flour business.