Who Are The Debtors? / Miriam Celaya

He’s vanishing. Photo by Orlando Luís

A source that I’m not authorized to quote assures me that, on October 30, 2010, the privilege of the SEPSA agency will be withdrawn, by virtue of which the “blue” custodians – so nicknamed because of the color of their uniforms – have been paid a “stimulus” of 48 CUC a month (1,152 in the misnamed “national currency”), an amount that they have been getting since they took away other privileges years ago, such as regular allowances of toiletries and food. As a result of this new cut that will eliminate the only attractive feature of the occupation, many of these guards, who work as custodians at banks and at exchange houses (CADECA) have begun seeking other horizons of employment prospects in a time when having access to a job in Cuba is equal to or more difficult than eating a piece of beef (which is saying something).

Though the wave of layoffs has not reached the status of the tsunami that it will achieve between the first quarter of next year and 2012 – when the final completion of approximately 1,200,000 layoffs, which is said will be the number of unemployed on the Island – social discontent is palpable. Uncertainty, irritation and a slight but steady increase in the crime rate are the notes that make up today’s Cuba. On the other hand, there seems to be a kind of popular consensus to not apply for licenses for the exercise of self-employment (a palliative that the government is trying to implement as an alternative to a crisis of unprecedented labor supply for the revolutionary process) due to excessive taxes, the lack of a wholesale supplier market, the chronic instability of supplies and the high retail prices, the uncertainty about the economic future and – particularly – in the absence of a legal framework of guarantees to investors, among other causes. The experience of those individuals who in the 90’s were victims of official pressure and systematic extortion by the state inspectorate responsible for “controlling” the quality of services and the “legality and purity” of self-employed workers, discourage people’s interest in risking their funds, usually minimal or very limited, in a leap so uncertain and where those who invest their capital are the most helpless of the system: the common Cubans.

The employee at a public office who was complaining a few days ago about the recent loss of her husband’s job and claimed that, because of that, she would stop making payments for the Chinese refrigerator they had given them in exchange for the old Russian home equipment. Little more than three or four years ago, the tropical sultanate took up the eccentric decision to imitate the old story of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, in which they exchanged old lamps for new, but with more practical sense in the Arab case. “I cannot afford to deduct one cent from my salary”, the woman lamented, and she added: “If they start discounting it, I will also stop working and will use that same refrigerator for the sale of ice pops”.

Which brings up another small detail, forgotten by everyone in the middle of this storm surge: until fairly recently, the Cuban press published, with some regularity, short articles about the huge debt that people owed the state due on overdue payments for household appliances, – mainly cheap Chinese refrigerators that had replaced the old American equipment from before 1959, and Soviet from the 70’s and 80’s – that were distributed on a massive scale with the so called “energy revolution,” an idea thought up by… well, we all know who could have had such a great idea. In short, the newspapers would publish drawings reflecting the movement of such payments through provinces and municipalities, to the extreme that one of the indicators to be considered when granting a province the status of “vanguard” or “outstanding” was based on the performance of that province’s repayment history, a consideration also taken into account in awarding the site of the great celebration for the year’s 26 of July ceremonies.

For several months, the issue of the defaults recurred on TV and the written press, urging people to repay what “the state had acquired with so much effort and sacrifice for the sake of saving energy and raising the living standard of the people”. In order to pressure the debtors the food markets, where products on the ration cards are obtained, displayed lists of “slow paying consumers” who had not yet begun payments. Rumor had it that payments would be deducted from wages and communist party militants would be sanctioned if they had not complied with their payments on a regular basis.

Now, mired in the biggest socio-economic crisis that Cubans can remember, such a debt is not spoken of, nor are the slow payers mentioned, as if, all of a sudden, the debtors had settled their outstanding debts. Or could it be that, half a century behind, the hacienda owners have suddenly discovered that, in fact, we are the creditors?

Translated by Normal Whiting

October 29, 2010