14ymedio, Eliás Amor Bravo, Economist, August 26, 2020 — Are the coleros (people who stand in line for others) so bad? Is the repression against them justified?
The unending lines that stretch for blocks in the early hours of dawn are a habitual phenomenon in the geography of Cuban commerce, above all for buying basic goods for the daily diet, like oil or chicken, and household cleaning products like detergent.
Many people detest these lines and can’t even get what they want after long hours of waiting. This happens not only to those who are last in line but also because the merchandise is limited and rarely responds to the needs of the population. Others simply can’t be in line, either because they’re at work or have family members who need attention, or simply because they have some disability that prevents them from standing in line.
In all these cases, which are many, the solution for avoiding the lines comes from anonymous citizens who provide them with a service in exchange for a remuneration. It’s normal. The cost of opportunity is fundamental for an economy to function.
The colero, which is the derogatory term used by the Government against these citizens, sells a place at the front of the line, which assures the buyer that he can get what he wants. But in order to formalize this transaction, the colero has to claim the space by spending the night outdoors in the line and sacrifice hours of his leisure time with his family. Nothing is free.
Seeing that these people have created an informal “market” and are satisfying the needs of citizens, the Regime decided to create “groups to confront coleros and resellers” throughout the whole island, accusing them in official propaganda of being guilty of creating the lines. The idea was that these intervention groups would reduce the participation of people in lines; especially because of Covid-19, since there’s a need to keep a safe distance.
Beginning August 1, the Regime created these groups for preventing and confronting the coleros, resellers and hoarders with the goal of “organizing the lines and eliminating the lists with names and identity card numbers and turns granted to some people for several days”. What’s curious is that these groups include bosses, officials and members of mass organizations, which shows the inability of the police and army to prevent crowds in the present situation of crisis. But there are also doubts about whether these people shouldn’t be at work instead of denouncing and repressing their fellow citizens. In spite of the repressive climate, the protests have been extended throughout the whole country.
However, as expected, these groups haven’t given the Regime the results it wanted, and the lines, each time longer and more disorganized, continue, and the informal commerce increases in a spectacular way. The repression doesn’t help solve problems that have to do, above all, with the scarcity of basic goods. The situation with imports got worse last year because of the Government’s lack of hard currency and the low general productivity of the economic system, especially in agriculture. In addition, the arrival of Covid-19 aggravated these structural factors even more.
Instead of trying to solve the main problems, the Regime goes back to its old ways: repression, denouncement and prison. What it’s always done in these cases. Thinking that the State Security police or the anti-colero groups will be the solution to the problem is stupid, since the problem’s origin is in the general shortages suffered by the country.
In addition, the Regime has failed in other ways with its actions against the coleros. It’s not a matter of isolated cases, and many people have discovered how profitable this activity is, as much for satisfying the needs of others as for earning a profit, the big enemy of the Cuban Communist Regime. Those who have been arrested return to the activity as soon as they can, as do those whom the Regime tries to “reorient” through the mass organizations.
The people who engage in this activity, selling a place in line as a way of life, agree that in spite of the risk of being arrested and prosecuted, they get paid better with this informal work than any employee in the budgeted sector, which is dominated by low salaries, precarious work, poor working conditions and a lack of opportunity for professional and social development.
The Government’s repression has been directed not only against the coleros but also against resellers and those they call “hard currency traffickers”, who offer dollars in exchange for Cuban pesos or Cuban convertible pesos so people can open an account in the banks, get debit cards and shop in the hard currency stores. Other citizens have been prosecuted for alleged crimes of “speculation and hoarding”, for having bought merchandise with the purpose of reselling it.
Some sources on the Island note that behind the shortages also exists “a scheme of misappropriation by corrupt leaders, who never have stood in line exposing their health or that of their family”. Luckily, many citizens have understood that the shortage of goods in the economy is the cause of the huge lines and not the acts of the coleros, hoarders and resellers, and they blame the Regime for not taking responsibility for its own inefficiency. Cubans in the diaspora rarely have to stand in line to buy in stores in Madrid, Hialeah or México. This evil is endemic in the economic system of the Island.
This concept has spread like wildfire in Cuba, and the Regime’s official propaganda hasn’t been successful in its campaign of harassment and denunciation of the coleros and resellers. Now there’s no Fidel Castro to reign in these actions with his traditional uproar, and president Díaz-Canel offers a different kind of authoritarian leadership. Rather, the opposite has been produced, now that the attacks of the official editorials, and on the episodes of the Roundtable program on Cuban TV, and in Party meetings, haven’t managed to exempt the Government leadership and divert attention from the reality, which is none other than the Government’s inability to satisfy the basic needs of the population. And this is good news. There are dangerous curves ahead.
Translated by Regina Anavy
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