In Defense of the Hustlers / Dora Leonor Mesa

Vices come like travelers; they visit us as guests, and stay as masters.

In the old East Germany where I worked years ago as a German translator, I learned,through snobbery,top level cooking in a five star hotel. Later in Cuba, in my debut as a mother, I should have chosen between a promising professional career or resigning myself to being mother and wife. After choosing the longest road, I “got” the title of cook with an European experience, so I could get good jobs, those that pay in convertible currency (C.U.C.) and create on our humble table a culinary culture that would make us proud, in spite of the daily difficulties.

In one of my experiences as cook, a known painter for whom I worked sarcastically called me the English Lady. When I asked him why, his answer perplexed me:

“You cook very well, and you don’t steal or ask questions.”

The saddest thing about the situation is that after changing jobs, because of my employer’s return to his country, my excellent references did not avoid initial suspicions. You often found the house full of garments, another day, delicacies everywhere, sometimes money in unexpected places, “forgotten” digital equipment. . . In the end the favorable judgment, far from being flattering, is embarrassing: We Cubans, at least for some time now, have acquired fame as thieves, hustlers. . .

The controversial issue about the shameful reputation of Cuban as thieves and hustlers is real. You just have to read from time to time the weekly sections of Letters to the Editor of the Granma and the Juventud Rebelde newspapers. Passengers on the public bus avoid paying the fare. There are even citizens who steal electricity or domestic gas. In the stores you can find a cracked toilet bowl for $25 CUC (“La Especial” of Infanta) in a country with an average salary of $20 dollars. And in the farmer’s market, pretending to forget the price and the weight of the products on sale is the best strategy.

The country’s important companies, among them ETECSA, Enterprise of Telecommunications of Cuba, have legalized rapacity: exorbitant rates, discriminatory service. A different kettle of fish is the National Electrical Union, responsible for supplying electrical service to the nation and thus to the residential sector. Frequently, the Cuban magazine Bohemia explains in detail how to read the electric meter and make payment calculations according to the prevailing price rates.

For years my maternal grandmother kept her payment receipts (I do it, too). This habit helped us to discover how the household consumption’s numerical trends rose disproportionately even before the months of highest spending, Christmas holidays, vacations in August. The Company defended itself saying that consumption increases with an increased demand for electricity. Nevertheless, the actual analyzed data do not coincide with those of the receipt. With an Excel table and a simple statistical analysis you saw that the variations were significantly unequal yearly.

Sometimes we had problems with the “electricity” collectors thanks to our valuable table, which predicted when they would try to charge more. On top of that, we had to complain in the municipal billing office several times, where, it is fair to say, they still receive their clients in a friendly way, the bundle of payment receipts from several years, this “weapon”, had to be present, the actual readings and the table of statistical fact on Excel, printed with the pertinent data and graphics.

In our house we had no high-consuming new equipment or air conditioning, but the same two old refrigerators as always, responsible for the increased domestic electrical expense. We never changed them for the new Chinese appliances proposed by the State, very small and expensive. Apparently, there were some adjustments in the Electric Union. For some reason the current cost of domestic electricity is more reasonable.

Payment date / Amount in Cuban pesos

January 2009 $84.40          August 2009 $157.65

January 2010 $71.00           August 2010 $171.20

January 2011 $56.00           August 2011 $137.30

January 2012 $54.80

The Manufactured Gas Company has a history in our family. The charge for gas is really moderate (100 cubic meters cost 11 Cuban pesos, about $0.50), but we have little luck. We had a gas collector who, little by little, began to bring us the bill without the payment stamp, and the consumption readings did not correspond with what appeared on the receipt. Upon confronting her, she arrogantly told us that she was a “cutting edge worker,” that is to say, the best employee.

The first time I went to ask the Provincial Company of Manufactured Gas about the collection procedure, God was with me that day; the director of our corresponding office was there. In front of the clerks of the Office of Customer Service, she highlighted the “efficient collection work” and put into question the quality of my humble stove:

“That is not why! I too spend more than 11 pesos, but by leaving it burning. . .”

After the interview, normalcy returned. Nevertheless we detected that the value of the bill was always the same. The bridge collapsed when the collector told my oldest daughter:

“The next bill will come higher.”

In the rain, for the second time, I approached the Office of Costumer Service of the Provincial Company with all the paraphernalia of several years of payment. A clerk, Jorge L. Galban, compromised to investigate the case. He visited our house, reviewed the gas meter and soon after that, in the month of January, as compensation we did not have to pay the monthly bill. Our bills were being reported as if we had a broken meter.

Eighteen months later, another gas collector appears. The reading of the month of June did not coincide with the real one, the consumption climbed again without excuses. The payment receipts returned with the date of the reading without changes. I tried to convince the worker about the anomaly. I made him come into the kitchen to corroborate the reading of the meter. In truth, three pesos is nothing; we are just a mass, people. Why not clients?

Thousands of Cubans fled over the ocean, so they could feel they are treated as persons. Some made it. Others rest in the ocean. Bryan, my nephew, lives among the fish. I am sure he is happy, surrounded by freedom and beauty. We decided to stay in Cuba. We really like the idea of thinking and acting like people with rights. Previously the boss at the Gas office rejected criticisms from her exemplary collector. An announcer from a television show recommends:

“Follow the path of money.”

“Perfect. Anti-scoundrel clients, FORWARD!”

Translated by mlk

June 12 2012