Prepaid Cards, Another Desperate Attempt to Prevent Gasoline Theft in Cuba

Though officials have stepped up inspections, Cupet gas stations are still accepting cash payments “on the side.” (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia Lopez Moya, Havana, October 14, 2021 — In spite of strenuous efforts by the government, Cubans remain reluctant to stop using cash to buy gasoline. A policy requiring customers to pay by card at Cupet service stations, which are operated by state-owned conglomerate Cimex, was expected to take effect by December 2020. The policy is far from being implemented, however, and continues to arouse misgivings among the public.

Those misgivings were acknowledged this week by Villa Clara’s official press, which reported that forty-one of the fifty-five gas stations in the province only accept payment by magnetic or disposable prepaid cards. “At the moment the process has slowed down because we are not accustomed to this new form of payment,” admitted Eduardo Acosta, Cimex’s regional sales manager, on a local CMHW radio broadcast, adding that not all filling stations have been able to install scanners for the cards’ QR code.

He noted that, as with any new measure, there is widespread resistance but that this was now government policy and part of the “reordenamiento“(reordering).*

In a later exchange, reporter Abel Falcon expressed skepticism of Acosta’s explanation: “It’s a tactic to prevent what’s been going on, which is the illegal diversion of gasoline.” He added, “The administrative bureaucracy often moves too slowly and creates bottlenecks. Then Cubans wonder why they have to pay for other people’s mistakes.”

“If you could get the card anywhere in Havana, it wouldn’t be a problem,” says a taxi driver who works in the capital. “The problem is that it’s not for sale at every Cupet station. You get there, wait hours in line and then you have to turn around and try to find it somewhere else. And they don’t tell you whether they accept cash or not.”

Acosta addressed this issue during the radio interview, claiming the company was in talks with the state telecommunications company Etesca to sell cards through their retail branches.

When Cimex announced the new payment system in March 2020, it gave vague reasons for “modernizing the network” without providing further information. It made the announcement the day before Cuba closed its borders to tourism in an effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The pandemic caused the company to postpone the rollout from August to December, at which time it also introduced disposable or “scratch” cards, which reveal a unique number when scratched. They work like a prepaid phone card and can be purchased in 25, 75, 125, 250, 500 or 1,250-peso denominations.

“There’s another problem,” adds the taxi driver. “You have use the entire amount on the card. For example, if you have a card for 500 liters, you can’t buy 250 and use the rest later. Or if you have a twenty-liter card but your car only needs fifteen, what are you supposed to do with the rest? You have to carry an empty plastic jug just in case. And no car in Cuba will tell you exactly how many liters you have left, especially an old one.”

“The cards are taking up a lot of our time because you have to go through the system and sometimes the system is down,” adds another taxi driver, who joined the conversation. He cites power outages, which are happening with increasing frequency on the island, as one of the causes. “You buy a card and then you can’t pump the gas. It’s a very modern system but we don’t have the technology to handle it. If we’re having problems now, imagine what it’ll be like with the new one.”

“This is not about making life better for the customer or facilitating anything,” says the first driver. “The only reason they have for doing this is to prevent people from stealing gasoline. They’ve tried to do it a thousand times before but have no idea what they’re doing.”

The crusade against corruption at Cupet stations was famously launched back in 2005 by Fidel Castro himself, who sent thousands of “social workers” to gas stations in an effort to prevent fuel theft. “It ended up being a total failure,” says Lizy, an employee at a gas station in the capital, “because social workers started getting in on the action.”

These groups, a Cuban version of Mao’s Red Guards, are the same ones who used to distribute home appliances to neighborhoods from which the government recruited the shock troops it deployed to suppress dissent. They too ended up being part of the network of corruption, diverting resources to the black market. Less than a decade later, few of those workers are still employed at gas stations. Embezzlement even made some of them millionaires.

Lizy confirms that working at a Cupet station “has a lot of benefits.” She claims that, in a few months, employees can go “from a scooter to a car to a house.”

Authorities have stepped up inspections and Lizy acknowledges things have become quite difficult but, she claims, “Business will go on and it won’t matter that there’s no cash.”

The “business” to which she refers begins once fuel is delivered to the station. “For example, the delivery man tells [the station employee], ‘There are 150 liters of oil and 100 liters of gasoline here for you. You have to pay me X amount.’ [The employee] pays him his share and it then it gets sold under the table. From there the money is distributed. That’s how it’s always worked,” she explains

Though payment by card is being required, customers “know the ropes” and some ask to pay in cash. “Nothing has changed. The money is still going to Cupet workers,” she says.

*Translator’s note: The comment refers to the Tarea ordenamiento, the [so-called] ‘Ordering Task’ which is a collection of measures that includes eliminating the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), leaving the Cuban peso as the only national currency, raising prices, raising salaries (but not as much as prices), opening stores that take payment only in hard currency which must be in the form of specially issued pre-paid debit cards, and  many others throughout the economy. 


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.