Cubanet.org, Ernesto Perez Chang, Havana, 22 May 2015 — Attestations about poor or non-existent attention in Cuban state businesses are so abundant that few pay attention to them. In order to offer a response to the indignant, the island’s official press searches for causes of such abuse not in the inefficiency of the state enterprise but in other absurd factors like poor education or lack of professionalism, which do not reveal the corrupt essence of a system that, in spite of the proof of its uselessness, will be kept in place by government will, as is expressed in the Guidelines of the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party.
Why do we receive better treatment in a private restaurant or cafeteria? Why do customer demands bother the clerk and managers of a state eatery and why do they not improve the quality of their offerings? Why do they hide behind any justification in order to remain closed or to reduce their public service hours to the minimum?
According to Vladimir Rodriguez, owner of a busy little restaurant in downtown Vedado, the problem is in the objectives of each:
“As the owner of my business I seek to attract more customers, to offer more variety. I listen to the opinions of the people, the suggestions, I serve them like they were kings because it winds up as earnings. In a state restaurant the earnings do not come from the clients’ consumption and satisfaction but in that quite miserable thing that happens in the warehouse, in the sale to the black market of everything that arrives to be produced and sold to the customers, who turn into a nuisance. What little gets to the table is only to justify the work in case an inspector comes, but the clerks as well as the manager live on the black market.
“That is something everyone knows. (…) I worked for years in restaurants in Havana, even in luxury hotels in Varadero, and what I saw in the kitchens is nasty. (…) Rice that customers leave on their plates went back in the casseroles, a bit of meat, salads, the olives, everything that people leave on the plates is served again. That is way of dealing with leftovers. That’s why I left and opened my own business. I would not be caught dead in a State restaurant; God only knows what they are serving you.”
For Iraida, a clerk in a private cafeteria in Arroyo Naranjo, the matter is more complicated: “It is a secret to no one that in the stores as well as in all the state enterprises the people do not work, they are going, as they say, to struggle, that is to say, to steal. And the worst is that the government knows it and “plays the silly goat” [pretends not to know]. (…) Why? Because it is convenient for them. If they attack the black market the people will rebel because everyone lives off that, even them. There, yes, the revolution is over. They promised to create a wholesale market for the self-employed and even now we continue in the same way, buying on the black market because there is nothing in the stores or if there is, it is hidden in the warehouses, so that you have to buy from a warehouseman, who has a fix with the manager, and so forth and so on. There you realize that the government is involved in that mess (…) if it does not benefit with money, at least it does by leaving it to the people ‘to struggle’ so that they see the ‘blessings of socialism.’ In troubled waters, fishermen gain.”
Marta Li, owner of a café in Vedado, illustrates for us with her own examples what she considers the superiority of private enterprise. “In a State café no one worries about serving the customer well because it does not end up as earnings. They sell or not, the salary is the same for the manager as well as for the sales clerk. They care about what is left from a liter of oil and the chicken, to resell the cheese and the spaghetti; they are not sold because no one would buy them. I, on the other hand, have to constantly create sales strategies; my objective is that nothing is left, not in the pots or in the freezers, to sell everything because what I have paid is quite a lot. (…) Since I am close to the university, I make offers to the students who present their student ID, I discount the price. Sometimes for someone who buys more than one pizza or for a repeat customer I give them a free drink. People come because they know that they will receive good attention. It is not about lowering prices but giving good service.”
A former civil servant of a business enterprise in Havana, who wishes to remain anonymous because she is currently the owner of a restaurant, tells us of her experiences in a state business:
“Satisfying the customer is the last of the priorities [of a state enterprise]. Whatever it may be. They all work in order to steal everything that can be stolen and in the least time possible. One enters with good intentions and ends up coming to terms with the corruption because there is no other path. (…) The socialist economy has neither feet nor head. When I studied [economics] at the university the professors themselves said that there is no way to explain the Cuban economy. And when you try to apply any model you realize that they all fail. (…) It is not that you propose to steal, it’s that you have to do it because everyone is out for himself. It didn’t matter to me or to any of the workers in all the stores where I worked, which were more than twenty; it didn’t matter if the wages were low or not, not even the bonus, the salary was a formality, the true earnings are not even on the counter as many think. Where the money comes from (…) is not the counter. And be careful with making yourself the conscious one [honest] because you wind up blaming yourself for everything.”
Will they be able someday to prove the efficiency of the socialist state enterprise, as Cuban leaders claim, based on a couple of suspicious exceptions? According to the recent statements by Miguel Diaz-Canel, this “demonstrative work” is one of the main undertakings of “the country’s leadership with the Cuban people.” As if half a century of failures that we Cubans currently suffer did not matter, the government pushes to prolong an economic experiment behind which is hidden a vast fabric of corruption.
Against that piece of nonsense, for years it has been very common to hear on the street a phrase that sums up the inefficiency of state enterprises: “The government pretends to pay us, and we pretend to work.”
About the Author
Ernest Perez Chang (El Cerro, Havana, 15 June 1971). Writer, graduate in philology from the University of Havana. He studied Galician Language and Culture in the University of Santiago de Compostela. He has published the novels: Your Eyes Are in front of Nothing (2006) and Alicia under Her Own Shadow (2012). At the end of 2014, the publisher Silueta, in Miami, will publish his most recent novel: Food. He is also the author of books of stories: Last Photos of Mama Nude (2000); Sade’s Ghosts (2002); Stories of Silk (2003); Variations for the Preliterate (2007), The Art of Dying Alone (2011) and One Hundred Deadly Stories (2014). His narrative work has been recognized with prizes: David de Cuento of the Cuban Gazette twice, 1998 and 2008; Julio Cortazar Latin American Story prize on its first call in 2002; National Critics Prize in 2007; Alejo Carpentier Story Prize in 2011, among others. He has worked as editor for numerous Cuban cultural institutions like the House of the Americas (1997-2008), Art and Literature Publisher, the Center for Research and Development of Cuban Music. He was Chief Editor for the magazine Union (2008-11).
Translated by MLK