The Scandal of the 15,000 Apples

La Puntilla supermarket is one of the best stocked in the capital. (14ymedio)

14ymedio biggerEFE/via 14ymedio, Atahualpa Amerise, Havana | 18 September 2018 — In face of chronic shortages in Cuba, products of the United States embargo and the inefficient policies of state planning, hordes of black marketeers stockpile goods to resell them at a higher price, an open secret that has finally burst with the “scandal of 15,000 apples.”

La Puntilla supermarket, in the exclusive Havana neighborhood of Miramar, received on August 31 an unusual shipment of apples. The prized fruit, rarely seen on the island at this time of year, were set out in boxes of 100 for sale to the public with one restriction: one batch per person.

At the exact moment that they went on sale, dozens of young people, without hiding what they were doing and in a coordinated action, got hold of 150 boxes (15,000 apples in total), paid for them ($6,750), and took them, leaving behind empty shelves to the disgust and indignation of the other customers.

One of the onlookers was the pro-government journalist Iroel Sánchez, special witness to the fruity “kidnapping,” who denounced it the following week on his blog in an article entitled Robbery in La Puntilla, republished shortly after in Cubadebate, where it generated a big popular stir and ended up provoking the intervention of the authorities.

Sánchez explained that small Cuban mafias get hold of not only apples, but also diapers, chicken, cheese, or any other scarce product to later establish their own distribution networks on the black market at higher prices than those set by the state-controlled socialist monopoly.

For him the fundamental thing is the collusion of supermarket officials and distribution chains, whose meager state salaries of $30 a month invite “incentives” to turning a blind eye, leaking information, or even handing over merchandise to the speculator and helping him to transport it.

Sánchez’s article has raised this problem to the forum of social debate in Cuba, until the point that CIMEX, the State business group that monopolizes distribution, announced the immediate dismissals of eight officials allegedly implicated in the case and — something very unusual — made public their names and surnames for greater public derision.

Efe spoke with two employees of the Havana supermarket who confirmed that it is “strictly forbidden” to make any mention of the scandal of the apples, although one said: “What you have read on the internet is true.”

Meanwhile, an executive from the shopping center told the agency, under condition of anonymity, that the incident “isn’t as bad as they say” and denied any collusion with the black marketeers.

“Each one took the maximum allowed and we couldn’t do anything,” he insisted, after revealing that he and his subordinates are the focus of a rigorous investigation by the authorities and that they fear losing their jobs.

For economist Ricardo Torres, specialist from the CEEC, an adjunct institution to the University of Havana, speculation in Cuba is a difficult problem to eradicate, despite the authorities’ efforts.

“In every society the majority dedicates time and energy to whatever is most lucrative. If the diversion of resources is profitable, it will be more difficult to stop it because people will look for other ways to avoid the controls,” he explains to Efe.

Torres believes that “the fundamental cause is general scarcity, which has shaped certain behaviors in business owners and in the population.”

For him, until the shortages end, the law of supply and demand will control distribution and prices, however much the State tries to maintain control and punish offenders.

The lack of hard currency — aggravated by weak exports, an insufficient distribution system, debt problems, and the US embargo — is at the root of the chronic shortages that Cuba suffers, which end up emptying the shelves of stores, according to the expert.

For his part, Julio, a 55-year-old worker and regular customer at La Puntilla, sums up for Efe his view of the problem: “In every place on earth there are unscrupulous people who take advantage of society’s needs.”

The cause of the shortages “is known by the entire world. We are financially blockaded by the United States,” affirms this confirmed socialist, referring to the embargo that, according to Havana, has caused losses in the amount of almost a billion dollars from 1960 until today.

“We have been blockaded for six decades, but we will continue to resist and we will keep living much more happily than they do in other countries,” he declares in a conversation with Efe, while he waits at the door of the supermarket for his wife to come out with at least half of the products on their shopping list.


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