Ivan Garcia, 4 April 2018 — From the twentieth floor of a building near the Havana Malecon the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean look like you could touch them with your hands. From that height you can’t see the disastrous infrastructure of Havana. Or its broken streets, water leaks or the buildings torn apart by bad state management.
When Victor, owner of a micro-lodging business, feels frustrated, he spends an hour on the balcony with a cup of coffee watching the panoramic view offered by his apartment in the central neighborhood of Vedado. Before venting his worries about the rumored new government measures that will curb private work, he runs a a pocket comb over his gray and sparse hair.
“Do you know why Cuba is not flooded with fruit, food and quality services?” he asks, and before answering pauses to savor his coffee. “Well, it’s the government’s fault. If the State did not harass private individuals and, instead, empowered them, agricultural, dairy, livestock production and housing shortages would not be as dramatic as they are now.
“It is the government that has to answer for those deficiencies. Every time there are timid openings the creativity of the private sector is on display. If there were a legal framework, impartial courts and wholesale markets, business owners would not be forced to violate the laws, to try to find ways to avoid taxes and to practice double accounting.”
The Havana entrepreneur rents his apartment for the equivalent of 50 dollars a day, which would be 1,500 dollars a month. “Discounting taxes, I clear 1,100 dollars. Enough for the expenses of my wife and I who live in another apartment in the same building. My children are in Miami. With what I save, in any other kind of society, I could expand my business buying homes in poor condition or outsourcing those services to people who want to rent their homes, but do not have the resources. It’s the business cycle. Save money, then invest and earn more. I do not see any kind of crime in that intention. I do not know why the government wants us to always live in poverty.”
In the third section of the Economic Guidelines approved in 2010, a kind of road map instituted by the regime of Raúl Castro, it is stated that concentrations of wealth and capital will not be allowed for Cubans on the island. Eight years later, a segment of private entrepreneurs has accumulated a quantity of money, whether legally, with subtle subterfuges or under the table.
Onel, an economist, believes that “between 10 thousand and 20 thousand small business owners have been able to hoard between 10 thousand and 250 thousand dollars, some may even have amassed more than a million dollars. But, given that this is Cuba, gaining capital is a crime and you mark yourself as a suspicious person or presumed criminal, so those people invest in buying houses from relatives, or works of art or take the money out of the country, because they have relatives abroad,” he says and adds:
“Among them there are repatriated Cubans, who because they have more capital at the time of starting their business and knowledge of marketing, they have generated profits faster. There are also Cubans who live in the United States, who live off the income of their businesses on the island or share the profits with their families,” says the economist.
To have a fortune in Cuba is to travel through a minefield. When self-employment was forbidden by the autocracy of the Castro brothers, clandestine managers of businesses, warehouses and restaurants made money by stealing from the State. Most Cubans do not believe that the means of production are owned by all, as Marxist theory says. And at the first chance, they defraud the state in order to survive in the harsh conditions of Island socialism.
Carlos, who lives in Florida, recalls that “the first time I raised half a million pesos, the exchange rate of the time artificially equated the peso with the dollar, and I threw the money on the mattress of my room and slept on the bundles of notes,” he says with a smile from a restaurant in Miami.
“I was a supplies manager in a luxury hotel. I sold whatever I could under the table. Then, the money I earned was exchanged for dollars one-by-one with the hotel’s accounting manager. A negotiation. My plan was to fill my pockets and get out of that shit. I have friends who thought they could be millionaires in Cuba and ended up in jail. Like Roberto, the former manager of the World Ice Cream Parlor, on Santa Catalina Avenue,” says Carlos.
As he tells it, “Roberto came to grief because of the typical envy of the top leaders. He had a better Lada than the higher-ups. One morning, passing through Avenida Boyeros, Ramiro Valdés, who was then Minister of the Interior, observed that a bodyguard greeted Roberto as he passed by. He asked who that guy was and the bodyguard told him he was a compañero of State Security. Ramiro found out and discovered that he was a simple corrupt administrator and broke his balls. It is a very envious breed, if you presume to have more than them, they make your life impossible. Only they can be rich.”
Nobody in Cuba knows the limit of what you can and cannot have. The amount of money that sets off the alarms in the police apparatus of the regime is not known. “In the statutes, the determined amount of money that violates the laws is not specified. For example, Silvio Rodriguez [the singer], Alicia Alonso [the dancer] or the ballplayer Alfredo Despaigne, who plays in a professional league in Japan and has a millionaire’s salary, have six zero incomes and no one challenges them for economic crimes. The reason is ideological. If those who make money are inside the apparatus or comply with government rules, they are allowed. If they earn money through their own efforts, they will always be suspects,” says Beatriz, a lawyer.
On the island, acquiring certain material goods can pigeonhole a citizen as being suspected of ‘illicit enrichment’. “I used to sell toiletries and clothes. I was able to raise enough money to build my own business. I had two air conditioners, three plasma televisions, several appliances besides repairing my house. They opened a file on me for violating the laws, that is to say selling without the required license, they confiscated all my merchandise and electrical appliances, alleging that they had been acquired with dirty money. Ultimately, I was sentenced to three years in prison,” says Luis Alberto, a resident of the municipality of Diez de Octubre.
Those who accumulate a significant amount of capital try to fly below the radar. They don’t buy sumptuous mansions in Miramar or Siboney. Nor the latest cars or a yacht. It is exposing oneself too much to the public magnifying glass in a command and control socieity.
In Cuba, members of the club of the rich often dress in olive-green.