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The Problem of Cheating
[part one of three]

by Yailin Orta Rivera and Norge Martínez Montero

A CubaNews translation by Ana Portela. Edited by Walter Lippmann.

A team from Juventud Rebelde ['Rebel Youth'], Cuba's second-largest mass circulation newspaper checks out state services which being used for personal profit by insensitive people who alter prices and product norms.

It was hot in Havana's streets and our throats demanded something liquid to counter the effects of the heat. The cafeteria, El Manzanares was like an oasis at the busy corner of Infanta and Carlos III..

The attractions were not palm trees or coconut palms but those jars of ice-cold beer inviting passers-by to stop and have a drink.

The midday sun made us enter. Noise welcomed us while we all looked about with lost eyes.

The charms of the place were its rustic surroundings, tables and chairs that hear the talk and confessions of drinkers. Some laughs and shouts filled the air while the smokers left a gray veil over the scene.

A busy waitress signals with thumb, index and middle fingers, indicating service of two cold drinks. Happily we accepted. Our expectancy stands still when we watch the table next to us being serviced; later she rapidly brings our drinks.

Suddenly, time seems to stand still. An integrity inspector takes the steins served at that table to examine if they meet the serving norm.

Sorry surprise for consumers. The stein is 90 milliliters short. It should have 350 and has only 260. The graduated cylinder proves the crime and the lens of the photographer confirms it. When the foam subsides, we can see the scam; the dark side of consumer protection.

The waitress claims that hardly ever happens. Meanwhile, the photographer continues taking shots proving the scam. At the same time, the waitress indifferently fills another stein to rob another consumer.

This unit serves up to four tons of beer daily; each containing 144 steins worth. If each stein is short 90 milliliters, that means that, at the end of the day, they pocket up to 222 pesos, the average monthly salary of any worker.

In Cubans' faces

On the edge of Cuban society, a perceptible evil is showing its face. Insensitive persons, who change prices and product norms, deceitfully crossing the line between state and private enterprise, are using some state services for personal profit.

Protection of the consumer seems to be a simple slogan. In practice, this condition is so dated, as well as solutions to complaints and suggestions in some entities where, when existing in fact, they place the book for this purpose.

Every day we go out to lose. Those who should offer a good service are busy thinking out ways to get into your pocket instead of complying with their duties, several interviewed persons agreed.

The problem goes from change in the "camello" [truck-based Cuban bus] –that is almost always missing– to the local barber who, for an 80 cent haircut, charges up to ten pesos, and to charging 55 pesos to put a rubber band in a tape recorder.

A few days ago, a team from this newspaper went out in civvies accompanied by provincial integrity inspectors Luis Enríquez Luis Isaac and Milagros Caridad Escalona, to visit several places in the capital to verify what was happening.

In search of the clues

At 10:20 am, on Tuesday, the 19th, we approached the Tropical cafeteria on 12 and 21 streets in the Plaza de la Revolucion municipality. In less than three minutes the inspectors observed several violations all aimed at overcharging.

We bought a sandwich priced at 3.50 that should have 29 grams of ham. Since the contents were so scanty we asked the seller to weigh it. That was not possible: "I only sell, I'll go check with the one who prepares the bread," he defended himself.

"We have no scales to test the weight of food. I go to the supplier of the ham, slice a pound and spread it out on 16 buns and give them to the seller," said Iván Castillero, responsible for preparation. We were unable to contact the administrator.

In that very same place, the inspectors checked a glass of refreshments with the graduated cylinder. Of 232 milliliters that it should have they found that, also, this did not have the required quantity.

"The problem is that these glasses are made from bottles and are not right for this function. That is why it is forbidden to work with them. They are not all made at the same height and, although you fill them, they don't reach the measure," explained inspector Milagros Caridad.

"We work with a lot of difficulties. I have been here for several months and have never received supplies for work. Almost everything in this center to offer services, we have brought them ourselves, from the glasses to the slotted spoons."

The inspectors continue to discover problems in the quality of food services. The team only had to cross the street to find it. In this case it was the community canteen on 12 and 21 which offers food to persons with social problems.

What Violeta Guzman said was moving: "Here they serve us very little food and it's of poor quality. They don't add spices, it's all tasteless. It's true that it is low-priced but then I have to go to the agricultural market to buy herbs and make a good sauce at home so that my sick son can eat it. I save no money at all and the purpose of the Revolution is to help us."

As happened in the majority of centers visited, the administrator was missing, in violation of a decree from the Ministry of Interior Commerce that forbids them leaving the center during work hours.

The unit had no scales or any means to check that the consumers received the established quantity of food. Not even the cook knew how many grams -in the case of rice -he was required to serve.

It was depressing to observe the conditions for frying stuffed potatoes. We were able to test, right there, that the oil used for this purpose was as black as coal. Its just that they fry and fry in the same "oil"? until its consumed. It doesn't matter if the components are ruined and become harmful to health.

What measuring instruments there were also alarmed us. There was a small scoop spoon for serving spaghetti and it was easy to note.

Trick jugs

El Centenario, on Infanta Street was the next cafeteria we visited. It seemed to comply with the gastronomic requirements. The clients were drinking their beer pleasantly that, according to their opinion, "was one of the best in the area," but not everything that shines is gold.

Once again we submitted the beer to the graduated cylinder test. We were hoping to find a service with no problems because the jugs were filled to overflowing.

Big mistake. Even filled to overflowing did they comply with the measure established? All were missing 50 milliliters and that is why we asked the administrator, Mercedes Suaso, about the origin of these jugs.

"We bought these because they were the only ones available and we have to sell. It is forbidden to serve beer in glasses and that is why we bought these four months ago and no boss objected. Now, as the inspectors pointed out the error, we will withdraw them."

Daily sales in this entity are three tons. If each jug is missing 50 milliliters approximately 17 280 pesos were appropriated in the four months the jugs were used.

Clock that doesn't tell time

"About a month ago my watch stopped. The battery gave up after several months. Imagine, every time I have to change it, it costs 25 pesos with people who work privately because the State charges the same", protested Kenia Santos, who lives in Old Havana.

We wanted to check out her claims in the watch repair unit in El Centenario, but a price list was not visible anywhere that is a violation of norms, according to the inspectors who accompanied us.

When we asked one of the watch repairmen for the list of prices he said the administrator had it, but he wasn't around. Consequently, the client is at the mercy of the watch repairpersons.

Several blocks away, in the El Universal watch repair workshop we found that they charged 20 pesos for the battery they substitute when, in truth, it costs 15.50 the inspectors explained.

What do cheese, rum and taxis have in common?

In the cafeteria of the El Biki restaurant luxury chain in Infanta and San Lazaro, we weighed several pounds of cheese and none reached the amount established. Cafeteria workers claimed that the scale was faulty and, for this reason, tried to find another…in the end, none was right.

Also, in this unit, the bottle of Bocoy rum that is always sold for 57 pesos was priced at 60 pesos.

After walking around so much, the JR team continued research on wheels and checked out state taxis thinking we would have to pay less. But we were mistaken.

At 5:00 pm we hailed a car in front of the Central Computer Palace in Centro Habana, with a license HSL 660.

This driver charged ten pesos for a drive from La Fraternidad Park to Cuatro Caminos when the meter marked 2.36 pesos.

- Do you go along Carlos III, driver?

- Yes, hop in.

- I only have five pesos.

- In CUCs?

- No! What do you mean CUCs if I'm going nearby?

- Shut the door, I'm not going that way.

Ten minutes before, one of the team stopped a taxi with license plate HVX 655 expecting to reach Belascoin. On the way, she asked the price and the driver said to pay her what she wanted. The cab did not have a meter.

In the meantime, another member of the team going from the Capitol to Cuatro Caminos charged 10 pesos for a taxi with a license plate HSU 138.

Another deficiency of this service is that the taxis don't take you where you want but where the driver wants, almost always for short runs or places with large demand.

Shoes and other demons

Lastly we got to La Llama I, a workshop in Monte. We said we wanted to get some shoes sewed up.

"This work costs 25 pesos, the cobbler said. Well, if you don't agree go around the corner to a private cobbler and see what he charges. You don't know that this bottle of glue cost me 150 pesos and this roll of thread was 50 more?

"They don't give me anything to work with. I have to get it elsewhere. And, how do I recover the money spent? Also, I have to pay 30 pesos daily to the administrator, imagine", the cobbler continues.

While he talked, one of the team members noticed a sign in back of him with a list of prices, in large letters, where sewing cost only seven pesos and 50 centavos.

When we identified ourselves as journalists and inspectors, the cobbler tried to recover from his mistake. He said that he would sew the shoes for the State price. We asked to see the administrator but he was not to be found. The girl who attended us, Tahimi who refused to give us her surname, said that the cobbler was not required to pay 30 pesos on a daily basis.

"The cobbler is not authorized to charge 25 pesos to fix a pair of shoes. Whether or not there are materials, they have to adhere to State prices. We give him thread and other resources, when possible, and it is not true that he has to pay the entity 30 pesos every day", explains Santiago Malagón, deputy director of the basic unit of services of the Provincial Transportation Entity.

Full stop

"The problem of increase of state prices and alterations in product norms has been hitting us for some time. It can't be solved only with inspectors, receipt books and fines", says Isabel Hanze, provincial director of integrity inspection in the capital, one of the areas with the highest deficiencies.

"To improve the situation it is also necessary for the population to be aware of it. Each client must know their rights in order to demand of those who want to overcharge. We must teach our children their rights and duties as consumers", Isabel affirms.

It is absolutely necessary to strengthen general awareness of these illegalities through the principle that State services are services of our society for the benefit of the population. First, administrations must watch that the measures set down are complied with and that, at least, working conditions are guaranteed for the fulfillment of these services with the appropriate quality. There is never a justification to steal or treat the people badly.

Impunity in face of these actions not only affects our national economy and living standards, as well as satisfaction of the citizens but, also, it's against the moral principles that the Revolution has always defended.

Figures talk

Up to August of this year, capital integrity inspectors have made 22,692 verifications and found violations of prices and alterations in product norms in 11,692 centers. Fifty two percent of the centers checked have problems, explained the Provincial Director of integrity Inspection in the capital.

The centers with most problems where the agricultural markets where 68 percent of those inspected had difficulties. Popular food centers, workers cafeterias, service units, bakers and pharmacies, the Director added, followed these.


Next: The Problem of Cheating, part two


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