Workplace theft saps Cuba's state-run economy

Thu Jun 25, 2009 12:31pm EDT
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By Tom Brown

HAVANA (Reuters) - In a cramped apartment just behind the renowned Partagas cigar factory in central Havana, the factory worker displayed his wares.

Shiny wooden boxes of Cohiba, Montecristo and Partagas cigars -- considered among the finest in the world -- emerged from a duffel bag as the worker, who gave his name as Jose but asked not to be identified further, offered them at a steep discount to those on sale in the Partagas store.

"This isn't stealing. We do it to survive," said Jose, who explained that his wage in the factory amounted to less than $20 a month. Without slipping cigars out of the state-run business and selling them to tourists, he and his family would not get by, Jose said.

Cuba's communist authorities take a dim view of such "survival" tactics, which have existed for years in some form or other in a society whose citizens often wryly joke "if it's not illegal, it's prohibited."

A popular Sunday night drama on state television highlights the crimes and punishment -- including long jail terms -- meted out to Cubans responsible for "counterrevolutionary" acts such as black market sales of goods, such as beef, cigars and rum.

"I could get in a lot of trouble just for talking to you ... I could go to prison," said the Partagas worker.

He and three fellow workers reaped just 20 percent of the revenues from the "bolsa negra" or black market deals, Jose said. Plant managers and foremen keep the other 80 percent and split it among themselves and police or Interior Ministry officials who turn a blind eye to the illicit sales, he said.

Former President Fidel Castro complained bitterly about theft from the workplace in a speech in November 2005. But he fell ill not long after that, and little seems to have been done about a problem so commonplace that Castro described it as having created a class of "nuevos ricos" or new rich which he said threatened the very lifeblood of the Cuban Revolution.   Continued...