Corruption in Cuba

News from Cuba concerning a crackdown against entrenched corruption have circled the world in the last few weeks.

A former food industries minister, Alejandro Roca, is serving a 15-year sentence. The president of Cubana de Aviacion was fired and 14 executives of that airline and a tourism agency were sentenced to prison terms. Officials from the Telecommunications Ministry and from Etecsa, a phone company, were detained.

Moreover, twelve executives of Habanos, S.A., the cigar and tobacco state monopoly, have been jailed since 2010.

The crackdown hasn’t spared foreigners. According to news agencies, French, Czech, Chilean and English citizens have been recently jailed or tried and sentenced. Sarkis Yacoubian and Cy Tokmakjian, two Canadians that opened car dealerships in Cuba, are detained and under house arrest, respectively.

Regardless of whether these individuals are guilty of corruption or not, the first valid question might be: how entrenched corruption in Cuba is? The second might be: who started it?

A couple of years after seizing power, Fidel Castro started preaching about an ascetic way of life from which he gradually and persistently distanced himself.

Privilege is a relative concept. If one compares Castro’s homes with the White House, Buckingham Palace or the Élysée Palace, it would be fair to conclude that he lives in unpretentious lodgings. But if the comparison is drawn between his residences and the average Cuban dwelling, Castro lives at the Taj Mahal.

In 1980 he moved from a modest (but well-appointed) apartment building in Vedado to a zone code-named Point Zero, several pre-1959 fully renovated residences in the plushest part of Havana. Defectors have revealed that the Maximum Leader, his wife and children live in the lap of luxury at a two-story house with lavish furnishings, wine cellar, the best-stocked pantry on the island, and housemaids, waiters and cooks in uniform.

Besides Point Zero, in case he needed to stay overnight at one of fourteen Cuban provinces, Castro kept a dwelling staffed year-round by a team of servants and cooks at each province. There is a fully-equipped hospital for the exclusive use of Fidel and Raúl Castro and their relatives in Havana’s Kohly neighborhood.

Cayo Piedra del Sur was Castro’s private key. A pricey yacht and three fast boats named Pionera I, Pionera II and Pionera III with a price tag of US $250,000 each, used to be moored at the marina. There were a bungalow for him and a house for visitors both of which were fully air-conditioned. His children played with dolphins at a dolphinarium. An Olympic pool was excavated. Generators provided electricity.

As consequence of Castro’s ill-advised crossbreeding and a dearth of grazing land, for over forty years no healthy person older than 7 has had the possibility of going to a store to buy a bottle of fresh milk. But according to Lt. Col. Juan Reynaldo Sánchez, who spent seventeen years in Castro’s security detail, there are several cows on a grazing lot near his house at Point Zero. Milk is graded according to fat content and the animals are numbered to single out what particular family member drinks each cow’s milk.

Also, a former officer of the Ministry of the Interior currently living in exile has revealed that he flew to Spain on several occasions to purchase the Pata Negra hams (up to 900 euros a 16- to 18-pound leg) and wines that the Castros love.

Fidel’s constant criticism of consumerism, the impenetrable security cocoon that has surrounded him since 1959, dressing in army fatigues and boots, and the intense vetting and confidentiality demanded of staff, managed to keep the men and women in the streets ignorant of their leader’s lifestyle.

But those he dealt with regularly –his inner circle, the party’s top brass, generals, ministers, and members of his security detail– witnessed the glaring contradiction between the man’s public facade and his private life. The response to the second questions is: After 1959, the man that started corruption in Cuba is Fidel Castro.

That must have been the reason that spread corruption among the higher-ups. A possible rationalization might have been: “If he lives like a king, why can’t I live like a count or a baron?”

This conjecture is supported on the fact that, starting in the mid-1970s, the elite opened special food, clothing and electronic stores to purchase what the population couldn’t even dream to own. Regular folks noticed and dishonesty, bribery and fraud started trickling down. The response to the first question is: Yes, corruption is entrenched in Cuba.

Another, no less transcendental reason was that by the late 1960s many sensible people realized that Communism didn’t work. The USSR artificially kept it running in Cuba, but when it closed the spigot in 1990 and later, once it was dissolved, many knew that parasites die after the host organism is extinct. The revolution was destined to history’s trash can.: It was only a matter of time and everyone was for themselves.

Unsurprisingly, for over 40 years Raúl Castro didn’t perceive corruption at the top of the pyramid. He and his brother lived the life they had the right to live.

In the early 1990s, however, the situation was so dire that foreign firms were authorized to establish representations in Havana. For over 20 years Cuban executives have been signing contracts worth millions and getting paid a monthly salary between 20 and 30 US dollars. Only those blinded by power, ideology or stupidity didn’t see it coming.

At present, despite living a life of privilege for 50 years, the younger brother of the man who kick-started corruption sends to jail corrupt underlings and some foreign businesspeople because he and his brother, who are incorruptible, must preserve the purity of the revolution.


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