Circles Robinson Online

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Location: Havana, Cuba

is a blog to give a fresh angle on a fascinating and beautiful Caribbean Island country that, despite being relatively small and with only 11 million people, has been a major player in American and world politics for a half century. I also suggest you try

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Workplace Theft: Indicator of Mismanagement

By Circles Robinson

With Gustav and Ike, Cuba’s proven civil defense system once again demonstrated how well Cubans can organize. Despite the hurricanes’ enormous destruction, only seven people died. The population responded with a high level of family, neighborly and community solidarity, customary among Cubans during times of crisis.

However, the storms have greatly magnified the shortcomings in the island’s economy and addressing them has become all the more pressing.

One problem that most everyone agrees has reached epidemic proportions is workplace pilfering. Although by far not the only problem in the Cuban economy, it has combined with other factors including low productivity to keep the country from operating anywhere near capacity.

Workplace theft and cheating of consumers is widespread in both the service sector and industries. The problem exists in many countries, but management oversight, at best, or complicity at the worst, has greatly exacerbated its magnitude in Cuba. It seems particularly contradictory with a people known for their solidarity, and a system whose profits are earmarked for the public good.

A common topic of my co-workers and friends is the habit of overcharging at stores, cafeterias and restaurants. It is so common that being on guard has become the norm. Like my neighbors, I am also wary of adulterated products sold at state-owned facilities, be it a bottle of rum, stick of butter or a bottle of dishwashing liquid.

For those of us who have attempted to report problems to the supervisors, the frustration has only deepened, as their low level of concern indicates that they too may be involved.

Time and time again I’ve personally had the experience at supermarkets, agricultural markets, cafeterias, restaurants, bars and taxis, even most recently at the airport duty free store. Surprisingly though, most Cubans don’t complain about being overcharged, which makes a foreigner doing so seem even more out of place.

Eating at the Soul and Society

Over a month before the hurricanes, economic analyst Ariel Terrero pointed out that "theft is corrupting both the individual soul and society." Terrero was addressing the issue of disappearing building materials and shoddy construction work at different job sites.

His statement rings all the more true today as Cubans begin to feel the impact of the damage caused by the hurricanes that struck between August 31 and September 10.

Hard times, including shortages of some foodstuffs and an even greater lack of building materials are expected. This makes even more troubling the practice of treating state property as booty ripe for the taking and consumers as victims to be fleeced.

Likewise, while price gauging often accompanies the shortages that follow major disasters anywhere, in Cuba such price hikes are likely to serve as even greater incentive to buy or sell goods of a dubious origin.

On September 19, former President Fidel Castro wrote in a newspaper commentary: "It’s now, in the aftermath of the devastating blow dealt by the hurricanes, when we must show what we are capable of."

Without directly pointing any fingers Fidel Castro wrote that "every manifestation of privilege, corruption or robbery must be eradicated" and that "for a true communist, there can be no possible excuse for such conduct."

Where to Begin

How to change the widespread practice of workplace mismanagement and stealing is a matter of contention and opinions abound. Some pessimistically believe it’s impossible to deal with at this point, while others think it’s never too late to begin.

In discussions in my living room, some friends have said drastic punishment is needed for the higher ups involved, which would also serve as an example to those below them.

Others say an incentive system for sound management is needed so the managers will feel motivated to do their best to benefit the state coffers. Most would extend that proposal to labor, saying that employees should have a better grasp on the finances of their workplace, participate in decision making, and then have a clear stake in its performance through pay incentives.

No one is certain exactly where the culture of deteriorated workplace ethics began. Most blame the low buying power of salaries and fewer extras since the early 1990s. Some say the seeds were already there before but hadn’t gotten so out of hand.

Despite the social benefits of free education and health care, subsidized public utilities, transportation and some basic items, the reality is that today’s workers still scramble to feed and clothe their families. The contradiction between resolving ones personal problems and a country that needs to save on resources and make the most of what it has is rarely discussed.

It’s obvious that a major salary increase is not going to happen without increasing production, and most believe that such an increase in production is unlikely to occur without attractive pay incentives.

The idea of economic incentives for those that make a greater effort in a given workplace makes sense and is consistent with the earliest notions of socialism. Such a system should help increase productivity, thus boosting revenue for the recovery effort and for social and economic investment programs.

However, if a manager or employee that is stealing obtains considerably more than what they could earn through incentives I highly doubt they will stop their habit without much tighter controls and strong disciplinary measures.

While the problem is light weight compared to the financial crisis currently sweeping the United States and Europe, failing to put a dent in workplace mismanagement and theft in Cuba will act as a counterweight to the attempts to rebuild from the extensive hurricane damage and continue on the road to a healthier socialist economy.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Cuba Faces Juggling Act after Hurricanes

By Circles Robinson

Hurricanes Gustav and Ike are now part of Cuban history. While there were some collapsed portions of old buildings in the capital and problems for some with phone service and electricity primarily due to fallen trees, most Havana residents, like our family, are back to relative normality after the anxious weeks of waiting.

Not so for many other places in Cuba. Our personal relief is tempered by knowledge of the many difficulties ahead.

To Cubans and others who love the country, what just happened is truly heartbreaking. Two powerful hurricanes in ten days ravaged agriculture, wreaked havoc with the electricity grid and telecommunications and damaged or destroyed well over three hundred thousand homes. For a poor country, the losses are staggering. Cuba’s development strategies for at least the next several years have been seriously set back.

Ike made landfall in Holguin as a Category 4 storm on September 7, barely a week after Gustav roared across western Pinar de Rio province and Isla de la Juventud. The hurricane then wreaked havoc in Las Tunas and Camaguey before reentering the sea along the island’s southern coast. In a weakened, but still powerful form, it then crossed back through Pinar del Rio virtually in the same place as Gustavo.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” was repeated time and time again, with comparisons to hurricane Flora in 1963 and Michelle in 2001.


Preliminary estimates speak of several billion dollars of damage, but it will take some time for the government to compile a complete report of losses from both storms. When Ike hit, the damages caused by Gustav on August 31 were still being tallied.

On Friday, one preliminary estimate showed 323,800 homes damaged —many without roofs or windows—, including 47,921 totally destroyed. The United Nations office in Cuba says that the homes of one out of every eight Cubans were affected.

Plantains, citrus and other fruits, corn, yucca, sugarcane and rice plantations, coffee beans, poultry farms, you name it, were flattened or washed away by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Processing industries including sugar mills and tobacco drying huts were also hard hit.

Esteban, 65, dropped into my apartment in Havana on Thursday. A farmer from Matanzas, he is usually upbeat about the country and critical of some government policies. Today though, he was somber. He said not one banana or plantain plant was left standing in his area after Ike. All the avocados from his trees were on the ground, but no one was injured in his community and the family’s cows were saved from the flooding as they had been taken earlier to higher ground.

Matanzas, like Havana, was spared the full brunt of the storm. Esteban and I sipped a coffee and imagined what the areas seriously hit must look like.

It is not yet clear how Cuba can mitigate so much damage in so many places. Despite assistance beginning to arrive or promised from Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, China, Spain, Ecuador, Mexico, Uruguay, East Timor, the UN World Food Program and several international NGOs like the Red Cross and Oxfam, shortages of food and building materials are likely, as well as dramatic revisions in the country’s investment plans.

For the moment, the country has been forced to dig deep into its strategic reserves. Almost certainly, the government’s ambitious and greatly needed new housing program, and other social and economic infrastructure projects, will now have to take a back seat for the foreseeable future.

September is an important month for planting vegetables and other crops and it will be even more important considering the losses suffered. In a year that saw the international price of rice and other grains skyrocket, everybody agrees that food must be a top priority.


Waiting for a hurricane to strike is a profoundly frightening experience. While no two are alike, they all resemble a horror movie that takes a long time to get down to the bloody action.

Hurricanes here usually announce their coming visit well in advance, sometimes as many as 7-10 days before they become a threat. Tension then builds through the last days when you know it’s coming your way.

Cubans are experts on facing such storms. A steady flow of information from the country’s meteorology center provides an atmosphere of calm. As the storm approaches civil defense instructions are widely broadcast. Relative normality begins to give way to preparations usually on the last two days before a strike.

With Gustav and Ike, the most amazing accomplishment of Cuba’s civil defense network was a death toll of only seven, far less that the other countries touched by one or both, including the United States, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

Associated Press correspondent Anita Snow wrote about Cuba’s success at preserving lives: “The secret is the evacuations system.” She noted that 2.6 million people left their homes before the onslaught of Ike, “nearly a quarter of the island’s population.”

Whether to Evacuate

Whether to evacuate is a question on my family’s mind each time a hurricane threatens Havana. While by no means experts, experience has taught us to evaluate the risks and pay attention to neighbors in the same apartment building. In the case of both Gustav and Ike, the reports the last two days told us we could stay home, as it became clear that the eye of both storms was headed further west.

Public buildings and solid concrete housing are the main choices for people who choose to find a safer place to weather the height of the storm. The Cuban civil defense authorities and community leaders in both urban and rural areas know the level of vulnerability of each house or apartment building in their area. This allows for door-to-door visits and assistance to those needing it for evacuation. Many people evacuate on their own account, understanding that it’s a necessity for their safety.

Most evacuees stay with neighbors, friends or family with better conditions to face the storm. About 20 percent of the total goes to shelters, mostly schools and other buildings where the civil defense network provides them with food, mattresses, blankets and medical attention.

“Special attention is paid to the elderly and people with disabilities, a far cry from what happened in New Orleans three years ago during hurricane Katrina,” pointed out Snow.

In our case, we live in a third-floor apartment in a small solid, concrete building. The greatest danger comes from its many large glass windows and being a block from the sea. Plywood is like gold here, so, like our neighbors, we just tape the windows and cross our fingers hoping they won’t shatter if they break.

A family of four, we have spent the passing of several hurricanes in a bathroom where we put chairs, a rechargeable lamp, flashlight, candles, radio, drinking water, snacks, etc. It’s an eerie feeling, especially at night. Fortunately for us, none of the eyes of those hurricanes has directly hit the city of Havana.

For my six-year-old grandson, watching the development of a hurricane on TV is exciting and frightening at the same time. When school gets cancelled and we start putting important papers and other things in plastic bags and suitcases, it sinks in to him that the storm is coming and the danger is real. When the electricity gets turned off in the city for preventive reasons, it means no more cartoons and he starts getting restless. Mican, my grandson’s cat, must also sense something because as the wind picks up he hides under a bed.


While the Cuban capital was spared from the worst of both hurricanes, many of its residents have family and friends in places that were hard hit. Tamara, 22, a film student studying in Havana and friend of the family, is from Holguin, where Ike first touched land as a Category 4 hurricane.

She wrote me on Wednesday: “I got a message from my mother in Holguin that the city [with about a third of a million residents] was devastated by Ike. The family is OK but the city is a mess without a TV transmitter and without telephone service.

“I also learned that Matanzas is swimming in water and that the situation in Pinar del Rio and the majority of places is very sad. I am truly dismayed; I know that several years will go by before the country is able to fully recover. Nature protests for all the damage that humans have caused. But ironically, its wrath often falls on the countries with the least possibility to recover. I have a lot of faith that we will know how to organize ourselves rapidly; the country has pulled out of worse disasters.”

Cubans don’t have insurance, but they do have a social security system that protects them against disaster. The government takes on the responsibility of providing building materials and helping replace lost appliances and other important possessions.

However, all of this can take a very long time due to the lack of building materials, insufficient construction crews and not enough funds for importing what the country doesn’t produce.

Now the government faces the difficult task of prioritizing limited resources in an under-developed and blockaded country. Repairing damaged homes, the national electric grid, schools, hospitals and other community infrastructure and boosting agriculture will no doubt be top priorities over any new construction.

The big decisions will take place at a time when President Raul Castro has already promised a restructuring and possible down-sizing of government institutions, originally planned to be announced in December when the legislature meets.


Cuba’s leaders pride themselves on the country’s self-reliance and ability to dig their way out of any hole. The fact that the country’s socialist revolution has survived a half-century of relentless hostility from Washington and out lived the collapse of the USSR and Socialist Europe reinforces their belief that they will overcome the major setback to the economy poised by Gustav and Ike.

On the other hand, as the Revolution turns “50” on January 1, the battle horses of past struggles are aging and time will tell whether the new generations are willing to accept the calls to hard work and sacrifice.

Some analysts believe the government must implement new mechanisms or reforms that make greater local government and individual initiative possible. It will take considerable effort just to get back to the difficult economic situation the country faced before the storms, largely due to the increasing international food and oil prices.

While more accustomed to assisting other countries, the Cuban government is not so good at asking for help. One thing clear is that no aid will be accepted if it comes with any strings attached or politicking from the donors. Hence, Washington’s “offer” to send its personnel to inspect the damage in a country that it has strived to destroy is seen as ludicrous.

What comes to mind as a way individuals can help Cuba in this difficult situation is to step up the campaigns against the US blockade, hoping to influence a new administration in Washington, and promote trips to the island as a way to contribute revenue while getting to know the country, its people and their monumental efforts and challenges.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Havana Spared as Ike Batters Cuba

By Circles Robinson

Only hours before hurricane Ike makes another landing in Cuba, it now appears that Havana and its many historic buildings will be spared from the worst of the storm that has brought devastating consequences to the island’s housing, agriculture and other economic infrastructure.

Nonetheless, tropical storm force winds and heavy rains could still cause considerable damage in the capital of 2.3 million inhabitants.

The latest report from the Cuban Meteorology Center, issued at 6:00 a.m. Tuesday states that Ike, now a category 1 hurricane, is expected to follow a course similar to that of Gustav in its passing through western Cuba.

Currently churning in the sea south of Havana Province and just north of Isla de la Juventud it is expected to hit land in the fear east of Pinar del Rio province around 35-50 miles southeast of Havana city in the late morning.

As I write at dawn Tuesday, the howling winds are strong and the sea below very rough, but so far without any coastal flooding. The electricity in the city was turned off last night as a preventive measure. The piped gas is still on at our home but could be also turned off at any moment. My phone line is still operating.

While we had planned to evacuate to a friend’s home further inland if the storm was going to cause a direct hit on the city, the path taken by Ike and the downgrading of its force made my family decide to weather the storm at our third floor apartment in a well constructed building.

As is typical in Cuba, the atmosphere of sharing news, concerns, food and even a shot of rum with neighbors keeps you from feeling isolated in these difficult times.

Ike is the second hurricane to hit Cuba in the last 10 days. First Gustav, a category 4 storm, caused severe damage in Pinar del Rio and Isla de la Juventud with over 90,000 homes totally or partially damaged.

Now, while the massive recovery effort was underway to gradually mend the damage caused by Gustav, Ike has left a tremendous wake of destruction from its passing through the eastern provinces of Holguin, Las Tunas and Camaguey.

The hurricane then reentered the Caribbean Sea south of Ciego de Avila province and proceeded on a west-northwesterly route heading for a new landing Tuesday close to where Gustav entered. The tropical cyclone is now a category 1 hurricane; down from the category 4 status it had when it first entered northeastern Cuba in Holguin.

In 2002, a similar occurrence took place in Pinar del Rio when in a 10-day period hurricanes Lily and Isidore struck in the western part of the province, although neither had the intensity of Gustav.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Cuba: Fewer Guns, More Tourists

By Circles Robinson

Guns tend to scare away tourists and keep locals in their homes after dark. There are few capitals left in the hemisphere like Havana, where you don’t feel like the nighttime is your enemy.

This atmosphere of safety for the tourist is precisely one reason why Cuba has become a favorite vacation destination spot for Europeans, Canadians and some US citizens traveling via third countries to brave Washington’s travel ban on the island.

Following sharp cutbacks in state budgets during the 1990s, many other countries of the Americas made deep reductions in their law enforcement budgets as part of the IMF and World Bank recommendations to reduce government spending. The de-funding of public services directly affected citizen safety, as well as health and education.

In countries from Colombia to Brazil, Jamaica to Guatemala, as in the USA, people’s response to fear was to purchase weapons for self-defense. And in many places this meant not just having a gun, but a high powered one with loads of ammunition.

Cuba’s Approach

Cuba has taken a different approach. Firearms are not sold on the island in any store and are only legally held by authorized security personnel, police and armed forces and a limited number of hunters. Illegal weapons possession is considered a very serious offense.

Citizen safety as well as security for visitors is a top priority in the country. The law enforcement budget allows for sufficient foot and car patrols and a considerable number of traffic cops on motorcycles. Security guards at businesses or offices may carry pistols but you won’t see any automatic rifles except on the guards of the few armored cars that transport cash from businesses to the banks.

Of course the rightwing Miami crowd asserts that the reason the Cuban government doesn’t allow people to own hand guns is that it fears an uprising against the Revolution. Such an accusation is easy to make from afar, but clearly lacks a basis of fact on the island.

My experience is that Cubans value their relative safety, and are genuinely shocked by the stories told by friends and family who have traveled abroad on work missions or for conferences. Likewise, the drug and gang-related violence in Miami is seen as a serious drawback, even for those Cubans who still want to go there for family or economic reasons.

Regardless of their opinions on the country’s political system, most Cubans prefer strong law enforcement with few guns circulating and harsh sentences that discourage drug pushers, any budding of gangs or other types of violent crime.

No Sleepless Nights

While the police do not release crime statistics and the newspapers rarely report on violent crime, the relative lack of fear among the urban population compared to other underdeveloped and some industrialized countries manifests itself in the large number of people in the capital out on the streets in the evening and late night hours, especially on weekends, holidays or during summer.

Having a son or daughter out at a party or going to the late night movies or a concert doesn’t mean a sleepless night for parents as it would be in many cities around the continent.
During the first six months that my family and I lived in Havana, I would go to the bus stop almost every night to wait for teenage daughter to return home from evening classes. When she would be out late for school activities, or just having fun with friends, we would be up until she came home, no matter how late. Finally, and to our relief, we realized it wasn’t necessary; with relatively little violent crime in Cuba, her good judgment was enough to keep her safe.

Another important factor in maintaining a secure environment is that organized crime was expelled from Cuba 50 years ago when the US based weapons-toting mafia led by Meyer Lansky was given the boot. Illicit drugs are strictly controlled and drug or gang related murders commonplace in the US and much of urban Latin America are extremely rare. Accidental deaths by gun shot or people going on shooting sprees at schools or other public places is virtually unheard of.

Of course, tourists do need to exercise some caution. The best common sense advice for a tourist one can offer with regards to avoiding violent crime in Cuba is to stay in public places and not go anywhere isolated with people you’ve just met, something a visitor shouldn’t do anywhere in the world.

Other countries where I have traveled take a different approach. In Guatemala for instance most businesses from hamburger stores to pharmacies, museums, cafeterias and hotels all have guards armed with high-caliber automatic rifles. Banks feel like fortresses. When I asked why, people said it’s because the criminals and gangs are so well armed that they have to be ready.

The Guatemalan legislature is currently debating whether to make it even easier for people to buy weapons. While some civic groups want greater limits, powerful business sectors want fewer restrictions on the number of arms and munitions; just like Republican presidential candidate John McCain wants in the US.

Cuba has taken the opposite path to citizen safety and as far as I can see, it has worked quite well.

Just the other day I was sitting on a bus alongside a first-year Colombian medical student, studying on a scholarship in Havana. She told me she was from Medellin. I asked her what she thought of Havana. She said she liked it a lot because she could move freely around the city without being afraid, taking advantage of the cultural offerings or just hang out, something she said is not the case at night in her country.

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