HAVANA – The recent seizure by Cuban police of hundreds of sacks of onions was a big news item on state television, a warning to suspected hoarders and speculators who seek to benefit from harsher economic conditions during the pandemic.
The broadcast was also highly unusual because government-controlled media in Cuba rarely report on police raids and other operations. Instead, in the last two weeks, state media have embarked on a campaign to show that there is zero tolerance for anyone attempting to cash in on the fallout from the spread of the new coronavirus.
The publicity campaign has also drawn criticism that suspects are not given due process, and highlighted problems with Cuba’s state production of essential goods and mixed messaging on private enterprise. It comes as the pandemic imposes even more distress and hardship on Cubans who were already used to shortages and long lines in their efforts to find basic necessities.
The onions were confiscated in Mayabeque province, and police said they acted against the suspected hoarders following tip-offs from residents.
“We we were able to learn that these people were engaged in receiving large volumes of onions,” police Capt. Arley Tortoza told state television during the operation.
There have been numerous other media reports about similar raids by Cuban police. There was a raid on a house in Villa Clara where boxes of oil and tomatoes were confiscated; the dismantling of a stall selling pork at inflated prices; the foiling of the theft of sugar from a train; and the discovery of an attempt to steal chicken from a facility for COVID-19 patients.
The media spotlight on such police operations “is intended to show that there is a daily confrontation with crimes affecting the supply of basic necessities,” lawyer Raudiel Peña told The Associated Press. “It also sets an example, especially with respect to hoarders and merchants who operate on the Cuban black market.”
Long lines, and the informal or underground market, are nothing new in Cuba.
Shortages and long waits to acquire basic necessities had almost disappeared in the past decade, but they restarted last year, largely because of sanctions imposed by the United States in its attempt to force political change in Cuba.
But what never ended was the theft of goods from government centers, where some workers siphon off items to private businesses to make some money on the side. Sometimes, people hoarded prized goods so as to resell them when the price went up during times of scarcity.
“The confrontation is not only against COVID-19, it is also against those who seek to profit in hard times,” a Cuban, César González, wrote on Facebook.
Still, there is also criticism of people who inform on suspected hoarders and speculators. The critics say the Cuban government is to blame because it still places restrictions on private enterprise and many goods are legitimately purchased, albeit in large quantities.
“Legalizing these activities so that they are totally legal is an option," wrote another Facebook user, Orestes Rodríguez. “They are high demand products, they are not prohibited substances, what is illegal is the clandestine way in which they are obtained, distributed, sold and bought. ”
The state news reports have been criticized for the way in which suspects are allegedly demonized, without having the chance to defend themselves in front of a camera.
Peña, the lawyer, said the Cuban Constitution, approved last year, recognizes the right to truthful, objective and timely information that could justify the state broadcasts, but it also provides for the privacy of those who have yet to be convicted of any crime.
Furthermore, while hoarding is listed as a crime in the Cuban penal code, no one is sure how much of any particular item constitutes hoarding.
Because of shortages, authorities have had to restrict the sale of some products, including chicken, toilet paper, rice, detergent and coffee, and people line up for hours to buy such items. The government also has a subsidy program designed to ensure that goods are accessible to most Cubans.
Even so, some experts say Cuba should do more than just crack down on speculation and hoarding, for example by increasing the national production of goods in order to improve supply.
“The seizure of hundreds of tons of onions in Mayabeque offers two lessons: speculation over the price of food during a health emergency is unacceptable, and state policy on agriculture is dysfunctional and must be changed,” economist Pedro Monreal said.