A LETTER TO FIDEL
The politics and business of Cuba. Ed.
A conservative Grenadian businessmen said not only businessmen but “even the rocks” were behind the Peoples Revolutionary Government of Grenada. He said revolutionaries, like one comrade ministers, drove around in his big air-conditioned car with his windows rolled up.
“We waited and waited and nothing happened.” He said.
The products and prices advertised in the communist publications: Pravada, Granma, Prensa Latina and the Militant were interesting and Barbadian businessmen were behind business with Cuba. In answer to queries, Cubana’s manager, introduced a Cuban, who tried unsuccessfully to do business on the island amongst a section of businessmen.
“You are the only one of them that ever paid a fare to Cuba.” The Cubana manager said.
Cubana flew once every two weeks to Cuba. We travelled on the same flight and on our arrival at Jose Marti airport he introduced the director of classical music, who in term introduced his brother. Cuban immigration stamped a piece of paper and placed it in my passport. European Plan at the Hotel Vedado in Havana was inexpensive. Left-wing contacts were happy to do anything but function. Social hostesses at the hotel to whom requests to be connected to the Ministry of Trade had to be routed because there was no dial direct were reluctant to get in touch with the ministry. Neither a Cuban trying to do business nor the ministry returned my call. After days of slammed telephones one broke and I walked from the hotel to the Ministry of Trade, rang the bell of the closed door and shouted only then did action arrive and samples appeared.
As a commission agent for Cuban trade orders to fill a boat were secured. A Cuban ship arrived with no money and wanted merchants to pay up front for their stock sight unseen. When merchants refused there was no money to pay dock, handling or off loading charges and other expenses. I lent $30,000.00. My bank manager was set against the loan; I saw her thinking as part of the cynicism of capital The boat came three times.
An anti-Communist, Labour government beneficiary, moulder and shaper of the ruling Labour party who had refused to buy white potatoes from East Germany because that country was communist, patched up his difference with the largest importer of fruits and vegetables and asked him to buy from Cuba for his dry goods, manufacturing and distilling business. The largest importer was the brother of my best friend from school days. He had for a few years been the Labour beneficiary’s favourite, his man of business, a director of his company and someone to whom he gave race horses; they travelled together. They were inseparable. My best friend’s brother wanted to reopen his father’s business so he told that he was leaving the company to go study for his master’s degree. The beneficiary fell out with him because when he thought his friend was at the university he found him in his father’s buildings in the city running the largest imported fruit and perishables business.
From the first black and successful supermarket owner came orders of metric tons of oranges.
“Does he know that this lobster is from Cuba?” I said.
A white businessman, who from the beginning bought Cuban honey in drums; bottled it under his own trade name and sold it in shops and supermarkets called to say: “He said it is the best lobster he ever saw and he wants some. Telephone him and see what he says.” Cuban lobster was the best. The secret was to put the lobsters in tap water for a few minutes before they are boiled. This tranquillizes them so that the trauma on the meat is reduced.
“A company like that is not going to do business with Cuba. They are the most conservative and traditional business people.” The largest fruit and vegetable importer tried to stop me so I would not make a fool of myself.
A conservative businessman had spied lobster being dug up by police while in cold storage. The lobster importer was an aspiring younger politician, member of the opposition and later member of parliament and cabinet minister with connection through friendships and family to the ex-Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition Democratic Party. He was already in the seafood business.
“There is no embargo on trade from Cuba. The government would have to place one on to stop me. I also want some of that lobster, and some honey.”
The conservative business man met the Cuban business agent, a relationship grew; he planned to holiday in Cuba the next year and joined plans to lower prices for food and to trade with Cuba and socialist countries, where merchandise was less expensive .
“Many years ago, I met a family, who owned Bacardi Rum and lived in Cuba. We were their agents. Mr. Bacardi and his family holidayed with us and they expected to be treated like royalty. They lived so grand that I wondered what kind of society could have produced their behaviour and expectations. They must have lived like kings in Cuba.” The conservative businessman said.
“We had to do something,” said the Cuban, “every other woman was a prostitute in Havana.”
“I want tuna to sell on supermarket shelves at $1.99.” I said to the conservative. He checked out our monthly consumption of canned tuna and he and the first black supermarket owner co-ordinated their orders and sold it at $1.99 in supermarkets, which they supplied. The cheapest tuna until then was sold at just over $3.00. Processed by hand, Cuban tuna was light in colour because dark pieces of meat were taken out. He worked out a three-tiered system for honey. Honey in bottles already came into the island so orders for them would not affect sales of bulk honey because they were two different markets. The third tier was to have the bulk importer import extra drums; taps would be installed and customers could bring their own bottle and buy the honey by the pint from a fledgling communist trade union.
Police developed, unbeknownst to me, a female freeloading guest in my home, whom I had recently given shelter, as their informer. As the Cuban ship anchored at break of dawn, police came to my house and arrested me for theft of one cassette tape valued at $2.00 U.S. which the free lodger had left, when she left my home a few days before the boat’s first schedule arrival; they used this as an excuse to detained me at the police station while they boarded the ship with machine guns.
“I recognise you. They call me the Singing Police. I followed you for twenty-one days when I worked Special Branch.” Years later a resident beat officer came to my home, rang the bell to introduce himself to the new tenant. “You real interesting. One day I follow you and you went nine places. You do not do anything wrong you just different. You move so that sometimes we used to have to have back-up crews to follow you. I learn a lot of things from you.” He knew of the Cubans and remembered my day-to-day movement better than I had. He said Special Branch had taped my telephone and that he sat for days and nights on a kerbstone outside my home.
“The policeman who lives next to you called me and said that I should be careful that he knows that Special Security had you under surveillance. I had to askif he knew who he was talking to and that I worked Special Security.”
Cuba was not that of Fidel’s long speeches. There were problems. I financed a trip by my friend’s brother to try to sort them out and he went on the docks and showed them the correct way to bag potatoes and made large orders for goods on the next shipment. He took his wife, with him, who has a Masters degree in Spanish. She loved the country but did not want to return because of the duty free stores. “I do not like the idea that visitors can buy so many nice things and an average Cuban cannot.” She said.
Dollar stores (duty free) are set up to take only US money; in them Cuban pesos were worthless. Italian, Fila sneakers sold for US$17.00 in the US they cost US$100.00. Well-fitting brassieres - Vogue from Canada - under which there was another tag which read Playtex “Made in Barbados” for export market only, transhipped to Canada and then to Cuba where they were sold for a few dollars. Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, French and Italian brand names clothes luggage, perfumes, cosmetics, jewellery, liquor and caviar were found in these stores.
The US dollar was almighty. Taxi men cheated to get them. The brother of the director of the classical orchestra in Cuba asked me to buy “a few” duty-free things for him then took me for a drink and without my knowledge negotiated to change my US dollars at five times the going rate, he said, there was still money to be made off duty free items. I plead friendship to the revolution. “Do not ask me to do this in Cuba.” I said.
The average Cubans had to buy cheap polyester, and spent Saturdays in lines outside the Supermarcado to buy old frost-bitten pork at an exhorbitant price a pound and redfish heads to supplement their rations of white rice, salt, sugar, beans, lard, pig tails and a few small strips of meat on which they lived while the best in fish, lobster, tuna, fruits and vegetables were sold to overseas markets. Nowhere was healthy food available outside restaurants. Cuban households lived on tinned orange juice laced with a lot of sugar, coffee with a lot of sugar, white rice and beans with plenty salt, and strips of pork fried with lard. The country hailed its medical breakthroughs and its medical technology but nowhere was there a healthy diet of preventative medicine preached. Preventative medicine is not good propaganda.
Meanwhile the female who was really a con artist did not show up at court for over four times. Police used her to abuse court process to get at me and a magistrate adjourned the case each time. I hired a female lawyer and the case was adjourned again. Unbeknownst to her I telephoned, the Attorney General. The next date police finally brought the accuser to court; she said that she dropped charges and disappeared quickly. The magistrate apologised. He obeyed orders and violated my human rights. The female lawyer charged $400.00 and made no offer to seek justice for the blatant harassment or my rights to make a living within the law. In later years she refused to speak with me because I did not pay her bill. She is now a Queen’s Council and the magistrate became a judge.
Left-wingers and communists, all men, did not come to my assistance yet when goods were off loaded they took without conscious. I was Cuba’s - all men - bank and chauffeur and paid everything except their hotel bill; they partied at my home and never reciprocated but at the end of each trip they went to our duty free shops and bought items for themselves and their wives.
“She think she discover Cuba? She thinks she is Christopher Columbus.” They laughed at me behind my back and tried to do business with my clients, who let me know and refused their offers. In the end, the business failed when they took our orders and never turned up on schedule. Sometimes they came late sometimes not at all and once just before Easter after we had placed an order for nearly the whole island’s supply of oranges they called from on the way; said that they were in Martinique and to arrive in a day and then all was silent; next we knew they said, without apology that the boat was back in Cuba.
A businessman friend, as it turned out gave me the best advice that Cubans had been no good when he did business with them with cement. “They will tell you that they are coming and they will not come. They will make you lose a lot of money. You are small and you cannot afford that.”
This man’s cousin headed the company with whom I contracted to handle the ship’s services on its arrival. When the boat anchored he refused to deal with it. The intelligence community are afraid of this man, who was a helicopter pilot for the US during the Vietnamese war and chilling rumours circulate of his terror to the Viet Cong. The democratic Prime Minister claimed that he is a CIA agent. Twelve years later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the same CIA agent now a Labour minister, spearheaded business with Castro and Cuba. The Attorney General under whose orders my harassment came allowed and used his family’s travel agency to offer the same tours to Cuba, which I had conceived. The conservative businessman is dead and legitimate supermarket businesses reel under the weight of money-launderers.
“You let Cuba come between our friendship.” The businessman friend and cousin of the CIA agent said.
“You don’t see how your cousin is now in Cuba kissing up Castro?” I said.
“You don’t know we call him Frequent Flyer Phil.”