BY WILFREDO CANCIO ISLA | El Nuevo Herald
The Cuban Government has sounded the alarm on a troublesome increase in the theft of state resources, the mysterious disappearance of supplies from hard-currency stores and price speculations on food items in the aftermath of hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
Already grappling with recovering the agricultural sector and alleviating the housing crisis, the Government is now trying to curb corruption and rampant theft of state-owned resources that has flourished amidst the shortages.
Following several statements published by former leader Fidel Castro, Cuban authorities have mobilized forces to end the debacle on all fronts.
On Thursday, the Cuban Worker’s Union—the island’s only union, directly controlled by the Communist Party—urged its more than 3.4 million members to resist the theft of state-resources and price gouging in markets through worker’s assemblies. Meanwhile, the television’s program Mesa Redonda focused entirely that night on the fight against criminal activity that has become rampant amidst the aftermath of destruction from the recent hurricanes.
The mobilizations that took place due to the hurricanes unleashed the looting of homes and government institutions throughout many communities. Law enforcement authorities have carried out several large-scale operations to prevent the looting of everything from mattresses to furniture and other personal belongings, as well as supplies destined for state-run markets.
In the town of Güira de Melena, located in Havana province, a rumor has run through the community of three men that arrived from the neighboring city of San Antonio de los Baños in horse-drawn carts and proceeded to loot the El Encanto commercial center that had lost its roof during hurricane Gustav.
The looters were deterred by employees of the commercial center and Ministry of the Interior agents, although residents report that there was a confrontation.
‘‘For those people that divert resources or try to speculate with the price of food items, that steal electrical or telephone cables, or try to appropriate resources from the state reserves, our penal code foresees circumstances of aggravated crimes,’’ noted Deputy Attorney General Rafael Pino Becquer during the Mesa Redonda program, adding that ``prosecutors will rigorously solicit sanctions from the courts.’‘
Pino Becquer also stated that people that have accumulated goods through lucrative activity will have their possessions confiscated.
The Attorney General, Gen. Juan Escalona Reguera, appeared on Mesa Redonda to warn that the nation will preserve ‘‘the socialist legality’’ and ‘‘will consequently apply the law for this scenario,’’ further stating that his office will ``act with a lot of force.’‘
Escalona Reguera also said that days earlier his office had instructed prosecutors on how to deal with the rash of crimes surrounding ``black-market food items and prices that rise through the roof so that the usual bandits today have a greater possibility of trying to assault our people.’‘
The instructions include the establishment of ``substantive measures of deprivation of freedom, correctional labor with internment, correctional labor without internment, and when the risk elevates: sanctions depriving freedom.’‘
‘‘There are no other alternatives and we are going to maintain [the measures] until our nation lives again what we had before the cyclones,’’ the attorney general warned.
Hours earlier, the labor union stated that it would combat the crimes in a collective effort, through assemblies that began on Thursday throughout the island.
The government moves come amidst strong criticism from the population for the increase of prices in agricultural markets and the shortages that have affected government hard-currency stores, primarily in the eastern region of the island.
‘‘There is no solution at the moment, because a despair has taken root among the people, forcing them to deal with the situation,’’ said Mario Ledesma, a resident of the city of Holguin, adding, ``The lines at shops begin at dawn and what they provide runs out in a blink of the eyes.’‘
Ledesma noted that among the priorities for Cubans are soap and detergent that are scarcely offered in stores around Holguin.
‘‘The other day I saw a woman leave with 80 rolls of toilet paper,’’ noted Ledesma, adding, ``I don’t think she will give it much use, as it is probably to save or resell.’‘
Mounting criticisms of agricultural markets have led the Ministry of Agriculture to release a statement saying that it will not tolerate price gouging on items that are basic staples of the Cuban diet.
The government’s attention also is focusing on public employees involved in commercial transanctions.
‘‘All manifestations of privilege, corruption or theft must be combatted and there are no possible excuses in this for a true communist. Any type of weakness in this sense is absolutely inexcusable,’’ Castro wrote in an article last week titled ``The vices and the virtues.’‘
Castro insisted that theft in state-owned factories, stores, gas stations, hotels, restaurants and other activities that handle resources or currency, ‘‘must be combatted without mercy’’ by the militants of the Communist Party.
The Cuban Government plans to broaden the war against price gouging, corruption and theft to a neighborhood level with the intervention of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution that comprise - according to official estimates - 8 million Cubans over the age of 14.
The government has exhorted the committees to be ``combative with opportunists, increase vigilance and defend the nation.’‘