Page last updated at 02:07 GMT, Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Red tape in Cuba: A struggle to change hotels in Havana

A street in Havana, Cuba

By Nick Caistor
Havana

Cuba has declared war on inefficiency. The state is preparing lay off half a million people, and novelties such as income tax are on the way in. But inefficiency has put down deep roots.

I made the mistake in Havana recently of trying to change hotels.

The first young woman I asked about this was very charming. She telephoned her main office, was told the person responsible was at lunch, and said I should come back in an hour.

When I returned, another charming young woman was sitting at her desk. She told me that her colleague had now gone off to lunch herself, and had left no instructions.

I waited for half an hour, then went back to my hotel.

A couple of hours later, I received a phone call in my room from reception.

A map of Cuba

This time there was not one but two equally charming young Cuban girls waiting for me downstairs.

The first of these said I was to hand over several hundred euros and she would give me a voucher for the new hotel.

I had to pay up-front, because that was how it was done in the state tourist firm.

I pointed out I had never seen her before, and so had no guarantee she was who she said she was. Would she mind using her large rhinestone-decorated mobile phone to call her office and let me speak to them?

"Ay, no mi amor," was her instant reply. "This is my private cell phone. I would never use it for work. That costs money".

I said could she please come back in an hour with some sort of official document proving she worked for the travel firm?

Of course, she said, then she and her friend disappeared.

Two hours later, when they had still not re-appeared, I decided to go down to the tourist office myself.

Six people had taken up to eight hours to change a single booking

Here, another two charming women professed no knowledge of my request at all.

It took the pair of them another half an hour to ring the new hotel, locate the manager, and extract a promise from him that there was a free room for me.

Satisfied with this, I went back to my first hotel.

By now it was early evening, and I thought the matter was closed.

But no, another hour later the two charming young ladies rang up to my room again. They said they had come back earlier, but had been unable to find me, did I not want to change hotels after all?

CUBA'S ECONOMIC REFORMS
File photo (2007) of Raul Castro

I went down to the lobby to confront them with my signed voucher from head office.

Far from appeasing them, this seemed to cause even further problems.

They knew nothing of the visit I had made to what was supposed to be their main agency, and again would not phone there. They have all gone home at this time of night, they said.

I still had to hand over euros for the exchange, but had lost the chance just to give it to them, they insisted.

The next morning I would have to go personally to their office - which it turned out was not where I had been, but another one dealing with money transactions

I set out bright and early for this second office to pay for my voucher.

Once again, the two charming young women were there.

This time, things went more smoothly, and I was able to hand over the euros and get my receipt - except that it took them half an hour to write all this down longhand, then get the receipt stamped in yet another office.

I calculated that by going through the state tourist agency, six people had taken up to eight hours to change a single booking.

Broken model

It is this kind of bureaucratic inefficiency that President Raul Castro is trying to stamp out by announcing that at least half a million jobs in Cuba's state sector will have to go over the coming months.

Those who no longer have a job will be expected to register as self-employed, and be taxed on their earnings.

Both paying tax and not having a job are complete novelties for Cubans. Two of the gains of the revolution were meant to be that there would be work for everyone, and that the state would generate enough revenue for workers not to have to pay tax.

Now, as Raul Castro himself has admitted, that model has completely broken down.

Cuba now faces the challenge of what will happen when its citizens have to try to earn a living on their own.

It seemed to me that just one competent person could have dealt with my transfer in a couple of minutes - but when I asked one of the tourist women if she was concerned about the coming redundancies, she proudly announced that no, tourism was a productive sector, and that if anything, they would need to take on more staff.

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SEE ALSO
Cuba's mass lay-off plan held up
01 Mar 11 |  Latin America & Caribbean

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