News and Facts about Cuba

Follow the Trail of Flour

Follow the Trail of Flour / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma
Posted on February 12, 2015

14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 9 February 2014 – “The flour trail is
easy to follow,” says a retired baker whose hands, for more than five
years now, haven’t mixed ingredients nor added leavening to a dough. “I
left it all behind, because the administrator of the bakery where I
worked changed every six months and the last one ended up in jail,”
explains this sixties-something man with long arms, wearing a white cap
from his days in front of on oven.

The market in flour has grown in recent years. With the revival
of private businesses offering varied menus, demand for “the white
powder” has multiplied. It’s estimated that three of every five pizzas
sold in the private cafés and restaurants are made with flour acquired
in the underground networks and not from the hard currency stores as
required by law.

A recent TV report has revealed that the diversion of the grain starts
at the mills where the wheat is processed and packaged for distribution
throughout the country. Cienfuegos Combined Cereals supplies the product
to 11 of the country’s provinces, and a high percentage of its
merchandise ends up in the informal networks. The trail this traffic
leaves extends from the ships of the Cienfuegos company, passing through
the railroad cars of at least three provinces and also involving
entities such as the Business Base Unit (UEB) and Cargo

The Interior Ministry has an ongoing investigation in response to
multiple complaints of shortages of flour. The Controller of the
Republic herself has intervened in the matter and at the end of 2014
presided over a tense meeting in Camaguey Province attended by all the
entities involved in the embezzlement. That meeting turned into a
battlefield where each party defended their own innocence and accused
the others.

In November 2014, María Victoria Rabelo, director general of the Cuba
Milling Company, had sent a long missive with a detailed sequence of the
thefts committed against the merchandise marketed by her company,
pointing an accusing finger at the railroad authorities. According to
the millers’ version, the sacks of precious grain go astray during the
journey to numerous destinations in the region.

In July of last year, the Department of National Railways reduced the
number of staff in the Loading and Unloading Inspection Division. Added
to the spending cuts is the illusion that the security of the loads
relies more on automated methods and the verification of the locks of
every boxcar with merchandise. The result of this measure has been a
real catastrophe.

In a Provincial Company inspection of 60 boxcars, it was determined
that between September and October alone, over 100,000 pounds of the
precious product disappeared. “If before they reduced the manpower of
inspectors they were losing between two and three sacks per boxcar,
today we’re talking about losing as much as 17 tons fromone of them,”
confessed one Cuba Milling Company official on national television.

Ledy Guerrero Ramírez, head of packing and stowage for Cienfuegos Cereal
company, said it was impossible that the product was stolen during
loading. “No way,” she responded before the insinuation that the main
diversion was happening in her entity. “Here we have a computer with two
automatic scales and here we have another computer where the number of
sacks loaded to a boxcar is programmed in,” she added. Guerrero Ramírez
also said that, when the full number of sacks is loaded, the conveyor
stops automatically.

During the investigation it was found that, despite the
implementation of an automatic scale in the filling of the cars, the
shipments arrive at their destination with between eight and ten tons
less flour. An even greater mystery, and one confusing to the experts,
is that this happens without the security seals placed on the door of
each car showing any signs of being violated.

The railroad operators defend themselves, bringing up Ministry of
and Planning Resolution No. 2 of 2008. According to its
provisions, the supplier is obligated to place the product in the
warehouses of the customers and guarantee its arrival in good condition
and without losses. Following the exact letter of the provision, it is
the responsibility of Cienfuegos Cereals to take control of and
transport the flour to every distribution center.

Centralized State control, however, obliges the millers and the railroad
operators to work together in a forced relationship. The spotlight of
the accusations is falling on the work of the UEB railway in Cienfuegos.
Its chief of operations, Antonio Subí Claro, referred to the television
official who had recorded missing sacks over the whole year, which have
been “significantly increased (…), adding up to some 4,800 missing sacks
as of December.”

Nothing here … nothing there

Getting the sacks of flour out of the boxcars can only be carried with
the complicity – or blindness – of the crew. Several farmers in
the central area say that there are sites located on the outskirts of
towns and cities where the illegal off-loading occurs. A non-scheduled
stop allows the product to be transferred to trucks, which wait on both
sides of the rail line. The security seals on the boxcars were never
closed, which requires several accomplices in the loading areas at the
mills. Once they take out the merchandise, they proceed to seal the
doors, leaving no signs that they had been forced.

The web of conspirators is so extensive that from the loading centers
they convey the information to the off-loaders about which boxcars are
marked by the police, to be inspected on arrival. A game of cat and
mouse, where this time the rodents appear to have greater ingenuity and
creativity than the stupid cat who monitors them without success.

Contrary to what many believe, a great part of the stolen flour ends up
in the state institutions themselves. The bakeries are the final
destination of thousands of these stolen sacks. It will be there where
they concoct, with the implements and state infrastructure, the bread
and baked goods that later will be sold by private vendors. A mix of
state and private (estatal and particular) that people have jokingly
baptized estaticular.

The phenomenon of undeclared production has become common in state
institutions. However, it is in bread baking where it reaches its
highest peak. The bakeries work at double their capacity, although the
product offered on the ration book is poor quality and underweight.
Inside the state entities, the ovens never stop and on the kneading
tables they give shape to the bread sold according to supply and demand.
This is marketed “under the counter” from the display cases of the
bakery itself, or is supplied to private bakers, birthday party
managers, café owners and casual shoppers.

Another part of the stolen grain goes to families who hide distribution
centers where they package the merchandise in smaller portions and offer
it to their usual clients. “We supply owners of private restaurants and
cafés, mostly to people who sell Italian food,” says Amilkar, a young
man of 28 who is part of the flour distribution network in the capital
neighborhood of Puentes Grandes, very close to the Cuba Milling Company.

“This is a dangerous business,” says Amilkar, who has seen many “end up
in the tank.” In mid-2013 an illegal flour distribution network was
dismantled in the city of Camaguey. The police two young men
hiding five sacks and flour and two pounds of leavening in the false
bottom of a tricycle. The investigators busted it wide open and ended up
taking down a network of 17 people, who included some who were issuing
false invoices to account for the grain transfers.

An illegal industry that is carried out with the stealth of those who
traffic in cocaine, because all the flour circulating in the country has
been stolen from the state network that imports the wheat and processes
it in domestic mills. Attempts to cultivate the grain in Cuban soil have
ended up being a sterile, and excessively expensive, enterprise.

If I were to buy all the flour I use in the hard currency stores, I
would have to sell every pizza at a price no one could afford

In selling flour, so it can be processed by others, the suppliers try to
find regular customers. They are offered each sack at a price that
varies between 300 and 400 Cuban pesos. Much cheaper than the 2.2 pounds
for 1 convertible peso (equivalent to 24 Cuban pesos), which it costs in
the network of hard currency stores. Along with the illegal grain
business, there also flourished a wide offering of counterfeit receipts
so the self-employed workers can justify the product to the inspectors.

“In the absence of a wholesale market, if I were to buy all the flour I
would have to sell every pizza at a price no one could afford,” says
Norge, an electrical engineer who now runs a private pizzeria. “We have
several empty containers labeled with the brand of flour sold in stores
in convertible pesos and we fill them with what we get outside, in case
an inspector suddenly shows up.”

On Norge’s kitchen floor, there is a trail of white powder that extends
to the back door. In the words of an old baker, that footprint is like a
betrayal, a most indiscrete and eloquent track left by the illegal flour

Source: Follow the Trail of Flour / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma |
Translating Cuba –

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