"What has the change from Habaguanex to GAESA been like?"
"Because the military management is inept. They demand too much and want to intimidate us. Imagine: if you refuse to work with them, or ask for leave, they threaten to seize your passport for a year."
So says Roberto, 41, a founded clerk at Habaguanex S.A. He says that they worked very hard in the Historic Center. "We built something that we can touch with our hands. We don't need repressors, but better salaries."
Almost a year after a commercial conglomerate of the Havana Historian's Office was absorbed by the military consortium GAESA, many workers at the 20 hotels, 56 bars and cafes, 39 restaurants and more than 200 shops - among them boutiques, perfumeries, florists, pharmacies, opticians, jewelers, liquor stores and food establishments - feel uncomfortable with their new bosses, and some are even considering leaving the entity.
"They are so bungling," says Osmani, a 38-year-old worker, "that the new management of the Santa Isabel hostel in the Plaza de Armas closed the service entrance, so maintenance and other employees now have to pass through the lobby on their way to their jobs."
"Eusebio [Leal] made arrangements with families so that they could manage some hostels and businesses, an experiment that yielded excellent results," says Mikhail, a 43-year-old custodian. "But at the Hostal Valencia, for example, Gaviota already fired them."
"Now there are more shortages than before," says Yoslaine, 32, a cashier at a grocery store. "There is also apathy, a lack of staff, and fewer searches. There are long lines to pay, and the bosses couldn't care less if the customers complain."
Even at the Puerto Carenas building, an entity that was not transferred to GAESA, but is headed up by a brigade general, those in charge of the restoration complain about a lack of materials and their bosses' ignorance: "Instead of importing the required materials, we are ordered to use common sand and cement, or any old pigment to restore frescos that are more than 300 years old," says worker Carlos, age 48.
The vast majority of those consulted believe that "the lesser evil" would be for civilians to run the commercial conglomerate again, and for the General Controller of the Republic to do its work, tackling corruption. "The disaster of the paramilitary economy was demonstrated in the change from Habaguanex to GAESA," said one of them.
Cement, brick and corruption: the background of the military "occupation"
At the beginning of the 'rescue' of the Historic Quarter —Carlos recalled— three construction companies were created: Puerto Carenas, Restauradora del Malecón and Restauradora de Monumentos. The latter was overseen by the architect Perla Rosales Aguirreurreta, Eusebio Leal's second-in-command today.
Years later the three companies were merged under the name Puerto Carenas, headed by Rogelio Milián Lária, a former member of the Unión de Empresas Constructoras Caribe (UNECA), which in mid-2012 was embroiled in a major corruption scandal. Among other shady dealings, Milián charged commissions for the purchase of construction materials from a Spanish supplier (his son-in-law).
Milián was replaced by Brigadier General Conrado Echeverría, former head of the General Staff of the Matanzas military region, who later headed up a housing program for FAR (Armed Forces) officers attached to GAESA's Unión de Construcciones Militares (UCM).
The militarization of Puerto Carenas did not prevent corruption. Instead, it prompted the exodus of a number of skilled workers to non-agricultural cooperatives, where they reportedly receive "better incentives."
Jorge, a 58-year-old freelance civil engineer, says that in the Historic Center tenders are awarded to "construction cooperatives." The professionals who run them operate as figureheads for some bigwigs who benefit from the profits from these contracts. "Perla Rosales —daughter of General Ulises Rosales del Toro— is part of that 'gallery'," he says.
Once upon a time in Habaguanex
The festival of corruption at the Office of the Historian reached its peak "when Meici Weiss rose from the administrator of the Hotel Ambos Mundos to the general manager of Habaguanex S.A.," says a 62-year-old former worker at the conglomerate, who requested anonymity and said she had been a "victim of said administration."
Weiss set up a bureaucratic model that functioned as a criminal organization and "crushed" employees who refused to get involved in the "shenanigans." The manager surrounded himself with subordinates that many called "the untouchables." The bosses enjoyed impunity as they sold their influence for personal gain, and obtained Schengen visas.
According to previous investigations, in mid-2012 Yoagniel Pérez Ramos, then manager of the Cervecería Factoría, located in the Plaza Vieja of the Historic Centre, was arrested right out on the street on suspicion of "illicit enrichment", among other crimes, unleashing a wave of arrests that rolled through other divisions of Habaguanex.
Weiss and his entourage were dismissed and subjected to investigations by the General Controller of the Republic and the Criminal Investigations Division (DIC). “But shit was found at levels so high that the process had to be swept under the rug,” according to an auditor who asked not to be identified.
An old case was immediately dusted off against Yoagniel Pérez, for embezzlement, after the carrying out of an audit - four years earlier - at the facilities of Habaguanex S.A. (the former military headquarters of San Ambrosio), where he was second in command.
According to Ruling number 47 of 2014, issued by the People's Provincial Court of Havana, in case 214/2013, Yoagniel was prosecuted for the crime of bribery, for paying to obtain a dismissal of the case based on a "lack of evidence" in case 635/2008.
The lawyers bribed with payments of between 2.000 and 200 CUC, other favors, and gifts at Factoría, were Osvaldo Fernández Guerra, deputy director of the Dirección de Bufetes Colectivos (Directorate of Collective Law Firms) in the capital; Lucía Pérez Fernández, provincial coordinator of the Centro de Desarrollo de Bufetes Colectivos (Center for the Development of Collective Law Firms); Mildreda Planas Durruthy, chief prosecutor of Old Havana; and Marisol García Castillo, prosecutor of the Old Havana municipal prosecutor's office.
Along with Yoagniel, those involved were sentenced to between 5 and 15 years in prison, property seizures, suspension of their professional activity, and the retention of their passports until their sanctions expire. Today Yoagniel is the only one who remains behind bars.
"If Yoagniel, a simple culinary manager, was able to bribe a group of justice system officials, then what could have been achieved by others with better positions? People like Meici Weiss, also the mother of Meici Bolaños Weiss, Deputy Minister of Finance and Prices?" asks Ricardo, 54, a former clerk at Habaguanex.
The official press refrained from informing the public about the fissures in the justice system and the corruption at Habaguanex. Ten months later, Eusebio Leal Spengler, incredibly untouched by the scandal, ceded control of the commercial conglomerate to the Council of Ministers, via Decree/Law 325/2014.
Two years after the handover, the real estate company Fenix S.A. - under the command of the military - took charge of the administration of the San José Cultural Center, where, according to complaints by the self-employed artisans there, there were irregularities in the sale of stands, with prices ranging from 8,000 to 120.000 CUC.
Lázaro, age 42, a former worker at the store at Neptuno and Águila, cites another example of the corruption at the commercial conglomerate, where Communist Party higher-ups looked the other way and let the mischief continue, at the same time taking on roles as "sales agents," demanding from management the purchase of a bust of José Martí for 240 CUC, to erect a corner honoring the historic figure in each unit (more than 315), for a total investment of 76.000 CUC. The purchase was to be made at the store of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, located at Belascoaín and Desagüe, in the center of Havana.
"There are no surprises," Lázaro says. "When GAESA applies coercive measures against those who serve drinks at bars, make up the rooms at hostels, charge customers at markets, and shovel concrete at building sites, it is because that is the nature of the system: taking advantage of the weakest and then turning a blind eye to the worst offenders, who are daddy's boys, crooks dressed up fancy, and card-carrying members of the Party."