All That and a 30-cent Mojito

This AP story, which ran in the Miami Herald, is an example of some shockingly bad reporting:

A communist experiment is letting average government workers in this eastern city enjoy a few things only foreigners and monied Cubans can usually afford: a good burger, a kicking jazz bar and stiff cocktails.

Across the rest of the island, average monthly government salaries of 408 pesos, about $19.50, don’t cover grocery bills, let alone a night out. But in Bayamo the central government has made a special effort to support peso businesses, giving the lowly currency actual buying power.

Along the stylish pedestrian mall known as Paseo or ”The Boulevard,” six blocks of restaurants, barber shops, ice cream parlors and department stores give Cubans a taste of tourist life at local prices.

Jazz bands jam for free until 2 a.m. at the Piano Bar, where mojitos go for just 5.50 pesos, or 30 U.S. cents. A 1950s-style diner serves up tasty meatball sandwiches for about half a peso – the equivalent of three cents – and four scoops of the richest ice cream in Cuba for about the same price.

”Almost everyone who comes in is surprised at first. The music is good. The cocktails are strong,” said Ernesto Aldana of the Piano Bar, where the Cuba Libre – copious rum pours with ice and splashes of cola and lime – costs 4.80 pesos, the equivalent of less than 25 cents.

The intended first impression, I suspect: Wow, 30-cent mojitos? What an enlightened country!

My actual first impression: You know a country is having problems when a functioning ice cream parlor makes the international news. And, like everything in life, the experiment comes at a price:

Huge government subsidies are needed. Paseo businesses here take in only 1,000 to 1,700 pesos a day, or $50 to $80. And the program only took shape after Bayamo communists asked central government planners for special autonomy and won the right to sell regionally produced items such as rum, seafood, beer, yogurt, beef, ice cream and cheese to local residents, rather than shipping them elsewhere on the island.

”We would see products like powdered milk made here and sold somewhere else and we said, ‘How is this possible? If we make it in Granma, we should be selling it in Granma,”’ Alonso said.

However, rising global commodity prices have made Bayamo’s government subsidies more costly, while hurricanes Gustav and Ike in recent weeks dealt serious blows to Cuban food production.

The government recently ordered all provinces to contribute more food to all parts of the country and reduce Cuba’s dependence on foreign imports, said Humberto Rondon, technical director for production at a state cheese and ice cream factory outside Bayamo. In Granma’s case, officials will now have to ship about 80 percent of its cheese to points elsewhere in Cuba.

Despite the hurricanes and rising food prices, the Bayamo experiment is so successful that the central government in Havana is continuing to devote $10 million this year to reopen some peso businesses and cover operating expenses of those already established, Alonso said.

There are ordinary peso businesses all over Cuba, but the products are shoddy and service is mediocre. Shortages of everything from potatoes to pasta mean most of the dishes listed on peso restaurant menus aren’t available, while peso stores have long lines of customers for mismatched inventory on largely empty shelves.

Think this through: The state supplies the goods, supplies the money to “pay” for them, and supplies the money needed to keep the “shopkeepers” running their make-believe businesses. Generously, the state even deigns to let some privileged people occasionally feed themselves with slightly less supervision than usual. How kind of them!

It then declares a success. In reality, all that this “experiment” proves is that it’s possible to have a really good time on someone else’s money. But all good communists know this already.

What they really want from the “experiment” at Bayamo is not economic reform, but a steady stream of gullible reporters, each thinking that communism somehow magically produces something from nothing, at least once in a while. In that regard, the experiment has been a success: While our intrepid reporter appears to have gathered all the relevant facts, and even to have relayed them accurately, he never bothered to connect them, or to draw the picture as it really is. He reported on a fraud, relayed the facts that show it to be a fraud, and never once declared the thing for what it was.

One thinks of the old adage: Five minutes’ thought would have sufficed to solve this problem. But thinking hurts, and five minutes is a long time.