One morning this month the nearly half a million inhabitants of Sancti Spiritus, a leafy province in central Cuba, woke up to find their local government had fallen.
Rather than some kind of US-inspired coup, however, the removal and subsequent arrest of five senior provincial officials was part of the increasing drive by Raúl Castro, president, against white-collar corruption – or white “Guayabera” crime as it is called after the distinctive Cuban dress shirt.
The crackdown, launched two years ago, has already cost hundreds of senior Cuban Communist party officials, state managers and employees their jobs and sometimes their freedom, as Mr Castro has struggled to shake-up the country’s entrenched bureaucracy and move the country towards a less centralised and more market-driven economy.
Although such campaigns are not new, the intensity of the current drive is unprecedented, as are the number of high level targets and breadth of their illicit activities, Communist party and government insiders said this week.
As well as Sancti Spiritus’s wayward officials, Havana’s mayor resigned last month after most of the capital’s top food administrators were swept away in another probe.
Last year, in the all-important nickel industry, which exports some $2bn annually, managers from mines and processing plants up to deputy ministers of basic industry were arrested after “diverting resources” and padding export weights, according to industry sources. Yadira García Vera, the minister, was eventually fired.
The drive began in earnest in 2009 when Mr Castro, 84, opened the Comptroller General’s Office, saying it would “contribute to the purging of administrative and criminal responsibility, both the direct perpetrators of crimes and the secondary ones . . . [who] do not immediately confront and report them.”
The move is designed to try and allow state-owned companies to operate more profitably, as Mr Castro wants them to, while also preventing the kind of corruption that marked Russia’s and China’s own moves to the market.
“The creation of the Comptroller General in 2009 was a significant step in the first phase of Cuba’s reform,” said Arturo López-Levy, a former analyst at Cuba’s interior ministry and now a Cuba expert at the University of Denver in the United States.
“East Asia demonstrated the wisdom of creating an anti-corruption agency early in the economic transition from a command economy.”
Cuba is fertile ground for corruption. After 20 years of economic crisis, and with state wages worth around $20 a month – a level that the government admits does not cover necessities – almost all Cubans engage in illegal activities to survive.
At the same time, the government is loosening regulations on small private business even as it cuts subsidies and lays off government workers, thereby requiring more sacrifice from state employees and pensioners.
“Raúl Castro has clearly gone to extraordinary lengths to make it clear that corruption – particularly at the higher levels – will not be tolerated, signalling he means business and higher-ups must sacrifice too,” said John Kirk, a Latin America expert at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.
Cuba does not suffer from drug-related corruption like many of its neighbours, said western diplomats and foreign security personnel who work closely with Havana on interdiction.
Rather, according to foreign investors, the biggest problems they face when forming domestic joint ventures are the long delays starting and then operating a Cuban business – in part due to draconian regulations designed to prevent white-collar crime.
That is not the case in the external sector, where foreign trade and off-shore activities make corruption easier.
“The huge disparities between peso salaries, worth just a few dollars a month, and the influx of strong currencies, even in very small amounts, create extremely strong incentives to become corrupted,” said one western manager, who requested anonymity.
Cuban cigars have become the most emblematic case. Distributors in Canada and Mexico had long complained that millions of valuable “puros” – high quality cigars – were somehow making their way to other Caribbean islands and then being smuggled into their franchised territories.
But it was not until last year that the Cohiba-puffing Manuel García, the long-time vice-president of Habanos S.A., a joint venture with London-listed Imperial Tobacco and the exclusive distributor of the island’s famous cigars, was arrested along with a number of other executives and staff.
“Turns out we were complaining to the very people who had set up the sophisticated operation, complete with shell companies and paths to avoid import duties,” one foreign distributor said.