An Exhausted Country and City
13 / enero / 2023
The last New Year’s Eve I spent in Havana was in 2019, a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic was announced in Cuba. Then came the final onslaught from the “Temporary Situation”, currency unification, the Economic Reforms, long lines, “brigades to tackle line-sitters” (LCC) – they were later dissolved -, and ration lists and numbers, blackouts, protests, trials and sentences against 11J protestors, repressive laws to teach lessons, and other laws to dress them up.
Even though the island has always been a convulsive place where a new economic measure is announced every week, or a decree-law, or information leaked that changes many people’s lives in a groundbreaking way, it was hard to imagine the path Cuban society would take in the past three years.
Ever since my last New Year’s Eve in Cuba, the houses on my block haven’t changed so much, but its residents have. A buzzing place in Havana’s suburbs, my neighborhood is now overcome by a calm that is very unusual, an atmosphere that wouldn’t only be described as tranquil, as it also has components of exhaustion, weariness, escape and emptiness.
On my house’s side of the sidewalk, people only live in the house on the right. The rest of the street is completely empty, except for my neighbor, my family, and a root vegetable stand on the corner. Some neighbors have passed away, but the vast majority have emigrated leaving their homes behind, which sell for less every month because there aren’t any buyers around.
The large family living on the sidewalk opposite us also gradually left, and now there’s only an aunt left behind. The garage with the car shop is now completely empty. My neighbor isn’t upset, she says that she can sleep her siesta now without blaring reggaeton waking her up, that it’s like living in “a villa” now.
Conversation between people on the block has also changed. The main topic today is an update about who left this week “to see the volcanoes” (in reference to Nicaragua), who’s gone “on a journey”, who’s “at the border.”
Everyone I speak to has a relative or knows somebody who has made one of these journeys, by foot through the jungle, on a raft over the sea or on a direct flight. They talk about how much the journey cost, how long it took, a setback or danger, and the way they adapted once they reached their destination, as if it were a great feat.
They victoriously announce that the person they know is “already working” in Spain, the US, Serbia, or Mexico; that “they sent for their family”, and “they already found a place to rent.”
Duties have also changed. Neighbors have formed a network of contacts that keep them up-to-date on the number for rationed food distribution so, even though they aren’t on the rations booklet, they are able to pick up the rations of somebody who has left with an assigned ticket and ID card of somebody living in the household.
The physical and emotional exhaustion waiting for rations to be distributed and lines for minced meat, chicken and detergent, that are sold separately every month isn’t questioned either. There’s a popular saying around here that this “is how they keep us entertained”, referring to the Government.
Pork for the traditional New Year’s dinner should have been handed out by ration number, but the crowds of people to buy it were so big that lots of people chose not to buy. Plus, pork was being sold by piece, which makes distribution really unfair and is even unfavorable for some.
Pork had to be removed from two retail stores in San Miguel after they started selling it because it had gone bad. The new measure of ration lists, which replaces the so-called LCC (brigades to tackle line-sitters), hasn’t been effective either. For example, days that 80-100 numbers should be served, sales are made on a first come-first serve basis, and sometimes there isn’t enough for the last ones there.
Lots of people have chosen not to give into the anxiety of living in dribs and drabs every day to keep their sanity, and they had a simple celebration, without having to line up early in the morning. Peace is mainly a privilege for those who can give themselves the luxury of avoiding the rations system.
Pork that isn’t sold in rations by the State costs more than double, approximately 480 pesos (CUP) per pound.
Prices aren’t too different at these stands, local fairs or agro-markets: a string of white onions can cost 1000 pesos, a plastic bag with five bread rolls, 350, a jar of mayonnaise, 380. Meanwhile, a standard meal at a private establishment where many workers have lunch now ranges from 300-600 pesos, and from 500-1200, at a simple private restaurant. With a minimum monthly wage standing at 2,500 pesos, food expenses over 6000 pesos are a survival challenge.
However, this isn’t the only reality in a city – Havana – where many different lifestyles coexist despite official discourse being determined to level the playing field.
Recently, people waited tirelessly for the free distribution of cigars, cigarettes, rum (even for people who don’t drink and smoke, but they resell it), or a pack of rice, sugar, spaghetti and split chickpeas, or the abovementioned pork. You could buy pork fillets and leg for 30-70 MLC (magnetic dollars) at the store on 3rd and 70th Streets in Playa.
Other Havana residents sort out their day-to-day needs by using different apps: La Nave to get around the city, Mandao to order ready-made or prepared meals, and Telegram groups to order and deliver farm products to your home, or WhatsApp for imported medicine and personal hygiene items.
Even though only a small minority are able to order things from home, it’s the most advisable, judging by people’s warnings: don’t walk alone at night, walk down busy and well-lit streets, don’t take your cellphone out in public, don’t wear flashy jewelry, don’t open the door to strangers when you’re home alone, even if they identify themselves as a bill collector, fumigator, etc.
“Food priorities” make it impossible to prioritize other things in life. A friend I hadn’t seen in a long time delayed his visit by a whole day because he was sorting things out and waiting in pressing lines (once a chilled product reaches a retail point that doesn’t have the conditions to store it, it needs to be sold immediately). When he was finally able to free himself from his duties, he decided to wait to leave the next day in the end because “it had got late already, and it wasn’t safe to walk around during these days alone on the street at this time.”
High crime rates, unaffordable prices, and daily duties just to get food cheaper may be some of the reasons Havana’s streets were empty when they have always been full of Cubans celebrating. Except for people waiting in line for all kinds of things, even recreational spots in Vedado or Old Havana are a lot emptier than normal. Even when there are cultural programs for the weekend, turnout is always quite low.
Just before Christmas, a DJ was playing music in front of Casa de las Americas on a Saturday at 10 PM, with just three police officers in the audience. The following weekend, in the middle of the Aquellarre Cuban Comedy Festival, the Yara movie theater only filled its first six rows. Attendees laughed about trending issues: rations, “hard” money, “volcanoes”, and different religious rituals to succeed in “making the journey”.
Havana is the capital of a country where reality pulls at every plausible string of common sense, social order, and the popular imagination. One day, a bodega store owner sells all of his neighbors’ groceries and leaves for a foreign land with the money he makes, leaving his customers without their monthly ration. Another day, the Ministry of Public Health admits that two employees at a hospital in Santiago de Cuba have sold human organs, taken from the morgue, to allegedly sell them for consumption or religious items – according to popular theories; the final objective doesn’t matter compared to the awful speculations of everyday horrors that are becoming the norm.
Last year, at least four babies were abandoned in different provinces across the country, some even died. But these are just the cases that come to light on social media.
Cuban society seems to be living in a state of never-ending alarm, where shortages are normal and people rejoice over the most basic rights they are granted as miracles. Even jokes aren’t subversive when everyday reality beats fiction.
Havana hasn’t become calm overnight; if almost 300,000 Cubans left for the US in the last year alone, according to Havana’s demographic, this means that at least one person in 10 isn’t here anymore, which can fluctuate depending on the age group.
Young people are leaving – or trying to find a way to leave -, the elderly are hunkering down and lots of families are hoping the new year brings a less exhausting future, by making a trip. People who can’t hope for this change will only age every day, with exhaustion and uncertainty being the order of the day.
*The author of this text cannot sign it due to the risk of imprisonment they face when practicing independent journalism in Cuba.
This article was translated into English from the original in Spanish.
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