Nothing is easy in Cuba. Even menstruating is a headache. If you doubt it, ask Marlene, a 23-year-old computer expert, who suffers when her period comes, every 28 days. On the island, sanitary napkins are known by the name, “intimates.”
They are rationed. They are sold in the pharmacies, to women previously registered, between the ages of 10 and 55. At the rate of one package of 10 sanitary napkins per head, once a month, at 1.20 pesos.
“They are awful quality, break easily, and don’t work. Then you have to buy them on the black market or in the dollar stores,” an angry Marlene explains.
“Under the table” the same packet sold in the pharmacies can cost 10-15 Cuban pesos (50 or 75 cents in CUCs). In the “shoppings”, or dollar stores, there is more choice and the quality is better. But for one package of imported sanitary napkins you have to pay from 0.90 to 1.30 in CUCs. Converted into Cuban pesos, the national money, that’s between 22 and 30 pesos. Twenty-two pesos is two days’ wages.
“It’s like a punishment for being a woman and bleeding every month,” Raisa, a 27-year-old housewife, says indignantly. “And if you don’t have “intimates,” you use pieces of old clothes, which you boil in hot water and put out to dry in the sun to disinfect them.”
According to commentary on the National Television News, In Cuba there are about 4 million women of fertile age. When interviewed, Gladys Vásquez, an official in Interior Commerce, the ministry that controls what is distributed by the ration book, takes the easy way out.
The same old thing. The Party line. The calamity of the Cuban economy is the fault of the “Yankee Blockade.” It’s to blame for everything. It’s the same if you don’t have potable water, a decent living place, your kids don’t have toys or women lack sanitary napkins. The fault lies with the “Blockade,” as they call the embargo in Cuba.
Young women like Yailén, 17 years old, a college student, ask themselves why products so necessary as sanitary napkins are sold in hard currency. The journalist does not ask the official this question, and if she had, I doubt she would have had a response.
“In Havana, everything is fine,” declares Suchitel, 32 years old, a shop employee. “In Santiago de Cuba, where I live, there are no sanitary napkins during certain months. If you don’t have money to buy them in hard currency or on the black market, then the options are to use rags, the leaves of some plant or a home-made tampon, put together with the cotton padding that they use for mattresses.” (There is also a shortage of cotton on the national market).
The same Gladys Vásquez, the official from Interior Commerce, recognizes that “deliveries have been incomplete, owing to the lack of prime materials, which are bought in China or France.” And of course she repeated the slogan: It’s the fault of the Blockade.
Many on the island are against the embargo. In addition to being inefficient, it has been a pretext for the Castro brothers to justify the country’s disasters for more than four decades.
Few believe that the day there is no embargo, there will be an abundance of ham and beef. Or that we will be able to buy Tylenol in the pharmacies. Or that high-quality sanitary napkins, like the Kotex used by Cuban women before 1959, will be sold on the ration book in the stores. With or without the embargo, the government lacks something: money. And the women, “intimates.”
In Cuba, everything is negotiable. Even death. This is what happened two weeks ago to the Qunitana family. Their mother, an elderly woman of 71, had died of renal failure. After the doctor certified the lady’s death, what the family lived through was a tragedy with overtones of black comedy.
The night of the wake, there was no water, and the ration of coffee allowed by the government could not be made. The guy in charge of making the coffee did not have enough gas in the stove and his coffeemaker was broken. The sad-looking fellow in charge of dressing and putting make up on the body did not have enough sawdust to stuff the recently deceased.
Five CUCs (convertible money=120 Cuban pesos) made the miracle happen, and the missing sawdust appeared. Later when it was time to buy the flower arrangements the tragic events continued. In the flower shop, a very sleepy and obese woman explained to them, grumpily, that she did not have the ink to write the names on the ribbons which would identify those who sent condolences.
The obese lady was going to return to her improvised bed, among faded flowers and roaches that infested the place, when a green bill with the red “5 CUC” changed her mind. At 3 am, at almost 1 km from the funeral home, they decided to walk along 10 de Octubre Avenue with the six flower arrangements on their shoulders, since there were no signs of cars for hire in the deserted street.
By morning, the state cars that had been previously rented arrived around noon. After expressing their condolences to the family, one of the drivers, a black man in his fifties who was smoking a cheap cigar, justified the delay by saying that “the gasoline truck had not arrived at the base.”
Just when everyone thought the mishaps had ended, a frightening downpour broke in the same instant that the funeral procession reached Colon Cemetery. One of the two gravediggers charged with performing a Christian burial for la señora Quintana, alleged that with “such a downpour we have to wait, I am catching a cold.” His work mate complained to the disgusted family that they had gone 27 hours without sleeping, and “I believe he has the H1N1 flu.”
All the relatives held their tongues and flinched as if they had seen the Devil himself. “Well,” said the elder son of the deceased, “he who hopes for much can wait a little.” One hour and a half after the rain stopped, they slipped 40 pesos under the table to each gravedigger, and la señora Quintana could finally rest in peace.
As a finishing touch, one of the gravediggers told them calmly that after two years they would have to come up with more money in order to place the bones in an ossuary and to have flowers placed on the vault.
“Only here, even after death, do you have to keep paying money,” shouted one of the upset sons of the deceased. The gravedigger, embarrassed, shook his head nonchalantly and pronounced the sentence: “Sir, business is business.”
Photo: Jack 1962, Flickr
Hacer media–literally “to do half”–in Cuba means to do nothing. Taking “ten,” an opportunity, a break….gossiping about something that happened. Talking about the latest telenovela. Making fun of the bosses. Criticizing the government. Checking out the new girl or boy at work. Finally, just making do.
In any workplace on the island, people work in slow motion, at a snail’s pace. As if on a permanent strike. People get to work at 8 am, but if it is a service company, they usually open an hour later. Then they do the bare minimum. If you ask for or require any assistance, they put on an Al Capone face and answer rudely.
Nothing interests them. Neither the clients nor good treatment. Only that the 8 hours go flying by, in order to go home. And to see what they can steal from the workplace. A little oil, if they work in a food center; samples of shampoo or soap, if they are maids in a hotel. Paper, paper clips, if you work in an office. Cables, screws, a hammer or a hand saw, if you are a worker or a builder.
To work efficiently does not make sense for a Cuban. The pay is miserable and the State, which controls everything, does not offer incentives to do a good job. Thus, in the Socialist Republic of Cuba, most of the production and the services are slow and clumsy.
Three times more material is wasted to build something, since cement and rebar are stolen to try to make minimal repairs in homes. People are indolent for the simple fact that they feel cheated and mistreated by Papa State. The compensation: to steal everything they can.
The logic of the workers is simple and pure. If the government does not worry about them, then they don’t give a damn about the State and its problems. And everything is about daydreaming. Covering up. Pretending. Faking. Deceiving. In order to be able to appropriate the largest quantity of state goods.
Thus, in the middle of procrastination, theft and manipulation, “pinching” (working) the least possible, the work days go by on the Castro brothers’ island. It doesn’t matter that General Raúl dissuades us and demands that we work more and better, so that in the hypothetical future that never arrives. we can live like God commands.
The people are now tired of the same old story. Tomorrow they will applaud wildly in the Plaza of the Revolution, and later, in the afternoon, they will go back to being lazy. Making do. Seeing the time go by. Looking for what they can steal. And furtively taking a sip of rum or alcohol. All the rest can go to hell.
Bringing four plates to the table for four mouths is a mission impossible for Ana Carballo, 37, a teacher at a secondary school. With a little luck she gets a chunk of pork and some beans. But then she is missing the meat and the vegetables. And dessert? Forget it.
The food, as Cubans call the evening meal, and the snack for her children are her biggest anxiety. She gets up at 5 in the morning to buy bread on the ration book. A bread roll cost 3 pesos if it’s soft. If it’s hard, 10 pesos for the whole loaf, and 5 pesos for a half. “I have to buy extra bread on Mondays and Fridays, to be able to prepare the snack for my two children, 8 and 10,” Ana says.
The school snack is a puzzle for almost all parents. The children are in school for 8 hours and the lunch is a real hodgepodge. As a result, the little ones take bulging backpacks, as if they were going camping every day.
Tomás Díaz, 56 years old, driver for a business, takes advantage of his bosses’ minor negligence and with the State car takes himself to the closest farmers’ market, to buy meat, beans and vegetables. And if the money is flowing, one or two pounds of pork or a leg of lamb. Like Tomás, the number of workers who use the work day to leave and resolve the food problem is high.
Because the hours for businesses, shops and farmers’ markets don’t help in the least those who work for the State. They are usually open from 9 in the morning to 6 in the evening, but always, with the habitual sloth of our workers, they open a half-hour late and close 30 minutes early.
Even the official press, which usually sees everything through rose-colored glasses, has published reports on this subject. But nothing has changed. Any day of the week you can walk through the center of the city, and you will see the streets and shops full of people. Trying to get sustenance with the national money (the Cuban peso).
When some CUCs (convertible Cuban pesos = “hard” currency) fall their way, they’re used to buy bouillon cubes, seasoning, oil or some cheap sausage, like hot dogs (“little dogs”), made out of chicken – a pack of 10 costs 1.10 CUC, the equivalent of about 30 pesos, almost three times the daily salary of a worker. A typical meal for the poorer classes in Cuba is rice with black or red beans, and an egg in all its variations: fried, boiled, omelette, or scrambled. The middle class, composed of those Cubans who receive remittances or in some way manage to get hard currency (CUCs), is also used to eating rice and beans, but accompanied by pork meat or chicken, and a tomato, lettuce or cucumber salad. If they recently received dollars from their relatives, they can give themselves the luxury of buying the desired beef on the black market, or fish like sea bream or garfish, or shrimp.
The table of the upper class – government officials, successful artists and hotel managers, among others – has nothing to envy from their equals in Miami or Madrid at dinner time. They even have white or red wine with dinner. But these are the minority.
A large percentage of the Cuban population has to scratch their heads every day, and their pockets. And one more time draw out the count, to see if that night they can eat something hot. Beginning in 1993, when Fidel Castro took away the penalty on the American dollar, many Cubans could get food, clothing and shoes of better quality, almost all imported. Of course they couldn’t do it with the frequency they wanted, but when they had dollars, they got the consumer bug. If nothing more than to buy flat-screen televisions or computers.
Although, according to an employee in one of the shops at the Comodoro commercial center in Miramar, the elite Havana neighborhood, every time there are more prostitutes and Cubans, she can’t figure out where they are getting the money. They buy very expensive furniture, electronic articles and construction material to repair their homes.
At the other extreme is Lourdes Garrido, 59 years old, who only goes to the shopping centers to press her nose against the glass windows and look at what she cannot buy. She and her five-year-old grand-daughter go every Saturday to visit the shops in Havana, like Zara, Adidas or Mango. There they fantasize about the pretty clothing and the good perfume they would like to have.
While that moment lasts, Garrido and her grand-daughter feel happy and are satisfied that they can enter, free, into these exclusive shops and see things that for the moment they can only dream about. But they hope that some day they can buy them.
Josefina Miranda, a 67-year-old housewife, has worked her whole life like an animal. Her moments of happiness can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
She is a fat, soft, black woman with a weary gait, who lives in the marginalized, mostly black neighborhood called Diezmero, in the municipality of San Miguel del Padrón, northeast of the heart of Havana. She could not be more poor; she lives day-to-day.
She is always improvising. She has four children, three girls and a boy, but the Old Woman Miranda is the one with the last word in the concrete, aluminum-roofed hut where she has lived for 40 years.
Under the same roof live three distinct generations. The house has three narrow rooms with little ventilation. At the entrance, behind the door, there is a clay bowl full of necklaces and other smaller bowls with left-over food and cigarette butts.
“It’s an offering to Elegguá, to see if our lives will change. That is my struggle, day after day, cook to earn a buck and help my children and grandchildren who are working or studying in school. Later I watch TV, but by 10 o’clock at night, I am asleep on the sofa.”
She tells this story while rice is cooking in a big pot. She earns a small pension of 193 pesos (8 convertible pesos), which quickly disappear buying garlic, onions, green pepper, tomatoes and meat. Two of her children are in jail.
“The girl, because she was an accomplice to an armed robbery, is in Manto Negro, the women’s prison, outside of Havana. The boy, who is 34 years old and is the youngest of my four sons, is in the prison in Boniato, in the province of Santiago de Cuba, for killing cows.”
Josefa keeps talking without stopping her cooking. Now, in a pressure cooker, she prepares some beans that smell so delicious they make your mouth water.
“And that, even though I never have a ham bone, bacon, chorizo or blood sausage to make them the way they should be made.”
Miranda’s family life is boring and devoid of fun. The two daughters who live with her earn low salaries. When they get home from work, along with their mother, they prepare 12 or 13 servings of food that they sell in the neighborhood for 25 pesos. The only thing their husbands know how to do is to drink foul rum, play dominoes and fight.
“Here in my house, we love each other, a few are lazy, the women in this country bear the hardest burden in this miserable country. Look, on top of having to find food and cook to earn a few little pesos, we have to wash, iron and take care of children, grandchildren and also our husbands. They should dedicate a monument to us.”
The government of the Castros hasn’t thought about that. Cuban laws rarely favor women, no matter their age or status. When they divorce, the law calls for monthly payments to parents who are typically between 50 and 60 pesos (2 or 3 Cuban convertible pesos).
“That amount is a joke. That money is just enough to pay the cafeteria in elementary school,” says Esther, Josefa’s daughter, wryly.
Also family violence is increasing. Cuban society has touched bottom not only by its endless economic crisis, but by the social and moral devaluation as well. Cuba is a country where the majority of families are divided by the migratory exodus, the lack of stable marriages, the high number of divorces and domestic violence against women.
As a result, the misery and material shortages make many households small living hells. At the slightest setback, a storm will break. Whether a relative takes the bread that belongs to us from the quota or eats one of the 10 eggs assigned each month per person by the rationing booklet.
But so it goes. If anyone has suffered more intensely from poverty and disillusion for the lack of a clear future, it’s the Cuban women. In particular, if they are retirees and single mothers. Like Josefa Miranda, the housewife who lives in the humble neighborhood of San Miguel del Padrón.
Life for her is an infinite vicious circle: Take the grandchildren to school, cook and try to get a handful of pesos to survive in the hard conditions of Cuban socialism.
Despite few moments of happiness, Josefa Miranda is attentive and hospitable to visitors. If you spend time in “Diezmero”, be sure to try her red beans. Without bacon, chorizo, or blood sausage. But they are finger-licking good.
It spread like wildfire all over Cuba. Beginning November 1st, potatoes and split peas would be available without rationing. They would now be sold at higher prices than what they cost through the rationing system since the State would no longer subsidize their cost.
A pound of potatoes that costs 0.40 cents in Cuban pesos (less than .05 dollars) will be sold for one peso, and the cost of a pound of split peas would rise from .16 cents in Cuban pesos to 3.50 pesos (or about .20 dollars).
The measure has been carefully viewed by part of the population. As far as Noel, 56 years old and an employee of the power industry, is concerned, “I will have to see if the potato and split pea supply will work without causing a deficit. Personally, I doubt it.”
Like him, many people doubt the capacity of the “generous State” to guarantee quality and quantity. Estella, a 67-year-old housewife, is ready to blow her top. She receives a paltry pension of 194 pesos (around 8 convertible pesos or CUCs) “and if they free up a variety of food products and sell them according to supply and demand, the big losers will be us, the people at the bottom of the ladder who don’t receive one dollar in family remittances.”
For Marlín, a 35-year-old state employee, it doesn’t bother him that the ration book is going to disappear, “but I think they should raise the wages to cope with an immediate higher cost of living.”
In general, in Havana, those consulted want the famous ration book eliminated at the stroke of pen, but they have serious doubts about the inefficient State apparatus guaranteeing a steady supply of basic food.
The ration book, as it is known on the island, is a 10-page medium size booklet where entries are made by the clerks at the grocery store, bakery, butcher shop, or the milk store on the assigned day, week or month for one’s corresponding ration of rice, bread, eggs, or milk (it is worth noting that milk rations are only for children aged 0 to 7 years of age).
Every person born and officially registered in the Republic of Cuba has the right to purchase every month 7 lbs of rice, 3 lbs. of white sugar, 2 lbs brown sugar, 20 oz. of red beans and 20 oz. of black beans, also, a packet of spaghetti, and a half pound of vegetable oil and two 4-oz. packets of coffee. The sale of bread is rationed daily; one 80 gram roll per person.
The benefactor State gives every Cuban living in the “worker’s and peasant’s paradise” the right to buy, each month, 1 lb. of chicken, 10 eggs, half a pound of fish, 5 chicken hot dogs, and half a pound of horrible-tasting soy “ground beef.” To this socialist distribution, add one bar of bath soap and another for washing clothes that take from 2 to 3 months to reach the grocery or state stores.
Cubans have to make do with this war-time basket of goods. Under the best of circumstances, goods available through the rationing system last between 10 and 15 days if one eats in small quantities. The rationing system was implemented in March 1962: This is a Guinness record!
It should be noted that no food rationing system has lasted 47 years anywhere in the modern world. It appears that the government of General Raúl Castro wants to break that record. It is yet to be seen if the state can guarantee, without bumps, the distribution of food at prices that are not excessive. We’ll have to wait and see.
At the time, in the farmer’s markets visited in early November, neither of the two products that were in the news were available, for a population waiting for a laughable government gesture.
In the 1970s, Cuban children would chant a curious slogan: “Viva Cuba Libre, la papa por la libre.” [Long live free cuba, potatoes for free]. Decades later, that slogan has become a partial reality. There are potatoes for free. But freedom is another matter.
Photo: Adalberto Roque, AFP