From the mailbag…

Back in September of last year we received an email from Babalu reader Yedi Z with a total smackdown of an editorial in Canada’s National Post. You can read that letter here.

I just now received an email from Yedi, in response to all the news of “Cubans cheering in the streets” upon learning of fidel’s call to hugo chavez this week:

It was reported today that Cubans were cheering the phone conversation between their ailing ex-leader and the Venezuelan. I’ve just returned from an extended visit to Havana and heard no cheering. Perhaps that is because the people were too busy searching the markets for any sign of meat? Glance up at any balcony in this city and you may catch sight of a woman quietly flapping her hands in the direction of a neighbor’s balcony. This is the signal for “Any black market chicken today?”

Habaneros are still scratching their heads over their government’s latest hare-brained scheme to install a new refrigerator in every home along with a new cooking element. There is no choice in the matter and the cost is deducted, over years, from the family’s monthly salary.

Most Cuban people have American refrigerators from the 1950s which are still running because they were built like tanks and Cuban ingenuity keeps them going. These are being replaced with Chinese models that are oversized bar fridges. Already the Cuban people have nicknamed them “el llovisnao” (“the drizzler”) because the inadequate freezers weep constantly over the floor.

Cubans cook with gas, either on a two-burner hotplate or an ancient gas stove that, like the Yankee fridges, just keep on going. Every month the people line up with their empty gas cylinders and replenish them for a small sum in national pesos. This was a blessing during electrical blackouts because dinner would continue to cook in the dark. Now things have changed. The government has bought millions of one-element electrical hot-plates which are being delivered door to door. An electrician friend told me they are not designed for cooking, but rather for heating water or warming a baby’s bottle. Yet this is the main way to cook a family meal in Cuba since 80% of the new Chinese rice cookers are in the repair shop. The sale of gas for cylinders is being phased out, in case a smart-aleck thinks he can keep his old stove going.

When I visited an old friend I expressed astonishment at the thought of cooking for a family with a one-element hotplate. He bristled. “They came to my door with that piece of garbage and I told them, ‘You can put that in your ass’.” I asked wasn’t he afraid of getting into trouble and he assured me. “Yedi, you know I was in the Sierra Maestras with Fidel and Camilo and Che. I have a certain amount of flexibility. Remember the time my son was caught one mile out on a raft for Miami? Instead of jail, he was kept from his work for two years.” He told me he will buy gas for his stove on the black market.

So was there any cheering in the streets? Walking down my favorite thoroughfare, Neptuno Street, I noticed a dramatic change. Where were the batido ladies, the pork sandwich and ice-cream angels who slaked my thirst and hunger in the heat? It wasn’t till I reached La Epoca store that I found any sign of private enterprise. And even then, what a shock to see my manicurist reading Granma newspaper instead of attending to what had always been a line-up of customers. “Maria, what happened?” She rubbed her fingers together. “No money”.

She told me that the new regime was hard at work, sending inspectors all over the city of Havana to shut down any entrepreneur who was unlicensed. From the look of the street, this meant about 90% of them. And without black market money, life was grinding to a halt. Trekking back to my home, I heard no cheering. What I saw everywhere was a people, long-suffering and patient, sitting in wait.

Yedi Z

10 thoughts on “From the mailbag…”

  1. Hey,
    You mean Yedi was in Cuba spending money and propping up the castro regime? Wait a minute here lets not post Yedi’s comments! JUST A JOKE OKAY 😉
    It took awhile Val, but I got my can of worms in too. All in good fun.

  2. A typical way for Fidel Castro to address the problems of the Cuban people (or, rather, the problems which he himself has made for the Cuban people). The huge 1950s American refrigerators were 99 percent empty. The huge 1950s American stoves sat mostly dormant. In a democracy the government would be concerned with the lack of food. In Castro’s Cuba the regime forces on the people miniature refrigerators and hot plates, reducing expectations rather than hunger. Will even less food look like more if it is stored in a toy refrigerator or cooked on a toy stove? This is apparently what Castro hopes. His contempt for the Cuban people is limitless as is apparently their ability to endure it.

  3. Even if the regime were to manage to fill any or all refrigerator antiques, it would still be a dictatorship, and one that would live on longer and longer.

  4. Mamey:

    No one doubts that it would still be a dictatorship. What else could it be?

    The Cuban people have been hungry for 48 years. It hasn’t caused them to rise against Castro. The worst that a full stomach might do is cause them not to rise against Castro. In other words, more of the same. But empty stomachs promote lethargy; full stomachs action. This is why the Castro regime will always keep the Cuban people hungry. Food is a weapon in its arsenal of repression. The search for something to eat occupies most of the Cuban’s day and that’s exactly how Castro wants it.

    I have been asked many times (not by you) whether I want Cuba to be a “banana republic again.” First, I explain that Cuba was never a banana republic. And, secondly, I explain that even a banana republic would be an improvement over Castro because in a banana republic at least the people have something to it.

  5. Even a banana republic would be an improvement over Castro because in a banana republic at least the people have something to eat.

  6. Manuel: I agree–an imperfect republic is preferable to a dictatorship. It seems to me that hunger can lead to either, lethargy or action, depending on a host of other elements that may or may not affect a population at a given time and place. Even more problematic perhaps, is the assertion that a full stomach will necessarily promote any type of meaningful action.

  7. Mamey:

    Remember, pre-Revolutionary France boasted Europe’s richest peasantry. Russia’s kulaks were a wealthy and prosperous class before the Russian Revolution. Empty stomachs do not make revolutions; only men with full stomachs do. And only when, as in Bourbon France and Tsarist Russia, they are not challenged by the ancien regime.

  8. Manuel: You’ve picked two curious examples. In both cases there were substantial numbers of urban dwellers experiencing hunger. In Russia, devastation of the wheat growing areas (both climate and war to blame) led to an exorbitant increase (up to 700%)in the price of the nation’s basic staple, black bread. Hunger led to anger, strikes and a call for the downfall of the czar (and yes, this was exploited by well fed bolshevik leaders). Granted, the kulaks were still doing well, but the major disturbances took place in Petrograd and other Russian cities. In France, climate was was also a factor–in 1788 crops were destroyed by hailstorms and the price of bread went up significantly. Food in general was in short supply in Paris and other French cities because of a particularly harsh winter which froze rivers and canals. Moreover, although French peasants were fairly well to do compared with most other Europeans, this did not translate into the cities, where the common people were largely unemployed or sub-employed (partially due to inroads by British textiles). Thus inflation combined with little or no income led to hunger, anger, and calls for the end of the monarchy (and yes, sinister well fed activists exploited this situation).
    This is not to suggest in any way that only hunger can lead to uprisings or revolutions.

  9. Mamey:

    Both Bourbon France and Tsarist Russia were far more democratic than any Communist state. France with its estates general and Russia even more so with its duma were far from totalitarian states. It is precisely the fact that they were not as despotic that allowed the upper and middle classes to seize power on behalf of the peasantry, whose own participation in those revolutions was negligible. For the most part the peasants in France and the kulaks in Russia, like the poor in Cuba, didn’t buy into the revolutionary chimera. The conditions in both France and Russian before their respective revolutions were infinitely better than in the aftermath. In fact, the people had never really known famine till the revolutionaries took over. How many people did Stalin kill through his staged famines? 30 million, 40 million. 60 million, 80 million? Who even knows? Certainly nothing even remotely like it had ever occurred in Tsarist Russia. Why didn’t the Russians revolt against such circumstances? Because, as I said, starving men don’t rise up in arms. Only men with full stomachs do.

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