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.