Cuba, One Year After December 17, 2014
In a basement blackened by humidity and soot, Leonardo Santizo and two workers make cookies, candy and peanut nougat, as a private enterprise.
At the back of the room, piled up in nylon sacks, are hundreds of kilograms of unroasted peanuts, bottles of vegetable oil and all-purpose flour. On a damaged and dirty table, a thermos of recently-made coffee. While they work, they chain-smoke.
“We’ve been on our feet since five in the morning and we work until four in the afternoon. Every day we make 600 cakes, 100 packages of biscuits and 400 tablets of ground peanuts. The average pay is some 400 pesos daily. Sometimes a little more. We sell the cookies and sweets for the most part to private retail businesses,” says Leonardo.
As in every private business, they apply a double accounting and buy the raw material on the black market. “There’s a balance sheet that is rigged by ONAT (the institution that manages private work in Cuba) and another that they give the business owner, with the real gains and losses. This is the way that all the independent businesses work.”
On December 17, 2014, remembers Leonardo, “The three of us were eating lunch and listening to salsa music on a portable radio when an announcer said that President Raúl Castro would make an important speech.
“We were left without words. After so many years of rattling on about Yankee imperialism, both presidents squared off on their differences. In the afternoon we took up a collection and bought a bottle of aged Havana Club rum, and we began to make plans. We thought that things would get better and we would be able to get raw material from the North. A year has passed and things are still fucked up,” Leonardo confesses.
After drinking a bit of coffee, he continued unloading. “And we can thank God that in one day we earn what a professional earns in a month. I’m not an optimist. Those guys (the Government) don’t intend for people to live better. They want to run all the businesses themselves.”
December 17 was a watershed moment in the national life. It’s hard for Cubans to not remember what they were doing just at noon when the information bomb exploded.
Luis Carlos, a private taxi driver, was driving one of the thousand hybrid autos that circulate in Havana, with a chassis made in the Detroit factories in the 1940s to 1950s, and now rolling with motors and pieces of modern cars.
“Like everyone in Cuba, I believed certain things. I told myself, damn, now the fuckup is over and the idle talk between the Yankees and the Government. That night at home, I thought that soon fast-food restaurants would arrive; they would lower the airfare to Miami and the shops would overflow with food and rubbish from the U.S. One year later, the domino game is still going on,” says Luis Carlos.
If you chat with Cubans who have only coffee for breakfast, this is more or less the register of opinions. In 12 months they have passed from exaggerated expectations to the worst pessimism.
The balance after one year of diplomatic relations and President Obama’s road map to empower the Cuban people and extend the use of new technologies is thin.
There are 40 public plazas where, for two convertible pesos an hour (two days’ salary for a professional), you can have wireless access to the Internet.
There is a contract between the U.S. telecommunications company IDT and ETECSA (Cuba’s telecommunications company). A flurry of famous Americans have visited Cuba and little more.
For the obstruction, because in one year there hasn’t been a larger commercial interchange, the olive-green Regime blames the economic embargo, the military base of Guantánamo, Radio and TV Martí, the Cuban Adjustment Act or any other wildcard.
In those 12 months, the autocracy on the Island has only known how to complain. Or to listen only to proposals about future business with state groups, almost all of them in the orbit of military companies.
The genesis of Plan Obama, to offer a bridge with private entrepreneurs and other Cubans, has been dynamited by Raúl Castro’s government.
It’s no secret that the Island executive has no sympathy for small family businesses. In one of the first sections of the Regime’s economic bible, the so-called Economic Guidelines, it says that the State would not accept the concentration of capital in the hands of individuals.
From here comes the strategy of not permitting Cubans on the Island to invest in their own country or private workers to establish imports or trade with foreign companies.
While private businesses are perceived as nests of criminals, good intentions after December 17 remain only that.
Most Cubans feel prepared for the framework of an economic reform, access to modern capitalism and market economics.
Yohanna, an engineer, was convinced of the benefits of Marxist socialism, and she believed in the utopias of scientific communism. The night before December 17, she was walking on her knees to the entrance of the sanctuary of San Lázaro (Saint Lazarus), south of Havana, to pay a promise to one of the most popular saints in Cuba.
“I asked him that in addition to health he would bless us, since my husband and I had plans to walk to the U.S. by land from Ecuador. The following morning, after hearing the news of the reestablishment of relations, we postponed our plans thinking that things would get better. But seeing the current scenario, the only door that remains open is to emigrate. How and when I don’t know, but I’m convinced that while the same people govern, I have to get out of Cuba,” Yohanna says.
The divide between popular desire and the official narrative is evident. While the optimistic official news tells us that the country is growing, a wide segment of disillusioned Cubans feel trapped in a dead-end street with no way out.
The economy continues leaking, salaries are a joke and having two hot meals a day is an act of prestidigitization. And the Government doesn’t learn.
Translated by Regina Anavy