Reports from Cuba: Christmas for rich people and for poor people

By Ivan Garcia in Translating Cuba:

Cuba: Christmas for Rich People and for Poor People

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Two trucks with trailers, full of reddish-brown earth, park in a narrow street, next to the agricultural market in Mónaco, a neighbourhood thirty minutes from the centre of Havana.

Four men with teeshirts and dirty overalls lug sacks of yucas and sweet potatoes, and boxes of tomatoes to a store with a door made of metal bars. A chap with an enormous stomach cups his hands to his mouth and shouts “Get your yucas here! A peso a pound. Three-cane tomatoes, knock-down prices.”

In a few minutes, in the hot sun, a queue was formed of twenty or thirty people, each with their own basket. A few yards away from the agricultural market, in a state market, there is an even longer queue, to buy pork.

Rubén, a retired chap, joined the queue at five in the morning. And by mid-day, “I still haven’t  bought two legs of pork, one for the 24th and the other for December 31st. It’s because pork is cheaper in the government markets. They sell loin of pork at 21 (Cuban) pesos a pound, and it’s 25 pesos in the private ones.”

You can hear murmuring and complaints. The legs have an odd colour. A lady said, “They don’t look like pork. It’s because they keep it for so many months in the fridge that the meat gets a strange colour.  They say when you eat it, it tastes like fish or game. Maybe it isn’t even pork. You never know with those people (the government). They sell coffee thickened with chickpeas, cigarettes sold in Cuban pesos with bits of wood in them.”

But it’s the cheapest option for Cubans who have coffee without milk and bread without butter for breakfast. Diana, a housewife, is optimistic. “At least tomatoes were much cheaper this year, 3 pesos a pound. Last year at this time they were going for 25 baros (one of many terms for Cuban Convertible pesos (CUC))” she recalls, and adds:

“Cubans are born to work. Three days before New Year’s Eve, many families have not yet bought their pork. And not very many can buy nougat. Look at those prices”, she adds, indicating a selection of nougats displayed in the counter of a foreign currency shop.

Prices may be cheaper than in Miami. Jijona soft nougat costs the equivalent of four dollars. Ones with fruit, nuts, almonds or chocolate, around five dollars. “Yes, but in ’Mayami’ people get eight dollars an hour, while in Cuba, people earn 20 dollars a month. And the average pension is 12 CUC.  There’s no comparison”, replies a man waiting angrily in the government market queue.

Let’s take the Rodriguez family as a microcosm. Six people live in a two-bedroom apartment in La Víbora. “My wife, daughter and I sleep in one bedroom. My in-laws and our son sleep in the other one,” says Rodriguez. His wife and he are professionals and together earn the equivalent of 2,500 Cuban pesos, if you add in the 25 CUC she is paid as a salary incentive.

“My parents’ pension is 570 Cuban pesos. We have a total of 3,070 Cuban pesos coming into the house, which converts to 125 CUC” (about the same in dollars), notes Mrs Rodriguez, as she goes over their expenses once more. “Ninety per cent of the money goes on food. The rest on electricity, telephone and other services. Buying clothes, going anywhere or celebrating Christmas means inventing stuff.”

All Cubans know what “inventing” means. Pinching things from where they work, or running a business on the side which provides some extra cash.

Christmas Eve dinner at the Rodriguez house will include a leg of pork, four fricasseed turkey thighs, rice, black beans, lettuce, cabbage and tomato salad, yuca with mojo sauce, Jijona nougat, cut into twelve pieces, two for each one of the six family members.

The kids drink pop and the adults half a dozen canned Cristal beers and a bottle of red wine. As well as the nougat, the dessert also includes doughnuts prepared by grandma. “We eat and drink the same at New Year’s, except that, instead of red wine, we drink rum. The cost of the dinners for the 24th and 31st of December adds up to around 120 or 130 CUC, which is about the same as what we both earn in a month. Cuba is a crazy country, don’t you think?” asks Sr. Rodríguez.

Quite a lot of Cubans don’t celebrate Christmas. Not because of Fidel Castro’s death, but because they can’t afford to. “If all the butcher has is chicken, because fish is hard to come by, I get annoyed and buy two boxes of cheap Planchao rum to celebrate Christmas Eve. Right now, I don’t have any plans for parties,” says René, a construction worker.

But a small minority, between 7 and 10 per cent of the population, have enough cash. Augusto, a musician, has already bought a frozen turkey for 60 CUC, six different nougats, three crates of beer, and six bottles of mature rum. For the 31st, he plans to buy El Gaitero cider and some bunches of grapes (traditionally eaten at New Year’s). And he has put up an enormous Christmas tree in his living room, covered in balls and lights.

Mario, an independent furniture designer, is planning to spend 60 CUC a head for his wife and himself on 24th December at Meliá Habana, a hotel in Miramar, which also offers lunch at 25-27 CUC for adults and 15 CUC for children up to 12 years old, and evening meals on the 31st for 145 CUC for adults and 55 for children up to 12.

The generals, ministers and government officials with sufficient seniority receive a basket with a turkey, fruit, bottles of rum and wines, nougats and other delicacies. Even during the hard times, when Fidel Castro prohibited parties at Christmas and Three Kings Day, the olive green middle class never failed to celebrate Christmas Eve.

“The first time I saw so much food was in the house of Enrique Lusson, who was then Minister of Transport. There were tables overflowing with meat, seafood and drink”, recalls a MININT (Ministry of the Interior) security guard.

The story of having to scrimp and save is about the other people, the ones lower down. The higher-ups are different. Their lives are hardly affected by the rules. Although, maybe, this 31st December, they will see in 2017 with moderation, since they should show discreet mourning for the death of their commander-in-chief.

Photo: A typical Cuban Christmas Eve meal for 24th December, is some variation on pork, whether it’s roast, as in the picture, or a suckling pig, and fritters.

Translated by GH