The Fair of Fools
Asking for singer-songwriter Carlos Varela’s forgiveness, I’ve used the title of one of his songs for the headline because I couldn’t find a better one.
Last Saturday, I went to visit my mother in Playa like I normally do. Fate got me and the bus broke down as soon as it went through the tunnel on 5th Avenue and I had to make the rest of the journey to 68th Street on foot. Ready to enjoy the walk, I took 31st Avenue heading to my destination, without knowing that surprises were lying in my wait.
Walking down 20th Street, you could hear a sound recording on a loudspeaker that I then discovered was coming from the bandstand in the park on the corner of 30th and 31st Streets. It was barely 8:30 AM and the ruckus could be heard over three blocks away, I don’t want to imagine what any neighbor nearby was feeling if they were trying to rest a little at this time of the morning…
An announcer from the UJC (Communist Youth), along with different retail sales and People’s Power leaders, were inviting the public to dance to the beat of reggaeton, as they broadcast that a produce and livestock fair was being held. By the way, I understood the produce bit, but I didn’t understand the livestock bit as there weren’t any farmers selling living or dead animals.
Drawing nearer, curiosity got the better of my haste to get to my mother’s house and I decided to walk through the middle of the fair to see if there was anything interesting to buy. On one side of the park, taking up 29th Street, there were lots of trucks parked that were selling different products from the back. There were also improvised platforms along the whole sidewalk, selling both agricultural and industrial products.
People were walking from one platform to the next looking for the best quality product, because the prices were all the same. To tell you the truth, there was quite a bit of variety, from beans to mangos, sweetcorn, and other agricultural products, although some left a lot to be desired in terms of appearance and quality.
Industrial products I found included soaps, detergent, toilet paper, sanitary towels, cologne and other personal hygiene items, both made in Cuba as well as well-known brands. There were packets of Pinocho crackers, which really caught my attention because, in the announcer’s voice, the sellers were private business owners or the famous MSMEs. That’s when I began to wonder who had an industrial cracker factory in their home and could even use a brand that belongs to Cuba’s state food industry.
Industrial products also included cooking oil – one of the things that has been missing the most from Cuban kitchens recently -, at the illicit-market price, and was being sold in broad daylight with the authorities’ consent. Kitchen items included vinegars, condiments, concentrated stock tablets, spaghetti, tomato puree and lots of other products, which had also been manufactured industrially and were also being sold at the illicit market price, or close to it. I even found fresh bread, at an exorbitant price.
The star product of the fair was chicken. Yep, the very thing that makes up most of ordinary Cubans’ meat intake right now, and has been absent from national currency stores for over a month. It turns out that over half of the trucks were selling chicken by the crate for the “modest price” of 7500 pesos for a 15 kilogram box, in a country where a specialist doctor earns 6200 pesos per month. Anyone wanting to buy just a couple of pounds couldn’t, you had to buy the entire crate, or you were left without any meat.
I looked around me and I was convinced that I was not only in the fair of fools, but that we are living in a country of fools. A country where the Government arbitrarily sets prices and uses a gang of inspectors along with police officers to chase after and fine sellers they believe are setting abusive prices, but then it suddenly puts on a fair and uses the same prices as the illicit market.
I was amazed to see people happy with what was on sale, lining up in an orderly way, praising the government initiative and even dancing to the beat of loud reggaeton. This people’s critical eye has definitely been atrophied. I bought some fresh corn, a couple of pounds of sweet potato and a couple mangos that mama loves, I put them in my backpack and I left singing with Carlos Varela:
Come one, come all, to the Fair of Fools
The circus will begin soon
We have tamers, puppets, magicians and masks
Come, come, to the house of games
Where fear is handed out
And everyone wears a blindfold and carries a blind person’s walking stick.