Life in the Special Period

September 25, 2007


Cubans without access to dollars solve this problem–the verbs to solve, to get and to look for have moved into the foreground of popular discourse–by reselling their quotas of cigarettes and rum, by supplying a wide variety of services for dollars, and by producing and selling items on the dollar market.

By Mirta Rodríguez Calderón

Many people outside of Cuba enjoy imagining what life is like for us in this "special period." They want to know how much weight we have lost, or how many times a week we rage against those whom we hold responsible for our misery. Friends and enemies alike spend their time speculating about how much we spend on the black market to eat, bathe and wash our clothes, and whether, indeed, all of us take part in clandestine trade. If the essence of the transformations we Cubans face today could be summed up in anecdotes and examples of the infinite misfortunes of daily life, things would be quite simple.

I could tell you, for example, about my friend Roberto, a white lawyer with a high salary–300 Cuban pesos a month–but no access to dollars. Roberto shares a house with his mother, an honored veteran, who receives supplementary food benefits for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At midday, he goes to his office cafeteria where, for 80 centavos or a peso, he eats enough to get through the rest of his workday. He lives about 15 blocks from his office, so he does not have to deal with the uncertainties of public transportation. He doesn't, however, always have the chance to eat a second decent meal. At times he simply doesn't have the food, and at other times he lacks the fuel to cook it. Roberto routinely lacks cooking oil, spices and even salt. Being short of salt is a growing irritant for Cubans who are already dealing with a scarcity of sugar. Roberto frequently goes without running water, which in his municipality–Central Havana, the scene of last year's rock-throwing protests–is very scarce.

I hardly know an adult who hasn't lost between eight and 15 pounds–the men more than the women–or who, for lack of a car and/or gas, walks less than a mile a day, especially if he or she works outside the home. I know of many, in fact, who walk more than 60 blocks a day. My children–and sometimes I myself–bicycle five to 10 miles a day, and ride long distances each weekend to go to the beach or simply to get around. On top of all this is the increasing appearance jineterismo (prostitution for dollars), the spreading anxiety of unemployment, and the plight of the elderly who cannot compete according to the laws of supply and demand.

When I think of how bitter things have become, I also remember my friend Daisy, a black internationalist nurse and daughter of a one-time maid. As head of a ward in an important hospital, Daisy earns a very high salary–over 400 pesos a month. When I ran into her yesterday, she was exhausted after standing in line for three hours to buy pizza for her family of four. When one doesn't have dollars, this food is obtained with a ticket given out by a delegate of the National Assembly of Popular Power or by the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). The family-size pizza costs five dollars in a restaurant, but with the ticket one can get it for eight Cuban pesos. One of Daisy's daughters has a scholarship in a center for pre-university studies which covers most of her basic material needs. The oldest of her daughters is about to finish her course work to become a schoolteacher, and receives 40 pesos a month to study. Daisy's elderly mother has not yet been able to retire, and lives with the family in a small apartment which, though nicely furnished, has only one bedroom.

My friend's greatest worries have to do with hygiene. Her apartment, for instance, is infested with cockroaches, especially the tiny ones. Can someone tell us how to lget rid of them when we can't get imported insecticides? I am almost certain that NACLA readers have no idea what it means to live like this. People in any other part of the world who know about these things don't buy magazines and don't know how to read them.

To live without hard currency–not even enough to exchange 15 or 20 dollars a month on the black market (at 30 to 40 pesos per dollar)–is to be absolutely out of luck. The people solve this problem–the verbs to solve, to get and to look for–have moved into the foreground of popular discourse–by reselling their quotas of cigarettes and rum for dollars, by supplying a wide variety of services for dollars, and by producing and selling crafts, weavings, sweets and knick-knacks on the dollar market.

Those who are lucky enough to obtain a license to work for themselves–a possibility that opened up about two years ago–make and sell a great many other things. It's not easy to get one of these permits, however, because the government wants to avoid the proliferation of private producers. The reason for this control lies in the tacit understanding that many of the materials necessary for private production are taken from state warehouses and the official stores that sell in dollars.

This drainage is at the heart of the black market that operates around the "shopings" (the markets that sell only in dollars) in all the residential neighborhoods, and even from door to door. On the black market, one can get a pork leg for only $15 or $20 that might legally cost $45; a pound of powdered milk for a dollar instead of $4.50; an egg for seven cents instead of 25; and a loaf of bread for two Cuban pesos instead of 10 U.S. cents. The list of items available in the black market is enormous, and it evolves in relation to the legal agricultural prices.

We all resort to the underground market because the authorized quotas in the state stores are sufficient for perhaps 12 of the 30 days of the month. We have few conflicts of conscience over the double standard implicit in considering ourselves good revolutionaries and at the same time participating in the black market. This is because we face the choice of surrendering or surviving, of maintaining pride in our nation or imagining ourselves formally or informally in a state of "free association" or annexation to the United States. Day-to-day demands determine the rest. The necessities which never cease to grow more acute quiet the protests of the heart. True, many people worry about ethics, myself included. How, we ask ourselves, are the public servants, intellectuals, teachers and workers of the future being molded if our children see constant robbery, and at times see their parents participating in it?

Yet our children are also growing up in the shadow of a great many expressions of solidarity and open displays of human generosity. If the old lady on the corner needs some medication, the necessary amount of tablets or antibiotics will invariably appear from many houses on the block. If there is a child with diarrhea, the popular astringent tuber malango appears from another family's scarce supply. Usable clothing and shoes change owners, and voices of encouragement and friendship rebound in the neighborhoods. For this reason, there are very few suicides in Cuba. Absolute hunger afflicts no one. Solidarity redistributes what little there is.

This is also something that many NACLA readers may not understand. To understand would require having been immersed in superior ideals; perhaps having been an internationalist, prepared to fight and die for foreign peoples; having believed in the possibility of the "new man" that Che Guevara thought we could create right here. As life becomes more difficult here, people think about these things. All this gives coherence and internal force to the decision to resist. With all the good and all the bad, this Cuba is ours. It belongs to no one else as long as we can preserve it.

Mirta Rodríguez Calderón is a founding member of MAGIN, an association of Cuban women in the communications field. She is a regular contributor to the Cuban biweekly, Bohemia.

Translated from the Spanish by NACLA.

Tags: Cuba, special period, black market, economy, currency

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