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Periodo Especial: The Sequel?!

I don’t know how the Special Period felt coming on, but I do know how it manifested once in full swing. Transport was so scarce and overcrowded, passengers lunged from bus windows at their stop or simply rode on the roof, hung from the door frame or clung to the back bumper.

Each and every day, the entire island was plunged into darkness; blackouts were so long and common, Cubans, plumbing their deep well of ironic optimism, began referring to ‘light ups,’ those times when there actually was electricity. So few and far between were those electrified hours, neighborhood block parties were held in the street, around a bonfire with a jug of rum (or more often moonshine known as ‘chispa‘e tren/baja tus bloomers’).

Toilet paper was non-existent – we used water or more often, pages ripped from the Granma newspaper. In many homes, squares the size of real TP were cut from the paper and stacked neatly atop the toilet tank. I wasn’t too put off by this. As a life-long camper, I’ve wiped my butt with all manner of material. Nevertheless, I do remember my shock at seeing Che’s face, shit-stained and crumpled, staring up at me from the bathroom wastebasket. It seemed blasphemous then but practical and normal thereafter – in dire/adverse circumstances, you do what you gotta do to survive.

And Cubans did.

They pedaled the 1 million Chinese bikes imported as transport of last resort. They fried “steaks” from grapefruit rinds, they fanned infants for hours with a piece of cardboard during stagnant summer nights. They lost weight, some suffering a neuropathy epidemic for lack of nutritious food. They rigged up kerosene burners for cooking and fashioned homemade matches. They struggled and suffered, finding solace in family, days swimming at El Espigon and nights stretching out on the Malecon. They danced, sang and fucked. They persevered and survived…

Flash forward to 2019. We’re in a different historical moment, a different context than the one I experienced in 1993, but the effects of the Special Period linger, if you know where to look. Not wanting their kids to ever go hungry like they did, parents indulge appetites to the point where child obesity and overweight are current health problems. Bicycles and cycling are stigmatized, reminding people too viscerally of those hard times. Today, hoarding happens and some still prefer newspaper to toilet paper.

The cleverness of Cubans and their deep stores of creativity and inventiveness honed during the Special Period are constantly on display. You see it in the 70-year old Harley-Davidsons zooming down the road, parts hand-hewn in cluttered, greasy garages across the island. You see it in the Russian washing machines cannibalized to make lawn mowers, blenders and coconut shredders. You see it in the burgeoning upcycle movement where the experience of struggle is translated into décor and dollars.

But no one, I mean no one wants to go through that again. And I highly doubt as many Cubans who tolerated it then would now – at least not in Havana. Make no mistake: Cuba learned its lesson from the implosion of the Soviet bloc, which sent the dependent island economy into a tailspin. It diversified, it liberalized, and it looked for and forged alternatives. But we’re seeing signs, folks. We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. And it’s worrying.

Indeed, the most violent factor was – and is – beyond Cuban control: the nearly 60-year old US embargo cripples all economic and social development in one way or another. And last week the Trump Administration announced it’s considering enacting Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. I’ll leave a full explanation to the economists and wonks, but the important point is: as in 1996, during the deepest days of the Special Period, Jesse Helms and Dan Burton pounced on Cuba’s vulnerability and pushed this Act through Congress “to seek international sanctions against the Castro government in Cuba, to plan for support of a transition government leading to a democratically elected government in Cuba, and for other purposes.” Sensing that same vulnerability like a lioness stalking the weakest of the pack, Marco Rubio is exacting his quid pro quo with Donald Trump via Cuba and Title III.

It’s abominable how this administration is destroying lives at home and abroad. It’s no less shameful how supposed political detractors enable this cabal. Please, anyone in a policy/decision-making position reading this: do the world (and yourselves) a favor and grow some balls/ovaries; history will judge you and you will NOT be absolved.

Unfortunately, I doubt anyone reading this is making US policy. I also doubt that many people reading this realize just how vulnerable right now feels. Major trading partners and allies including Venezuela and Brazil are on the ropes. Trump rhetoric is scaring away investors and tourists. The embargo is still in place and we’ve suffered Hurricane Irma, Sub Tropical Storm Alberto, a devastating plane crash and a tornado, all in the past 18 months.

And we’re feeling it.

There was a massive flour shortage and though we are once again enjoying flour and pizza, there is neither milk (terrible for Cuba Libro) nor eggs. These latter were dubbed salvavidas in the Special Period days because eggs are a cheap, easy-to-prepare source of protein. They were, and are, ‘lifesavers.’ In the past three months, I’ve eaten a total of half a dozen eggs; it used to be a daily (or even twice a day) affair. Monthly egg rations have been cut in half to five per person, per month and when they do appear in stores, customers are limited to two cartons of 36 eggs each. But this is Cuba…

This week, my friend Camilo got word that eggs were being sold at the Plaza de Marianao. He made the trek across town and took his place in the long line. He watched people carting away 6, 7, 10 or more cartons of eggs. The stack for sale behind the crumbling counter shrank. He surmised the egg sellers were paid off to ignore the two-carton rule. The sun beat down, the stack shrank, Camilo was sweating from the heat and attendant low-level panic. Would the eggs hold out until his turn came around? He had waited in line already for two hours. The stack shrank. He asked one of the customers pulling a dolly away with over 400 eggs if he would sell a carton?

‘!Hombre no! This is for my private cafeteria. I need every last one.’

The eggs ran out and Camilo left empty handed. Mad and desperate, he went to a cafeteria near his house to order two egg sandwiches, hold the bread, hold the oil, hold the making of it. When he discovered that same sandwich which used to cost 35 cents, now costs 75, he slumped home egg-less. Today we’re scrambling to procure eggs for Jenny’s grandmother who, ailing and frail, has been prescribed a special diet by her doctor, including two eggs a day. So far we’ve been unsuccessful.

Then there’s the cooking oil situation. Shortages nationwide mean customers are only allowed two bottles per person. To procure those two precious bottles, you have to travel to the store that has it (lucky you if it’s actually in your neighborhood) and spend hours on line under a blistering sun just like my egg-less friend Camilo. As a result, many people I know spent this past weekend rendering chicken and pork fat so they won’t get caught (too) short.

Shortages of flour, eggs, oil – this post was simmering in my overworked brain for a bit but didn’t come to fruition until last night when the smell of gasoline permeated my living room. I emerged from the egg-less, flour-less kitchen (we don’t fry much and our current bottle of oil is a month old and still half-full) to see what was up. Twenty liters of premium gas now sits in a tank in said living room because people see the writing on the wall: gas hoarding has officially begun.

Blackouts are happening too – not as long or as often as I experienced in 1993, but worrisome still. And the economy overall is showing signs of serious distress. Last year the national economy grew a meager 1% and projections for this year are similar.

We may not be headed for a Second Special Period, but things feel tense as we plod through this year, Havana’s 500th anniversary.

Happy Birthday, ciudad querida. I hope smoother sailing awaits.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban economy, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Excerpt: Here is Havana, Chapter 3

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Hola Readers. In anticipation of Saturday’s big May Day celebration (always a hoot), I’m posting this second excerpt from my work-in-progress Here is Havana. If you’re interested in reading more, I’ve got several bits up on my website.

You’ll no doubt notice that this excerpt is dated in its way; this section was written in reference to the event that took place on May 14, 2004. Workers of the world unite!

—–

The buses start rolling up at around five. Birds are already chirping though night’s darkness has yet to lift, and I can smell my neighbor’s coffee brewing. Honking horns and gleeful singsong reach us from the street as an interminable line of trucks rumbles past, their flatbeds a sea of straw hats. They’ve been pouring into Havana for the big show since before three this morning. Sleep, needless to say, is elusive.

The night sky has already bled purple, then pink and orange into dawn by the time we’re on the street angling for a bus. All my neighbors look different from their workaday selves: Grandma Sylvia is sporty in her sneakers and jeans and even Tania – famous for her spiked heels and micro-minis courtesy of one Italian lover or another – wears sensible shoes and a sun hat. The street teems with groups of factory workers in matching t-shirts, moms with babies strapped to their chests, and young boys excited to be sprung from school for the rally.

Lanky, whistle-blowing cops usher dangerously-crowded buses to the curb, convinced that a few more people can still squeeze on. Today, few private cars ply the main highway leading to Havana, now choked with trucks and buses packed with the boisterous faithful, making their way towards Vedado. It is after six and already the morning heat is steaming off the pavement when we finally get on a bus. The bumper to bumper traffic goes from a crawl to a standstill and the stagnant air inside the bus hangs heavy with cheap cologne. My neighbor works her fan, wafting ripples of perfumed soap my way.

After twenty minutes we’ve only gone three blocks; our tolerance eroded a block ago. No one can remember the last time Havana saw this type of traffic and the bus chatter quickly turns to marches past. Tens of thousands for Elian and the Pope, many more to protest the Helms-Burton legislation. Cubans mobilize proudly, enthusiastically: 45 years protesting US policies designed to choke or change you will do that. Still, each rally feels different from those that came before and it’s especially true today since George W Bush is viewed as even more cruel than his father.

Nearly an hour later and only a mile or so along, we decide to get off and walk, even though it will add two miles to an already laboriously long parade route. We wade into an ocean of people heading north and west to the Malecón. The pulsating crowd waves small Cuban flags on wooden sticks or big placards depicting Bush as a Nazi, complete with an em dash moustache and SS uniform. We grab flags from a man handing them out in the middle of the street, the current of people flowing around him, and stop for one peso coffee shots on a street corner.

“Hey Chino!” I call out, catching sight of our neighbor leaning against a chipped pillar.

“How’s it going?” he asks, kissing my cheek and clapping my husband on the back.

“It’s hot, eh?!” I comment in that Cuban way that says ‘Damn! I love this infernal place.’

We take pulls of icy fruit drink from Chino’s thermos before melting away into the burgeoning crowd. All around us people are dancing to coronet blasts fattened by a cajón backbeat and laughing despite the heat, long walk, and little sleep the night before. It’s just past 8 o’clock when we’re near enough to the Malecón to smell the sea. Helicopters whoop overhead, drawing our collective gaze to a black man joyously two-stepping on a rooftop overlooking the millions.

The sun is already punishing the crowd by the time we push as close to the parade route as possible, alongside the fancy ice cream parlor facing the Malecón. Mothers console their children with rationed sips of water from old plastic soda bottles wrapped in newspapers to keep it coldish. “Hang in there,” they tell the kids as they hop from swollen foot to swollen foot. More people are arriving all the time, packing us in to a tight, motionless mass.

We can’t see anything beyond the backs and heads in front of us and that nauseating flutter of claustrophobia threatens. I look around to shake the trapped feeling. Fat beads of sweat tremble on the neck folds of the woman to my left. Just in front of her a devilishly handsome young man with hazel eyes and café con leche skin rearranges his arms around his girlfriend. His thinning red t-shirt from marches past reads ‘En Defensa del Socialismo,’ but the only thing he’s defending right now is his girlfriend’s ass from the feral stares of men in the growing, surging crowd. Reedy but round in the right places, with hip bones poking out between low rider jeans and a tight pink camisole, she might be a model somewhere else. She’s laughing in her boyfriend’s ear, showing bright, white teeth. The sweat bead finally drops into the folds of the woman’s neck nearby. I fight the urge to look at her watch or mine. The wait feels interminable.

Nearly three hours have passed since we staked our claim in front of the ice cream parlor and we’re no closer to the official parade route. It’s as if a million of us showed up at the DMV together. My gaze wanders to a shrinking old lady on my right and I almost burst out laughing, punch drunk from the wait, heat, and hunger. She’s wearing cushy orthopedic shoes and a polyester wash ’n wear housecoat – the uniform for women of a certain age here. But what’s so funny is her vintage Diane Von Furstenberg headscarf, tastefully festooned with mauve grapes and muted green leaves. Surreal and odd is the little old lady in classic couture waiting for Fidel. She is looking faint as her husband guides her crepe-y elbow to the curb. When she sits, a pissy smell rises from the gutter. My nose is wrinkling when the loudspeakers boom,

“¡¡Compañeros! y Compañeras!!”

The crowd falls silent. The Diane Von Furstenberg lady stands to attention and the girlfriend breaks from her lover’s embrace. Rapt faces point towards the voice, half a mile off at the “Protestódromo,” but coming in loud and clear over the monitors at our corner.

It is a rousing speech, reverberating with that ardent conviction I’d only heard about, despite having witnessed hours of Fidelista discourse over the years. Styled as an open letter to President Bush, the personalized rhetoric is enormously persuasive – much more so in its way than the laundry list of statistics that usually issue forth. The atmosphere is electric, the crowd around me conducting the energy in silent exaltation.

In less than 45 minutes, the legendary orator transforms an impossibly bored multitude into a riveted crowd, going wild in its condemnation of US policy. When he tells Bush “you cannot mention the word democracy…everyone knows you became President of the United States through fraud,” a roar rises from the crowd, along with a million little Cuban flags. The Malecón is transformed into a rippling sea of red, white and blue. Chants of “Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!” erupt when he bellows, “Cuba fights on the side of life in the world; you fight on the side of death.” Then he brings down the hammer, giving me a glimpse of those heady days in the early 60’s: “Since you have decided that the die is cast, I have the pleasure of saying farewell like the Roman gladiators poised to fight in the arena: Hail Caesar! Those who are about to die salute you!” The cheers are deafening and the crowd waves their flags ecstatically as the municipal band strikes up. In these parts, Bush is still known as Caesar.

Suddenly, after more than four hours, we’re moving towards the Malecón. It only takes a few minutes for our small crowd of thousands to feed into the tens of thousands streaming along the waterfront. The breeze tempers the unrelenting sun as we pass the Hotel Nacional and the turreted mansions that were once the seaside refuges of the rich. Finally, our goal is in sight: concrete and sterile, the US Interests Section looks like a high security prison, incongruous among the dowdy, chipped paint abodes of today’s rank and file. Members of the Young (and Not So) Communists line this part of the route, keeping the crowd compacted for full visual effect, encouraging us to wave our flags high. On the Malecón wall, the international press angles for that elusive best shot: the crowd is so enormous, undulating several miles from Vedado to Havana Vieja, it’s hard to capture. A helicopter buzzes the seawall and journalists hanging out the door-less maw capture the spectacle for world viewing, should any network choose to air it.

The crowd is spreading out and breaking up, heading home for a nap or to a cafeteria for cheap, watery beer and burning shots of rum. There is always a fiesta somewhere after rallies, when people get together to tell jokes, analyze events, share a meal, and get shitfaced.

“Do you want to go to Caridad’s party?” I ask my husband as we pass the famous billboard: ‘Señor Imperialists: We are Fearless!’

“Sure,” he responds.

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