Back to the 90s for Everyday Cubans

I’m looking forward to the delay in the gasoline coming in order to continue in my new occupation

By Lorenzo Martin

HAVANA TIMES – It really and truly depresses me to have to write such sad things, every time I try to tell you about the life of an everyday Cuban. When ever I feel a drop of joy, a spark of hope, I’m then drenched in a rainstorm of disasters, a downpour of distress.

The improvised public transport Cubans call “Camellos” or “Camels.”

One of the things that has affected Cubans most since the fall of the socialist camp in the 90s is the lack of fuel. We suffered this shortage in the worst way during the 90s – because of the fuel shortage, hundreds of workplaces closed their doors, leaving thousands of workers with no income. Due to the fuel shortage, public transportation collapsed, and we found ourselves forced to invent the sad “Camello,” a parody of a public bus, manufactured by replacing the trailer of a heavy-duty truck with an enormous carriage where over a hundred people can be squeezed in, making us easy prey for pickpockets, fondlers (people who dedicate their efforts to fondling women and sometimes non-women), and other such species. We also found ourselves cooking with firewood, because there was no gas for domestic use; and we suffered interminable blackouts that brought with them every kind of pesky and harmful insects.

Up until the People’s Power elections on March 19, everything seemed to be going well with the fuel supply. But just one week later, blackouts began to occur. I’ve been experiencing one a week – during the day, thank God, because the summer is already beginning, and if the power goes off at night, I’m going to have to go sleep in a park. Transportation has also experienced a slowdown, to the point of bringing back to my mind the endless lines of the 90s. The detested “camellos” have already begun appearing in the provinces, and the sale of gasoline to individuals has diminished to the point of causing a crisis in personal transportation. The most annoying thing this time is that Diaz-Canel himself has dared to say shamelessly on television that they have: “No idea how to solve the situation.” What enviable acceptance of ineptitude since they’re not the ones suffering the consequences.

In this context, I found myself walking one Sunday from my mother’s home in Playa to my Old Havana neighborhood [about 5 miles]. From bus stop to bus stop I kept getting closer, and before I knew it, I had arrived. Imagine how serious the fuel crisis is, if my sister and her husband – who go around in the cars of the Interior Ministry – are having trouble finding gas.

Last Tuesday, Andres, my neighbor above me, offered to pay me to hold his place in line all night, at the Zapata gas station in the Vedado neighborhood. I accepted. The line stretched over 6 blocks, almost to the cemetery. We were closer to the cemetery than to the fuel pumps.

At first I thought it would be a boring job, but a little extra income doesn’t hurt. I filled a thermos with coffee and packed a snack for the night. Andres, my neighbor, would bring me breakfast.

The gas line.

That first night, I was surprised by the atmosphere there. Between one group and another, there was a little of everything – a true sampling of society in general. The rowdy ones were there with their Reggaeton music, competing to see who had the best sound system – a competition that the police, thank God, took it upon themselves to end, with a scolding and a threat or two. There was also a group of the nostalgic there, listening to romantic music or the ballads of the 80s and 90s. There was no lack of those who took advantage of the night to enjoy a sexual encounter right there in their car, believing that nothing could be noticed from outside. There were also those of us who opted to socialize and play a little dominoes. Of course, this group included some who seasoned the early morning with a swallow or two of rum.

Dominoes

Starting that very first night, I made new friends. I played dominoes and even received some indecent propositions from the girls hanging around the line. At ten pm, the dominoes table was set up, and we were happily playing. At some point, we received a few admonishments about the loudness of our voices from the police patrol car that was circling the zone. And so, the night passed quickly, and dawn broke before I’d barely noticed.

At the earliest light, wives, siblings and friends could be seen bringing breakfast to those of us who had spent the night in line. Together with the wives and relatives, peddlers began appearing, offering coffee, cigarettes, and some bread with croquettes, plus drinks to relieve those who weren’t waiting for anyone. Andres was right on time, and very considerate: at 6:30 in the morning, he was there with bread and omelet, yogurt (Where on earth did he get it?) and hot coffee.

I made the trip home on foot, while admiring the city that was waking up and beginning to move. Already at 7 am there was a line in front of the Carlos III store that I passed. The bus stops were full of people, and some buses passed without stopping, causing frustration and annoyance on the part of those who were waiting for them in order to get to work.

I got home and lay down to sleep, in order to recoup my strength in case I had to spend another night in line on Wednesday. The day went by peacefully. I didn’t need to leave the house, and I got a lot of rest. Around 6 pm, my friend called to ask me to come take his place in line, and I set off in that direction.

The night between Wednesday and Thursday was nearly a carbon copy of the previous one. In my case it was even more productive, because the woman whose car was right in front of me – an anesthesiologist at the Surgical Clinic – had to march off to oversee some complication that had occurred in the hospital. She offered to pay me to watch her car and to move it if the line advanced before she returned. It was either that or lose her place in line. After we had exchanged documents and phone numbers, so we both could feel secure, I accepted (a little more extra income wouldn’t hurt). She left. I locked her car and sat down to play dominoes.

Between one game and another, again dawn surprised us, and with the first rays of the sun the sight of the city waking up. Back came the peddlers, the friends and the relatives, bringing coffee, breakfast, and resuming their place in the line. Once again, Andres was right on time, and came with breakfast and recently made coffee. Diana, the doctor, appeared around 8 in the morning, also bringing breakfast and a thousand thanks.

Today, Thursday, I’m going to rest as much as possible, hoping that the gasoline doesn’t arrive so I get in another night of extra earnings. The capacity we Cubans have of turning someone’s disasters into someone else’s feathered nest is incredible.

I used to criticize harshly those who dedicated themselves to holding places in line for money, the all-too-well-known line-sitters. But now that I’m doing it myself, I’ve understood that it’s nothing more than a business arrangement that’s convenient for both parties. On the one hand, the line-sitters sacrifice their time and comfort, while the other person pays to be able to rest or engage in some other activity that’s essential for them.  It’s sad, but I believe that the lack of gasoline is going to result in my personal benefit. I’m even enjoying the work; I spend my nights reading until very late anyway, and I really need only a few hours of sleep.

Yes, I think I’ve found an extra job that I’m enjoying – earning money for doing nothing more than playing dominoes, sleeping in a car, protected from the elements, and even having breakfast out of the pockets of the one paying. Yes, I’m hoping that the gasoline might delay a little longer in reaching the distribution centers, and I’m even thinking how I could promote my services among the drivers I know, without going so far as to call attention to myself.

Read more from Lorenzo Martin here.



Lorenzo Martin Martines

I am one more Cuban living his 5th decade of life. I am a worker, educated, lover of the family and of my land. But it happens that I am also loyal and faithful to my ideals, committed to life, and above all I use the ability to think that God gave me. These are characteristics that make my thinking totally incompatible with the ideology promulgated by the Havana regime, with lies and hypocrisy. In view of this situation, which is already traumatic, I write this diary as a form of catharsis. I write it from my deepest ideals, from my guts. If reading some truths seem too harsh, imagine living them.

3 thoughts on “Back to the 90s for Everyday Cubans

  • April 27, 2023 at 1:08 pm
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    Miguel A. Martinez although recognizing that the PCC and Cuban Government have severe diarrhea, tries in vain to persuade that their blatant incompetence will forgiven and forgotten. Not so!

    Cubans provided their view of the Diaz-Canel Bermudez dictatorship on July 11, 2021. Yes it was savagely repressed with 17 and 18 year olds being jailed without public trial, for up to fourteen years imprisonment in the ever expanding number of Cuban jails – being constructed in competition with hotels for capitalists. But memories are permanent!

  • April 23, 2023 at 6:00 am
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    Shit happens here there and everywhere and blaming the PCC and Cuban Government seems easier than anything else. After all the Cuban administration has proved inept in dealing with “Sea of Economic Issues” since long ago… But It will be good to compare our overall situation with the one of other Central American & Caribbean countries. The Pros and Cons. And add up a broader element to the analysis. The USA-Cuba awkward relations, affecting us in the US island and Cubans everywhere, to finally try the best to understand Why ? we reached this point.
    Otherwise your well written article is a sour, melancholic description of a given moment when there is a shortage of fuel.
    If Cuba’s situation improves with the arrival of a big tanker or two…. The situation will quickly be “Normalized” withing our “Abnormal Surrealism” and people will forget… We always do.

  • April 22, 2023 at 11:07 pm
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    This is not a story from a comic book! It is the almost unbelievable reality of people living in a country which is almost completely stagnant. Yes, Diaz-Canel and his cohorts are “in charge”, but they are unable to offer any ideas, let alone taking action. The only relieve is that a third of a million younger Cubans, virtually all of whom are well educated, and who clearly have initiative, are leaving – draining the country of its potential future, but there departure reduces and relieves the pressure upon the regime. The noose of poverty tightens, hope diminishes, dependence upon the charity and ambitions of China and Russia increases, and the State begging bowl is increasingly obvious. Russia “gave” 25,000 tons of wheat, China “donated” $100 million. Venezuela struggles to provide gasoline and diesel.

    Appropriately, the lights are going out all over Cuba, reflecting the reality of a rapidly failing state.

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