HAVANA TIMES – For as long as I can remember, life in Cuba has all been about survival, but one thing I’m not yet sure about is: survive for what?
Willy opens his eyes expressively, while he takes a sip of watered-down coffee that I’ve just given him. He thinks for a few moments, plays with his fingers on the table, and I try to stay quiet, I don’t want to show him I’m impatient to hear what he has to say and that’s when a stream of what I call “Willy” multicolor wisdom came.
“In the seemingly far-off ‘80s, when I was just about a teenager, I discovered firsthand what it meant to go to bed on an empty stomach, and I’d only have a glass of water with sugar for breakfast, and I wouldn’t have a snack at school. I’m the son of a single mother, who had four children and a father I’d only see when the day of the month came rolling around when he’d come and put thirty pesos for child support on the dinner table.”
Willy looks up at the ceiling and continues…
“Luckily, us kids in the neighborhood would pick up beer bottles, empty liter-bottles of milk and any packaging that we could then exchange for 20 cents each and we’d stave off our hunger a little this way, and we’d contribute to the almost invisible family economy.
“Then, the backbreaking ‘90s came, with the economic debacle we’re all familiar with, and survival became a daily issue and we went to incredible lengths to eat, like eating a “beefsteak” out of a mophead, discovering that cheese on pizza was a condom, the famous banana peel minced meat, “first-class turkey” (scavengerk bird), a nauseating mass that even had feathers in it and many other things that Cubans were forced to swallow so they wouldn’t die.
“I clearly remember people passing out on the street because they were hungry, the optic neuritis that was triggered by a lack of protein, the peripheral neuritis that lasts until today, and many survivors still don’t understand where so many of their ailments come from.”
What is survival like here in today’s Cuba? I don’t believe that history has changed a lot. He looks at me, gives me a bitter smile, “you know when people are looking for work here, they don’t ask about the wage? Nope, they ask about the “search”, which means opportunities to steal whatever appears or work supplies.”
But despite all the people who died at sea trying to emigrate, nutritional deficiencies, the brutal hardship Cuban people live in, they aren’t the worst consequences. Instead, it’s not ever having learned to live and be content with so little.
Willy made me cry today.