Cuba’s “Special Period” Remembered

Irina Pino

Flower seller. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — It caught us by complete surprise in the 90s, and no one expected it to last the many years it did. Even today we continue to be haunted by those infernal years, as though we were unable to find a way out of the crisis. One need only mention it to conjure up those dark memories.

At the time, I worked in an art gallery. My job consisted in looking after the pieces and guiding visitors. I wasn’t expected to offer gallery goers a flowery description of the works, just to show them around the exhibition areas and kindly wait for them to leave.

I would leave my house at 8:30 in the morning with a pathetic excuse for a breakfast in my stomach: a bread roll and a glass of sugared water (milk was a luxury at the time, and all food was expensive). The dollar, which was illegal at the time, came to be valued at 120 Cuban pesos. Anyone caught carrying that currency risked a long time behind bars.

Because of transportation shortages, I would walk to work, even though the gallery was 15 blocks away. I would enjoy the morning freshness and gaze at the vegetation at parks. I would return down the same streets in the afternoon, uphill.

The gallery had a small book and souvenir shop. They asked me to work there several times (when there weren’t many visitors, of course), and I quickly learned to treat customers and sell things. I was a book addict and would recommend the works I found most interesting.

Those books were sold only in dollars. The other woman who worked there had told me she had many of those same books at home (old gifts she had kept). Her idea took shape: we would sell her books and share the earnings and everything would be fine.

I was happy to have such a “piggy box” to fall back on, a place to put away the money needed to overcome some of life’s hardships. I was also able to help my family a little. This happiness lasted only a little while, though – until the books ran out, to be precise.

In those days I had sudden fainting fits that frightened people. I assume they were caused by my empty stomach most mornings. I would feel better after lunch. At work, I would brush my teeth without toothpaste, because we only had one tube for the whole family and we had to save as much as possible.

I would walk around Old Havana with a gay friend of mine who had the complexion of a European. We would dress up as foreigners to be able to access certain stores Cubans weren’t allowed in (unless a relative living abroad came along and took you shopping).

Since we had almost the same measurements, he would lend me a pair of shorts and some shirts. His situation wasn’t anything like mine, because he had relatives in the United States who sent him remittances. Inside the stores, we would speak a little bit of English, using just the words we needed to keep them from finding out we were Cuban.

With the money I made from the books I was able to buy shoes, food, shampoo and soap (on occasion, I had to use laundry soap to bathe) – not soft bathing soap, but the kind they gave out once a month as part of one’s ration, the rough kind that left your skin feeling like sandpaper.

Our disguises also allowed us to make some foreign friends who invited us out to eat and other places. I recall that, on one New Year’s, Hans, a German friend of ours, treated us to a beef steak dinner, red wine and dessert. I look back on that with some nostalgia.

That friend of ours felt so much pity for us he left us 100 dollars before he left. We did have to walk around the entire city and take him wherever he wanted to go, tired as hell, because “they” love to walk and lead nomadic lifestyles.

My uncle got a job as a bathroom attendant at a cabaret and would come home with a little extra money, sometimes more than 2 dollars, and that also helped the family economy.

My boyfriend would collect seeds at Lenin Park to make craft hanging curtains which he would sell at 100 Cuban pesos each. That also allowed us to go out on occasion.

I recall the first power cuts, when the city became a kind of ghost town. We used to sit at the park along G Street to chat and make the heat and boredom a bit more bearable.

Despite the circumstances, we managed to have a good time and even plan adventures. It’s true we went hungry often and faced many hardships, but we invented ways of riding out the storm, good Cubans that we are. It’s no accident we have been christened as “the kings of invention.”

Irina Pino

Irina Pino: I was born in the middle of shortages in those sixties that marked so many patterns in the world. Although I currently live in Miramar, I miss the city center with its cinemas and theaters, and the bohemian atmosphere of Old Havana, where I often go. Writing is the essential thing in my life, be it poetry, fiction or articles, a communion of ideas that identifies me. With my family and my friends, I get my share of happiness.

41 thoughts on “Cuba’s “Special Period” Remembered

  • March 21, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    Good idea, though my washroom is bigger than that. And has a jet tub too… And that is just where I am heading for a shower and shave and out for a beer… Though please keep Bieber…

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