Soap: King or Slave in Cuba

By Irina Pino

Toothbrushes, chamomile tea and soap.

HAVANA TIMES – During the Special Period, back in the ‘90s, there were extreme shortages, including soap.

You would sometimes find someone on the street selling it. People would fall into the trap of buying it. Invented with bits of other bars of soap, they would be molded around a piece of wood in the center. A real scam.

That’s why I’d turn to a friend for help, who would give me bits of a kind of soap used to wash clothes, which he would get once a month on the ration’s booklet.

It was horrible and left your skin rough. I didn’t have any other choice: it was either wash myself with that soap, or just wash myself with water.

My friend and I then found a special way to get soap: we would dress up, to look like foreigners, and would go into a store talking whatever we knew in English, very quietly.

Back then, the dollar was penalized and Cubans couldn’t walk into hotels, much less buy at their stores, unless they were accompanied by a foreigner friend, or a relative who had come from abroad.

Pepe had relatives in the US, and whenever someone came to visit, they would leave him some dollars behind. Luckily, as his best friend, he would give me soap and shampoo.

Now, our dear soap has been replaced by a lack of detergent and toothpaste in this pandemic.

I must say that some of my friends haven’t been able to get a hold of detergent for two months, using soap for everything, melting it to wash plates, and using it to wash clothes, adding hot water, for it to work better.

They can’t change the bedding often, and they try to keep it clean as long as they can.

Soap has been a kind of life-saver for me. I not only use it to shower, wash my underwear, but I also use it to clean my teeth.

My method is simple: I brush my teeth gently and then rinse with water, at the end, I do a mouthwash with chamomile tea to get rid of any bacteria left behind.

I was reading on the Internet that this is a lot better than any commercial toothpaste because it doesn’t contain any toxic ingredients, but the most effective soap is a neutral, fragrance-free one.

I want to make organic toothpaste. I have pots of aloe vera and mint plants, I only need to get a hold of a drink with a certain percentage of alcohol. 

This is how you make it: you soak mint leaves for a while, to extract their essential oil. It all then gets mixed into a homogenous dough. You then refrigerate it. It lasts for a month.

There are other pastes that use sodium bicarbonate, white clay and coconut oil, but I don’t have any of these ingredients or any way to get a hold of them right now.

Prices have gone up because they are in shortage, people resell what’s sold on the ration booklet for 10 pesos ($0.40 USD), and Colgate or any other brand toothpaste, costs 5 CUC (=USD) a tube.

I have been told that several state-run stores are beginning to sell it, but you have to go and take your place in line in the early morning.

A Ministry of Interior officer takes everyone’s ID card very early in the morning, and then hands out tickets. This is done so people don’t line up twice, because these products are limited.

Before this regulation, a lot of people sold places in line for 2-5 CUC.

I might make my way into one of these lines, but you have to be a fortune-teller to know what store they are going to sell it in.

The sacrifice is well worth it, for many. Trading hours of sleep for toothpaste…

Nevertheless, I thank soap again for all of the things it lends itself for.

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.

One thought on “Soap: King or Slave in Cuba

  • Es Cuba!
    Wonder how the Castro hierarchy clean out their mouths after their discussions on Mesa Redondo, maybe it is the toothpaste that causes Randy Alonso Falcon to appear so smarmy?

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