Kabir Vega Castellanos
HAVANA TIMES — Finding out you’ve run out of rice at around noon on a Sunday is a serious problem in Cuba, particularly when it’s a scorching hot day, the only place they sell the product has no awning to shield you from the sun and people cut in line and throng in the small locale so not to burn up.
As the only ventilated space is the entrance, people sweat, shove each other around and bicker because many take advantage of the prevailing confusion to cut in line. Those who become convinced there’s no more room inside look for any spot of shade outside, making things more disorderly.
To make matters worse, the clerk is new and helps customers at an exasperatingly slow pace.
Though the situation is always irritating, I knew that, back home, a good shower would make everything go away. What was particularly disagreeable for me was when a customer, flirting with the clerk, said:
“Love, I’m melting out here!”
To explain her slowness, she retorted:
“Well, the problem is that a whole bunch of people are cutting in line just to buy toothpaste and soap. They should be ashamed.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. We were all average Cubans there, those who can’t afford to buy rice in hard-currency stores, those who are roughing it to put food on the table…but, according to this woman, there was an even lower rung in the ladder: those who didn’t buy ten pounds of rice or a carton of eggs and only bought hygiene products, people who ought to be ashamed of themselves.
Ashamed of what? Of worrying about their personal higiene? Of acting in accordance with their needs? What surprised me the most was seeing how many people agreed with her, and I didn’t know whether it was to please her or because they truly thought the same.
Something that characterizes Cubans is their vanity. Cubans conceal their poverty, often preferring to dress rather than eat well, and only they know what they deny themselves in order to buy a smartphone. That can almost seem funny, but that vanity has become one of the many ways in which hypocrisy manifests itself.
Once, at a store, a customer was complaining that the cologne he had bought hadn’t been sealed properly and that its contents had spilled inside his backpack. The employee was telling him she couldn’t do anything about it. The man kept insisting, showing her the receipt and the wet bag smelling of cologne. Since the woman wasn’t budging, he demanded to speak with the manager and those in line started saying to him:
“Come on, man, just go and stop sniveling!”
I don’t understand how people can arrive at the conclusion that to demand a right is something low, and that the dignified thing is to have money, even if you’ve gotten it by stealing. In this situation, the prevailing opinion was that the man had to buy another bottle of cologne to be respectable.
The curious thing is that this kind of hypocrisy doesn’t solve anything and makes life more difficult. Being poor is uncomfortable. On top of that, you’re expected to find a way to conceal it.
I still vividly remember what we were taught at school about the classless society we had built, about comradeship and solidarity among Cubans.