With a Plastic Bag Under My Arm

Maria Matienzo Puerto

Vegetable stand. Photo: Caridad

When getting up in the morning, I’ve made it a habit to spy through the half-open window out onto the front sidewalk.

It’s not exactly because I’m turning into an old gossip, or that I find certain pleasure in seeing how people make their way down the street struggling against this chilly weather.  Nor have I succumb to paranoia: watching out for an enemy that’s watching me.  It’s nothing like that.

I am watching out, it’s true; I watch…a vegetable stand, which some months ago was prosperous and “well stocked,” but now is completely desolate.  I put “well stocked” in quotes because while it didn’t have a whole lot of variety, it did at least have sweet potatoes, bananas and potatoes.

At this stand you could always find some practically extinct vegetables, elsewhere almost forgotten because they’re often impossible to find in any other corner of the city.

Of course in owner-operated vegetable markets or those located in more exclusive areas (like Vedado, Miramar or Flores, where the prices are triple those that are already tripled), one can find a bit of everything – even canistel, a fruity and spicy sweet that’s offered to Ochun (a deity of the African pantheon) to bring change, love and prosperity.

In summary, the table for many families has consisted of a bit of garden produce and very few vegetables for a while now.  I don’t remember what the reasons were that they gave us for this new (?) and now prolonged crisis.

Since the 2008 hurricanes things haven’t cleared up – even for the cities like Havana that weren’t hit by the storms.

That’s fine.  The pretext then was that they had to divert a good part of the produce to help storm victims. I even remember that they closed some markets that sold not only vegetables but meat as well.  Supposedly this was to prevent lawbreaking speculation as the cyclones passed through.

Other people’s misfortunes have fit like a ring on a finger. Journalists spend hours reporting about Cuba’s solidarity assistance, first in Haiti and now in Chile (though they really can’t imagine how we suffer from their misfortune).

Likewise, there’s a campaign —I imagine costing millions of Cuban pesos— to distribute previously fallow land (it made up almost half the island) and to encourage people to work it.  As one person said, “Damn, with all this time talking about the issue, couldn’t they have at least planted some beans?

And it’s precisely beans that are missing the most these days.

There exist other alternatives, like planting in the courtyard of one’s house, like in the 1990s (you don’t have to tell Cubans anything about alternatives, we’ve tried them all).  But what about those of us who live on a seventh floor?  Yeah I know, the same justifications for everything: the world crisis and the US economic embargo.

But it’s not very clear to me or others like me —on foot— though they’ve pretty much resigned themselves, as to why I’m talking about agriculture.

It’s that everything began not precisely with the world crisis but with the effort to centralize more of what was already centralized: merging stores into a single chain, preventing any “capital flight,” preventing things from being stolen, and impeding illegal enrichment* (nor do they permit legal enrichment, or a way to achieve that).

For my part, there’s nothing left for me but to assume my mom’s custom: walking around with a plastic bag in my purse so that wherever there appears something to eat, I can buy it.  It doesn’t matter that if before getting home I have to walk half the city, or take it to work.

* “Enrichment” in Cuba has nothing to do with becoming a millionaire or being part of a class that is “superior,” economically speaking.  Here it consists of possibly having a car from the 1950s and a painted and well-furnished house; dressing in style, both you and your family; eating ham, cheese and meat; and in having something close to the “latest model” household appliances.