By Paula Henriquez

workplace-juan-suarez
Cuban office workers. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Sitting in my office, like I usually do at lunchtime, I talk to someone who no longer lives on our island. I love this someone very much and he wants to help me, although sometimes we don’t understand each other and argue.

He tells me he’s going to have lunch and in passing he asks me what I do to eat something at this time. I tell him that I normally bring food from home, leftovers from the night before, which isn’t always true because you can’t do that every day and when that happens, I “invent”, I tell him.

As is to be expected, he doesn’t understand what I mean by “invent” and keeps pushing the subject. Then I regret having brought up the subject, naive as I am, knowing that he asks about absolutely everything. I explain that when I can’t bring my own lunch, I ask to borrow some money or we share what other people have brought in from home, which isn’t always a sure bet either. He keeps asking questions and I don’t want to answer them, until in the end he tells me that the only thing he wants is for me to write it down, to tell this story, a story which I’m embarrassed about…

Yes, I’m ashamed to say that sometimes I don’t have lunch at work and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one even though some people don’t like to admit it, it’s a delicate subject, a very private matter, but it’s real nonetheless. It’s not that I’m starving to death, which I’m not; in my house we always try to feed ourselves and eat well, in spite of the complicated issue of food in Cuba.

However, you don’t always have leftovers from the night before because most of the time dinner is just “enough”, and there’s nothing left to spare. I must state that we are five people in my household: two of them are retired, two of us work and the fifth member is our little girl, the spoiled one.

My workplace is one of the ones that pay their employees 0.60 cents a day for lunch. If you add that up for all the days we work in a month, which are normally about 21 or 22 days, they pay us between 12.60 and 13.20 CUC a month on top of our normal pay which is around 20 CUC.

We’re supposed to use this money to eat something at work, however, only a few of us, very few of us use it for lunch. We have to attend to other needs before we’re able to spend lunch money (as it’s popularly called), such as the related need to buy food for home or hygiene products which are always running out at home, just to give you an example. Not to mention if you have kids… especially in day-care or at school.

Lunch money, then, becomes part of the juggling act every normal worker has to carry out, us ordinary Cubans. Trying to make our money “go that extra mile”, to always have a little something in our wallets, but its tricky work. Two days even haven’t gone by after being paid and we’re already without or almost without anything left over.

The person who I talk to doesn’t believe what I’m telling him. He’s astounded, congratulates me for overcoming my shame and for deciding to write about the subject. I, on the other hand, laugh; I’m already used to the fact that my stories, our stories, surprise him… especially as he lived here many years ago… He leaves and leaves me waiting. He went to lunch… and me? I’m going to see what I can go and invent…

Paula Henriquez

Paula Henriquez: Since childhood I have been told I should be careful what I say in public. "Think before you speak, especially in front of others," my mother would say, and it was more of a plea than a scolding. Even today I hear her and I obey her, just that I do not speak, I write. Letters and words are my escape, my exit and daily catharsis, which printed on paper, revive me. And this picture is my refuge.

5 thoughts on “Lunchtime for a Cuban Office Worker

  • Paula,
    your story saddens me deeply. I pray for you and your family and all Cubans who are struggling to survive over there. My heart goes out to all of you.

  • Well said.

  • In summarizing life in Cuba, I wrote elsewhere:

    “The Castro family communist regime rigidly demands conformity with their vision, no other is permitted. The requirements for Cubans seeking to have a quiet life are:

    Don’t challenge the system, accept it, stay mute and exist.”

  • What a most wonderfull and well written story….my admiration and compassion just went a little higher for the cuban people….you are a gifted writer….i am a canadian married to a cuban lady and i will let her read this story.my wife works in the public health sector and her salary is meager to say the least….i do not know how i would survive ig i were a cuban….they truly are a race apart from the rest of the world.

  • Maybe by some grand design or simply the fact that it just worked out like this but one reason that the Castros have remained in power so long is owed to the fact that most Cubans are too busy worrying about what to eat each day to even begin to ponder counter-revolution. The Castros have created a system that allows, but just barely, Cubans to just get by. By keeping everyone poor, the Castros have been able to keep a lid on dissent. If Paula, the woman who wrote this post, has to skip lunch at times because of a lack of money, then it is far less likely she will have the energy and the interest to protest in the streets.

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