By Veronica Vega
HAVANA TIMES – 2020 has ended up being a very strange year. Every time I go outside and see people with their faces covered apart from their eyes, I feel like I’m in a nightmare, or in one of those futuristic science fiction movies.
What have we done to lose the right to breathe in air? I breathe in my own exhalation under a piece of cloth that I can just about put up with in this crushing heat, and I tell myself that this isn’t anything like what we expected, after decades of “normalcy” with a dash of great shortages.
Somebody greets me and gets annoyed if I don’t recognize them with the mask on. Masks, depersonalizing instruments. Like shaved heads or uniforms.
Yep, the world has completely lost it, as Shakespeare would say.
Struggles for collective or individual freedoms have been put on hold, even in countries where protesting isn’t a crime. Now, the State is the supreme protector, it has the first and last word.
Hospitals are venerated like temples. Doctors are like saints who are given lives – the most sacred thing in this physical universe – in their hands.
You have to trust the media, statistics. You have to withdraw, avoid making contact, hide away at home before night falls, fleeing from an invisible enemy. Nothing can be verified, nothing is in our hands, except for obeying and/or isolating.
There isn’t any public transport. You’re not allowed to leave the neighborhood. Children can’t be out in public spaces. Not even in those makeshift settlements where many families live without windows. Where you can only get a bit of relief by putting a seat out on the sidewalk.
Beating the curfew
Three days ago, I was running home at about 7 PM. I saw three patrol cars leave the police station, to do their rounds and enforce the curfew. Really big fines are handed out if you pull down your mask, even if it’s to sneeze.
I sometimes feel like I’m in a fairytale where a king, who has been cheated by two fake tailors, wanders the streets with his entourage, completely naked, while the masses lean in and praise a non-existing suit. Nobody would dare to tell him what they really see. Until a child breaks the pretense and shouts out: “Look, the king is naked!”
Is this what we need? Not mistrust, but innocence?
I would like to think so. The brief moments I’m outside to get essential supplies, I’m shocked that people are talking more about being infected, than empty counters and stomachs. Without even mentioning this double uncertainty.
Long lines under the scorching sun, eyes fixed where disappointment builds upon disappointment. Rice (the staple of the Cuban people’s diet) is even missing at the markets; nevertheless, there is still booze. Another depersonalizing factor. Unconsciousness is so valuable!
Even CUC stores are depressingly empty. Worse than when the Special Period hit in the 1990s, which is still firmly-rooted in our collective subconscious. Just like an unbeatable trauma. Word has it that the only well-stocked stores are the ones where you pay in dollars.
Anecdotes from a surreal country
Yep, the same currency that seemed to burn if you touched it just some years ago. You could do jail time for if you had them in your possession.
I remember that a friend once gave me three dollars, and I sewed them into the hem of a skirt.
When I was about to end up barefoot, I asked an Italian tourist to come with me into a store. That way I could enter with him, so I could buy some tennis shoes. The cheapest ones, of course. You had to be there to see the expression of that stranger’s face when he saw where I had hidden the dollars.
We Cubans laugh at these anecdotes and say that we live in a surreal country. After all, the world admires us for our cheerful character and our unbreakable smile.
It doesn’t matter whether this attitude is just for tourists. While young Cubans smile more, the majority refuse to stand in line, this ritual of desperate survival. There must be another way they think. Instead of wasting four hours to buy a bottle of cooking oil or a bit of meat.
Some days ago, my husband waited four hours outside the Falcon supermarket, in Alamar. He hoped to buy some luncheon meat for our cats (we are vegan), but he came back empty-handed.
The following day, and because the two little cats had a serious allergic reaction to the food available, he went back to try his luck again and waited for five hours (!) to once again come back empty-handed.
Enter the police
Police officers delivered the bad news to the crowd, ordering people to leave. My husband insisted they be given tickets to come back the following day with the benefit of time invested (lost).
As military men and the police turned their backs to everyone, he walked up to them, determined. He requested at least an answer. What happened? An officer headlocked him and threw him on the ground, then he was cuffed and put in a patrol car. Women’s voices shouted from the crowd saying that this police procedure was completely unfair.
He was taken down to the station, where he left with a 30-peso fine for “public disorder”. He has to pay in the next 72 hours.
Clapping and progress on the back burner
But why are we complaining if we are beating a deadly virus? Doctors are being applauded at 9 PM, it’s irrelevant that they would prefer a pay-rise and not applause. They prefer to go on international missions or have the right to travel freely.
Let’s continue clapping and wait for everything to return to “normal” next year with a dash of shortages. Progress will have to go back on the backburner (once again).
In the meantime, we trust that this surreal formula will continue to work. Let’s trust the fate of this island stuck in the past, let’s trust spells and the Holy Virgin. Given the fact that we can no longer send lives out to sea. This privilege we islanders had, taken away by Barack Obama when he revoked the “wet-feet/dry-feet” policy.
Let’s trust the infinite elasticity of human resistance.
Let’s trust in this Cuba that different generations have dreamed about. It doesn’t matter if families and groups are spread out across the world. As they wander through jungles or on rivers, facing the cruelty of animals and humans.
It doesn’t matter that our future is becoming more and more abstract. At least our young people have their sights fixed on social media (funded by relatives or friends abroad). And not on the dangers at sea. Or the street.