Veronica Vega

illustration by Yasser Castellanos from the series Cubanos de a pie (ordinary Cubans).

HAVANA TIMES – If I said that my country’s dysfunctionality has afforded me great opportunities for spiritual growth, most would think I’m being ironic. However, it’s true.

The slings and arrows that daily put my patience to the test (and even my physical condition) vary from running after a bus that’s escaping, the frustrations encountered at every step in the perplexing matter of shopping for basic items, or the disappointments that my palate confronts from what I have opted to call the practice of “fallacious offers”, in which I am an involuntary participant (our extensive training in euphemisms should serve for something).

Among these disappointments, for example, is the experience of asking for a “mango juice”, as written on the notice board of a private coffee shop, and upon tasting it realizing with disappointment that it’s nothing but mango jelly mixed with water. Or “pineapple juice” that turns out to be pineapple drink; that it, the remains of a pineapple, including the peel, boiled with sugar and rice. Or those coffees that – incredibly – have managed to be worse than the food we obtain through the ration quotas.

But the prize for patience and resistance should go to the housewives and househusbands of Cuba for the challenges imposed on us by the mysterious varieties of rice that are sold to the population. The old recipes for the elaboration of this noble grain – recipes inherited from our ancestors – are no longer valid.

If you cook it with equal parts water and rice it remains raw; but if you put in twice as much water as rice, it turns to mud. I’ve tried adding a third more water, and it’s then raw in the middle. A little more and it’s mud again. A little less, and you get disperse zones of raw rice.

If you turn down the heat as soon as it boils, it also remains half raw; if you leave it to cook more, it becomes half mud, half burnt. And on top of everything, when the blessed product cools off, even if you stir it with a fork it hardens in a such a way as to resemble cement.

But remembering that phrase about one’s will being an obstacle to that of the universe, I submit myself to the whims of this rice and in silence I spin new strategies for conquering it. I turn up the heat for some minutes so it will cook, then I turn it down for a few other minutes so it doesn’t burn. I stir it several times with a fork, or even with my fingers, fistful by fistful, stoically.

I observe the form and the coloring of the rice that they give through the ration book. I buy in different municipalities, but all my attempts are useless: it’s all the same Vietnamese rice, be it issued as part of our basic supplies, or purchased at the “liberated” products market (of course, at the same price as the impeccable Brazilian rice).

So, when I lift the lid and feel the impulse to throw the entire pot off the balcony, I count to ten, close my eyes, breathe. I remember the “black night of the senses”, or the voluntary abstinence through which San Juan of the Cross awakened the subtle senses of his conscience, bringing states of indescribable joy. Or I reflect on the lesson that Saint Francis of Assisi found in the birds, who live happily on just a crumb of bread, a sip of water, and the immense liberty of the sky.

More even than that, I remember the problems brought on by eating too much (in Cuba too there is a high obesity index), the diseases that this produces, and in the biological ravages of stress. And to finish off, I remember what is scientifically postulated about food and its processing in the human metabolism: we utilize a minimum, and all of it ends – in the toilet bowl.

Veronica Vega

Veronica Vega: I believe that truth has power and the word can and should be an extension of the truth. I think that is also the role of Art and the media. I consider myself an artist, but above all, a seeker and defender of the Truth as an essential element of what sustains human existence and consciousness. I believe that Cuba can and must change and that websites like Havana Times contribute to that necessary change.

12 thoughts on “The advantages of being poor (I)

  • Castro-style socialism was successful in making the majority of Cubans poor by taking wealth from the upper and middle classes. By every measure, Cuba is worse off under Castro. The only real difference is that most Cubans share equally in their poverty so, relatively speaking, seem to be better off. Formerly, Cuban doctors earned a good living and rightly so were better off economically. Today, under Castro, doctors earn less than bartenders and cabaret dancers. I understand that your point is that before the revolution there were very, very poor and illiterate Cubans and there were very, very rich Cubans. You would have me accept that today since the majority of Cubans are just very poor, things are better. Capitalism will leave a few behind, but it will also allow those who choose and deserve to do well the opportunity to reach their professional and financial potential. In addition, absent the tyranny of the Castros, Cubans will have the freedom to choose their own path. That alone is worth the risk of change.

  • When the wealthy Cubans in that expat community lived in Cuba with their money under capitalism (ie. 1958), how did that work out for most Cubans?

  • The Cuban diaspora is per capita the wealthiest of all Latin Americans expats. It stands to reason that because of this, in a liberal capitalist environment, the island of Cuba would stand to gain the most from their expat community. The wealth of Hondurans living abroad pales by comparison. I agree that poverty can counteract liberty. However, as I said, ask a poor Cuban: “what do you prefer…poor and oppressed or poor and free”.

  • Cuba is not the only Latin American country heavily dependent on remittances. It is the number one source of foreign reserves for El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia and many other Latin American nations where millions remain mired in poverty. Remittances have yet to successfully economically transform any Latin American nation so there is no reason to believe it will be a viable solution to Cuba’s problems. And it is true that Cuba has a far better educated population (and lets not ignore the irony that this is only because of socialism), although only a minority will benefit under capitalism. Many of the others will leave Cuba as part of the brain drain from the Third World to the First World that has been occurring for decades.
    As for freedom, it is relative. Ask the average poor Haitian who is malnourished, lacks access to housing, education and healthcare how their so-called freedoms to vote, to travel, to free speech, to freedom of assembly, to own property are working for them. In many ways, the poor in capitalist Latin American countries are less free than Cubans because while they have freedoms on paper they not only lack the money to take advantage of those freedoms but they also lack their basic needs.
    In Colombia’s presidential election last week, only 41 percent of registered voters bothered to vote. Why? Because the majority of Colombians know it is a meaningless exercise that is presents a facade of democracy while in reality leaving most people disempowered. Ironically, socialist Venezuela is the country that has by far the highest voter turnouts in all of the Americas, including the US and Canada.

  • Cuba, as a new entry into the world of capitalism brings a far better educated population able to produce and earn at a much higher level than the people of Honduras or Guatemala. Moreover, because of folks like me who continue to support Cuba through remittances, Cuba will have access to a far larger pool of resources than any of the other countries you mentioned. Finally, even if I am wrong and you are right and Cubans are at best, economically no better off than their Latin American neighbors, at least they would be free. Talk to a Cuban and ask them this: “All other things equal, would you prefer living in a free country or what you have now.” I think you know the answer.

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