Milk or Fancy Toys?

Veronica Fernandez

Many Cuban kids lose the ability to drink milk when they turn eight. Photo: James NG

Aida, my friend’s grandson, is now eight years old and he loves milk.  When he was born his mother was unable to breast feed him so they began giving him powdered milk bought at the corner bodega store with the ration book until he was seven. Now, having turned eight, he’s no longer entitled to receive milk as a part of the basic staples available through the rationing system.

My friend is now going crazy because for the last few days she hasn’t been able to find anyone selling milk on the black market.  As for the dollar store, a bag of only two pounds of powdered milk cost more than 5 CUCs (US $6.25); therefore it’s impossible to quench the boy’s thirst for milk for a whole month on the wage of a single parent who’s paid in domestic currency the equivalent of only 10 CUCs every thirty days in regular pesos.

The grandmother commented to me that she had to change her whole wage to CUCs last month to buy her grandson two bags of milk.  Even combined with the wages of her daughter (the boy’s mother) they had to perform magic to make it through the month, though they had to forego a number of needs.

Her daughter also earns the equivalent of 10 CUCs a month, but of course they have to buy cooking oil, tomato puree and bath soap.  In short, they not only need to purchase food, but other things like toiletries in order to have the very minimum in a home in order to subsist.  She told me that her sole longing in life was to be able to raise her grandson so that he’s a strong and healthy man, nothing more.

Today I ran into her very worried while walking down the street in Cojimar (a residential area located to the east of Havana Bay).  As she stopped to assess her situation, she told me that at that moment not even the dollar store had milk for her grandson, and that she didn’t know what to do, where to go, and that she could no longer deal with the situation.  It’s incredible but true; there are periods when such necessary products can’t be found in any of the stores in the neighborhood or even in other adjacent neighborhoods.

Again, what first comes to mind is the US economic blockade against Cuba and the major limitations that we face as a result.  But what I can’t figure out is why they haven’t prioritized this essential and basic product for sale in places aimed at the general public, though it is sold in CUCs at astronomical prices.  People who are responsible for a child or an elderly person should at least have this option for guaranteeing a glass of milk in the morning or at night to those who need it most.

Needs or Dazzle

In fact, I’d never seen the dollar store in my neighborhood without this product.  However, life is ungracious, because right now in these stores that are lacking any powdered milk, they have these big beautiful toys on display that dazzle everyone who goes into these establishments.  Of course these are prohibitively expensive, but they are available for children.

Is this normal? Is this in line with our situation and our needs? On the contrary, most of the parents and grandparents of these children couldn’t afford those toys no matter how much their children and grandchildren begged for them.

They, just like me, suffer from the contradictions in our world.  Imagine the ungraciousness and unpleasantness that we are made to feel because there are people who make things so difficult and make our situations so desperate.

How can we afford the luxury of displaying amazing toys in our stores for sale in CUCs if we can’t offer what is most necessary and sought out by the public?  Are we trying to bury our heads in the sand?  Why is it necessary to support this incongruity in the market? Why don’t we plan better so that basic products are always available in this Cuban dollar store?

It’s completely laughable and in turn ironic to run into these situations, which almost seem like they’re created on purpose and with all the ill intentions in the world.

Like always, many people (among them me) say that the severest blockade is the one enforced by us on ourselves by making people feel discouraged and demoralized each and every day.

I think there’s no reason or motive to show off things like those expensive toys, which are unattainable for most people, and not have basic products available.  At least the Cuban public could have a minimum of respite knowing these are there and — with extraordinary effort — are potentially attainable.