Cuba: Bread, Anti-Bread and Chaos

Photo: Sadiel Mederos

By El Toque

HAVANA TIMES – Future historians and sociologists who want to study what Cuba was between the second half of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st century will perhaps only have to compile complaints, suggestions and nonsense surrounding this unbearable character called “bread” with “bodega” (ration store) as the last name. 

They could study minutes from neighborhood accountability meetings, then look at readers’ letters sent into provincial and national newspapers, and even statements from Cuba’s politicians – at any level – about “our everyday bread roll”.

To see whether it was underweight at birth, lacking in oil, the yeast didn’t work, it’s made out of cassava, is moldy, came in late, wasn’t distributed, got wet at the bodega store, wasn’t enough for consumers… And so on, in a long lament and woeful testimony of hundreds, I mean to say, thousands, that is to say, millions of Cubans who have had their basic breakfast, school snack or even family dinner in severe crises guaranteed in this meager ball of rationed carbohydrates.

Old Hector Zumbado, who knew a lot about these nightmares, published an article called “Philosophising about the anti-bread,” in which he wrote:

“After putting the knife to one side, useless and ineffective, picking up the bread with your hands, stretching and twisting it with rage, pulling it with all of your strength, with a murderous rage, until you finally decapitate it and separate it into two, and then you look at the white, porous/ flacid/ spongelike/ chewing gum/ and scourer-like dough; at that moment, in this crucial and breakthrough moment we’ve all been left staring at bread rolls, stunned, reflecting hard and abysmally, in a philosophical way, in an ontological argument before this strange being, wondering in deep thought: Is this bread? A piece of bread in and of itself? Or a piece of bread not in and of itself? Or is it only its intention, aspiration, desire, life ambition, goal, that is to say, to become a piece of bread?”

Comedian Zumbi cast a light on this tasty piece in Juventud Rebelde in the 1970s – the state-led press could publish this back then – and it was collected in his book Riflexiones, 1980. Twenty years later, in 2001, Luis Silva, a young Computer Science student at Havana University, came into the spotlight at festivals of amateur artists with a monologue called “Bread in the time of cholera”. There, he played Panfilo Epifanio, the typical old Cuban grouch, a patient of doctor Paneque, in a line for bread. The old man had suffered two heart attacks after getting into a fight with bread rolls, this “great coward”, “which crumbled at the first bite.”

Panfilo said: “Despite obstacles, despite hardship, we Cubans are a privileged people, compañeros. We Cubans can afford to bring a piece of bread home… to have one roll every day. Look just how far our privilege goes – this is something I calculated, which nobody in the world has done – who in this world, even in a developed country, gets 365 bread rolls… in a year? This is what I call equality, compañeros.” 

Yes, one of the few “feats” the Cuban Government can continue to brandish as displays of the much-boasted equality it promised in the distant 1959, and we are still waiting for this measly display of oven-baked flour that used to be given out per household for the subsidised price of 5 cents.

But, the Tarea Ordenamiento (economic reforms process) came and the – sometimes uneatable – ball of carbohydrates went up in price to 1 peso; that is to say, 20 times its initial price, while wages and pensions went up three or five times at best.

Then, COVID-19 happened. The vise of the never-ending crisis was twisted even tighter, and something recently happened that had never happened, not even in the toughest days of the 1990s crisis. There wasn’t any bread for many days, in unison with different provinces in the country. Not even ugly, bread, bland, underweight, sweet potato flour bread. There just wasn’t any. The bodega stores shamelessly announced this with handmade signs: “There isn’t any…”

If repression, a lack of rights, everyday frustration in a country that is emigrating even on a banana peel, families breaking apart, order and totalitarian control established and unquestionable – subject to prison sentences or exile – wasn’t enough; if all of this isn’t enough, just talking about the bread tragedy would be enough reason to call the leaders that own this country incompetent and, as a result, replace them.

What would have the great Zumbado have written today? Until when will Luis Silva, who will always be Panfilo Epifanio, continue to joke on national TV about everyday frustrations to alleviate them somewhat by laughing at them? Will there be another comedian who will become famous in 20 years with jokes about the Cuban BREAD pandemic? 

I hope not. By then, our dear oppressors will have left on a boat.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times

One thought on “Cuba: Bread, Anti-Bread and Chaos

  • Oh, for the luxury of Cuba five years ago, when one could go to the empresa, shout out “ultimo” and join forty others waiting for the next batch of bread to be ready. Five pesos for a 200 gm loaf, and 10 pesos for a 400 gm loaf – and made with wheat flour! Some made a living, by purchasing a couple of dozen loaves at five pesos, then cycling around town selling them for six pesos each. 25 pesos per day paid a schoolteacher, a figure which the man on the bicycle could readily exceed.

    But that has all gone! Hunger stalks the streets and repression fills the jails! The “good times” are gone.

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