HAVANA TIMES – No sooner had I closed to the door to my house, early in the morning, and gone out into the street to get a place in line at the brand new Casa de las Conservas (House of Preserves), than I noticed the unusual scene. Four women were blocking the passage, huddling on the ground. They were hiding from the frequent Police patrols passing by to control anyone who might be violating the curfew, in force from 9:00 pm to 5:00 am in Havana.
“It’s five o’clock, let’s go!” They said to each other; and turning to me, as I stared at them in amazement, they added, “Thanks, muchacha, for not giving us away.”
I didn’t think it was necessary to run like they did – the store wasn’t going to open until nine, four hours later – until I got to the block where the line started. A few minutes after the curfew ended there were already 400 people at Ayestarán and 19 de Mayo, in the Cerro municipality.
Crouching, hiding in the undergrowth, perched on the branches of nearby trees, on stairways, and in doorways, and entrances to homes, thousands of Cubans wait every day for the curfew to end to be able to get a place in the line for stores that take payment in foreign currency or in Cuban pesos.
The phenomenon, known by the authorities and ridiculed in cartoons in the official press, has extended to all the places when the word spreads that a product of wide popular demand is about to be put out on store shelves. The families arrange for one person to stay up all night and the others to arrive after the clock strikes 5 am.
From nearby places, coming from all directions, numerous groups of people with anxious faces and hurried steps came running, trying to reach a privileged position in the line to be able to shop in the recently opened store that takes payment in Cuban pesos, an anomaly in a city and a country that every day surrenders more to foreign currency.
Being first in line did not guarantee any privilege. The police officers did not allow people whose identity cards showed distance residences to join the line. Anyone who did not live within a five-block area could not have made it to the line at that time of the morning without violating the curfew, they said, with an argument they themselves did not believe, aware of the subterfuges to circumvent the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
But, there were exceptions. “Look at this one, it is from Old Havana, but he says he is someone’s nephew,” a policeman shouted at an obvious State Security agent, dressed in civilian clothes, while pulling a man out of the line; the man gave the name of a relative who is an “official of the Ministry of the Interior,” and they let him stay. From that moment and without explanation, they no longer checked any more addresses, and began to hastily collect the cards from the rest of those present.
“It is not possible that there are 200 people in front of me in the line, because I live on that balcony that you see there and I came down at five o’clock,” a girl complained to a policeman. “I live with my little daughter and my mother with schizophrenia,” she said to get him to let her pass, without achieving any results.
The agent replied that he understood her situation but could not do anything. “We already have 57 people at the Police station,” he justified. Those arrested, all in the early hours of the morning, will be fined 2,000 pesos and will receive a “warning letter.” As the products sold by the store are not “essential,” argued the officer, there was no separate line for the “vulnerable,” people with disabilities or bedridden patients in their family who obtain a card that allows them to shorten the wait in other stores and markets.
Despite the early hours, the hubbub that spread through the place gave the impression that the clock was already ticking past noon. People yelled at those who sneaked in relatives and acquaintances who arrived later, to the indifference of the agents, who collected, in total, some 300 identification documents.
Ayestarán Street, which until recently was an artery full of vehicles and dotted with private businesses with offers of pizzas and soft drinks, has now become an area of long lines, not only because of the recently opened Casa de las Conservas, but also because of the nearby Trimagen store complex, managed by the military and supplying products that can be paid for with Cuban pesos.
More than 300 people were still in line after the first 300. From them, they would collect, they announced, 200 more cards, but later. At that moment, a crowd rushed at the agents to demand that they finish collecting the remaining documents. “Pick up a few and fine them 2,000 pesos right here and you’ll see how they calm down,” one of the officers rebuked. The tumult dissolved immediately.
“My God, what is this, where have so many people come from?” said a surprised woman her 60s who had run two blocks to get there on time and barely reached number 350. “This seems to be the 11th of July of Jam,” she said jokingly, making reference to the recent protests throughout the country on July 11th.
“I am here to buy a can of mayonnaise, because my daughter has her birthday today and she has asked us to make her a cold salad,” a young man who arrived at five o’clock in the morning explained to this newspaper. “We managed to get an appointment but I think we will be shopping after one in the afternoon, so we are going to spend part of the festivities in line.”
A lady came by for guava jam. “My mother is bedridden and cannot eat anything she has to chew, so every day I have to find her some yogurt, compote or a base to make juices,” she explained. The woman was one of those who did not not manage to get a number. “My address is a bit remote and I couldn’t justify what I was doing there at the time I arrived.”
The locals are used to crowds and shouting. Not surprisingly, a few meters yard is a Trimagen store famous for being the epicenter of endless lines, traffic accidents and fights. However, when passing by the House of Preserves, they were stunned: there was no comparison with the madness that was seen here this Tuesday.