By Monica Rivero (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – The recent surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths in Cuba joins previous crises, such as chronic shortages. It’s practically impossible to go inside a store without having waited in a line for hours first. In order to ensure more or less equal access to the few products available, new forms of selling basic essentials have been tried and tested, while people have adopted new ways to buy and sell, as well as resell.
In order to prevent the speed of these changes from leaving people aged 65+ behind, considered a high-risk population group because of COVID-19 and battered survivors of financial restructuring policies, People’s Power committees in some provinces have drawn up a list with their representatives of the people who would need help. This has been done so as to ensure they have a chance, every month, to buy products at a designated store as part of a priority line.
My mother is 66 years old and has high blood pressure. Out of her four sisters, three are older than her and have their own “comorbidities”, like we have learned to describe them with Dr. Francisco Duran’s conferences. Last month, they were able to buy [some products in Cuban pesos] because they are “vulnerable”. The following is a firsthand account reconstructed from many instant messages; a portrait of the elderly who have to wake up at dawn to buy a limited number of products once a month, amidst a pandemic and new bureaucratic procedures.
What we go through
As a person in their 60s and with high blood pressure, I had the good fortune of receiving this benefit along with two of my older sisters. Punctual like we are, we agreed to meet at 5 AM, even though the store would only open at 9 AM, so that we could be one of the first to buy. We miscalculated: twelve vulnerable people had beat us to it, as well as a crowd of invulnerable people who had slept in a nearby tree, garage or corridor, having paid for their night stay.
There was a blind man among the group, who went on a semantic and conceptual rant about whether he was vulnerable or disabled. There were people much older and more disorientated than I was, that I felt ashamed to be in that priority line.
I was sitting on a small wall, keeping the correct distance from other people who had also sat there. There was a woman near me who said she had a hip replacement. I offered her my bit of wall to sit on. I went a few meters away and found a place to sit on a piece of cardboard next to the door of a building, which has a market on its ground floor. A door opened and somebody came out with an authoritarian voice and said to me: “Can you give me that piece of cardboard please?”
“With pleasure; but why?”
“Because this is the entrance to my building and the people who come to the market have made a right mess of it.”
Without further ado, I got off the piece of cardboard and he kicked it towards the dumpster. He may have been annoyed because the noise of people coming to set up camp in front of the store before dawn, don’t let him sleep.
When the light of day began to break, four people arrived, two men and two women: the organizers of the line, appointed by the Party and People’s Power. The women were well-dressed in tight clothes and comfortable sneakers for the job; the men were wearing vests like photographers do, with lots of pockets.
A little while later, two police officers joined them after coming out of a patrol car, and they headed towards the line of the invulnerables. There was a great commotion until the group finally managed to organize itself. The police officers handed out 150 places. They weren’t enough.
One of the organizers headed towards our line with a folder full of disorganized papers. “Right, the vulnerable!” That’s when I began to think back to the distant times I was in primary school: “Right, line up one behind the other. If you don’t, I won’t read out the list. Ah, and anyone who isn’t on the list must leave, I’m sorry.”
Obediently, we got in line so that the “teacher” of the hour could check whether we were on or not on her chaotic list. When it came to my sister’s turn, they asked her: “What 28th district? I’ve never heard of it,” planting a seed of doubt and unfolding a wave of tension that lasted until she finally found our three names. “You’d kill anyone’s nerves,” I told her. She gave me a stern look while telling me under her breath “They’re taking photos of the line and the police are right there.” She was warning me as if to say “shut up, I see you.”
Finally the store opened
Four hours later, it was time for the store to open. It had been established that all of the vulnerable people would be allowed in first, and then the invulnerable line afterwards. However, before the first vulnerable person was able to set foot inside the store, several people walked out with their shopping, a group who nobody saw enter.
Then, the first five vulnerable people stepped forward. I was to go in in the second batch. But people were soon piling on top of each other and ignoring the order to stand behind a post that was a reference point. The person who appeared to be the boss-boss said, as if he were ruling a sentence: “Well, now five of you and five of the line are going to go in. You brought it on yourselves because you didn’t listen,” he stressed.
When it was almost my time to go in, the boss-boss began to look the people in line up and down with an expression of doubt. He decided to examine them. “Now, you and I are going to talk a little,” he said. “Let’s get to know each other: hey you,” he said as he walked up to a young man behind me, “Are you a vulnerable person? Do you think you’re vulnerable?” Between embarrassment and indignant, the young man answered that he was neither a vulnerable person, nor did he believe he was one: “It’s my mother, she is bed-ridden and I’m the only person who can help her.”
“Show me your authorization.”
“I don’t have anything; but if I can’t buy, that’s fine and I’ll just go home now.”
The young man made a gesture to leave but the people in that line, who are a fair people, told him to stay.
“Why should I believe that your mother has this problem?” the boss-boss continued on with his interrogation.
“Look, you’re being disrespectful now… Because the People’s Power representative thinks she is,” the young man said at last.
But the boss-boss said that he didn’t trust these representatives, who “had already sparked an outcry when they were found selling places in line” and he stopped the conversation there and then. The young man stayed, he had been insulted and had given up.
An old woman asked her son to take her to an acquaintance’s home nearby. “I’m peeing myself; I can’t hold it anymore. I peed on myself the other day.” The son sorted something out so that a person in a nearby doorway did him the favor of letting the old woman use the bathroom in her house.
While waiting for my turn after five people from the invulnerable line went in, the man behind me sighed a sigh of relief saying that they had soap, which he was in desperate need of. His father is paraplegic and he soils the bed. A lot of washing needs to be done every day. He says that he’s had to use “the expensive facial soap” because he can’t find detergent or washing up soap. I was tempted to give him some soap to clean, but foresight bit my tongue: What happens if I or my family need it?
A woman over 60 years old appeared with her son, who is severely intellectually and developmentally disabled. The young man could barely stand because his legs were shaking. “This kid shouldn’t be on the street,” a woman muttered. Another woman chimed in, “Wouldn’t it be easier for her to leave him at home and come alone, because he’s old enough to do that.” Her insensitive annoyance was due to the fact that she might have guessed that the woman would get in before her and buy two quotas: one for her and her disabled son. Another mother arrived later, who was a bit younger than the previous mother, and she also had a disabled child. They weren’t so lucky: the organizer asked them for the money and she got them the products for one person. It seems she wanted to stop this mother from buying for her son too.
After watching this scene, it was my turn to go in. Into a store! When the normal becomes exceptional.
There were 4-liter bottles of cooking oil, 4.5 kg packets of chicken thighs, “hot dogs”, which I like to call sausages because it gives them a touch of sophistication; boxes of eggs and bath and washing soap. I was happy for my companion of an unlucky line stander. While taking sausages out of a horizontal freezer, I put my empty plastic basket on top and that’s when I got a second telling off that morning: “Can’t you see you’re breaking the freezer?” the sales assistant shouted.
When I got my quota of products, I went to the cash register. I managed to buy everything for the modest price of 660 Cuban pesos, the revived currency that isn’t breathing a fresh breath of life yet. As soon as I left the store, somebody who hadn’t woken up at dawn was willing to pay me 500 pesos for the cooking oil I’d just paid 194 pesos for.