Cuba’s July 26th, Then and Now

By Yusimi Rodriguez

Viva the 58th Anniversary.

HAVANA TIMES, July 28 — The date July 26, the most celebrated day on the Cuban political calendar, has meant different things for me at different stages of my life.

During my childhood, on the night before that date, each neighborhood CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) would throw a block party while waiting for that historic anniversary to ring in. The following day, in a commemorative ceremony, the commander-in-chief would give a long drawn-out speech that was always broadcast on the only two television channels that existed in Cuba back then.

For the party, money was collected from each house on the block, though residents would also contribute their specially prepared dishes. My mother used to make stuffed eggs, which were always a big hit. What I remember is people looking happy and a generally festival atmosphere.

In every store and business, paper chains were strung and brilliantly colored posters were taped up to honor the date. That was during the ‘80s, the one my generation remembers as the good times – the epoch of the most abundance in our country’s history.

Nonetheless the next decade hammered us with the “Special Period” crisis. Yet even still — amid shortages of most everything — we continued celebrating the “Day of National Rebelliousness.” Neighborhood organizers would continue coming by to collect the ten pesos from each house to buy the things for the festivities.

The government would sell each committee a cake, some cookies, rum and a pigs head for the caldosa (a broth prepared in a huge caldron); I don’t remember if there was anything else. At that point, the only dishes we could take were empty ones for getting a slice of the cake. Then too, we’d each take a bowl for our helping of the soup and a glass for at least one shot of the rum.

This was also how we carried out the block parties every September 27, which were in anticipation of the 28th, the day set aside for celebrating the anniversary of the founding of the CDR.

However, the celebrations around July 26 began to disappear. I don’t know if it was because of declining enthusiasm or an unwillingness to chip in those ten pesos from each house for the party. These days there are fewer posters and those available seem less and less attractive.

With the change of the millennium, the meaning of July 26 also changed in my life. In 2003 I began working for the weekly publication Tribuna de la Habana, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) in the capital city. To mark the 26th, the PCC would give each worker at the publication a plastic bag with rice, dried beans, oil, cookies, gofio (flour), something sweet and maybe a few other things I don’t remember.

But the most important thing was a bottle of rum and pork, though everything was sold at a more than affordable price. There was a distinct sense of cheerfulness at the paper as July 26 approached. The problem began, though, with the announcement that the plastic bag provided by UPEC (the Cuban Journalists Association) — which contained chicken, hot dogs, dried beans, rice, a sealed bottle of good rum, and also sold at a moderate price — would only be going to journalism staff (unlike the PCC bag which went to both administrative and journalistic staff members).

The administrative staff clearly showed their dissatisfaction. I worked there for a period of three years and I saw this situation repeat itself each time July 26 came around. There was a certain tension between the journalistic and the administrative personnel as people who had gotten along fine throughout the rest of the year, suddenly looked at each other with distrust or envy.

Some workers from the administrative staff went to the facility from where UPEC issued the plastic bags to try and get them to sell them some of the provisions; a few of them were actually successful. I don’t know if they argued that all of them worked for the newspaper or whether they just begged. Both alternatives alarmed me, though I think I would have been willing to pursue either of the two for an additional plastic bag of goods.

Fortunately, I was among the lucky journalistic staff – I automatically got two plastic bags. The pork, chicken and hot dogs didn’t interest me at all since I was a vegetarian, but they were a big help for guaranteeing food in the house for my mother. In addition, the sealed bottle of rum only cost me twenty pesos, and it could be easily sold for fifty (about $2 USD).

During the years I worked there, I could see my mother becoming happier each time we got closer to July 26.

.Waiting for the 26th.

On one occasion, in 2005, I arrived at the newspaper in the morning and one of the workers came up to me delighted, congratulating me with kisses and hugs. I thought I’d won some kind of distinguished award and she had come to give me the news.

However her enthusiasm was due to something about the capital city having won as the site for the upcoming July 26 ceremony or because it had been designated as an “outstanding city” – one of those things that apparently should have been the reason for great rejoicing.

As for me, I was naive enough to ask how any of that would improve actually our lives. I say naïve because another co-worker immediately pinched me and pulled me to the side. “You don’t ask those kinds of questions, you’re going to stand out. Here, everybody knows that winning any of these designations doesn’t mean anything. It won’t change anyone’s life one iota. But what you have to do is look happy and applaud like everybody else.”

I stopped working at that newspaper five years ago, and the fact that my province does or doesn’t “win” as the site for the July 26 ceremony continues to lack the most minimal significance for me.

The only good thing is that now I don’t have to show any fake enthusiasm and that the ceremonies have become shorter over time, though I can add that now we have more TV channels and not all are dedicated to broadcasting that political ritual.

At the same time, lots of workers are happy about having three days off for the commemoration of the Day of National Rebelliousness. Others — those that have Internet or e-mail accounts on their jobs — wait anxiously for these days to go by so that they can get on line and check their mail.