Cuba and Nostalgia for the Socialist Past

Jorge Dalton*

Plan Tareco and Russian meat. Cerro, Havana (2013). Photo: Jorge Dalton

HAVANA TIMES — Recently, I read an article about the nostalgia that canned Russian meat awakens in many Cubans living in Florida. If we recall the long decades when Russian canned meats were a part of our daily diet in Cuba – when having such meat in one’s pantry was like storing a treasure – this paradoxical nostalgia begins to make sense.

During my years in a countryside junior high boarding school and high school in general, the food was awful – the only things on the menu were mackerel, some other fish with macaroni died with bijol (Cuba’s saffron substitute) or overcooked cornflour. At the time, “chopped-up” Russian meat with a side of potatoes and white rice was regarded by starving teenagers as a true delicacy.

Russian meat appeased our hunger for a very long time. There was canned pork and beef. To date, I have yet to meet a single Cuban from my generation, living on the island or abroad, that looks down on this meat. Russian meat was served for many years at worker meal halls and workplace cafeterias, factories, art schools, military schools and even the Military Units for Production Aid [or UMAP, forced labor camps where homosexuals, dissidents and the disaffected in general were sent in the early years of the revolution]. It was also served during our 45 days in countryside schools, beach houses, inside the rissoles one got in cardboard lunchboxes served at weddings and sweet fifteen parties and inside the turnovers sold in the towns of Buenaventura, La Salud, Bauta, Caimito, Guayabal and many other places around Cuba. Russian meat was even sold at hotel restaurants. It saved the lives of many Cubans who crossed the Strait of Florida on makeshift rafts and was a high-demand black market product for a very long time.

Nostalgic, socialist-era products are sold everywhere and there’s a greater demand for them every day. Soviet, Rumanian, German, Czech and Polish cars are rolling relics that have become as valuable as the vintage American cars from the 40s and 50s still seen on Havana’s streets. At many different places around Havana, all of the symbols, artifacts and anything having to do with the Soviet past and the glorious years of the Cuban revolution are sold, in much the same way this is done in Vienna, Prague, Moscow and other European capitals.

Around the corner from Wenceslas Square, in the Czech Republic, one finds the Museum of Communism, where this tragic period in history (which was not without virtues) is on display. A store in the museum sells unique almanacs and other articles that reproduce the distinctive aesthetics of the socialist world.

In Havana’s old town, you can buy red kerchiefs, postcards, bills with Che Guevara on them, the small metal seals we got at schools in recognition of socialist feats, collections of stamps from the 60s and 70s, original and photocopies of the 1959 Cuban Revolution Album, banners printed by the Continental Latin American and Caribbean Students Organization (OCLAE), the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAAL) and the Cuban Institute for Friendship with Nations (ICAP), copies of Cuba, Bohemia and Tricontinental magazines, rare editions of El Caiman Barbudo and Pensamiento Critico journals, photos of astronaut Yuri Gagarin’s visit to the Cuba, Marxism manuals, photos and postcards of Fidel Castro, books and speeches by Fidel Castro, Soviet Christmas postcards, Lenin’s Complete Works, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and caps emblazoned with the hammer-and-sickle. I wanted a blue-and-white kerchief, the kind issued at the very beginning of the revolution, but the vendors told me they didn’t have those, that those were truly impossible to find.

The Havana sea wall. Photo: Ernesto González

In the course of time, many have set out to make a few bucks selling innumerable old contraptions, many of them useless, including ancient Soviet alarm clocks and wrist-watches, photographic cameras, 35-mm slide projectors with traditional, illustrated Russian stories, Misha the Bear teddies, diplomas, Czech and Bulgarian phones, record-players, 45 and 33-cm vinyl records with the UN speeches of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, the Internationale, Karel Got, Alla Pugachova and Russian language courses, Orbita­-brand fans and Selena, Caribe and Sokol transistor radios.

I met a couple who was selling everything they had picked up or bought during a trip to several socialist countries in the 70s, the only time they travelled outside Cuba. It included a good number of key chains, portable radios, watches, a collection of postcards from all of the Soviet-era capitals, tank-tops, cameras, photos autographed by the well-known clown Oleg Popov and even the tourist pictures of them at the Moscow subway, Red Square, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the Prague Castle, Budapest Bridge and other places.

I told them I didn’t think it right for them to sell their photos, that it was something intimate and part of their family’s history, and that it was also the only remaining evidence of their one, great trip, the memories of an entire period in their lives. The gentleman said to me: “Look, kid, all of this is in vogue right now. The tourists buy all of this stuff, I don’t really know why. But they’ll give us something for it. Our neighbor sold a Selena radio to a man from Holland for 100 euros. That world doesn’t exist anymore, son, it collapsed – why would I want to keep all those obsolete things that are completely useless now?”

The couple had won the well-known contest staged by the Cuban television program titled Nine Thousand Five Hundred Fifty (the distance, in kilometers, between Havana and Moscow), where the top prize was a tour of the main capitals of the socialist bloc.

Feelings of nostalgia can be doubled-edged swords. Once again, the Cuban nation asks itself what the hell it can do with an entire past that marked our lives, facing the risk of postponing the future for an eternal “later.” Perhaps the future seems out of reach because we are firmly wedded to the present, unable to realize our dreams. For some, radical changes and transformations are needed and the past should be sold to the best bidder, as is already taking place. Others are of the opinion that we should set a massive Plan Tareco* (“Trinket Plan”) in motion to get rid of our past in one fell swoop. Appealing to the need not to forget the past, the need to not make the same mistakes, I don’t believe either of these alternatives are good for the future.
*Plan Tareco: A sanitation campaign impelled by Cuba’s revolutionary government in conjunction with the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) and People’s Power Committees, aimed at the collection of rubble, junk, furniture, broken household appliances and all kinds of waste people could accumulate at home.

*Jorge Dalton –Cuban-Salvadorian filmmaker, considered a regional authority in the field. Currently one of the most renowned documentary filmmakers in the Central American and Caribbean region. Former student of Argentinean filmmaker Fernando Birri and documentary filmmaker Santiago Alvares. He is one of the founders of Cuba’s International Film and Television School and was one of the most renowned Cuban television directors at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s.

Dalton currently lives in El Salvador and is the Director of Cinema and Audiovisual Materials at the Ministry of Culture. He was one of the main proponents of El Salvador’s National Cinematheque and the National Cinematography Institute of El Salvador (INCINE). He is also a key contemporary filmmaker in El Salvador and the rest of the Central American region.

4 thoughts on “Cuba and Nostalgia for the Socialist Past

  • Are you suggesting that a once-in-a-while serving of a poor man’s SPAM should be applauded? Really?

  • Your attempt at argument by implying a false comparison to Nazi death camps does not impress.

  • What ? They served the famed carne Russo en lata in the UMAPs ? Don’t let Moses and Griffin hear that. They routinely drag out that as being on a par with Treblinka.

  • This explains the Cuban fondness for Spam, which I carry for gifts.

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