Cuba in the ‘90s, Special Memories

By Amrit

Un camello. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, July 26 — A few days ago, when speaking with a friend, a bitter phrase slipped out when she referred to the Special Period crisis.  I remembered having witnessed that reaction before, but this time I asked myself:  Is this from the merging of all those bitter memories?

What kind of country are we building?  Is it a nation where we see ourselves forced to live here or the one that we exaggerate with our desires?

Who really knows, but it’s undeniable that such a “special” decade made an impact on our fantasy of the “hombres nuevos” (new humans).

My first memory of the ‘90s was me hitchhiking on some street.  Any anguish that I experienced there — lifting my thumb over and over again to fleeting autos while baking in the scorching sun — was preferable to those rolling monsters that replaced the city buses.  Popularly referred to as “camels,” these jerry-rigged buses conveyed as much irony as silent vengeance.

Packed with people, as well as desperation, those metal camels completely stripped the act of traveling through the city of any form of poetry.  Like a magic act, we felt the disappearance of the buses that had served the Alamar community, ones that used to pass by every ten minutes and that had displayed the emblem “National Vanguard” on their sides.  Back then Alamar had the best bus service in Havana; people didn’t feel like they were inhabitants of some dead and forgotten village, but from a place where it was possible to dream.

Photo: Caridad

Suddenly suffocating from increasingly tangible shortages and seemingly endless blackouts, I wound up believing that the solution was to leave the apartment. I felt that constant movement was the exodus from that nightmare.  More than once I remember that it meant the same thing to go in one direction or the opposite: My problem was to escape.

But escape what?  The hallucination was omnipresent: waves of vendors at the beach, gluttonous vacationers who left the shore covered with trash.  Increasingly younger girls hitting the streets looking for tourists, with those same tourists looking for girls increasingly younger, less inhibited, cheaper.

Escape to Coppelia 

One of my places of escape was the Coppelia ice cream plaza.  How could one not remember the unending lines that formed there in that “period” – the longest and most crowded in the entire history of this near mythic ice-cream palace?  Although vanilla was practically the only available flavor, groups of half-starved students charged out of their classes, while workers and people of all type spontaneously headed to that same place.  They filled the lines that stopped and started according to the patches of shade as the would-be eaters agonized slowly in the horrible wait.

To avoid that torture, people used all types of tricks, such as bribing the employees who controlled access to the tables.  I remember that going up to the tower was only possible if you slipped someone a dollar (which was equal to 120 Cuban pesos – a fortune back then).

Photo: Caridad

Likewise, you could appeal to the young police officers that were there to put down any possible disorder or payoff someone in your own line so you could get in next.  There were even those who would come with a foreigner, proceding triumphantly into the reserved area where one could only pay in hard currency and where they always offered several flavors – including delicious chocolate and almond!

One time I saw a man who had bought his ice cream “under the table” but not having something to put it in had asked that it be put in a plastic bag.  So there he was sitting on the floor in a corner of the ice-cream parlor eating his ice cream from the bag and using his ID card as a spoon.

It’s a shame I never had a camera to record all those images of sheer abandon.  This same Coppelia where youths would meet in the ‘80s.  It was here where I discovered avant-garde fashion and the place where “rival” motorcyclists would rally.  This was the Coppelia where there had been delicious ice cream “salads” and a varied menu of flavors.

After the worst years of the Special Period there was an attempt at remodeling but it had all the bad taste of things bureaucratic: cheap plastic cups to replace the classic metal ones, weak flavors and increasingly watered-down ice cream that was no longer Coppelia.  It failed to inspire fantasy.

A non-recorded exodus 

To me, one of the saddest visions during that unforgettable period was when “jerkers” would appear anywhere.  It was a weird epidemic.  Once while I was reading a book at the beach in Bacuranao, I suddenly realized that four men were seated around me, as if covering my four cardinal points.  I don’t know if they knew each other, but each one sat there masturbating in complete peace.

Photo: Caridad

If you were to sit on the Malecon seawall and note the reefs instead of looking out at the sea, there would always be someone down there yanking their hand underwater at level of their pelvis.  There would sometimes be several of them, separated at a wise distance.

Of course they’d be there at the cinema.  All the doors were propped open because it wasn’t possible to turn on the air conditioning, and in the midst of the sweltering theater — where men would take off their shirts and women would fan themselves with whatever they in hand — there was always some guy who would box in a poor girl, sit down beside her and begin furiously whacking himself off.

But the most incredible incident was one afternoon while I was talking on the public telephone – in the middle of downtown Havana.  A man stopped in front of me began jerking off as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

What was the cause of that pathetic plague?  It wasn’t only because of the misery and the blackouts, but the exodus of the attention of young Cuban women.  Their attention became directed toward foreigners, the sole objective possibility of escape.

On more than one occasion I heard some young woman say that being with a Cuban male “was to suffer difficulties,” when comparing Cuban males (as if a suddenly disadvantaged race) to foreigners.  And of course those “jerkers” who swarmed through the city reacted with resignation and a sense of social impotence.

There were also men (there still are) who brokered in the tragic business of lending their wives to tourists in exchange for money, consoling themselves by saying, “She does it with them out of necessity, but I’m the one she loves.”

I was told another anecdote that hit me hard: The young classmate of a friend, in love with a girl who ignored him, agreed to have sex with a gay tourist for fifty dollars.  With that money he invited the young woman to go out on a date.

This was only one more face of the madness…of the collapse of idealism and hope.  Those who didn’t want to violate their heterosexuality or who didn’t have money, they had the alternative of distant, impossible women – those they could never touch.  So the “jerkers” descended like a cloud, wafting into the streets at noon in a cloud of pain, rage and despair.



5 thoughts on “Cuba in the ‘90s, Special Memories

  • July 26, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Forgive us.
    – Russo

  • July 26, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    A great story, well told! Pedro Juan Gutierrez couldn’t have told it any better! Thanks for sharing!

  • July 26, 2011 at 10:57 am

    I read about this period of the Cuban history last year for first time. I do not remember any reports about these harsh years in our media during the ’90s. I just cannot imagine how the Cuban families were able to raise up their kids who were born then. My sympathy is even deeper when I think of my personal life of that time as my daughter was born in 1990.

    I know that recalling the memories of these years must be painful, but is it possible to read about other authors’ personal experience? How did the representatives of different generations live through this period? What survival techniques did their family use and develop?

  • July 26, 2011 at 9:03 am

    outstanding piece of recorded history, don’t feel bad about not having a camera at the time to capture the moments, you did so magnificently here with the words!

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