By Maykel Paneque
HAVANA TIMES —I don’t recall when I began to distrust the Cuban government. It may have been a Saturday near the end of the 90s, during a hot month like August, when I first heard about a series of forced labor camps that existed in Cuba, known as the UMAP.
At that age, misinformed by the press here (or lack thereof), I had believed those infernos had existed only in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia, that they were unthinkable on an island that had undertaken a socialist revolution to dignify the people.
I do however recall when I lost all confidence in and respect for the policies traced by the government. After a long wait, some ten years ago, this government finally raised worker salaries. I can still recall the faces of many, satisfied they’d be earning 20 or 30 extra pesos, as if it was yesterday – as though such a raise represented any significant change in their real purchasing power.
The following month, some subsidized products offered through the ration booklet would go up in price. When you think about it, the raise was actually a way of leaving the salary as it was, as those 20 or 30 pesos had to be spent in products that cost less before. It was a master move by the Cuban government, if you wish, but it is nonetheless deceitful.
Now, after Obama’s visit, those who took part in the 7th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party say they discovered that Cubans need salaries that afford them purchasing power. How many decades did we have to wait for this realization? What money did the previous Congress participants and the Cuban government think workers had to buy things with? Have these “deep-thinking” leaders only now come to the realization that wages aren’t enough (and haven’t been so for nearly 30 years) even to buy rice and beans for a month? How do they think we average Cubans have managed to get by for so long, if not through corruption and the “crime” of roughing it to put food on the table?
One of the agreements reached during the 7th Congress was lowering the price of some products by 20%. So that we have a true sense of the magnitude of this “benefit,” suffice it to note that a 10 kg box of chicken cuts costs 17 Cuban Convertible Pesos, the equivalent of 425 Cuban pesos, a sum well above the full monthly wages of 90% of workers (which is around 365 pesos). If that worker wanted to eat chicken the entire month, he would not have enough to buy it with, not to mention the fact that he’d have to eat that chicken raw and without any kind of seasoning.
It’s hard to persuade a country’s citizens with hypocrisy, speeches that are out of touch with reality and hackneyed slogans. Saying that the revolution continues is one thing, defending it with conviction and faith is quite another. Disingenuousness and double standards have doubled Cuba’s population from 12 to 24 million, as can be easily demonstrated any May 1st.
I recall a saying that captures our ability to adapt to a country where the government believes it is smarter than the average fellow: “the State pretends to pay us and we pretend to work.” It’s hard to believe this popular saying, which I’ve been hearing for centuries, never reached the ears of those “chosen” to take part in the Party Congress and the country’s leaders. To believe that the Cuban people live in a bubble, as they did in the 80s, is to be far too naïve. Pretending and being loyal are two very different things.
I’ve forgotten when I came to suspect that living is more than having the guarantee of an education and free healthcare. “It’s free education and medical attention that they will charge you for life, offering you a salary that won’t buy enough food for the month,” a friend of mine said to me yesterday. She’s quite right. Living is fulfilling one’s dreams and leaving the world a better place than we found it. Living is more than breathing. It is also believing in the future of a country, not leaving it. Living should never be associated to monotony, disenchantment and frustration.
Like so many other Cubans (myself included), my friend went to work in Venezuela. She is very upset and unhappy, and with good reason. It’s been a year and a half and she still hasn’t been paid for November and December of 2015. In Venezuela, our superiors told us the money had already been deposited by the Oro Negro Foundation, that we’d find it in our accounts when we got back.
The new version of events they’re peddling now is that the Venezuelan government did not deposit the money and that our own government, in an act of “altruism” (as though our wages were a gift) would take care of it, though we don’t know when that could be. My friend dreams of the day when they’ll announce the payment. I would love to see that day, but I’ve lost faith. “It’s not enough the government scams us, it even gets offended when you remind it of this. But I still have hope,” my friend says.
Part of life is not losing hope, and also breaking the silence about injustice and cheating. It’s true many get away with murder, and this includes the Cuban government. Some of us are irritated by its unreliability and the long terms it announces such that its lies can one day become truth. I tell my friend she should not lose hope, as scams also have a lifespan, as do the villains who hide behind them. The lot of many of us is to stick around to express repugnance and deception. That doesn’t make us heroes, of course, only citizens.