Ernesto Perez Chang
HAVANA TIMES — This is the basic consumer basket of the average Cuban: five eggs and some pounds of rice (the kind that “gets sticky”, not cooked) every month, enough sugar to turn a regular glass of water into an emergency breakfast, one kilogram of table salt (with crystals the size of Ping-Pong balls) once every who knows how many months. Placing these product quantities on the same plane as monthly needs entails a complicated mathematical operation.
Often, ration stores dish out a few grams of ground-up tendons and fat mixed with soy flour, a bit of seasoning and chemical preservatives that no laboratory could identify. People eat this concoction without knowing what it is, exactly, but they have learned to swallow without asking too many questions. The formula may well be one of the country’s best-kept secrets and this business of eating blindly one of the most intelligent of consumer strategies.
When the beans one buys aren’t eaten through by worms or weevils, they smell of fumigation chemicals. Often, they are so old and stale that there’s no way to turn them into something humans can eat.
The cooking oil, with flies floating on the surface, is good, not for dressing, but for dirtying the bottle it comes in, and the only cheap bread a working-class person can afford has such a sharp taste and weird texture it sometimes ends up as pig fodder.
If the ship everyone gawks at from behind the seaside wall happens to dock here, then people will get their one pound of chicken (meant to last them for thirty days). Sometimes, one manages to bribe a doctor into prescribing you a special diet and, after some difficult bureaucratic procedures, can get their hands on a little bit more food for a few months. Commonly, people develop complications as the years go by because of prolonged malnutrition – and getting the extra bit of food is like winning the lottery, such that the illness arrives as a blessing in disguise.
The food ration booklet doesn’t put much more on our tables. Every year, the authorities take something out of them, such that the booklet never thickens, it only gets thinner. That’s what the incessant re-editions amount to. The product slots that manage to survive these regular trimmings end up as empty as the inside of our fridges, to say nothing of our bellies.
Perhaps it is in order to justify its persistence in our lives that the document, a true catalogue of privations, is furnished with other control functions and has become an essential means of regulating and determining the course of our existences. It is of such vital importance in many low-income homes that, on the cover, they have gone as far as printing a disclaimer to the effect that the ration booklet is not “an official document.” All of us, however, know that it is, and we take it everywhere, next to our identification card. We even affix it to our passport when we travel abroad. The devil is in the details.
The ration or “supplies” booklet (as it is officially referred to) deserves a place among the nation’s emblems – I don’t think anything represents our people and the history or privations it has endured more eloquently.
Only in certain privileged homes does the ration booklet disappear or, quite simply, is put to rest in a drawer or garbage bin. We are talking about the mansions in restricted areas or the realm of the gods of this island Olympus: the managers of large or small State companies, high-ranking military officers, government officials with effective powers, men and women who have known how to take advantage of the many and perverse control mechanisms or those who have simply discovered socialism is a big party where, if things aren’t going well for you, it’s simply because you were not invited.