Just Another Day in Cuba

Osmel Ramírez Alvarez

Photo: Christian Bernfeld
Photo: Christian Bernfeld

HAVANA TIMES — I wake up early, not because I can’t sleep nor because I’m so hard-working, but because I feel it’s my responsibility to. A number of tasks require my energy, normal everyday activities which allow me to come up on top, “survive”.

As soon as I get out of bed, I glance over at my university degree hanging up on the wall, as if it were a ritual. Then, I feel ready to do the jobs that have nothing to do with my degree. I fly through my breakfast, feed my pigs and, out of habit, I have a quick look over the crops, although I don’t intend to work in them today.

The tobacco plants are growing well; their leaves are big and healthy. Nature has been very generous with her rains this year. The Mayarí valley is one of the best regions in the country for this type of cultivation. The beanstalks are weighed down by so many pods and the tomatoes are coming along well. Everything is pointing towards a prosperous year.

Back inside the house, I look down with sadness at my computer because I don’t have the time to write nor study on it. To be honest, it’s the thing I like the most and which best defines me, yet I’m only able to spend two or three hours on it before going to bed. I dream of the day when it will take up a third or more of my time. But that is a thing of the future, now is the time to have a practical mindset and leave dreams on stand by.

My day is made up of many errands, tedious of course, but inescapable. The neighborhood doctors clinic, the bank, the polyclinic and the housing office. I was lucky at the consultation: I only had to wait 30 minutes and the doctor had prescriptions he could fill out.

At the bank, I wasn’t so lucky. I had to wait for almost an hour and the claustrophobic heat was overwhelming. Closed windows surround the place and the air-conditioning was turned off. They have a low energy plan and their solution is to suffocate their clients by turning off the air-conditioning. But worst than that, I needed another signature and so I would have to go back the next day. I didn’t get that done.

I went to the housing office to check whether my sister’s home could be made legal. She bought it before Cubans were allowed to purchase property. Lots of people out of necessity gambled their money by buying property illegally and then the State intervened. Luckily, my sister was able to stay as a rentee, paying rent on her own house to the government.

Photo: Christian Bernfeld
Photo: Christian Bernfeld

Now word is going around that you might be able to legalise these properties. Paying for it again is robbery, but it’s better than the current status. I was the last one to ask, I waited over an hour for an official to speak to me. Unfortunately, the Ministry’s eagerly-awaited resolution has not been put into effect yet, however: “they say it will be soon”, she consoled me with a complicit whisper whilst winking at me.

I arrived at the polyclinic at about 11 am. In the reception, there is a table and an employee who stamps and certifies documents. There’s always a long wait. Twenty people were waiting and all the time the phone was ringing, or somebody shouting who they wanted to speak to, a doctor wanting to get their prescriptions stamped, or a friend just stopping to say hi and a little gossip.

It took me over an hour to get my father’s certificate for his blood pressure treatment and to make an appointment for my wife with the allergy specialist. The appointment was in three months time. There aren’t a lot of specialists left here in Cuba, almost of all them are working on government contracts abroad. They ask for our understanding: sugar mills no longer exist and the State needs to bank on human capital in order to survive. At least I managed to get what I needed to do.

All I had to do now was go to the pharmacy. I ran to get a horse drawn taxi at the first stop, slipping away from the sun between the shadows of houses. Whilst passengers came rolling in, the stench of urine and horse manure made me sneeze several times. It was clear that I needed an anti-allergen.

I finally got there and almost had a heart attack. A large crowd swarmed in front of the pharmacy. “Why are there so many people?” I asked. “They just brought out intimates (sanitary towels) and they were late in coming,” somebody told me. I considered leaving but the medication wasn’t just for me, my young daughter and wife also needed it. I didn’t have any other choice but to wait. I was the last one to ask, but first I made sure they still had it. Fortunately they did!

Two hours of waiting and I finally reached the counter. I handed over the prescriptions relieved to the pharmacist. I almost died when she said, “I can’t accept this prescription here, the doctor hasn’t stamped this . You have to buy it at the pilot pharmacy.”

I just about recovered from my shock when I replied, “But this is the pharmacy that corresponds to me, how could I have foreseen this? I’ve just waited out this huge line and now you’re telling me I have to do the same thing at another pharmacy?” “It’s the way it is,” she replied.

Photo: Christian Bernfeld
Photo: Christian Bernfeld

I had to go back to the center of town, line up once again and buy the medicine. I ate a small pizza so as not to pass out. On my way home, after 3pm, I meditated for a while and tried to calm my rage with positive thoughts. But the sad reality we face crushed my ideas: I hadn’t been able to do anything and my whole day had gone. Not to mention the waste of psychological energy and the feeling of being absolutely useless.

I’ve been living in this country for 40 years and I still haven’t got used to it. I was born into this system and I’m supposed to be used to standing in line, to the bureacracy and to the fact that almost nothing works properly. But I can’t. It’s as if my body rejects everything that doesn’t make sense and that goes against nature.

On that thought, I reached my neighbourhood. I see the shop crowded with people and my mother-in-law amongst them. My daughters milk, which should be sold in the morning, has finally arrived. Mothers and grandmothers have been waiting all day long. I said hello and carried on my way home.

I arrived at almost four o’clock; I laid down briefly on the sofa whilst my wife inquired about my errands. It took some time for me to answer her because I only had one thing on my mind: could a country make progress and advance if its people spend all their time in lines, if nothing works and if there is so much bureaucracy? There’s only one answer to that question: Never!

23 thoughts on “Just Another Day in Cuba

  • I agree. Maybe I did not make my point clearly. I was trying to show the hypocrisy of those who support socialism while at the same time promoting capitalism as a means of saving their socialist system.

  • Well, don’t you see what socialism does? The difficulty in receiving thing like medications? The crumbling infrastructure? The engineers that are becoming taxi drivers to help their family survive? Capitalism may not be perfect, but to say it will not help Cuba would be very, very, wrong.

  • The money is coming from China and oil kingdoms.

  • Do you understand what you are suggesting? You want more capitalism to help improve life in a socialist country.

  • Have you been to Granma? Of course it’s cheaper. But I take your point. I hear Sierra Leone is cheaper still.

  • Waterfront property is very cheap in Granma compared to Vancouver or Victoria. A single non water front house – average house price $ 1.8 million in Vancouver.

  • Your first error is referencing “Killing Hope”. Do you think that the Cubans blame their problems on the United States? If you do, as your comment implies, you are very, very wrong. The people of Cuba don’t blame the US, only the government does.

  • Luckily, there is a small tractor manufacturer that just got permission to set up a shop in Cuba. I hope that this is the beginning of a trend in Cuba and that this can provide good jobs for many Cubans.

  • Gordon, your comments betray a very likable person. But at the same time reflect the naivete of a guy who has been living in a cave. Have you priced beachfront Cuban property? It is ridiculously expensive. Mexico, Jamaica and many other comparable countries remain far more likely options.

  • If money can be found for all these extra rooms/hotels are for tourists, then why cant the government build more affordable accommodation for the local Cuban people/

  • Many non Cubans will purchase retirement / vacation house in Cuba when allowed. Just look what tourism did for Orlando. the most visited city in the Americas

  • ….along with little household debt comes little income

  • Tourism will likely impact an additional 10,000 Cubans amidst a population of 6 million. Of those 10,000, maybe only 1,000 will earn that 100 cuc maximum. …maybe. These 1,000 Cubans are already well off today. Given your many ‘research’ trips to Cuba, you should understand this assumption. Tourism, as an employer, typically does not lift a lot of people out of poverty. It makes rich people richer, and poor people usually earn just enough money to become better consumers. They end up spending their money to live like the tourists they serve. Manufacturing jobs build economies. Please don’t misunderstand, a job in tourism in Cuba is a good job. But Cuba stays a third world country if the best they can hope for is leading the world in selling mojitos.

  • There are 23,000 more hotel / resort rooms being built or in design. A top resort worker can earn CUC $ 100.00 a day in tips. Seven new international marinas are under construction. Never forget Cubans have very little government or household debt.

  • How exactly will expanded travel improve the Cuban situation? As I see it there would simply be more doctors and professionals working in the tourist industry further skewing he economy. Not yo mention the further expansion of the already bad problem of prostitution.

    Don’t you see the problems Cuba has are part and parcel of their communist central planning model? Expanded travel will have little effect on the life of average Cubans. Tell that to your Cuban contacts

  • “The Cuban people have chosen to live with the lines and deprivation rather than surrender to U.S. imperialism.” What an idiotic thing to write. You obviously don’t know any Cubans and you certainly have never visited the island.

  • If tourism alone could solve Cuba’s problems, then the problem should already be solved. Canadians, Brits, Germans, etc. are unrestricted in their travel to Cuba already. Yes, American tourists will likely double the number of arrivals in Cuba over time before the initial novelty wears off but to say that “it will get better shortly” is overly optimistic.

  • ….poorly operated

  • The U.S. instituted an embargo on Cuba some 54 years ago intended to impoverish the entire island and create a counter-revolution.
    That embargo succeeded in impoverishing the entire population but failed to make the Cuban people blame their government. The Cuban people have chosen to live with the lines and deprivation rather than surrender to U.S. imperialism.
    That the embargo continues to this day is proof of its ( partial ) effectiveness and until it ends, a good reason to hold off on blaming the Cuban government for the bulk of the economic problems in the country.
    It has been the central point of U.S. foreign policy since its invasion of the Soviet Union in 1918 to prevent the rise of economic systems that would successfully compete with the U.S. brand of neo-liberal free enterprise capitalism .
    Cuba is but the latest in a very long line to face that policy.
    ( reference: “Killing Hope” ,book or website.)

  • In other countries, line-ups have been used as a substitute for employment. After a day in line, one comes away with something, however small. It’s a reward for their day’s efforts. In other societies line-ups are the incentive to get out of that situation and improve your life so you won’t need to stand in line.
    Is Cuban bureaucracy really as poorly operated as this story suggests or are the Cuban people being engineered into change?

  • Are the line-ups a natural condition or are they being engineered to use-up lots of the people’s surplus time as a replacement for real employment that doesn’t exist? Are the line-ups an incentive to earn money and use a market driven method of acquiring supplies?
    Or is it as badly run as it looks? Are the people starting businesses just to survive?

  • I remember watching a movie at my casa particular in Havana with my future wife many years ago. The lead actress intentionally poured out gallons and gallons of milk onto the kitchen floor out of anger at her cheating husband. My reaction to the scene was wondering how could someone make such a mess? My wife’s reaction was how was it possible to have that much whole milk in your house at one time?

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