Lines of People in Cuba: An Unexplored Social Phenomenon

By Pilar Montes

Cola-para-comprar-el-pollo,-picadillo-y-huevos-por-la-libretaHAVANA TIMES — Standing in line behind a large group of people to buy food or procuring a public service can be irritating for anyone. However, it is the most common means of socializing for Cubans of any age.

Rather than blame these long queues on shortages and poverty, which have always existed around the world, we should lay the burden of responsibility on bureaucracy and inefficiency. I have been able to confirm that waiting times are reduced to a minimum with a competent management and clerks, respectful of other people’s time.

Setting aside these circumstances (which will not be overcome soon), some people regard standing in line as running contrary to the global tendency to individualize interpersonal communication through new technologies, but exchanges among people in line can broaden the horizons of those who have no other access to information.

I could say even more: it is an unexplored social phenomenon, even though it points to many different disciplines, such as is psychology, sociology, law, economics, biology, medicine, pharmaceutical sciences, mathematics and the humanities in general.

This phenomenon, so common for the inhabitants of the island, takes foreign visitors by surprise, not because they’ve never seen a line of people (or a traffic jam, the only type of line little known to today’s Cubans.), but because of the adventure that standing in line in Cuba can become.

In the beginning, lines of people began to form as a result of the ration booklet, created in 1963, four years after the triumph of the revolution, when imported food products went missing as a result of the US blockade (still in place, despite the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the island).

The line for the daily bread roll. Foto: Juan Suarez

Though the history of Cuba’s long lines of people may have started then, when over 20 products were rationed, it is no longer a problem to get the “month’s groceries,” as these have practically been reduced to salt, sugar, coffee, rice, beans, eggs, a few grams of oil, pasta and bread (one roll per person daily). Only those truly in need stand in that line. The others wait for less crowded days.

I make no mention of the subsidized sale of small quantities of pork, chicken, fish or processed meats, as there is no set date for their distribution (though the designated people in the family still stand in line for them).

An Adventure or A Waste of Time?

Those more experienced in standing in line will tell you that one can find there the love of one’s life (or someone more compatible than one’s partner), as well as people swapping or selling homes or cars, both allowed in today’s Cuba.

Standing in line, people get wind of things that are not reported by the newspapers, from violent crimes and crimes of passion, to fires and robberies to the collapse of buildings, incidents that are of great significance for a community but not so much the country as a whole (and are therefore not addressed by the media).

Standing in line gives you an opportunity to learn about the changes that have been taking place in the neighborhood, who died or got sick, who left the country to visit relatives or move abroad. There are also those who spread rumors about the life of artists or personalities, in Cuba and abroad, as such news can be found on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

Of course, only those with access to the Internet, and their friends, are privy to news published on social networks, even though there are over two million active cell phones in Cuba. There is also a growing number of citizens who are becoming informed through the “package,” whose contents may vary according to personal taste and do not depend on selections made by TV broadcasters.

Lines of people can become so intense it is hard to capture the feeling in a single article. My aim is to write a series of posts dealing with different aspects of daily life we come across in lines, including the lines outside pharmacies, clinics, hardware stores, bus stops and banks.

We also have lines of people waiting for telephone, electricity, gas and notary services, as well as business, self-employment or other licenses, property registrations, ID and immigration documents and infinity of other such documents.

One thought on “Lines of People in Cuba: An Unexplored Social Phenomenon

  • November 9, 2015 at 7:49 pm

    The system needs a major overhauling. Best to you for putting up with this and hopefully the future will be brighter.

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