Making Magic in Cuba During Hard Times

By Irelas Casana (Alas Tensas)

A bodega rations distribution store in Cuba. Photo by Ileana Alvarez.

HAVANA TIMES – In town, on a street corner, there was a kiosk that used to have everything. And, everything came from the Soviet Bloc. But, I didn’t know that then. What I did know was that they sold some really yummy jams, apple and apricot. And, tinned peaches. Infant formula, chocolate, condensed milk… Some razor blades wrapped up individually in thin paper. I cried one day because I wanted a set of blades. They were so beautiful. Of course, I was given a jar of jam.

I remember the blond-haired woman who used to sell at that kiosk. She spoke really well. Adults would ask “Give me a tube of toothpaste” and she would say “a tube of dental paste”. There was a really sharp-tasting dental paste, soap and washing detergent… without any lines.

People used to call this kiosk “La Abusadora” because prices were slightly higher than they were at the grocery store and because of a song that was a hit back then and the chorus went: Que hiciste abusadora… (What did you do? Taking advantage woman…)

Frozen products weren’t sold at “La Abusadora”. You had to buy those in the city, 23 kms away from the town. But there were chickens in my grandparents’ yard. And, my grandmother was an expert in snapping necks, plucking feathers and cooking. Everything would be ready in a flash on her stove with four hobs. The oven didn’t work, but she didn’t need it, my grandmother’s dishes were simple. They were delicious. She could create unforgettable flavors with garlic, peppers and onion. Although, I always preferred junk food. Until I started to become a teenager that is.

There was another store in town which some people used to call “La tienda grande”. But, in reality, it had another name: “Estrella Roja” (Red star). The store had different partitions along its long and beautiful wooden and glass counter, which acted as departments. Some objects were sold outside of the rations. Others could be bought with the rations booklet.

On Saturdays, a lot of items were sold free sale in the store’s corridor. We used to call this kind of sale a “Marathon”. In order to set up a Marathon, a rope would be put up to separate the saleswoman from customers. The saleswoman would stand between boxes and shelves and would begin taking out everything customers shouted her way. A purple necklace hanging on a nail in the middle of a shelf always caught my attention. Months passed by and nobody bought it.

One night, my parents seemed worried. “What will we do if everything is Russian here? Everything, even the wood on this cot.” It wasn’t mine for the record, I’d been sleeping in a bed for a while by then and I had started to like more wholesome food than what was being sold in La Abusadora.

But, something happened and there were no longer any junk food or basic food items. As liquefied gas disappeared overnight, my grandmother replaced her stove with a coal fired one, although she also set up a wood cook stove in the backyard. The times on had cooking oil became a moment of relief.

My grandfather, who was used to going out every afternoon to buy bread and then call to his grandchildren to come and eat it while it was still warm, stopped doing this. He retired from his job at the sugar mill factory’s boilers and began to spend his day working the land for a farmer who had quite a prosperous farm.

We were living in the Special Period. A Special Period in Times of Peace, that was the full name, and it helped us to try and understand the shortages that became more and more acute every day.

The purple necklace nobody bought disappeared. Blackouts started. Newspapers reduced their format. Daily papers became weekly publications. I didn’t see Misha magazine on shelves anymore, and Zunzun magazine became small and hard to find. Books lasted a bit longer, that was until bookstores ran out of things to offer. When I was in 6th grade, I read a really crazy book called “The Cucumber King”, and the absurd plot seemed to resemble our reality back then.

One morning, at recess, my friends and I were taking out our snacks from our backpacks. And, while we ate our snacks, we started talking about all the changes we were experiencing. We were 11 years old, our bodies were changing… but, I still can’t forget how we all agreed on feeling awful, and we repeated one after the other: “now that we’re living in the Special Period, I know what hunger is.” Later, I’d discover that this huge appetite was typical of adolescence.

I didn’t really know what was going on. It was the Special Period and it had to end sometime. That’s what Periods are, moments, phases… I guess that I didn’t lose heart because I was a teenager. I started high school in 1992. During her introduction to the class, my first English teacher explained that she had in fact studied Russian, but that, as everything had changed, she also had to take up another language in order to carry on teaching. She was a good teacher. Almost all of them were.

In spite of the crisis, teachers would teach proper classes. They weren’t tired yet. But, what I never understood was why some Physical Ed teachers were so severe when they knew there were food shortages. I remember a really cruel exam that was given at the end of 7th grade: a ten-minute endurance run, under the scorching sun in June.

The blackouts began to get longer, six hours, eight… The weekly paper would publish a table with the schedule. As we couldn’t follow the plot of a Brazilian telenovela like that, a summary of the episode the night before was broadcast on the radio which my grandmother always listened to.

We would use kerosene lamps for light. The batteries of the flashlights had already run out and we didn’t have any way to replace them. My younger brother used to say that the lantern’s light was in the shape of Rebecca’s hair, a character from the French cartoon series “Spartakus and the sun beneath the sea”.

A lot of things happened between 1992 and 1994. We’ll never forget the opening ceremony of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. My mother brought a set of cards which helped us to kill our boredom and, more than that, have fun. I read “The Old Man and the Sea” at some point. Rationed bread became dark, rough and thin. Most food service establishments only sold cassava bread and lemon or orange leaf infusions.

My mother began to wash clothes with a white powder that used to chap her hands and they would be covered in blood-filled cracks. Later, a soap with an impossible color that smelled of molasses was manufactured at the town’s factory. I remember a TV show that showed you how you could get 6 bars of soap out of one. You had to mix, whisk, add, I don’t know how many things, I don’t know how many times. Then, you had to put the mixture in a rectangular recipient so that once it was dry, you could cut it into six bars. A friend confused this homemade product with cheese once and took a bite.

If there wasn’t any food, there definitely weren’t any beauty products. One afternoon at the hairdresser’s, while the hairdresser was cutting just the ends off my hair, a young woman came in: “Good afternoon, do you have dye?”. “No, there isn’t any,” the hairdresser replied dryly, and when the young woman walked away, she turned to the mirror saying “Seeing dye, that woman is drunk!” That’s how we were, we would make fun of everyone and everything. During that time, our humor became more sarcastic, dark and grim. Now, I understand that it was a basic and symbolic defence mechanism we used to get by.

Bartering became an everyday practice. People would go to the countryside and exchange a pair of shoes for a pig. A pair of trousers and a blouse for two chickens and some bananas. My grandmother, my mother and my aunts put all their jewels together and exchanged them for sports shoes at a state-run store. I had some beautiful, printed tennis shows for six months. By 1993, there was absolutely nothing left, not even school books. I spent some of eighth grade taking notes of every subject into a small handmade diary that didn’t have more than 40 pages. Today, I don’t even let myself waste half a page.

Then, “the decriminalization of foreign currency possession” was announced, that is to say, that carrying a dollar in your wallet was no longer considered a crime. Some stores were transformed, restocked and decorated. You could only buy things in dollars at these stores. In order to get a dollar, you had to pay 100 or even 150 pesos, which was half many workers’ monthly wages. A pair of tennis shoes on the black market could cost you 350 pesos, and a simple pair of jeans, 1000-1500 pesos. The government called this excessive inflation “excess of money circulation”.

I wasn’t worried about any of that, I just lived my life, listening to the Juventud 2000 radio show to enjoy some pop music. I would anxiously wait for Pepe Armas’ segment so I could learn more about the hits. It was the time of Roxette, Ace of Base, Sinead O’Connor…

I wasn’t worried, but the longing to eat a delicious meal was one of the frequent subjects of conversation among friends, the desire to wear something beautiful on your 15th birthday, the dream of having a job we liked because working in something that was enough to get by was something we just assumed, those hard years would pass.

Twenty-six years have passed since 1993, the toughest year of the Special Period. And this year, 2019, has welcomed us with great food shortages and shortages of other basic products that allow us to live a more or less dignified life. It seems like it’s a crisis within another crisis, which never really ended.

We Cubans are used to recycling, fixing things and innovating. And, even though men still have the role of provider in many Cuban households, the woman is also a provider and especially the final doer. A Cuban woman will never say: “We won’t have dinner today because of the Blockade”. No, that’s not her prerrogative.

Over recent days, you can see that its mostly women lining up to buy cooking oil or chicken when its available. Women who, even though they work are still up on “what’s come in” and they make excuses to leave work so they can find food for their family.

As shortages are an old story here, sometimes, they buy more, or even hoard, products as they don’t know when they’ll be able to buy what they need again. Many unprincipled people take advantage of these conditions to make a living off of others, dedicating themselves to hoarding so they can resell it. They get away with selling food for at least twice the price.

I believe that many Cuban women aren’t afraid of facing another 1993, we got through it and survived. No, it’s not fear that we have, it’s weariness, frustration, exhaustion, of having to spend the month trying to get to day 30 and spending their lives in just trying to survive. Frankly, it’s not fair.

I think about the time, energy and talent that Cuban women could dedicate to their jobs, children, themselves and society, if they didn’t have to spend so much of it trying to put a plate of food on the table. Many women who were adults in the early ‘90s are now older women, and I’m sure they aren’t afraid either. It “just” seems that they will have to dedicate the time they have left to trying to keep their homes afloat, making magic out of times of poverty.

11 thoughts on “Making Magic in Cuba During Hard Times

  • April 28, 2019 at 4:37 am

    I Was Permitted to Live for 3 months in Cuba,s Out Back of San Antonio, Las Tunas Province. This is just one of Cuba,s Small country Community,s that showed the Real Honest life of Cuban,s life of Hard Ship & The Ladies of the Land that keep there family,s Happy with so very Little still today, With Little to No drinking Water in there Ground Well A 400 meter walk from my Home & The 2 Km, Horse & Cow worn path walk to the river for our daily bath never hurt anyone but you better return with fire wood or meals will not be cooked that evening. I read your wonderful words of the Special Time,s & The Magic of The Cuban Lady,s, Now I Realize I was living just a Very little of Cuba,s Special Times. It was 2015 when A Cuban Family Opened this Canadians Eyes & these past 4 years I have lived more in Cuba than Canada has also shown that Greed is, Could Take over the Cuban People,s Life, The Lady,s of Cuba Family Magic Could Be Lost if the Lady,s of Cuba can not educate there Next Generation. Will This Generation Hear Your Special & Magical Words In Time. Has the fast pace of The Internet & Cell Phones Replaced The Magic Of Cuba.

  • April 27, 2019 at 7:13 am

    Thank you for such a well written article. Have been to Cuba many times and see the pain in the eyes of the people. Special times? I think not. Who do you turn too in times of great need? Please feel free to write me.

  • April 26, 2019 at 5:18 am

    Tu comentario explica tu nivel de educación y inteligencia.

  • April 26, 2019 at 5:14 am

    I recently visited Cuba and I must say that the people are extraordinary. Most have lived thru the Blockade. They are a people full of pride and dignity and a quest to survive.

  • April 26, 2019 at 5:13 am

    The Cubans are a wonderful People
    Having Endured decades of embargoes and restrictions still their spirit hasn’t broken. Once the Blockades and impediments to God given freedoms are removed this Country and it’s People will Flourish.

  • April 25, 2019 at 6:44 pm

    De la esperanza vive el pobre. Pero esto es un pueblo entero esta espera es dura y no termina no se ve la luz al final del túnel. Mr da mucha tristeza que um tremendo país una isla tan bella y hermosa este en esta situación tanto tiempo.

  • April 25, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    Great article wish al Cubans the best

  • April 25, 2019 at 5:46 pm

    This is a very melancholy but also excellent article.
    Articles like these always make it worthwhile giving Havana Times a look.

  • April 25, 2019 at 4:57 am

    One of the best articles I have read in Havana Times.

  • April 24, 2019 at 7:46 pm

    Me importa un comino el Rey Pepino…. 🙂

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