HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 16 — It turned out that I experienced the most difficult moments of the Special Period crisis when I was only 16. I had just entered high school when we received the news of the collapse of the socialist camp; the consequences would soon follow.
It seemed as if they had robbed us of our way of life and left us with another, one that was very different. For all Cubans the change was sudden and patent, and many people still haven’t been able to forget the hardest days…when it got so much worse that we thought we couldn’t survive.
I remember we found ourselves without sheets or towels at home; people washed themselves with chlorine or water mixed with ashes. There were I don’t know how many other inventions, and these destroyed my bed linen in less than a year.
I had a pair of black tennis shoes, which were my only school shoes and “dress shoes” for going out. My father had to undergo several surgeries, but no matter how much they stitched him up and dressed the incisions, he always bled. The holes in my tennis shoe soles were easier to remedy, a piece of cardboard solved the problem.
My dad ended up wearing a pair of plastic shoes that were scary looking – I mean real ugly! Such a strong odor stuck to them that we had to put them up on the roof at night and pray that nobody stole them because he didn’t have any others.
The saddest memory I have is seeing my father walk several miles loaded with firewood to sell. Thanks to the money he made from those sales, my parents, my siblings and I were able to survive those terrible moments.
Dollar Stores and Jiñeteras
When a year later I started at the Eastern University, in Santiago de Cuba, the country’s economic situation had improved a little. By then more than half of the Cuban population had given up their gold jewelry, exchanging them to buy clothes or shoes in what were then called “diplotiendas” (diplomat stores or “dollar stores”).
The doors opened up to tourism, to the dollar and a little later on came the “stores for the collection of hard currency.” Although the value of the Cuban peso hit the floor, at least one could find soap and tooth paste, although these went for exorbitant prices.
I never worried a lot about following the fashion; there were too many other needs that my parents couldn’t satisfy. At my dorm I had to sell soap and coconut oil, nougats and I don’t know how many other things so that I could buy the things I needed most to go into the classroom, because unfortunately we didn’t have uniforms to help us out.
With the beginning of tourism came the “jineteras” (literally “female jockeys”). I think they were called this so as not to resort to the epithet that existed before the Revolution. But since there don’t exist prostitutes without pimps, these too became commonplace. There also appeared beggars, swindlers, and many other problematic types that hurt Cuban society deeply.
While at the university I didn’t escape the societal problems. The schools were filled with jineteras who studied by day and “hustled” by night. It was a question of life or death; either you prostituted or you left the university.
I remember one day my group had an exchange with foreign students. They gave us gifts that they called “souvenirs.” They gave me $100. I couldn’t believe that a student, the same as me, gave me more money than my dad could earn in more than six months.
Hard Times Are Back
Difficult times are again returning to the island: the scheduled layoff of almost a million workers, price increases for transportation and many other services, the gradual elimination of the ration book, tax increases on self-employed workers, wages that increasingly fail to meet the population’s basic needs, emigration that drains away many of our best professionals and a large part of the youth population – the country’s future.
Now, more than ever, we need a true form of socialism to prevent us from returning to those sad years. This is precisely so that our families won’t have to depend on dollars, euros, or pounds sterling, sent by relatives; so that our youth don’t have to emigrate or sell their bodies to wear clothes that are in style, or that a person doesn’t have to pray for some foreigner to give him a bill that his own labor and effort cannot give them.