Alberto N Jones
HAVANA TIMES — The incomparable and unrivalled Christmas festivities of 1959 have gone down in Cuban history as some of the merriest, happiest and most optimistic days the country witnessed in its 500-year history.
The unforgettable experience of seeing everyone open the doors to their homes, enlivened by music and laughter, the sincere embraces and the toasts among friends and strangers alike, was an eloquent reflection of the nation’s spirits at the time.
The sudden flight of dictator Fulgencio Batista, the end to the terror and murders and the image of a promising future on the horizon were more than enough to inspire the contagious joy that spread across the nation that year.
Then, no one could have imagined, not even in their worst nightmares, that, decades later, we would be witness to one of the saddest, most painful and most depressing Christmas seasons in our country’s recent history.
After arriving by plane to the Holguin airport on December 24th, we noticed the first sign that something was wrong during our trip to the city of Bayamo. There was a deathly silence in the city. Bayamo’s Cespedes park and its surrounding areas seemed peopled by the dead.
The restaurant we went to at 8 at night had more idle waiters than diners, its doors were opened only half-way and most of its lights were off. There wasn’t enough food in the establishment for the nine regulars there and, when we got our order, the food was cold and the drinks were warm.
We made the rest of the 200-kilometer trip to Guantanamo surrounded by utter withdrawal and silence, punctured only briefly by some revelry in the town of La Maya.
People’s depression, frustration and sadness over financial limitations, which made it impossible for many families to have the traditional New Year’s dinner, became evident to me during some conversations I had days later, with friends in Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba.
The lack of jobs, the high cost of living, the low salaries, the laying off of thousands of people, which has significantly reduced the already low incomes taken in by families, have had a devastating impact on so many people – on men, women, the elderly and children.
This crisis expresses itself in Cuban society’s dramatic loss of values, a situation which has encouraged people – everyone from ration store clerks, bus drivers, office workers, public service employees, managers and administrative officials – to steal or misappropriate any and all things under their care.
These days, no one is taken aback when a waiter pockets one’s change or someone asks for a favor in exchange for a product, a medication, a medical check-up or laboratory exam. Renting a car, buying a plane ticket, getting a set of dentures done or expediting any official procedure entails such unofficial gifts (without which nothing appears to move).
To grasp the origins of the moral degradation that afflicts our society, suffice is to know that thousands of workers earn around 400 Cuban Pesos (CUP) a month, and that something like a pound of pork, a pound of beans, a handful of onions or a single can of beer costs some 20 CUP. What could we say about pensioners, who take in half that amount, or about the fact that basic things like deodorant, cooking oil and shoes are sold in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC), at 24 times the CUP? (1 USD = 20 CUP or 0.87 CUC)
The anxious and desperate complaints I heard during my visit to Altamira, Chicharrones, Ramos Latour, Abel Santamaria, Santiago de Cuba, Songo, as well as the Argeo Martinez and Honduras former sugar refineries, and the cities of Banes, Bayamo and Holguin, came from self-denying defenders of the Cuban Revolution who participated in the armed struggle and literacy campaign, fought against foreign invaders and insurgents and took part in massive sugar-cane harvesting campaigns.
Many are professionals who took part in wars of liberation waged in Africa and Latin America, where many lost loved ones, people who chose to remain in Cuba and do not receive any aid from abroad.
Dismayed, these men and women are the unshakable pillars of the revolution, who look on, in pain, as their cities and neighborhoods become consumed by a stifling economic and moral crisis that perverts the young with its siren-songs.
Few of them question the principles that have guided them over half a century of epic struggle or the direction the country is heading in. Twenty years of a Special Period fraught with hardship and misery, however, has wasted away people’s endurance and favored opportunists, slackers, rogues, dishonest vendors and venal public officials that have corrupted the entire country.
The general consensus I came across in Cuba is that the status quo has to change in the country in 2014, for the people won’t be able to endure another year as disastrous as 2013.