When Lunch Time Comes in Cuba

Ernesto Pérez Chang

HAVANA TIMES – Comes lunchtime and it is again time for a break in the workday. Time for relaxation, you might say. Forget it, for many it means anxiety. Few workplaces now have a workers’ canteen.

In keeping with the new policy of every man for himself decreed by a government suitably wrapped in a nice watertight life jacket to keep itself afloat, thousands of workers now have to take to the streets at noon to work miracles on a budget so tight they can hardly eat.

From the top floor comfort of some Cuban ministry, some government official, the kind that spoils themself silly in the VIP lounges of capitalist airports across the globe and throws lavish banquets to spice otherwise redundant meetings running on redundant agendas, has determined that just over half a dollar is all a worker needs to lunch in a country where a soft drink in a can and a roll and hot dog costs you twice that much if not more.

Every month along with their lousy pay, some workers get a measly gratuity in convertible pesos, supposedly so they can go to a hard currency store in the neighborhood and buy something with it. But the amount, based on work days calculated at a rate of 1 CUC for 25 pesos, is only a break for the state which sets the rate in the first place.

For workers used to picking up a wage packet so paltry it hardly covers the first few days of the month, getting anything extra is usually seen as a blessing, rarely a cruel joke.

And even if the worker feels so inclined, challenging the pathetic sum officialdom has calculated to be all he needs to support his/her family for working all year, is not advisable. It won’t go down well with the boss. At a time of deep crisis and with prices in state controlled markets in Cuba many times the real value of the underlying products, they would need to pay workers a small fortune just to survive.

The official salary, calculated on a thirty-day period, has from time immortal been under the daily amount needed to feed a family of three. It is not even close to the minimum level at which poverty starts, measured by international standards..

If the state calculates about 13 Cuban pesos per person per day just to cover lunch, how much should the monthly salary be to cover breakfast, lunch and dinner at home?

Because state enterprises are well aware that the official figure is well below the mark, they turn themselves inside out to mask the scam, particularly when it comes to the psychological effect  a term like CUC has on the poorest at the bottom of the ladder.

It is not uncommon to find workers who never in their life have had two cents to rub together, viewing the miserable CUC supplement as a sort of incentive to work. And the situation gets even worse when company chiefs present the closure of canteens as a step forward if not an irrefutable sign of the end of the Special Period.

The worst is when in reaction to those protesting the measure, they laugh it off and make some off-the-cuff comparison with capitalism praising the efficiency of a system which they repudiated only the day before.

What kind of place is this we’re living in, I wonder why all that talk about revolutions over the years. How is it that sending government officials round the world to winkle out the secrets of capitalist austerity and apply them to saving socialism is no longer considered an extremely toxic departure but, on the contrary, a very healthy one?

How can you explain all this to the worker who has been the most vulnerable part of an experiment that did not work? What’s to prevent you from thinking that the official  measures being taken to save the economy are merely strategies adopted to underpin a particular ideology?

My parents, ever ready to make sacrifices, can no longer look me in the eye in saying all that conviction was worthwhile. Nobody knows better than they that no matter how often you turn over the few cents in your pocket that go up in smoke, it becomes impossible to find the strength to overcome.

We may have learned well enough to struggle and resist but it seems to me the official discourse of the last five decades could be summed up in that funny but terrible phrase describing our current circumstances: “When I said, I say, I mean  Diego says “In other words I take back what I said.

When I see it is getting on for lunch time in the offices, I feel sorry for the ones who cannot go out but have to stay in to consume whatever concoction they have managed to rustle up with half a convertible peso.

And I feel even more sad for the ones who, to put food on the table at home, settle for a glass of water and a croquette bought at a gloomy cafeteria facing a resplendent establishment across the street offering shrimp with garlic sauce and pork roasted on the grill, to the sound of music and smiling faces, for the modest sum of a month’s salary.

I feel sorry for the secretary who stills her hunger gulping a shot of coffee because she has to save a few cents for shoes for her son or for the sweet-15 party she has promised her daughter.

I feel sorry too for those who no longer have any arguments to offer able to convince me that that strange, insistent faith, now ingrained in the lines of dejection on the faces of people has been of any value. It hurts daily and it hurts with increasing intensity.

It hurts more to know that words, writing, are not much either these days but still I write and will continue to write without anyone holding my hand. That is the only asset I have and the most precious.

6 thoughts on “When Lunch Time Comes in Cuba

  • What do they eat for Lunch though is what I want to know

  • Maybe you are blinded by your ideology? I saw some seriously malnourished people panhandling in Havana when I was there, as well as a great many people who weren’t exactly starving, but they sure looked like they had lived a long time on scarce rations.

    The difference between Haiti and Cuba is that the system in Haiti has completely broken down. In Cuba, the dictatorial system is still working, and what food their is does get distributed through legal and black market channels.

    But do not confuse Cuba for a more just society. It is simply a slightly less disfunctional one.

  • The saying that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ has proven over the years to be less and less true. The recent economic reforms in Cuba have had little or no effect on the lives on a majority of the Cuban population.

  • Very health changes taking place. The reforms underway will lead to a fairer society where personal effort is rewarded. All will benefit from a more productive workforce. That some have more than others is not material if overall the society is richer.

  • This has been, and remains, an enigma to me. Since 1993, I cannot recall meeting anyone who did not eat at least twice a day. Maybe, back then, it was only fufu de bungo, but they ate. No one I know, even w/o a tio chino, eats bungo anymore, and I am starting to see levels of obesity that look almost like the US. I am frugal, and wear things for as long as they are useful. Most Cubans are better dressed than I am. My wife’s aunt, who neither works for the government nor receives remittances looked at my shoes when I met her and exclaimed “Daniel, somos pobre, pero no tan pobre”. I know that the arithmetic that the author cites is correct, but there is more to it. If there weren’t , people would be eating mud pies like in Haiti.

  • This story is worse than most people realize when you know that most Cubans don’t eat breakfast or if they do it is a small cup of coffee-chicharo blend and a bread roll. I have Cuban friends who exist on one meal a day and whatever they can scrounge in between.

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