While in Egypt hundreds of thousands of people decided the fate of their country by speaking out through strong and sustained public protests against a 30-year dictatorship, in a local Havana setting a dispute was being resolved by a diametrically opposite philosophy dictated by survival: the battle for the potato. The comments might seem like a joke, but they are about completely real facts that I was a witness to.
The location was the farmers market adjacent to Parque Trillo, a popular geographical site in Centro Habana. The actors were crowds of Cubans eager to acquire the favored root vegetable, virtually absent from stall counters since they were “liberated” — that is taken off the ration system through the announced process of state subsidies — while the plot was the bitter fights to negotiate the 10 pounds allocated to each buyer after standing on line for three hours, and all the pushing and shoving they had to endure before leaving with their valued purchase.
The incidents took place just over two weeks ago, when the potato distribution began at 18 locations allocated for their sale in the capital, and Havana’s population threw themselves after those potatoes as if it were the freedom conquest. As far as I could ascertain, the mentioned location in Centro Habana has been one of the most chaotic and crowded. The line was over one block long, and it was made up by a human mass in complete disarray, struggling to get ahead and cut the line in any way possible, which resulted in knocking down and trampling over several people, including some elderly persons, plus a fight that led to the intervention of several police patrols and one vehicle to stop the more combative. There were broken bones, contusions and lacerations.
In subsequent days, each truckload of potatoes has been followed immediately by law enforcement officials trying to prevent the fights from escalating. It is common, starting in the morning, to see how the more disciplined begin to line up, waiting to see if the desired tuber arrives, “just in case”. People are resigned to wait for hours, taking turns to hold their place in line, and patrolling the area until the awaited truck appears, if it decides to appear. This is the level of misery of spirit a great part of the population has allowed themselves to be reduced to. This explains how it is possible for a social explosion for freedom to occur in the most arid geography in this planet, while in a fertile tropical island, people hit and hurt each other over 10 pounds of potatoes. Can you perceive the “subtle” difference?
However, despite the sad spectacle, I allow myself some hope. I detected it in many other Cubans I saw come by the place, look reprovingly, almost with disgust, at the scene, and leave outraged. Many say they prefer to choke on yams than to undergo the humiliation of fighting other people over some potatoes. “Shame!” lamented an old man, “Never in my life have I seen such a slaughter over a few pounds of produce! How far are they going to drag us?!”
“As far as we let them, grandpa”, I responded. And I was surprised by the immediate support I got from most of the onlookers gathered across the street.
Translated by Norma Whiting
18 February 2011