Ivan Garcia, 22 December 2017 — You sense it, the penetrating smell of dead pigs, opened in the middle and showing their viscera, as soon as you enter the state-owned smoked meat production center in the municipality Diez de Octubre, south of Havana.
Four people with green surgeon hats and high rubber boots sort the pigs. Some are sent to a ramshackle refrigerator full of legs, ribs and loins. Others, after being boned, are steamed, prior to the process of making sausages.
When night falls, after the bosses leave, the under the table shenanigans begin. Owners of small businesses, before acquiring several pigs, bargain the prices with the center’s workers. Residents in the area also buy pork legs or pieces of loin. “At Christmas and New Year’s we make a nice bit of cash,” says one operator.
Josuán, the father of three children from different marriages, confesses that when December comes he feels it in his wallet. “Imagine, I have to buy pork for three houses. I always come to the processing center, because the meat sold in the market costs no less than 45 pesos per pound of loin and 25 or 30 per pound of pork. Here the legs go for 16 or 17 pesos a pound. I run my risks, because if the police catch me, they confiscate the meat and fine me 1,500 CUC. But those who don’t take risks, don’t eat cheap pork,” he says, while stacking his purchases in the trunk of a Soviet-era Lada.
December is a month of taking stock and family reunions. According to Cuban tradition, on the 24th Christmas Eve is celebrated, and on the 31st or New Year’s Eve, people say goodbye to the old year and await the new.
“I would like to have roasted turkey on the 24th and pork at the end of the year. There are families that can celebrate Christmas Eve with turkey, chicken and pork. But most people eat white rice, black beans, yucca with garlic sauce and a piece of pork. Some don’t have even that,” says Josefa, a housewife.
In the Cuba of 2017, following the custom to the letter is expensive. A frozen eight-kilogram turkey costs 45 CUC, four times the monthly minimum wage or a retiree’s total monthly pension. No less than 20 CUC or the equivalent in Cuban pesos is the cost of a leg of pork. Another 20 CUC goes to buy rice, beans, cassava, tomatoes, garlic, onion and lemon.
“Every year the price of food has gone up. To celebrate a decent Christmas, a family has to pay 100 CUC or more, not including drinks,” says Romelio, a stevedore at the port.
A week ahead of time, Olga Lidia, a hotel employee, goes through the hard currency stores in Miramar, Vedado and Old Havana, in search of nougat and trinkets. “This year I saw more assortment and variety than last year, but the prices are higher. In my house, Christmas begins on December 1st, when we put the little tree together and put it in the living room. We almost always have to buy lights or some new decorations. That’s when the meter starts running: you can spend 30 CUCs on those things. Then comes the search for food and drink, where you can easily drop 200 CUC. We buy three or four nougats and chop that into small pieces, so that everyone gets some.”
Sixty years ago, before Fidel Castro took power at gunpoint in January 1959, Marta, now retired, remembers that even the poorest Cubans celebrated Christmas and waited for the New Year. “We lived in Mantilla, my family came from the working class. On Christmas Eve, in addition to white rice, black beans, yucca with mojo, a salad of lettuce, tomato and radish, we ate roast suckling pig and turkey fricassee. For dessert, buñuelos in syrup and guava or grapefruit with white cheese.
“After the dates, figs and nougat (almond, almond-and-honey, egg and marzipan) we stayed at the table, cracking nuts and hazelnuts. On the 25th we had lunch, as we called the leftovers from Christmas Eve. On that day we exchanged gifts, each one wrapped with pretty paper and a red ribbon. We gave away cards that in Spanish said Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo or in English Merry Christmas. On December 31, Hatuey beer, Bacardí rum, El Gaitero cider and, of course, the grapes were never lacking.”
Osviel, an unemployed worker who also sells clothes imported by the ‘mules’ and is the runner for the illegal lottery known as the ‘little ball’, has not been able to buy anything.
“It should be a special day, but when you do not have money, Christmas Eve (known as ’nochebuena’ or good night) becomes a ’nightmare’ (‘nochemala’ or bad night). If the chicken arrives at the butcher’s shop, that’s what we’ll have for dinner at my house. In this country, eating a typical menu has become a luxury.”
Since the end of the 1960s, until the early 90s, given that it was a Catholic tradition, Christmas was celebrated discreetly in Cuba. We are in the 21st century and still the regime does not celebrate it publicly.
“My mother closed the windows of the house so that the blinking lights on the tree would not be seen, although the smell of roasted pork would give us away to the president of the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution),” recalls Luis Alberto, a high school teacher.
Another Cuban custom is to wish health and that the plans are fulfilled in the new year. When the Christmas cards disappeared, it was done personally or by phone. Now, with wifi in public spaces, it is expressed through emails and text messaging.
“My wishes for 2017 were not fulfilled. I was thinking of emigrating to the United States, but Obama put a lock on that with the repeal of the wet foot/dry foot law. For 2018 I am not optimistic. Living in Cuba is very complicated, especially if you aspire to have some prosperity,” says Reinaldo, an engineer.
Alexandra, a light-skinned mixed-race woman with blue eyes, whose dream is to be an international model, at 12 midnight on December 31 will maintain the family routine.
Risueña explains that at that time “we will throw two or three buckets of water on the street, to scare away envy, bad eyes and negative vibrations. And I will once again walk around the block with a suitcase, which has to be on wheels if you want to be given a trip to a developed country. If you go with a briefcase or a normal suitcase, the trip can be to another province, to Venezuela or to a nation that is in flames.”
If something is renewed at the end of the year among ordinary Cubans, it is the hope that things in Cuba will finally begin to change. For good, because for worse, that is impossible.