Iván García, 6 January 2017 — When you live on the edge of an abyss, you lose your capacity to think about the future. Just ask Giraldo, who works as a plumber for Aguas de La Habana, what his plans are for 2017, and you’ll see an expression of surprise on his face.
He takes off his faded New York Yankees cap, which once was blue, and takes a few seconds to think. Before I tell you his answer, I’ll give you some details about his every-day existence.
Giraldo lives in a tiny, one-room apartment, but because of overcrowding, he had to enlarge it with a “barbecue” — the name Cubans have given to a makeshift platform built in an existing room between the floor and the ceiling (see page 7 of this document). Now seven people of three different generations live together.
They have coffee for breakfast, when there is some, and spread a mixture of cooking oil, crushed garlic and salt on a 2.8-ounce bread roll, which, for the price of five centavos, the ration book gives by right to all Cuban-born citizens.
In the living room you see an outdated, cathode-tube Chinese television, and on a wood and glass shelf, a half-dozen empty bottles of rum and whisky serve as decoration.
The Haier refrigerator, also Chinese, granted to them 11 years ago, has still not been paid off. “And we’re not going to pay it,” says Giraldo’s mother, calmly, while she rocks on a chair of springs.
The apartment needs work. But the money is only enough to give it one coat of paint. They don’t have money in the bank, they don’t dream about having a modern car with GPS, and they have never thought about spending their vacation in Varadero or Cayo Coco.
Their lives are made up of working eight hours a day for the adults, studying Monday to Friday for the kids and, after they have dinner, sitting in a patched armchair to watch the current soap opera or a national-series baseball game.
Probably, like in a movie, these images passed through Giraldo’s mind before answering a question that any other person would find easy. Now, with his speech armed, he answers, without drama:
“For people like us who count their money by the centavo, every year is more or less the same. Some less bad than others. But none are good. I think it’s unfair that the Government doesn’t resolve the problems of working people and fucks us over. My only plan is to get enough money to fix the roof, which is full of holes. It’s been that way for over three years, and I haven’t been able to get enough money.”
You should walk in his shoes before judging. I suppose that right now in Aleppo, Syria, or in a stronghold in Yemen being overrun by warlords, a crust of bread or not hearing the howl of mortars is a good sign that you’ll still be alive the next day.
But Cuba isn’t in a civil war. The plans of Julio, a Cuban who arrived recently in the United States, are different. He was put in prison on the Island for embezzlement when he was the manager of a State cafeteria. Then alcohol and a lack of future sent him into a self-destructive cycle. But when he crossed the El Paso international bridge in Laredo, he swore that he was going to start anew.
Now he lives in Kentucky, where it’s unbearably cold. Two times a week, by instant message, Julio communicates with his friends in Havana, who wait for a connection from a wifi zone. And he tells them how things are going in la yuma, and that, really, you have to work hard in the United States to move forward.
Cubans are emigrating precisely in order to move forward. They know the difficulties, what it costs to adapt to other customs and to learn a new language.
“The problem is that to hold onto an option, it has to be achievable, however distant it is. That when you pass by a store or a car dealership, you can say, ’Look at that car; if I work hard, I’ll be able to buy it. If I make an effort, I can improve my quality of life.’ Everything good that can happen in your life depends on you. Here things don’t depend on you,” says Sergio, who clandestinely sells clothing he imports from Panama out of his home.
It would be very pretentious to paint a picture of Cuba as monolithic. There are too many realities superimposed on the Island. But if anything remains clear it’s that people have lost the capacity to think big.
“Every New Year’s Eve we set goals. And we tell our relatives and friends,’May you fulfill your dreams in the New Year.’ But what are our dreams? To get a better salary at work, to be able to become sainted (in the Yoruba religion), to win a big sum in the numbers game or leave the country. Very few have plans to increase their business or to buy a better house or modern car. Our goals are not big. To make a little more money and eat more meals. The Government has killed our hopes with ideology, anti-imperialist speeches and odes to Fidel Castro,” says Rachel, a lawyer.
When you ask Cubans, their aspirations for 2017 are not at all ambitious. Quite the contrary. Antonio, retired at 79 years, wishes for this year that “there won’t be blackouts, the quality of bread gets better, the State repairs the multi-family buildings and they increase my pension by 1,000 pesos.”
He says this with a joking tone, but it makes you sad and compassionate. And among the average Cuban citizens you perceive a skepticism, fatigue, unease and apathy that doesn’t seem to have a cure.
It’s not that they don’t aspire to live better. It’s that they don’t find the way to do so.
Translated by Regina Anavy