Ivan Garcia, 20 December 2017 — The place where Anselmo and Yolanda prepare their food has cracked walls and soot covers the entire room. Modernity has not arrived. They cook with kerosene, wood or charcoal.
Fixed to the wall, two casserole dishes of medium proportions soaked by the excessive use of fire and blackened from the lack of detergent. Cockroaches, partying. Right now they are in the food left over from the last meal. When Anselmo, 73, sees them, he does not chase them away them with his hand.
“Do you know that cockroaches are the only living beings that would survive a nuclear war?” he says in response. And after an explanation where he mixes a fable with information read in the Granma newspaper, he grabs his gray and dirty beard, gets serious and answers my question:
“What is my future project? Gather more recycleables or that the State begins to pay a better price for scrap. Get off your cloud, pal, here things will not change. Raúl Castro and his gang have the upper hand. If nobody quits, this lasts a hundred years. Or more,” clearly shows Anselmo’s pessimism. He’s an old man who should be enjoying his retirement and who to survive walks more than seven kilometers a day, picking up empty beer and soda cans.
Anselmo and his wife Yolanda, a 70-year-old retiree, sell plastic bags outside a bakery south of Havana. They would like to have a clean kitchen and a refrigerator with beef, chicken and fish.
But the reality is quite different. They eat a hot meal once a day. And when they do not have kerosene, they cook with pieces of wood they find on the street.
The number of people living in poverty and extreme poverty in Cuba increases every year. The timid economic reforms of Raúl Castro and pharaonic economic plans projected out to 2030 do not offer solutions for Havanans like Anselmo and Yolanda.
With the arrival of a cold front, the troop of the dispossessed, who have the sky for a roof, have put on their old shirts and sweaters, one on top of the other and the luckiest wear olive green jackets, from when they were militiamen themselves or given to them by a relative who was or is one.
“When temperatures drop, we feel the hunger more,” says Germán, a guy who sells clothes collected in garbage dumps. “To deal with the cold, I drink a lot of alcohol.”
How do you see yourself in the future? Do you have a project, I ask. He shakes his head. He stares at me, as if I were a Martian or a foreigner who accidentally ended up in these parts.
“Come down to earth, man. The future is equal to or worse than the present. At least for people like us. In Cuba, the future is not to die. We poor people live adrift in Cuba,” he says.
But when you inquire of professionals, university students or private entrepreneurs, the record of opinions is also pessimistic.
Liana, a doctor, works at a clinic in the old Covadonga hospital, in El Cerro, fifteen minutes from the center of the capital. “My near future is to reach the title of specialist. Then try to get a master’s. But it is not a priority. If before I get a mission abroad, either on my own or through the State, I will look for a way not to return. In Cuba, the future is more frightening than the present.”
Even Luciano, who considers himself a bulletproof Fidelista, is not so optimistic when talking about the future. “You have to trust in the Revolution. The causes of economic stagnation or not being able to offer a good quality of life are often not the fault of the government. The Yankee blockade is not a game. Add to that that there is a caste of bureaucrats who hold back economic reforms and foreign investments. Things must change, because as Fidel said in a speech at the University of Havana, the only ones who can make the process fail are ourselves with our bad work. And the truth is that we are not doing things right.”
Discontent among Cubans, believe me, is not a minority feeling. People are tired of the triumphalist discourse. Of low wages, high food prices and living without a future project and having to turn their backs to progress.
“We live from day to day. How many people have a bank account in Cuba? How is it possible that an engineer has a salary lower than a pushcart vendor who sells fruit? There are many questions without answers. Too much official silence. I suppose that, like Newton’s Law, due to gravity, things in Cuba have to change. But at the moment, that is not a priority nor is it the government’s will,” says Lizet, an architect.
Darián, sitting in a Vedado park, considers that the worst thing is that more and more exit doors are closed. “The island has become a mousetrap. There is nowhere to go. Or you invent a legal business or one under the table. Either you steal at work or you sell the shit brought by ’mules’ from Russia. If we escape from this we are crazy.”
Joel, a historian, believes that the country, necessarily, is destined to a radical change. “The reforms will arrive by political, economic and ideological obsolescence. The theses that did not work are going to die of old age. Although if the rope keeps tightening around the neck of the people, the popular reaction could be unpredictable. Everything has a limit.”
The regime knows it. You can not govern just by selling smoke. And Cuba is that. Pure smoke.