14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 9 January 2017 — How to explain to our grandchildren the economic absurdity of today’s Cuba? What pedagogical juggling will be needed to detail the black market, the ration book, the “Hard Currency Collection Stores,” and the capped prices? Will they believe us when we describe the devalued Cuban peso and its counterpart, the chavito? The movie The Singular History of Juan With Nothing, by the director Ricardo Figueredo, could help in this educational endeavor.
The documentary tells of the life – the “survival” – of Juan, a worker whose only source of income is his monthly salary of 250 Cuban pesos (CUP), the rough equivalent of 10 Cuban Convertible pesos (CUC – each worth roughly one dollar). Juan is a hypothetical “ordinary Cuban” who does not receive remittances from abroad, who does not “divert” (i.e. steal) state resources, or resell products to survive. A citizen living a grey life, that doesn’t allow him to buy even a new shirt, invite his girlfriend to a coffee shop, or polish his shoes.
In a little more than 50 minutes, the script details the expenses faced by this fictional character, inspired by Figueredo’s own brother, in order to feed himself and pay for basic services such as water, electricity and gas. The story is based on real testimonies that delineate a distorted economy, plagued with contradictions and where honesty is an obstacle in the struggle to survive.
In the voice of actor Luis Alberto Garcia, who serves as narrator, The Singular History of Juan With Nothing details the products still distributed on the ration book and their corresponding prices, a glimpse of the subsidized poverty enthroned by the rationed market which, as the economist Juan Triana says, also “transmits injustice.”
A selection of archive images helps to understand the misery trap in which millions of today’s Cubans are snared. It is an explanation sprinkled with sarcasm and certain historical details that the government has wanted to bury, such as its promises that shortages would never reach our markets or that Cubans would never fail to be able to enjoy their traditional Christmas nougats.
It is likely that this mix of humor and good memory have contributed to the film’s not having been selected to participate in last December’s latest edition of the Festival of New Latin American Cinema. However, the film is already circulating in alternative media networks, which means it enjoys a larger audience than it would have had in a few showings in December. So the life of Juan is being seen in the same way that characterizes it: separate from institutions and away from official privileges.
Among viewers, the title of the film awakens the memory of a poem by one of the regime’s favorite poets, Nicolás Guillén, in which he assures us that, after January 1959, we Cubans will become “Juan with everything,” an assertion that becomes a mockery when the protagonist uses a fifth of his salary to buy soap and deodorant in state-owned stores, at prices with “taxes of more than 200%,” the documentary says.
The agricultural market and illegal trade networks complete the choices that the impoverished man must resort to in order to feed himself, while simple arithmetic makes clear he won’t be able to do so, that no one can live a decent life with a decent wage. The tension grows and the audience’s uneasiness rises as the money slips out of Juan’s hands and his plate remains empty of food.
The interviews with self-employed workers, retirees, state employees and analysts make Figueredo’s film transcend a mere didactic explanation to achieve a high testimonial value, a hardened portrait of a Cuba no one is satisfied with, not even the voices closest to the official discourse that are heard in the film.
However, the greatest achievement of the documentary will only be seen later, when the incredulous generations of the future believe that we are exaggerating by telling them what we have lived through. The Singular Story Of Juan With Nothing will be like those fossils that, when unearthed, show the fierce anatomy of an extinct animal, the grim skeleton of an economy in ruins.