Clara Fuentes, 39-years-old, was never very bright. She was a headstrong girl, raised in a small house of 15 meters without bathrooms or drinking water. Her father was a zombie-like sign painter; most days he was on strike, trying to scare up some money to raise his two daughters.
The mother was a fat, careless woman of mixed race. They lived like gypsies, off the charity of neighbors and state support. Thanks to God, or Fidel Castro, she was born in a period of the Cuban revolution in which milk was not scarce and the ration book assured them average but vital nourishment.
Later this was not the case. With the arrival of the perennial economic crisis that the nation has lived in for 21 years, known officially as the “Special Period,” Clara’s family saw dark times.
The father began to poke about among the rubbish containers, in search of valuable articles. But there was nothing. It was a time when not even empty bottles were thrown away.
Clara and her sister grew up dirty and unkempt. They were pretty and had good figures. But they dressed in old, recycled clothes that were handed down. In the barrio they were called the “miserable ones.”
To their material poverty was added mental stupidity. Clara gave birth to three sons by a boy who lived in the eastern provinces. Her sister did the same. Clara had her sons between the ages of 16 and 20. And they didn’t have enough food for four, so you can imagine how much they had for eight.
The honorable exit Clara Fuentes found was to enroll in the system. Abandoned by the biological father, and without a cent for her sons, she enlisted as a recruit in the army.
She passed a course to become a sergeant and began to work in a military unit. Although the salary was scarcely enough, her situation improved. But she continued being taken care of by the state.
The three children slept in one bed. She slept on the floor, on a grubby mat among nocturnal cockroaches and lizards. She started to take care of an old woman, who died three years later.
The state granted her the old woman’s house. It was small, with two suffocating rooms and minimal sleeping quarters. For Clara, it was a palace.
She left the army and started working as a custodian for a business. She worked 12 hours a day and rested for two days. She was on duty at sunrise three days in the week. They paid her 300 pesos (12 dollars) and 18 Cuban convertible pesos (20 dollars).
In addition, they gave her an equivalent basket of goods. One-half box of chicken a month, four packages of ground turkey, 24 cans of soft drinks, four liters of cooking oil. With this, Clara was assured of food, administered with a hard hand in the middle of the month. The other half she got from the ration book.
She always lacked money, and her sons grew up without being well-nourished and dressed poorly. Clara is honest. She never stole anything at work, and, although she is critical of the revolution, in an ingenuous way, she believes that the guilty party is “the difficult situation,” and she does not hold Fidel Castro nor his brother responsible.
“They don’t know what is happening,” she asserts. She is contaminated by official propaganda. “We are living badly, but compared to living in a country like Haiti or in an African nation, I prefer our system.” She doesn’t question the lack of political liberties, nor do they matter to her, because “you can’t eat those things.”
At the last meeting in the barrio to elect candidates or delegates to Popular Power, they proposed her as a candidate. In order to end the meeting quickly so they could go home and watch the latest soap opera on television, and because there wasn’t a better option, the neighbors elected her unanimously.
On Sunday, April 25, Clara Fuentes was one of the two candidates running in her district. In this year of 2010, a delegate’s work is barely noticeable in the shanty town. If she has sufficient influence, she can get some construction materials at an average price for the most needy.
In general, for every five complaints that are presented to the delegates, one is resolved. Sometimes none. Not because they don’t want to satisfy their community. No. It happens because the solution is out of their hands.
The powerful state bureaucracy and material scarcity dilute any good intention. And although Clara Fuentes does not have the intelligence to solve the innumerable problems of her barrio, beginning with her own, she thinks about trying. She has confidence in her management ability. She asks those who know her to vote for her.
Translated by Regina Anavy