They knocked on the door twice before identifying themselves. When they said “It’s the Police,” he already knew it couldn’t be anybody else. No one else would’ve knocked with such rudeness.
His face pale from nerves, he let them enter, knowing there was no going back. After searching the house all over, they decided to open a washing machine placed (strategically) behind the bathroom door.
They looked at each other with a satisfied expression: they had found the merchandise. The thief was lost. Soon after, in a drawer in the bedroom they would also find some money that, although it wasn’t much, it was proof of illegal commerce; therefore, it would also be seized.
They took him out in handcuffs, in the middle of the day. They put him inside a police car. One of them stayed at his house, interrogating his wife who was barely able to stammer with her throat tight from fear and astonishment.
The operation had concluded with great success on a busy city street, and the curious, the neighbors, and the occasional lingerers stepped away so as not to be taken as sympathizers of the disgraced.
I would’ve wished all this to be only my imagination, my literary voice, but it’s not. What I just described took place in Bayamo only three days ago. The detained man was a personal friend of mine. I have to confess I haven’t been able to get a good night’s sleep since this past Thursday.
This delinquent is not really a delinquent. The merchandise is neither marijuana nor laundered money. It was simply pants. Just that. A load of twenty jeans bought at a good price in the country’s capital, and brought (along with many sleepless nights, shock and hardship) to this eastern city.
Let me clarify the “good price”: fifteen convertible pesos. They were bought at a store in Havana that had lowered their price for having small manufacturing defects.
They could be sold for twenty convertible pesos, or with luck for twenty-two, in this part of the country. Small profit for this smart merchant, big profit for the buyer who wouldn’t have had access to them any other way.
Nevertheless, the eyes trained in the art of informing don’t rest. Some diligent “collaborator” reported the crime, and the forces of order showed up. What crime? Well… something that in this, my island of euphemisms has been named, “hoarding.” That’s how it’s defined, and that’s how it is punished.
What does this idea of hoarding consists of? Possessing a large enough quantity of something to make it worth trading in it. It doesn’t matter if it is soda crackers, fan blades, or in this case, jeans with small manufacturing defects. The number they consider as too high has not yet been stipulated. That is left to the police officer’s interpretation.
That is why I remember, for example, my trips to the University of Santiago De Cuba, when the cops would board a truck full of students, go through our entire luggage, and detain or give tickets to anyone who had more than the usual packs of candy or wafers than was considered normal. Obviously, the merchandise was confiscated as well.
Many times it was only bread, guava paste, or any other edible product students would have to sell in order to earn some money to subsist, while at the same time alleviating the hunger of their companions in poverty.
“Hoarding” is only one of the many denigrating terms with which every attempt to trade, for personal benefit, can be nipped in the bud in name of a supposed common equality which becomes more pathetically fictitious each day.
Behind this term lies a government mentality dedicated, at its fullest, to mercilessly sweeping away anyone who refuses to live as an indigent on their state salary, anyone who decides to try to get by through some kind of trade, as minimal as it is stressful. For those, the path is strewn with red lights.
Two currencies circulate in Cuba. Workers’ wages are paid in one – “national money” or Cuban pesos; but what workers buy must be paid for with the other – “convertible pesos,” which are worth twenty-five times more. It is evident that “buying” the convertible peso – required to purchase basic needs – is, in itself, an almost constant labor for Cuban workers.
OK, at least in my city, with nearly 300 thousand people, there are only two “Exchanges” where you can undertake the operation legally. The serpentine lines that snake out through its glass doors are depressing — hundreds of people standing under the sun in order to be able to obtain the convertible pesos.
What does this bring as a consequence? That many choose to buy those convertible pesos at the Exchanges in order to then sell them to their fellow countrymen, who can then avoid the long lines under the hot sun for the such slight rewards. They would lose more time standing in line to get the convertible pesos at the Exchanges, than the time it takes the cops to arrest them if they are caught selling them in front of the stores.
The iron fist of a centralized economy, however improbably, never slips, never sleeps, never leaves an area uncontrolled. The private commerce in Cuba is a painful demonstration of the way in which a system has forced millions of humble beings to live.
Recently, I heard an elderly barber say that he had turned in his permit that allowed him to operate legally, and that he would, from time to time — at the price of being a nervous wreck — see some clients at night in his back yard. The reason? Right after the supposed economic reforms in favor of our society, the State had raised his taxes to up to two hundred pesos a month. With such lump sum, he would barely have any profit.
Seeing that old man with his wrinkled skin, his clothes transparent from being worn every day, knowing that he won’t even be able to cut hair peacefully, managed to ruin my day.
As a consequence, I can’t stop wondering what we have done to the ones who lead us, the ones who sign the laws, who manage the fate of this nation, that they would make us lead such a difficult and battered existence. How is it possible to think that a man who earns one Cuban peso – 4 cents – for each convertible peso he sells, or a few cents with a bag of limes that he displays in some doorway, is a deplorable scourge whom this society needs to wipe out?
AN EPILOGUE THAT IS NOT
I have not yet heard anything about my friend. I have passed by his meager apartment (which is so small it almost makes it hard to breathe) a couple of more times and every time I go I find the same windows and doors are shut. I’m scared for him. I know that he would at least be charged with a huge fine and lose all his investment. I know that if worse comes to worse, his wife and five-and-a-half-year-old son would not know how to live with him behind bars, without his risky inventiveness to sustain his family’s stomachs.
But I am mainly scared for the conscience of those who arrested him, and of those who blew the whistle. I suffer from the decorum of so many Cubans devoted to reporting their neighbors, with withering smiles, of taking away what little they acquire , of vaporizing the shred of peacefulness that it represents to a pater familias to be able to earn some money with which to alleviate the scarcities of the home kitchen.
It makes me suffer because in my commitment to some day building a happier and freer country, a country that better meets the needs of its sons and daughters, they will all be the burden that will tie us to the past.
Translator: Angelica Betancourt
August 14, 2010