“These are the last caramels! Get ‘em while you can!” shouted Olga — we called her “La Guajira” — in the dorms of our high school in the countryside. My bunkmate sold the food she got from Soviet technicians who bought them in stores that Cubans weren’t allowed to enter. It was the last few months of 1990 and the community of Russian “comrades” who had meddled in the Cuban reality were starting to pack their bags.
Throughout the city many houses were left empty in the stampede of these foreign residents, while the black market they had fostered languished. That candy wrapped in rough paper was, for me, the first sign that the subsidies sent by the USSR would be abruptly curtailed. This harbinger of bad news presented itself to my teenage palate in the form a caramel that melted away for good.
Today, more than twenty years later, there are somewhat bitter indications of another material collapse. But this time the risk doesn’t emanate from the Kremlin but from a much closer palace, the Miraflores in Caracas. Hugo Chavez has just left Cuba amid infinite speculation, and some alarming future scenarios are being woven around his health. The more than 100,000 barrels of oil we import from Venezuela might fade as fast as a caramel melts in the mouth, if the president of that country dies from the cancer that afflicts him.
In the streets of Havana the questions go beyond morbidity in medical terms, to become worrisome predictions of the future. A woman, her face soured by everyday life, tells another curtly, “If something happens to Chavez we’re going to fall into another Special Period.” The emphasis on each syllable reminds me of that teenager proclaiming the last sweets sent from the Soviet Union. The story is just as whimsical, sometimes it repeats itself coated in syrup… other times in vinegar.
We have had the painful opportunity to learn — as a country — the lesson of dependence; of promising ourselves that never again would the future of this Island hang on a foreign president or a foreign party. But in early 1999, when Hugo Chavez assumed power, it was clear that economic independence would be just a national fantasy, postponed again and again.
The unbalanced trade between Cuba and Venezuela has allowed the government of Raul Castro to avoid collapse, despite our country’s inability to produce. The larger-than-life patient operated on in Havana stands as the main guarantee that Raul’s reforms can maintain their timid steps forward and that he can remain in power. Seeing Chavez on television announcing his speedy recovery to the newspapers, is like giving a proof of life to the Castro regime.
When we read the smiling face of the Venezuelan president we are not hoping just to read a man’s state of health, but also the political outlook of both countries. Thus, the official propaganda is eager to connect his supposed “victory” over the physical tumor, with the triumph of an entire ideological project.
The leaders maintained, the regimes subsidized, have the false illusion they can learn to live without their patrons. They profess that they will manage to walk on their own, once the support of the other ends. But in reality, during the long period of dependency, we have only learned to find a new source from which to nurse, a new partner to exploit.
Economic dysfunction cannot be repaired in the time it takes malignant cells to advance through an organism. A system where inefficiency has metastasized even to the production of potatoes, bricks and detergent, knows that every step taken alone is a step closer to the end. It is clear that Hugo Chavez came to Cuba to treat his physical illness because the guarantees of discretion about his condition are also guarantees of silence about the real state of our country.
So here we are again, in a situation we know well: the Berlin Wall falls, or cancer takes up residence in a man’s body; glasnost takes the lid off seventy years of garbage, or a doctor is reckless with a patient; Soviet technicians pack their bags in Havana, or Cubans weigh their possessions in Venezuela; a young girl warns that caramels made in the USSR will soon run out, or a disillusioned woman talks to another about possible material collapse; a president sees how the map of a political block is breaking apart into various fragments, or fading leader stares in shock at the report of a CAT scan.
18 March 2012