Crisis and Autophagy in Havana, the Cycle That Does Not End

A bodega (ration store) located on Calle E between 23rd and 21st in El Vedado, Havana, announces with signs that there is no coffee. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 28 May 2022 — There is a hunger that is not satisfied with food nor diminishes even if food is obtained and is not lacking again for a long time. It is the hunger that remains in the memory and makes the stomach burn even if it is full. That chronic feeling of emptiness runs through the story of a young man in the Cuba of the Special Period that the writer Enrique del Risco has published with Plataforma Editorial.

Nuestra hambre en La Habana* [Our Hunger in Havana] is a testimony that must be read after dinner and, even so, it will provoke in the reader intense bursts of anxiety about putting something in his mouth, constant trips to the refrigerator and the kitchen. The volume, of a little more than 300 pages, plunges into the crisis of the 90s and crudely portrays the national obsession around plates and pots.

Del Risco shows the exposed ribs of a society reduced to the cycle of the most basic survival, where getting around, standing in line, and trying to chew anything took up most of one’s time. With a direct, ironic style and, many times, appealing to the most stark humor, the writer allows us to accompany him along the path of voracity that took over the entire Island.

Thus, in the hands of a young man with a recent degree in History, we are witnessing the moment when the false bubble of prosperity that the Soviet subsidy allowed in Cuba during the 1980s begins to crack. Like a gathering cloud, the first symptoms of an economic crisis begin, on which Fidel Castro hung the euphemism of a “Special Period in times of peace.”

While trying to satisfy the immense appetite of a twenty-something, the protagonist of Nuestra hambre en La Habana must also deal with the ethical deterioration of a society willing to do almost anything to put food in the table. With his bicycle, which crosses the city from one side to the other, he witnesses the increase in assaults, the massive hunting of stray cats to eat them, the increase in prostitution with foreigners, and the only pursuit in which the country continued to excel and over excel throughout the Island: repression.

Upon completing his studies, the young man gets a job at the Colón Cemetery, the place that puts the lid on the dramaturgical handle of history. There he lives with the looting of tombs, the nameless niches of those who had fallen into disgrace and the juggling of a state work center where denunciations and incriminating reports were the order of the day. The necropolis inserted in that other city of the dead which, on the other side of the walls, multiplied the tragedy of the graveyard.

And with sex and distilled alcohol as the escape routes from all that oppressive reality. An impudent nation that took advantage of every staircase, every dark building to make love to each other with that frenzy with which they would have preferred to bite into a hamburger. Drink until you forget about hunger or kiss until you fall asleep so as not to have to think about the condensed milk that is no longer sold, the beef that has disappeared or the chocolate that had become a mythological product that was talked about in circles around the candles that eased the blackouts.

However, despite the detailed description of all that collective famine that left us with rags as underwear, that made our collarbones jut out until it seemed that they were going to burst the skin, and forced us to live with the muffled squeals of the pig which had undergone surgery so that it would not make a sound in the bathtub of the apartment where it was being raised, none of that leaves a feeling as overwhelming as the return of that nightmare.

Reading Nuestra hambre en La Habana right now in Cuba is like unfolding the map of scarcity that has once again taken over our country to review which seasons we have gone through and which ones we still have to live through again. The nod in the title to the novel by British writer Graham Greene anticipates that this time it is not about following the trail of spies or discovering conspiracies, but rather about pursuing jama [food] through the intricate paths of a dysfunctional system.

While my eyes traveled the pages of this book by Enrique del Risco, the rooster that my neighbor is raising on his balcony barely allowed me to concentrate. When I was already halfway through the volume, I had to interrupt it for two days because a friend called me to go “to the country to buy food” that we later hid in the trunk of an old vehicle and that’s how we managed to get it into the city. I had barely finished processing the last few paragraphs and a relative told me that he had turned his grandmother’s mahogany display cabinet into firewood because in his town “there are no blackouts anymore, only alumbrones**.”

There is a hunger that never goes away because there is always fear that it will return. Even if you have a plate at hand and chew for a while, you sense that everything has been a fiction of prosperity and that soon hunger will jump from a corner and take over your table. It is the hunger that haunts an entire country, including those who emigrate and who, in the early days outside the Island, swallow everything they can and what they could not before.

We have returned to that point that Del Risco details in his text: to the nervous autophagy of an entire people willing to leave behind nothing where they can sink their teeth.

Translator’s notes:
*The title is a play on words on the title of Graham Greene’s 1958 novel “Our Man [hombre] in Havana” and ‘hunger’ [hambre].
**Alumbrone – a word that means when the lights (and electricity) are ON, as the normal state — a blackout or ‘apagone‘ — is that they are not.


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