Cuba and the Wonders of the GDR

The destitution of the presentation of the Limtel is not industrial modesty, but disrespect for the buyer, not to mention the quality of the soap. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Havana, 31 July 2020 — In the mid-1970s a close relative had the opportunity to travel to the German Democratic Republic (GDR). As our first family member to leave and return to the Island, he offered a kind of press conference surrounded by uncles, cousins and nephews.

His eyes sparkled when he told us about the wonders he saw there. Markets where there was food, families who obtained an apartment after less than a year of waiting, the possibility of acquiring a vehicle for professionals, daycare centers within the reach of all mothers. “That will be our future!” He said as excited as he was convinced.

Twenty years later, when the wall was already history, I had the opportunity to make my first trip outside of Cuba and by chance went to Germany. Among the unforgettable experiences of that first “going abroad,” I remember that in Berlin some friends invited me to see an exhibition. As nobody explained to me before entering what the exhibition was about, I toured those corridors without understanding what was the purpose of an exhibition dedicated to basic products.

My friend Christoph explained to me, when we were already at the exit door, that the exhibit was a sample of the ‘stellar’ merchandise that was distributed in the extinct GDR, and ‘the appeal’ of the sampled products consisted in making fun of the rustic finishes, of the battered containers, the faded labels and the lousy presentation, in addition to questioning the alleged usefulness of those products of Real Socialism. “With your permission,” I said to those who had invited me, after learning the reason for the exhibit, “I have to repeat the tour.”

A quarter of a century later, I fantasize about a similar exhibition where exhibition curators of the future make fun of us, showing especially how rationing affected us and how little you can buy with the salary that the State assigns to the working class.

I have chosen, almost at random, two candidates for that exhibition: the dish detergent and the laundry soap that was just sold to us through the rationed market system.

In an advertisement published in the Juventud Rebelde newspaper in August 2018, the Limtel brand liquid detergent was promoted. The label, the bottle, the color of the liquid and the closure of the lid were all objects of praise, all of which had been the subject of consumer complaints about the ease with which the product could be adulterated.

But we are in 2020 and the Limtel bottle arrives with the label off, a not insignificant decrease in its contents and an easy-to-open cap. The justification for such impairment is not a search for simplicity, nor can one even appeal to the naturist and rustic concept promoted by other markets outside the Island, since evidently these are formulas that do not respond to or fit into any framework of respect for the environment or protectors of human health. The destitution of its presentation is not industrial modesty, but disrespect for the buyer.

I am not giving details of the bar of washing soap out of respect for the intelligence of the readers. Just look at it, with its sharp edges, because — fortunately — the smell cannot be captured by the snapshot. Unfortunately, there are many people in this country who sacrifice their skin and nails literally washing with such a rock, most of them women, who lose hours of improvement, personal and professional happiness, for trying to clean a sheet with this stone.

Other products will appear in this hypothetical future exhibition to serve as an example of the humiliation to which we consumers have been subjected under this inefficient system. The list will be long: women’s sanitary pads that look like sandpaper between their thighs; the ground beef or poultry, which, just looking at it moves one more to repulsion than salivation; plastic baby toys with sharp edges that can cut their thin lips. All this with a marketing and an aesthetic that motivates one more to tears or depression than to the impulse to buy.

But our wall is still standing, although we can already store images and stories for this bizarre exhibition. Viewers will not need additional explanations. They will understand everything from having heard or lived it.


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