Cuba: Toys Only for Hard Currency / Ivan Garcia

Photo: Domestically produced plastic toys for two to three-year-old children for sale at shopping malls and hard currency stores for 11.25 convertible pesos (about twelve dollars), a sum that amounts to half a Cuban worker’s monthly salary. Photo by Jorge A. Liriano Linares, from the blog by Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta.

Ivan Garcia, 8 January 2016 — When Fidel Castro came to power in January 1959, one of the first things he proposed was doing away with the legend of the Three Wise Men. The government tried replacing the tradition, which originated in Spain, by offering rationed toys through its shops. Now it does not even do that. If you do not have hard currency, your children do not get toys.

Fifty-six years later, the tradition has returned, although not to all Cuban homes. On the eve of Three King’s Day, eight-year-old Lemay gets out of bed early. January 6 is probably the most important date in his life. He has revised his letter to Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar three times.

Whenever Lemay saw a new toy, he would erase one toy from his list and add another. Last week he became angry with a friend in the neighborhood who joked that the Magi were his parents.

“It’s a lie,” explained his father. “What happens is that, if you misbehave, they don’t bring you toys.” He takes out a letter with childlike scribbles written by his son on a sheet of paper from a school notebook. The proud father reads it aloud:

“Dear Wise Men: I was very good this year and I got very good grades in school. I would like to ask if you can bring me a bicycle and some inline skates. Also a football and anything else you think I deserve.”

For his family, Lemay’s toys are “an issue of national security.” He is an only child and all his relatives — those who live in Cuba and those live on the other side of the pond — get involved months before the holiday.

“We have been saving money from our remittances. His grandparents in Miami can’t use a ’mule’ to send him the best quality toy, so we bought it here.”

On December 30 Lemay’s parents spend the whole day shopping for toys in Havana to satisfy their son’s requests. In the shopping complex at the Comodoro hotel in Miramar in the western part of the city, they buy an Adidas soccer ball and a pair of tennis shoes of the same brand. At the Carlos III shopping mall they manage to find the inline skates.

“For three toys and a Neymar shirt, which we bought at a stall selling odds and ends, we spent 132 chavitos (about $140). With every passing year the selection in the stores gets worse and the toys get more expensive,” says his mother.

On this occasion the main present, sent by the grandparents from Miami, is a shiny, new bicycle. On the night of January 5 the family springs into action, hiding the toys in the least obvious places.

“We enjoy it as much as he does. My wife and I grew up at a time when people had lost hope and once a year the government ration book offered three toys,” recalls his father.

If you stroll through Havana toy stores, you will notice a lot of shoppers. Delia, an employee at the Carlos III mall, explains, “In the days leading up to January 6, toy sales exceed 20,000 convertible pesos. I don’t know where people get so much money, but they buy sophisticated toys that cost a fortune.”

An average bicycle costs around 130 CUC. A two-story doll house costs 84 CUC.  The price of a metal frame pool with a water purification pump varies between 585 and more than 1,000 convertible pesos.

You have to dig through the shelves to find a toy that costs under 10 CUC. Alina and her husband, who have two children, really have to count their pennies.

“We would like to buy him the smallest electric car and the biggest race car video game, but we just don’t have the money,” says Alina, pointing to the prices. The car is driven by remote control and costs 116 CUC, and a Formula One game goes for 60 CUC.

For some time now the tradition of Three Kings Day in Cuba has been an annual occasion many parents use to try to please their children. Meanwhile, the state-run press and government institutions remain silent.

On the other hand, there has not been a return to the extremes seen in January 2001, when an outraged Fidel Castro harshly condemned a Three Kings procession, sponsored by the Spanish embassy, in which participants tossed candies through the air. Castro considered it an insult to Cuban children.

As with Christmas, Easter and the venerations of the Virgin of Charity, Saint Barbara and Saint Lazarus, the party propaganda machinery does not emphasize or promote Epiphany, a religious holiday which Christians celebrate on January 6 to commemorate the arrival of the Magi and their adoration of Jesus.

For years the military regime has tried out its own version of Three Kings Day. A few days after coming to power at the point of a gun, Fidel Castro went up in a small plane and dropped toys attached to small parachutes to children who lived along the hillsides of the Sierra Maestra and who had never had them.

As the regime became more radicalized, traditional celebrations were circumscribed or at best ignored. The government took over toy distribution and toys were rationed by the Ministry of Domestic Commerce.

During the first week of July every parent had the right to buy three toys (basic, non-basic and supplemental) for his or her child at a previously designated neighborhood store. Before paying for it, the purchase was recorded in a ration book for manufactured goods, which was similar to the ration book for groceries. Back then, people had two ration books: one for food and one for clothing.

Since the start of the economic crisis, which has lasted for twenty-six years, toys can only be purchased for hard currency or at very inflated prices in pesos. There are handmade toys, which are shoddy and plastic, but they are the only kind the poor can afford.

Gerardo, a bricklayer, has not been able to buy decent toys for any of his four children. “If anything, it will be one of those plastic trucks that private vendors sell. Or a ball,” he says. “Over time, the inequalities that Fidel promised to eliminate have gotten worse. Those of us who get screwed over are just getting screwed over more.”

Meanwhile, on the morning of January 6, as children like Lemay search for presents throughout the house, thousands of little ones only see toys in display windows. In Cuba the Three Kings do not visit every house.