14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 30 April 2020 — These are days of risk to health and freedom. The Cuban government is taking advantage of the Covid-19 emergency situation to further curtail the right to free expression, but also to hold “show” trials that are more circus than justice. At the center of this attack is the black market, the alter ego of Castroism.
Yesterday a neighbor told me that pork would “drop” at 47 CUP (Cuban pesos, less than $2 US) per pound, brought directly from Artemis. I smelled, in the air… not cracklings, but danger. “Thanks, but these days I can’t buy a pin under the table,” I said bluntly, and I’m not exaggerating. It is a rare night that the TV news does not feature cases of the diversion of state resources and unsuspecting buyers sentenced to heavy prison terms.
These types of topics dominate the news as products become scarce and the lines to buy food lengthen, with the apparent aim of removing the responsibility for the shortages from the authorities and putting it on the shoulders of a few thieves and informal merchants. However, in a country immersed in the clandestine economy, a large part of the population is involved in acts of this type, although they do not confess it.
I remember the first expressions relating to the black market that I learned before I was ten years old. If someone said they had “three meters of red cloth,” I already knew that they were offering three pounds of beef. “They gave me flour,” said a nearby neighbor when the powdered milk arrived, and “an ugly anthill has appeared in the house” was someone else’s code to announce that she was selling coffee.
Metaphors and similes mask a world in which we Cubans have lived for decades and from which we cannot separate. In our existence, the role of the black market is such that it is almost impossible to find someone who can boast of never having resorted to these informal networks. If the person who has never stooped to buying something illegally was urged to throw the first stone, not even a pebble would fly.
Every once in a while, the Plaza of the Revolution takes measures against that deep Cuba where everything is for sale, from medicines to passing grades to get by in school. These are cyclical turns of the screw that give the impression that informal traders and the diversion of state resources have “gone too far,” but they barely manage to move the surface of the waters of an underworld that, on this island, is as deep as the ocean.
In the midst of one of these windstorms, we must redouble our caution.
A friend told me that she called an illegal detergent vendor who had saved her in previous crises. “I am under the bed until the pandemic passes,” replied the merchant, half-joking half-fearful. I liked the phrase because in the midst of all these tensions, we are at risk of losing that popular humor that manages to mock even death. Imagining a whole people hiding under their mattresses wrenched a smile from me, in the midst of the arduous task of searching for food.
While waiting outside the Youth Labor Army market near my house, I imagined 11 million people crowded together in the narrow space under a bunk. Holding their breath and peering out at a pair of boots and military pants as they walk around the room looking for anyone who has bought at least one illegal aspirin.
It was my turn to enter the market and I kept laughing to myself about the image. I got some carrots, beets and a packet of birdseed. Doves, blackbirds, the occasional mockingbird and little sparrows frequently come to our balcony to eat. At least they will have their guaranteed food for the next few days, without having to dive into the dangerous waters of the black market.
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