Otilio’s house is a museum of artifacts from behind the Iron Curtain. Retired for 21 years, the single, childless octogenarian lives surrounded by anachronistic objects and starving cats.
On one wall once the color of ivory, hanging sideways is an award for 45 years as the head of a gang of plumbers. As a reward for his labor exploits and for have been an exemplary revolutionary the also awarded him bronze medals and various articles that, three decades later, refuse to die.
In his collection of objects from the Soviet area there is a chrome Poljot clock, an Aurika washer lying in a room full of obsolete junk, a two-speed Karpaty scooter which is only a skeleton, and old Selena radio which, after he hits it, will tune in to the baseball game.
“It was another era. The State gave you everything from a house on the beach to a Russian fan. I don’t know if these changes now are better or worse. What’s happening is that a lot of people aren’t prepared. From depending totally on the State to doing it however you want. Lucky for me, I’m past that,” commented Otilio, seated in the doorway of his house with a cat on his lap.
At that stage it was essential to be pro-Fidel to be bomb proof. Otherwise, you had to go 90 miles north and know that the recognition and the opportunity to acquire certain goods was denied you.
It’s been more than three decades since those years, when candy for your birthday and beer for weddings was free on the ration book. For a lot of workers and officials they still live anchored in the mentality of waiting for orders and rules from Daddy State. It’s been learned over 53 years. Personal initiative was always seen badly and considered dangerous.
Although rationed and of poor quality, the State guaranteed the minimum necessary to live. But if yo applauded Fidel Castro’s speeches, went to the rallies at the Plaza of the Revolution, and to the Marches of the Fighting People and participated in Red Sundays, you could win a coupon to buy some Soviet article.
It was a kind of social contract based on blind faith and redemption. The Golden Age of Castro, who ruled in an almost absolute way and with few brave crazies who dared to dissent.
They should put up a monument to the first peaceful opponents who, loudly and openly, criticized the state of things in Cuba.
In 2012, while retirees like Otilio, who gave everything for the construction of a luminous socialism that never rose above the foundations, wait to die, General Raúl Castro and his pals with three stars on their epaulets talk about updating the economic model and criticize the benefactor State.
The worst part of the new discourse is blaming the people for their stagnant mentality and laziness in production. And that disgusts many. Ernesto, an engineer with 30 years experience, is insulted when, in meetings at this workplace to reduce the workforce, the bosses criticize the lack of creativity and the dependence of so many on the State.
“They sit there with a straight face. They blame the people for not working much and being used to living off the ration book. I remember one night, it was five years ago, Fidel mocked people who had fans and home appliances because they were high consumers of electricity. As if we had chosen to be poor and had all this shit in our homes. Now they throw you out of work and tell you to start a business and figure it out for yourself. It’s cynicism in its pure state,” says Ernesto.
The fashion now is to work for yourself. In whatever. Taking the fleas off dogs, covering buttons, or dealing cards. But there’s a problem. Those who work for a salary of 20 dollars a month don’t have any capital to start a small business if they don’t have family abroad. The most they can do is refill lighters, fix shoes or paint houses.
They don’t have hard currency to open a snack bar or to buy an old American car from the50s to use as a taxi, nor does their house have the conditions to rent to tourists for $35 a night.
For the unemployed from the State sector, used to waiting for manna from heaven and robbed of their jobs, the options aren’t many.
Cuba is decapitalized, The government doesn’t want to hear about subsidies. Save yourself however you can. In the private sector, competition is tough and the consumers’ wallets are thin.
One example: on 600 years of October 10 Avenue, from Santa Catalina Avenue to Gertrudis Street, there are 6 pizzerias, 8 snack bars, and 2 private hamburger stands. Half of them are doing well. The other half are planning to give back their licenses. To open a decent snack bar costs at least 1,500 CUCs (about $1,700), over six years salary for a worker.
Also, you have to know the unwritten rules. Know the guys who sell flour, pork, or stolen mayonnaise, at prices lower than in the official market. You have to give the corrupt inspectors something under the table. And perform financial tricks to pay the least possible annual taxes.
According to Albert, a Havana taxi driver, this new version of the olive green revolution is “they kick you out on the street without a latchkey. You have to look for pesos however you can, but cautiously, like walking a tightrope. If they catch you at something considered a crime, which is almost everything according to Cuban law, then you won’t only lose your license, you’ll go to jail,” he says while driving.
The Government already spoke loud and clear: Look for a few pesos but don’t even think about trying to amass a fortune because we’ll come and get you. Private work, says the State, should be just enough to survive.
If in the 70s men like Otilio shows pride in an award earned by participating in volunteer work, a coupon that allow them to buy a two-speed Russian scooter after having cut thousands of tons of cane, now the likes of Alberto know that the State won’t even give them the time of day/Its mission is to collect taxes and watch them so they don’t cross the line.
The most optimistic think that it’s a good way to train for the day when the worst version of savage capitalism comes to Cuba. Which is where we’re going.
From Diario de Cuba
16 July 2012