Ivan Garcia, Havana, 1 July 2015 — In a dimly lit butcher shop directly across the street from the Passionist church in Havana’s La Vibora neighborhood, two boys play a game of dice on the counter. An assistant calmly sharpens a pair of knives while the butcher, shirtless and sitting on a rickety stool outside, works on a year-old crossword puzzle in Bohemia magazine.
On a blackboard there is an announcement: Chicken for fish* and ground meat. A few retirees line up with their shopping bags and take shelter from the sweltering heat under an eave.
It is reminiscent of a surrealist Chagall painting. “Neither the chicken nor the ground meat has arrived but the truck could arrive at any time,” the butcher informs the customers without looking up from his puzzle.
It does not matter to the grandparents trying to take shelter from the sun. They have time on their hands. They chat aimlessly and remember back when every nine days the government distributed beef to all the members of one’s immediate family through the ration book.
“Now everything is a luxury. Beef, milk, fruit. In the 1980s beef was rationed but at least we had it from time to time. We were better off before the Revolution, when a roast beef sandwich this big (indicating the size with her fingers) cost fifteen cents,” one of them notes as she moves the tip of her tongue to the corner of her mouth.
The most moving image in today’s Cuba is that of the elderly. Many, abandoned by their families, live on the edge by selling plastic bags or loose cigarettes.
Others beg for money on the street or near nursing homes. For them Raul Castro’s lukewarm economic reforms are like a distant comet. They are the big losers.
It is already noon in Havana. The sun warps the asphalt. Steam rises up like wisps of smoke. The street looks like a match about to burst into flame. Only the most intrepid dare go outside to run an errand or make a purchase.
But there they are. Two dozen people wait in line to pay their phone bills at the ETECSA office. A crowd strolls among the stalls at the farmers’ market.
Antonio, a bank employee, does some mathematical calculations on his mobile phone. On a shelf in front of him lie several pork chops with flies buzzing around them. He wants to negotiate a lower price with the butcher. “Hey, forty-five pesos (two dollars) for a pound of pork chops is high. If he drops the price to forty pesos, I’ll buy fifteen pounds,” he says, describing his offer.
The vendor, wearing the green scrub shirt of a surgeon, does not even budge. “Look, tomorrow the price will probably be fifty pesos. This is all I have. If you don’t want them, some else will,” he says, puffing away on a menthol cigarette.
Even though it is the middle of a work day, streets and businesses are deserted. “No one works here. It’s a country of bums and drunkards,” says a man gazing at a sidewalk bar across the street.
By nine in the morning all the tables in the dingy bar are occupied. Several men brave the oppressive heat to down cheap rum or a light amber brew sold as beer on tap.
Everyone is talking loudly in the “distinctive” Cuban vernacular. They stop swearing long enough to call out to the bartender: “Asere, get me another round.” They place their orders with faces are marked by tragedy. Not surprisingly, there is no fan in the place and everyone is sweating buckets.
Drinking alcohol is one of the three national pastimes, along with playing dominoes and planning to emigrate.
Next door to the makeshift bar is a hard-currency cafe, which sells desserts priced like gold. The good news is their beer supply arrived two days ago. They offer imported Heineken and Bavaria for 1.80 CUC and domestically produced Cristal and Bucanero for one CUC. The bad news is all the tables are full and the air conditioning is turned off.
“This heat is melting me. Please, turn that machine on,” screams one parishioner.
“The management has ordered us not to turn it on until 3:00 P.M. to save power,” replies an employee.
“With the prices you charge, you can’t afford to pay the light bill? What is the government doing with all the money?” asks a customer. No one answers.
Just outside the seating area, summer awaits. The thermometer reads 91ºF in Havana. School holidays have already started. Families rack their brains to ensure their children have two meals a day and count their pesos in hopes of taking them on a weekend trip to the beach.
Meanwhile, La Vibora’s elderly retirees await chicken for fish.
*Translator’s note: A common expression in Cuba which indicates ration card holders may substitute chicken for their allotment of fish, which has become nearly unavailable to average consumers.