Stories of My Neighbors (II) / Ángel Santiesteban

Photo: Alejandro Azcuy

AFTER THE SPEECH of the new president. After the announcement of the end of all gratuities*, my neighbor, who for several consecutive years had been named the Vanguard Worker of his factory, decided to cease his incessant effort. Which, day-by-day, he brought to his workplace. He would not work more until they paid him a salary that would allow him to afford an annual vacation, even if only in the worst hotel in Cuba, not to be demanding because I am a revolutionary, he declared. He was accustomed to going, every summer, with his wife and daughters to a resort and enjoying a peaceful well-fed week. It was his stimulus. He sat down, as in the Arab proverb, in the doorway of his house, which couldn’t even be called a hut. His roofs sloped, the walls have lost their cladding and their bricks, exposed to the weather, reveal a few cracks that allow the neighbors to know, from the street, in what part of the house its inhabitants are. Thus, to be precise, starting from now, without the “socialist benefits,” we will be talking about a hovel, a shack.   And he sat down, he told them, in the doorway of his home. He would pick at the calluses on his hands, created over so many years, while waiting for death or a more bearable fate. It didn’t take long for the representatives from the House of the Combatants and the Secretary of the Party Nucleus to show up. Every good worker is a Communist, as they told him, but if you cease to honor the working class than you are no longer a member. On leaving they decided to confiscate his purple Party membership card.

Then the directors of the factory visited him and were surprised by the horribly shabby condition of his dwelling. My neighbor, at first, didn’t know what the hell they were talking about, when I explained, he responded with insults. The bosses let him know that since his absence, no one understood the old machinery which is now broken down most of the time. They couldn’t fulfill the orders of foreign clients and there were complaints. The delay in payments for the goods had gotten worse, and it was impossible for the factory to be profitable and, in consequence, goodbye to “socialist emulation.”

Patiently and painfully my neighbor explained to them that he had grown old without accomplishing anything. When I was a boy I started work with the American owners, it seemed unfair to me that the bosses went to New York on vacation, and their children, bad students, didn’t take advantage of having been born with money. But it’s also true that when I started working I soon bought this new house and my life changed.

After nineteen-fifty-nine, when I saw that the children of the owners and their henchmen wouldn’t be going on vacation on my effort, I gave myself to the revolutionary process. I was in the fight against the bandits, at the Bay of Pigs, Argelia, Angola, Nicaraguq, Ethiopia, and I forgot about me and my family. At the factory they gave me enough wages to survive and I never complained. When the Special Period came, then they gave me a little bag of goods. Later they stopped that and gave us ten chavitos — Cuban convertible pesos; after a little time they stopped that, too. Then I concentrated on earning the vacations to apologize to my family and make them shut up.

“Now what can I tell them?… I have no more justifications.”

Translator’s note: The Cuban regime calls the things it “gives” its citizens, in lieu of wages, “gratuities” — they include benefits ranging from lunch at one’s workplace to education. Many of these have been or are being eliminated.

September 25, 2010