The Covid-19 Emergency in Cuba, Days 42-44: Without Bread There is No Country

The products that once were the most desired and scarce, are the same again today. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 5 May 2020 — I remember that one of the first signs of the Special Period was the difficulty in buying bread. In those years in the 1990s I lived in the Havana neighborhood of San Leopoldo and near my house there was a bakery that sold unrationed goods until, little by little, only one offering remained on its shelves and it became rationed.

One day I woke up to a long line to buy bread. After that, for the next few years, I spent hours and hours in that waiting, although I rarely came home with a full bag. On one occasion, my family was so hungry that they devoured what little I had bought through the ration book while standing on that same corner.

Today, we are close to similar scenes. In the neighborhood where I live, many have gone years without seeking out rationed bread because remittances and informal vendors allowed them to avoid the crowds at the state premises on Hidalgo and Lombillo streets. But that ended. Tyrians and Trojans are now there from the early hours, in a long line.

The products that once were the most desired and scarce, are the same again today, as if the timepiece of necessity moves its hands to the same demands. Rice, chicken pork, milk, vegetable oil, bread and vegetables are the protagonists of our anguish. Everything derived from raw materials purchased abroad – like flour – is on the red list of the most vulnerable, given the international crisis to which is added this country’s lack of liquidity.

So at home we have given up bread for breakfast. It’s OK. At that hour, I have always preferred a nice tea, because nothing more elaborate goes down my throat. But I am aware that this country cannot function without bread, though the nation could take a few steps without sugar or coffee, but not without that white mass that goes equally well with honey or with garlic.

We are a nation tied to our slices, slaves of the crumb, illegitimate daughter of yeast. “Without bread there is no country,” I think they should have said, because in the end many of us do not add sugar to coffee, nor do we like syrupy sweets, but we all enjoy a good loaf. To wheat what comes from wheat and to sugar what comes from cane.

Life goes on, however, beyond the plate.

This Monday our little dogs barked at four in the morning and I had a bad premonition. Shortly after we learned that a downstairs neighbor had died of respiratory failure. The details of his death remain to be clarified but he is a person who had worked on the construction of the building 40 years ago, so he leaves a significant void.

The problem is that the people who die in the midst of the pandemic leave without hardly any tribute. With the Covid-19 crisis, which in Cuba — according to official figures — has claimed 69 lives, funerals are brief and fearful. Few dare to go to the cemetery to accompany the remains, not knowing whether they carry the dreaded coronavirus. Saying goodbye these days is done more alone than ever.

In the middle of the afternoon they have come to ask Reinaldo to unstick the elevator of the building, which has been stopped near the ground floor. The problem is that, at that time, the body of our deceased neighbor was still in his apartment without the health authorities having come to check on him and confirm or refute that he died of Covid-19.

When Reinaldo was expelled from journalism, in that distant December of 1988, he had to earn a poor living as an elevator mechanic. Thinking to sink him, they pushed him into the most popular of occupations for someone living in a 14-story building. Who’s going to mess with the guy who gets you out when you lock yourself in a metal box several feet off the ground?

So I share my life with the journalist and the mechanic. If he can’t unblock the elevator, the official company can take hours and days to do it because the bureaucracy is long and tedious in these parts. But, we must add to this that we live different times. Right now, we don’t know whether Covid-19 has reached our neighborhood, our concrete block, and a floor near ours.

So, this Monday, when the phone rang for help to free someone from the stuck elevator — an always risky operation without official support, although widely desired by the community — we preferred to pass the buck and ask: And what would you do?


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