14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 31 December 2017 — The young man knocks on the door, having arrived from the distant town of Güira, sweating buckets. He doesn’t have to mince words, just display his merchandise consisting of fresh milk, cheese and a leg of pork. This informal vendor has cheaper deals than those in the state markets, in days when the city’s pallets are empty or the quality of what is available has collapsed.
In a country where the Gross Domestic Product grew in 2017, according to official data, by 1.6%, things continue to go badly for Cubans who do not have contacts in the informal market. It does not matter if the man is among the new rich, or the woman is a state worker who scratches every penny of her salary or the person is a retiree with both a pension and remittances from family living abroad. Without that furtive seller who knocks at the door, everyone has fewer chances to make ends meet.
The complex underground network that supplies the national tables, and which becomes essential on holidays, is one of the many evidences of the dysfunctionality of the economic system that rules the island. Along with their ABCs, political slogans and ideological simulation, islanders learn to buy and sell “under the table.” Anyone who does not master this vital subject is lost.
The first lesson of the clandestine school is simple: few questions, a lot of complicity and no “slips of the tongue,” because “no one sells to” the informers. Once this basic class is passed, all you need is to have a contact who makes a first connection with “the source” for you. To obtain a serious supplier, who does not cheat or adulterate the merchandise, is equivalent in these parts to finding a four-leaf clover. Whoever finds one doesn’t let it go.
On the other hand, the black market vendors who take the most risks are those who move “delicate” merchandise, such as shrimp, lobster, milk and all its derivatives, in addition to the very tightly controlled beef. However, by the end of the year, a leg of pork rises to the category of “the most wanted” by the police, especially after the government is forced to cap the prices of many agricultural products.
This piece of meat that will roast in the ovens of innumerable houses on the last day of the year is a symbol of status. A leg of pork on 31 December is not the same thing as a pork shoulder, a rack of ribs, or the least valued pork chops. Like a Cuban Dow Jones, this cut of meat draws the clean line of the social abyss that divides the country.
This Sunday, when the smells rise from thousands of kitchens on this island, not only will the economic contrasts be there with all the rawness that mark the dishes, but the degree of contact with the black market will make the difference in what each family puts in its mouth.
For those who do not belong to the ruling class and who at this time of year receive a gift package with nougat – a traditional holiday treat – liquors and cuts of meat, there are only two ways to get ready for the festivities: stand in the long lines in the markets for a piece of pork that’s worth the hassle, or appeal to a clandestine vendor.
Those who have someone who knocks furtively on their doors will eat with more variety; those who immerse themselves in the illegality can bite into something closer to the “ideal” of the Cuban New Year; and those who move most adeptly in these informal frameworks with celebrate 31 December, Saint Sylvester’s Day, with less pain.
In Cuba, a leg of pork marks the difference.
In the island’s near neighbor, Venezuela, the story is repeated. A system that promotes political patronage and wants to control every detail of the economy is put to the test at this time. The economic crisis that the country is experiencing due to bad administration, corruption and the political blindness of its leaders, reached painful heights this week.
The Venezuelans are throwing themselves into the street because of the daily hardship. Even the poorest and those most loyal to Chavism demand to be able to eat the traditional twelve grapes at the end of the year and insist that Nicolás Maduro fulfill his promise of a mass importation of legs of pork for Christmas. In the face of a frustrated family dinner, slogans are not worth much.
Miraflores Palace blamed Portugal for not having fulfilled its commitments and leaving thousands of poor without their traditional Christmas dinner, which triggered a new wave of street protests.
There too, a piece of pork has become more eloquent than any antigovernment slogan. The contents of the tables anticipated in 2018 speaks more of privileges, crisis and illegality than the best economic treatises that can be written about the collapse of a system.
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