“Good morning,” said the woman with the thick voice and deep tone. My sister responded in kind and the woman began offering medications for sale. The clock indicated it was seven minutes past eight in the morning. The twins had just left for school. Yesterday a neighbor commented on the shortage of books and notebooks in the schools and the difficulty obtaining uniforms.
I stopped writing and went to the room where the woman was still offering medications. I said hello and began observing her with curiosity. She was corpulent. The mixed-race skin of her face suggested someone in her sixties, but her appearance gave the impression of virtuous health. It was now eight minutes after eight. At schools around the country the morning assembly had begun with the Young Pioneers shouting, “Pioneers for communism. We will be like Che.”
I observed the little nylon bag the woman held in her hands from which she pulled out strips of pills and another small bag with injections while my sister kindly told her about possible buyers in the neighborhood.
The day before I had asked two mothers about the issue of school uniforms. One told me they were being sold for a coupon or a voucher that you could get from the schools. For preschool they would let you buy two uniforms for between fifteen and twenty pesos in national currency.* After that you were not eligible to another until the second grade.
The other woman said that in preschool they did not give you the coupon because things were so disorganized and you had to buy it on the black market where it never costs less than one-hundred pesos.
“But how?” I asked. “They provide a uniform for each child.”
“That’s how it is supposed to be,” she said, “but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. As long as they follow all the rules, regulations, laws and intents in the black market, you have to pay.”
It was now eight minutes past eight. The woman was still offering her medications. I finally decided to ask her a question. “Ma’am, why are you doing this?”
The woman was taken aback, almost frightened. “Look, they gave me this… I only… It’s for…” She was almost stuttering. She did not know what to say or do. With obvious nervousness she moved to start gathering up the medications, intending to go. I had caused her to feel uncertain. There was fear in her eyes. The adrenaline was escaping through her dark skin. She was thinking that I could be a government agent, a policeman or a bandit. I tried to quietly calm her down.
“Listen, don’t be afraid. You are under no obligation to answer me. I don’t mean you any harm. I am only interested in knowing why, in knowing what it is like for people near the bottom. I am a defender of human rights, concerned with social justice.”
“Everyone who works should receive a decent salary so that they don’t turn to corruption,” I added. “Elderly people like yourself should not have to denigrate themselves in order to be able to enjoy a much-deserved rest in the last phase of their lives. I think society should reward them for their work by providing enough for them to have some comfort in the few years they have left. But this society is structured so that this does not happen. There is no accumulation of capital, nor of property, that might provide an elderly person with some well-being and security in life and meet their basic needs.”
The woman’s face changed shape, her fear turned to curiosity, her adrenaline must have gone down to normal levels, but she still seemed evasive, elusive. My sister finally put her at ease.
“This is my brother. I assure you that you can speak openly. There’s no problem,” she said smiling.
The woman turned around and faced me, holding the little bag with the medications. “I get these from pharmacies,” she said. “They are medicines that can cost up to six CUC,* but I sell them for a lot less. I was looking for something to make ends meet. So were the people who gave them to me. This is how we all live. With our salaries we cannot buy enough to eat.”
“That is what I was looking for,” I said. “The sincere truth.”
As the woman started to open up, I saw an opening for my second question. “Are you sure of the origins of these medications? Couldn’t they be counterfeit or tampered with?”
“No way,” she said. “They come from the pharmacies and are sealed. They are from people I trust and I don’t sell them to just anyone, only to people I trust.”
Four more minutes had passed. It was now thirteen after eight. The teachers must be starting class now, or scolding the first student who talked to his neighbor or who blew a raspberry.
I told her that I have seen with my own eyes the tampering with and packaging of a multitude of products in small, clandestine factories. On occasion I have even been defrauded myself. It happens with foodstuffs as well as with consumer products and basic necessities like soap, toothpaste, detergent, perfumes, deodorant, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages – including brand name rum – tobacco products and cigars.
The containers, labels and products are taken at different times and in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is through outright burglary. In other instances it is through the actions of a company’s corrupt financial officers, who cover up their embezzlement by cleverly cooking the books, thereby avoiding being discovered by auditors who have not already been bought off through bribery, extortion, lavish meals or gifts. Many of these products end up in state-run hard currency stores through arrangements with the stores’ personnel. I can write about this because I have been concerned enough about this phenomenon to find ways of observing it. In many cases I have become involved with it in order to discover how the process works.
In the 1990s bottles, labels and the rum itself were taken from a factory in Santo Domingo. The rum, which was later secretly bottled, appeared to be genuine, having been sealed at the factory. Personnel at every level were involved in the operation. It was rumored that a security agent from the area was able to buy his 1958 Chevrolet with funds obtained from rum trafficking, though I never had direct contact with the man to confirm this.
Many of those who drank this rum in Varadero were fooled. The differences might have been minimal and virtually imperceptible, but they were there. I could describe the manufacture and bottling of some brand-name beers – Hatuey, Manacas, Polar – as well as soft drinks, pasta products such as vermicelli and elbow macaroni, ham, cigars, coffee… A large number of these products have made their way into the web of state-run stores, thereby covering up their clandestine and illegal production. Almost all appear to be genuine, but their level of quality and purity are minimal.
So many values have been lost. Conscience and dignity are in short supply. Corruption has become so widespread that it does not surprise me that medicines are being tampered with and plaster is being unscrupulously added to aspirin.
“I don’t want to cause you harm. I only want to be sure of the origins. I am not going to judge you, though I don’t approve of corruption. If you are detained by the police, they will apply the force of law or demand a bribe. They won’t care about the motives for your actions. I need to know the why’s,” I told her. This made her feel more secure.
Then I asked my sister a question: “How are things here?” She said that in Lisa things have not been going well for the Ladies in White. The vendors say that, because of them, agents from the Ministry of the Interior, the Technical Department of Investigation and state security are all over the place. They can no longer sell their contraband products on the street through the black market, so they have told the Ladies to get lost, so they say.
She said a few other things that I did not hear. I was thinking about how to explain to her truth as I know it. How to make these people understand that becoming corrupt and denigrating themselves by acting wretched and perverse instead of demanding their rights only leads to misery and perdition?
The woman stood in front of me with her bag of medicines. Another minute had passed. It was now 8:14. The teacher would be at the front of the class now, asking for the attention of the boys and girls who tomorrow will be adult and elderly, like the drug tamperers and clandestine traffickers. Or like the pharmacy workers, or the mothers discussing the need for school uniforms and the black market, or like this victim of drug trafficking.
I looked at her directly, but her illiteracy in ethics and social responsibility did not allow her to value the importance of this issue, and she did not hold my gaze.
“Ma’am,” I said, “It’s not as they would have you believe. I know the Ladies in White very well and what is really going on. Everything is not being sent to them from the United States. They simply receive some help from foreigners who have visited them and perhaps from some organizations made up of honest and honorable Cubans who were expelled from the country after having been denied their rights as citizens and treated as pariahs by a barbarian and aberrant form of discrimination by the regime. But this help has always been insignificant and much less than what the State has received and is receiving, or what the families of the five spies — the so-called Cuban Five– get for their political trips and extravagant personal expenses compared to the rest of the population.”
Negligible given the resources dedicated to the power to rebuke. The Ladies in White are people who have had the courage and decency to speak out for the rights of the people, for hers, and for all these old people to be able to enjoy their retirement relaxing, or traveling with their needs met and not having to smuggle drugs or other products to eat and so those pharmacy workers receive a fair wage that meets their needs and do not see the need for such denigration.
But it happens that government agents make them believe and use the opportunity to create intrigue and disinformation and take advantage of it all to deploy the police against the smuggling and blame it all on the Ladies in White, so the corrupt people do not realize and against those who are demanding everyone’s rights there is a vicious circle of denigration, and many of the acts of repudiation are perpetrated by this corrupt and evil people.
She knows, that people who are part of the opposition can not buy from the black market because they are constantly monitored so they can be accused of some criminal offense and taken to prison, this, besides fearing for their lives, poisoned food or another product that could do damage to them, and this not because I think it but because the Power has shown that it doesn’t want there to be any claimants of rights, freedoms and justice.
The woman now looks at me a little surprised and almost cries, Really! People do not know and they say other things, this is very bad and worse every day, you have to do many bad things just to be able to eat.
Finally, I say to her, she can be sure that what I’ve said is true because I know this firsthand, if someone needs clarifications she can send them to me, and not to worry, I won’t do her any harm. She turns around and without letting go of the little sack with medicines and leaves for another house in the neighborhood.
It’s eight fifteen, two more minutes in the existence of this miserable country with its satanic government.
Perhaps when the teacher turned back to the blackboard after her first demand for respect the teenager blew another raspberry, a child learned to add, a mother bought a uniform on the black market, my twins looked around mischievously, thinking of their uncle who is not in the hands of the dictatorship, some trafficker in medicines graduated from one of the medical technical schools, or medical schools, and will gain the rights he deserves, but he won’t get it with his work and in the next few minutes I will keep asking others, why?
Trying to shoo away the fear of the power that they have taped to people as if it were another gene, to accomplish logical answers and transparency.
Note: I am not against the release of the Five Spies, as spies, as long as they serve their sentences, a benevolent pardon would inflame the perverse politics of the Castro dictatorship but would demonstrate once again the shamelessness and prevarication in the case of the imprisonment of the North American Alan Gross and the public warning they are trying to send via the Spaniard Carromero.
*Translator’s note: There are two currencies in Cuba. Salaries are paid in the “national currency,” the peso, with the average salary equaling about $20 US per month. The convertible peso, or CUC, is pegged at about one-to-one to the dollar. Many basic essentials can only be purchased legally with CUC’s at government-run hard currency stores.
September 13 2012