We Were Few and Grandma Gave Birth / Iván García

When Raúl Castro assumed the presidency in 2008, it was rumored among the population that the general carried a fistful of changes up his sleeve. The most desirable, the elimination of entrance and exit permits for traveling to and from the country. Cubans on the island already saw themselves getting passports and boarding planes to visit their families in other countries.

It was also said that he would allow free access to the Internet. There were days of speculations and euphoria. And what they were able to buy were cellular phones, DVD players and computers, old and expensive. Nationals were allowed to stay in hotels exclusive to foreigners. Paying in foreign currency, of course.

Two years later, many Cubans have cell phones and DVDs in their homes and some have stayed in nice hotels. It’s certain that employment has grown on its own accord, and certain measures have benefited certain sectors, like hairdressers, taxi drivers and the rural population.

But today the topics of conversation in Cuba are very different. “When your job is what’s in play, the internet and the ability to travel outside the country become secondary,” says Lorenzo, 42-years-old and employed.

In Havana, nothing else is discussed: Massive layoffs, taxes, private businesses and the rationing book. The latter is what bothers Caridad — 78 and retired — the most. “My boy, you know what it is at these heights with a pension of not quite 200 pesos, old and sick, they’re taking more products out of my ration book. They took cigarettes from me, which I traded with a neighbor for sugar”.

The disappearance of the ration book keeps awake the older people who have low pensions, those who have it rough to stay alive. The stronger of the old folks go out on the street to earn a living, selling cigarettes, peanuts, plastic bags or newspapers.

For the laboring population what keeps them awake are other issues. “For me, the worse is not knowing exactly what the government is planning. I worry, a lot, what’s been said, that we will be paying very high taxes”, says Ignacio, 46-years-old and a mechanic.

“Rough stream, better for the fishing”. Like in all crises, there will be those who will be able to play along. Especially all the vermin, unscrupulous people, experts in the art of cheating.

It happened during the 90’s, during the hard years of the Special Period. Roberto, 48 years old, had a brilliant idea of rounding up empty containers from shampoos, creams and deodorants….he would wash them out and would refill them with his own concoction, he would put in a few drops of cheap cologne and would sell then for a few pesos. “I am thinking of doing that again”.

Could be that during these desperate times, some would take advantage of the people’s frustration. “But I think that the majority is going to try to improve themselves honestly. At least that’s what I will ask the Lord for when I go to church this Sunday”, confesses Lourdes, 61 and a housekeeper.

In the midst of many questions and suspicions, discouragement and uncertainty, a few rub their hands, plotting how to cheat others. Or dreaming of establishing small businesses, even if they have to pay abusive taxes.

But the majority pulls their hair out and visits the babalaos. This new Special Period could turn out to be darker than the one twenty years ago. Now with almost one million unemployed and with the same speeches and slogans as always.

Translated by Yulys Rodriguez

September 21, 2010