Welcome to the Island of Rum! / Iván García

Drinking alcohol is one of the passions of the average Cuban. A true national sport. Next to baseball, sex, playing dominoes, and leaving the country.

Drinking rum or beer is known in Cuba as “bending the elbow.” Or “sucking the rat’s tail.” There are various groups of drinkers. There are hard and fast alcoholics. Those whose only thought is one liter of rum.

Really, “rum” is a euphemism for what they drink. They usually ingest a kerosene distilled from molasses and charcoal in a miserable still. So it is with Pedro Marín, 56, whose only aim in life is to drink.

When he gets up at seven in the morning, he rinses his mouth with a swig of bitter 90-proof alcohol. Then he goes to carry sacks of flour in a bakery, taking along a plastic bottle full of homemade rum, with an unbearable smell, known as “Superman.”

“The guy who can take a shot of Superman without doubling over is one of us,” said Marín, a black man with few teeth and bloodshot eyes, wearing old patched clothes.

These kinds of curdas (drinkers in Cuban slang) do not read the press or care what’s happening in Cuba or in the world. Nor are they interested in their wives or husbands, if they have any, or their children and family. Every penny that goes into their pockets is invested in one liter of distilled alcohol.

They are sick men and women. Rosa Aparicio, 65, is a grimy old woman who sleeps in the doorways of any street and gets in tremendous fights every time she goes drinking.

Most of these habitual drunks do not receive specialized medical care. They don’t want it. In the interior of the country, the situation is as bad or worse than it is in the capital.

The independent journalist Osmany Borroto, of Sancti Spiritus, reported the death of Omar Ulloa, a neighbor in Jatibonico, after he had drunk a moonshine known as White Horse, produced in central Uruguay, widely consumed because of its low cost.

But there are also social drinkers on the island, who drink regularly and don’t lose their composure. They usually have good contacts and buy good-quality imported or domestic beer. And rum or whiskey purchased with convertible pesos.

But they are in the minority. Most people drink to ward off the daily anxieties. We already know what they are: the lack of a future and the great national problem – putting two hot meals on the table every day.

They also drink to try to scare away ghosts and fears. They do not know how they will get money to take their children out on the town during the holidays. Or buy them clothes, shoes, and a backpack for the next school year.

The accumulation of problems makes them take the easy way out. Bend the elbow. “There was not enough money to repair the house, buy a car, or celebrate my daughter’s fifteenth birthday. So I don’t stress out, and when I can, I take four drinks,” says Mario Echemendía, 40 years.

“Four drinks” in Cuba means sitting with friends at a neighborhood street corner or in a dive bar, to drink cheap, mass-produced rum or beer.

The government provides a great distraction to the passion of the Cuban by means of alcoholic beverages. Every event ends with a beer truck and a kiosk for selling cheap rum.

The philosophy of the Cuban drunk can be read on posters hung in run-down taverns: “He who drinks, gets drunk. He who gets drunk, falls asleep. He who sleeps does not sin. He who does not sin goes to heaven. If you want to go to heaven . . . DRINK!”

On the island many things may be missing, but there will always be a rum drink or a glass of beer available. If you are creditworthy, you’ll drink first-rate. And if your name is Pedro Marín, ingest diabolical concoctions. This is the final step of an alcoholic. A true Hell.

Iván García

August 18 2010