When Life Prevails over Bureaucracy

It is rare for customers to get what they want if they do not get in line for bread, the pharmacy or a retail store by dawn.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 26 January 2021 — The line starts forming at dawn. It has been this way since the national “situation” and the global pandemic coincided on the island. It does not matter if the line is for bread, the pharmacy, the peso store, the hard currency store or the bank. If you do not get their first thing in the morning, you will likely not have access to any of their products or services, all of which are essential.

A thin young woman with disheveled hair bites her nails as she sits on the curb, constantly checking for messages on her cell phone. It is noon and she has been here for hours, guarding her place in line at the hard currency store at Fifth and 42nd in Havana’s Playa district. She hopes to buy chicken breasts, cheese, yogurt and jam for her young son. When she looks up, she chats with the woman next to her, explaining that she has to take good care of herself because she lives with her 81-year-old grandmother. She no longer thinks about “fatherland or death” because there is nothing to eat at home anymore.

“When my son says he’s hungry, it breaks my heart,” she says. “I have nothing to give him. Not even bread with something we have on-hand. And what’s to come is even worse.”

The woman listening to her has come with her husband and son. Though it is a hard currency store and prices are high, there are some limits on how many items one customer may buy. “That’s why the three of us came. We want to get things for my mother and mother-in-law because they are too old to wait in long lines where you don’t know when, or even if, you’ll get in,” she says as she takes off her coat.” Though it was chilly in the morning, the sun is now high in the sky, baking the pavement.

The hours pass slowly. Groups of ten customers at a time are allowed in. They come out twenty to thirty minutes later. The employee who opens the store in the morning reassures the customers in line: “There’s enough merchandise for everyone. Don’t worry.” There are indeed things to buy but what is in short supply is time. By 5:30, with more than twenty people still waiting to get in, a police security guard intervenes. “No one else is allowed inside today. Come back tomorrow,” he says.

The young woman on the curb leaps up, puts her cell phone away and approaches the policeman with tears in her eyes. “Look, officer,” she says. “I can’t come back tomorrow. I’ve left my son with my grandmother and she is too old to run errands like this. I sacrificed a whole day to be here and I can’t do this again. I’ve been worrying about my son the whole time, about him and my grandmother all alone while I’m here waiting my turn. And now you tell me I can’t buy anything. It’s criminal but, of course, you don’t understand because you don’t have children.” She turns and walks away, without waiting for a reply.

The one who does seem to have the weaponry to battle indolence, however, is the lady who came with her family. Flanked by her husband and son, she heads towards the uniformed officer, who sticks to the script: it’s out of his hands.

However, the woman manages to convince him to go find an employee and after ten minutes the manager comes out.

“I understand how you all feel,” he tells her slowly, “but you have to understand our position. I have workers who live far away, some of them in Guanabo. Even if we close at six o’clock, we can barely manage to get out of here with everything squared away by seven. That’s why I can’t let you in. We have are jam but selling it really slows things down, “he explains.

The woman looks him in the eye and says, “Look, almost everyone has already left. We’ve spent hours in line. All we want to do is buy some chicken and cheese. It wouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes of your time.”

Her plea now meets with little resistance. “I will let you in but on the condition that you do not buy anything other than chicken and cheese.” A murmur of satisfaction spreads through the line.

Browsing through the aisles, a girl who has so far remained been silent grabs yogurt containers of various flavors and runs to the cashier with a photo of her son on her cell phone. “Look, this is my boy. He loves yogurt. Will you let me get some?”

The employee nods her head and says, “Grab what you can but be quick so the boss doesn’t see me.”

A few minutes after six o’clock the employees close the doors while the last customers walk away with their blocks of cheese, frozen chicken and even jam. A real accomplishment for these times. Some of them have been in line for more than six hours but they now have something to take home to feed their families. They will have to do it all over again next week.


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