14ymedio, Havana, October 17, 2021 “I am selling six pairs of sexy, modern underwear, used but well cared for,” reads a notice on one of Cuba’s most popular classified ad sites. It informs interested buyers that “they are like new, with firm elastic,” a plus in a country where, for over a year, it has been impossible to buy items like these with Cuban pesos.
Brian began his first sexual relationship last August. Despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, he fell in love with a young woman from Havana whom he met on Instagram. “The first time I saw her photo was like an arrow through my heart,” he says. “I wrote her and we exchanged messages, videos and photos for more than six months.” The big moment for this 18-year-old came this summer but there was a detail that neither of them had thought about.
“All my boxers were worn-out, ugly and dirty,” recalls Brian. “I couldn’t let the love of my life see me in them. I asked my brothers for help but they were already wearing theirs. They depend on the ’mules’* and, since no one is traveling, there’s almost nothing for sale. I checked with my friends to see if any of them could lend me something nice looking but they were all in the same boat.”
In recent years the only things Cubans can buy with Cuban pesos are basic goods and food. If you want to buy clothes, shoes or home appliances, sooner or later you end up either in the hard currency stores or the black market. Even at hotel boutiques, which once tried to attract local customers, items like these are only sold for freely convertible foreign currency.
Sixty-eight-year-old Maria Elena was taught by her parents from an early age to set aside a spare pair of underwear in case she ever had to go to the hospital. For years she kept an untouched yellow set in a bottom dresser drawer. “In January I finally had to use it because I couldn’t keep wearing the rags that I had left,” she explains.
“But when I went to put them on, I realized the elastic was a bit worn out. So if I have to go see a doctor and they ask me to take off my clothes, I’ll keep my eyes on the ceiling because I don’t want to see all that down there,” she says.
Her son works on a construction crew and every morning has to change, taking off his clothes and putting on overalls in front of his coworkers. “Sometimes he doesn’t even want to go to work because having to do this makes him embarrassed.”
With the help of his parents, Brian rented a room on the outskirts of Havana. “It had a jacuzzi, breakfast and dinner included for two nights, a flat screen TV and a lot of privacy,” he says. “In the bedroom there was a set of programmable LED lights. So when we were about to start fooling around, I turned them all off because they made me feel ashamed”.
The next day, Brian discovered his girlfriend’s underwear lying on the floor, also threadbare and full of holes. “That drew us closer because we started talking about it and how awful it felt pretending we had something we didn’t have. In the end, knowing that each of us was almost destitute in that respect has made us more honest with each other.”
Two months later the couple have overcome the obstacle of the weathered fabric with the holes. But worn-out bras, panties and briefs can be damaging to one’s self-esteem. “I didn’t sleep with anyone for a year. I couldn’t do it like this. I was ashamed,” admits Claudia, a 40-year-old resident of Matanzas who turned to her city’s informal market.
“Before, people bought one type of underwear that was comfortable and another type that was more suitable for romantic encounters. Now you can’t find either,” she laments. “I had to resort to wearing the bottom half of a bikini that I used to wear only for the beach. It’s uncomfortable because it’s not a fabric designed to be worn all day long but it’s all I have.”
“I myself am embarrassed. Nobody gets undressed in front of anyone else these days, which puts a dent in your love life,” observes Claudia. “It’s not as though I want something with a brand name or fancy. It’d be satisfied just to be able to take off my dress and hope that what’s underneath arouses lust rather than pity,” she laughs. “With this faded, stretched-out bikini, they’re going to send me into retirement.”
A young man who works as a volunteer for a non-governmental group that distributes donated medicine from overseas told 14ymedio that his organization has received many requests from people looking for underwear, especially women. “We’ve gotten messages from girls asking us if we have any panties or bras, or if we can do them the favor of sending them a package. People are desperate to get them but we don’t have any way of helping them. My own underwear is all old and worn out,” he says.
Others take the “skin-to-skin” approach, without worrying about their undergarments. “I think we’ve reached the point where have to figure out if guys love us because we have a pretty bra or if they actually love us,” says 32-year-old Monica, another Havana resident who got divorced in the middle of the pandemic. “He thought I could give him a certain kind of life because, when we met, I had an outfit from Victoria’s Secret that a friend gave me when she moved, but it had nothing to do with my own personal means.”
“Now I prefer to be seen in more modest dress because, at the end of the day, I live in Alamar and I can’t have a partner who gets the idea he’s going to have a comfortable life because he’s seen me in a brand-name bra and is later disappointed. I don’t turn off the lights or do anything else so that he knows right from the outset that I am a woman with little income, so he has to love me the way I am.”
Malcolm feels like he has hit the jackpot. A cousin living in Panama sent him a package of briefs whose English-language trademark is a day of the week. “I put on my Saturday today but I wash it by hand as soon as I take it off. It’s not going in the washing machine because I don’t want it falling apart. I take it off then put it away until the next date,” he says smiling.
In addition to the personal vicissitudes, experts warn of other problems. “The social distancing caused by the pandemic, together with the economic crisis, may be creating serious problems in the ways this generation of Cubans meet, interact and love each other,” explains Lazara Echeverria, a social behavior psychologist. “They may be harboring trauma and rejection that will only manifest themselves much later on.”
She adds, “The first experience is very important. If it is marked by complications, by feelings of disadvantage and shame, that will take a long time to overcome. Sometimes things as simple as a pair of briefs or new panties can change the whole experience.”
Translator’s note: ’Mules’ are people who travel abroad and bring merchandise back to Cuba to sell.
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