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A Long and Degrading 'Special Period'

'Just as we forget in order to evade guilt, we also forget in order to return guiltless.'


Rice. Chicken. Oil. The litany of scarce items connects three generations of Cubans in a perpetual struggle for survival. Until when? The possibility of a prognosis is foiled by custom, rooted in a deep, silent misery, also based on our folly, and our tendency to forget.

There are young people who remember the 80s as a prosperous time. Some old men even tell you about the abundance back in the 60s. Prosperity? Abundance? Hanna Arendt observed that we need the capacity to forget, to alleviate the neurosis of oppression, the hidden certainty that our conformity (out of fear, opportunism and even idealism) entails collaboration.

Just as we forget in order to evade guilt, we also forget in order to return guiltless. Beans. Soap. Milk. There is everything, said the travellers when Obama endeavored to bring about a thaw in relations. Everything, the self-employed repeat, with their dollars in Miami banks, those that the dictatorship has turned into a damper on liberties. The duplicitous heralds of change assert this on the same page of newspapers featuring a throng of Havanans without any teeth, dressed like the homeless in Bangladesh, wrangling over a paltry, poorly plucked chicken, some fish that has already gone bad, an indistinct mass of meat, or a bottle of detergent that leaves an acrid orange smell on your clothes.

Moral illusionism corresponds to the illusionism of the object. Things are altered and distorted in order to make them look like what they used to be in Cuba, and what continue to be outside of Cuba. One of my relatives, in Encrucijada, earns his pesos by adding purportedly authentic flavors to emergency rations: morcilla de claria (blood sausage) that smells like Spanish chorizo? Hmmmm! The taste, my relative clarifies, cannot be guaranteed beyond a certain cooking point.

Thirty years before the "Special Period" a resident in my building amazed both adults and children with egg-free merengue cakes that, minutes after the birthday snapshot, collapsed in a liquid avalanche. Terry was very famous back then in Old Havana, a shoemaker able to turn a pair of ankle boots into some Hollywood heels with a zipper and stiletto toes.

Over time, despite successive jail sentences for his inventiveness, Terry expanded his ingenious portfolio. By melting some surplus, volatile Bulgarian pressure cookers, he produced elegant, Italian-design coffee machines that exceeded demand for them – and the firefighters' resources. Among his greatest successes were the falsification of the leather tags found on Lee jeans, and some tin oil lamps with the requisite supply of contraband fuel.

A citizen without any chance to escape from penury through theft, informal exchange, government favors or remittances and packages from Cuba’s community of exiles, is caught between the mischief of the State and the mischief of hustlers. One forces him to buy soy mince, and the other sells him the infamous blanket steak.

Some of these hustlers become neighborhood legends. On the eve of the Revolutionary Offensive of 1968, a street vendor nicknamed Malanga sold turkey sandwiches at the door of my high school, at Tejadillo and San Ignacio. "Prime turkey", said Malanga, touting the quality of his toasted sandwiches, with juicy slices of tomato and a dash of lettuce and onion... until one day his photo appeared in the newspaper, convicted of selling turkey vulture meat.

The anonymous and succinct autor of the story had the epistemological delicacy of using the scientific name of the species: Cathartes aura. Calculating three to four pounds per bird, and my trips for breakfast and lunch, not to mention occasional snacks, I must have devoured more than a flock or two of vultures. "Cathartes aura?" some old friends and I still wonder when presented with a food slice of meat.

Hunger and Revolution are synonymous for Cubans. "Food for the poor," my grandmother used to say when she served us picadillo, rice, black beans and ripe plantains. Later, that would be a luxury. What for her was poverty under Machado y Morales would become for me a privilege under Castroism. Meat. Oh, the meat! Coffee. Salt. For 60 years want has traced the daily spiral of our degradation.

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