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Personal Hygiene in Cuba: Positively Medieval

'Is it possible to imagine a Cuban minister in 1958 telling the people that they cannot use soap or brush their teeth for three months?'

Los Ángeles
Purchasing soap in a Havana store.
Purchasing soap in a Havana store. DDC

What did the armpits of ordinary working people smell like in the days of El Cid Campeador? Hardly fragrant, that is for certain. There was no deodorant or scented bath soaps for sale on street corners. There was no way to brush your teeth with pleasant disinfectant pastes, or detergents to scrub dishes and clean the inns and taverns. There was no toilet paper, or refreshing shaving cream, cologne, or aromatic lotions.

In Cuba, 1,000 years later, in the 21st century, the same thing may be said. The Minister of Internal Trade, Betsy Díaz, recently announced that until April there will be no personal grooming products for sale, because the "tense financial situation" has forced the regime to use its scant funds to import food and fuel. Then it was reported that the wait would not be until April, but rather March. (Apparently, not considered a big difference).

In short, the dictatorship is dragging Cubans on the island back in time, into the Middle Ages, a time the country never saw (it did not exist, except the natives), but they it was given, in the 20th century, as a gift from the Castro brothers (I always stress my reference to ordinary Cubans, because the dictatorial elite lacks nothing, thanks to the exploitation to which it subjects everyday Cubans).

Since January shortages of everything have skyrocketed: there is an intermittent or continuous lack of cooking gas, flour, bread, pork, chicken, eggs, fish, tomato sauce, salt, vegetable oil, milk, fruit, coffee, and even rice; as well as medicines, gasoline, transport, and housing. All this is compounded by the stench and danger of epidemics emanating from foul garbage dumped in the streets.

But now something unusual has been added: people may also have to reek if they do not buy hygiene products on the black market, at inflated prices, as the law of supply and demand makes no exceptions.

And it is likely that, in March or April, Betsy will appear again to tell the media that they still do not have the funds to import hygiene products, and that the situation will be "normalized" in August.

Of course, the minister claimed that "the financing must be used to overcome the adversities of the crude blockade."  That is, the foul odors and lack of hygiene are also Washington's fault.

When almost all hygiene products were produced in Cuba

What the official did not point out is that before 1959, when the Castros began their war against the US by confiscating American properties worth some 1.8 billion dollars, Cuba produced the vast majority of the grooming, cleaning and hygiene products that it consumed. There was no need to import them. Three large Havana factories –Crusellas, Sabatés (founded in the 19th century) and the Gravi Laboratories– were largely responsible for this, along with other plants.

Crusellas (800 workers) was affiliated with the American company Colgate-Palmolive; and Sabatés, with Procter & Gamble. Crusellas produced the Candado, Palmolive and Hiel de Vaca soaps, Colgate toothpaste, Ajax cleaner, 1800 Cologne, and Myrka; Rhum Quinquina hair tonic, lavender water, Colgate’s Halo shampoo, as well as deodorants, brillantine, powders and talc.

The Cuban market also offered the detergents FAB, Tide, Ace and Lavasol; the soaps Rina, Camay, Heno de Pravia, Suave, Oso, Tornillo, Llave, and Elsa, Glostora (for hair), Gravi toothpaste, and other high-quality products made in Cuba.

Older Cubans will remember the commercials on TV, radio and in the press. And Cuba was a Latin American leader in advertising techniques. I recall slogans like "Ponga el Oso a trabajar" (Put the bear to work) "Rina es duro, duro de verdad" (Rina is tough, really, really tough), "Jabón Camay,  embellece desde la primera pastilla" (Camay soap, more beautiful from the first bar), the "Colgate smile", "New Ajax perfumed cleaner";  "Lavasol  da blancura de sol (Lavasol means sunny white), "Ace lo hace todo" (Ace does it all) and many others, with their jingles and everything.

'Is it possible to imagine a Cuban minister in 1958 telling the people that they cannot use soap or brush their teeth for three months?'

Defenders of the regime cannot claim that Cuba's "working people" could not afford these kinds of products. An industrial employee or worker could hardly be found in Cuba - the average salary was $130 in 1958, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) - with body or mouth odor because he could not buy soap or a tube of toothpaste.

Value-added goods that increased GDP

Most important of all is that, although produced in association with American companies, these products were actually made in Cuba. They were Cuban products that generated jobs for thousands of Cubans whose consumption made the national economy grow. The raw material was imported, but the value added to the finished product bolstered the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
This is why Cuba's trade balance before Communism was always positive. Exports exceeded imports. What a stark contrast: for six decades, with the exception of an almost token surplus of 10 million dollars in 1974, since the Sovietization of the economy (October 13, 1960) Cuba's trade balance has registered one deficit after another.

These continued shortfalls (some astronomical) generated an extremely high external debt relative to the small size of the Cuban economy.  Suffice to say that in the 80s Cuba's debt, at 51 billion dollars, was equivalent to 85% of its GDP, making it, proportionally, the largest debt in Latin America, according to the IMF.

With the USSR and other Communist countries the debt exceeded 40 billion dollars, and with the Paris Club it reached 11.1 billion, of which the Castros had 8.5 billion pardoned in 2015.  In 2014 Russia erased 90% of the 35 billion dollars Havana owed it. Putin, aware that he would never collect it all, reduced the debt to 3.5 billion – which was rather pointless, as he will never collect that either.

Restaurants closing their doors

As for the lack of hygiene plaguing Cuba, it not only prevents Cubans from the proper cleanliness consonant with the 21st century (and not the 11th, when the legendary Don Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar roamed) but also strongly impacts the private sector.
From all across the island there are many reports that paladares (restaurants) are closing because they have no detergent to wash the dishes, or products to clean up, and they have been invaded by flies. The last straw: in Morón (Ciego de Avila) freelancer Dairis González was fined 3,000 pesos (143 dollars) for not having detergent to clean his car, from which he sells slushes.

Thus, 62 years after the "Revolution" Cubans eat worse, and less and less, there are more shortages of everything at stores, the country produces less food, basic consumer goods, fuel, and raw materials, there is no money to import them... and now the people cannot even clean themselves properly.

Moreover, it will continue to get worse, as Venezuela cannot increase its subsidies or send free oil to the island, and cash from the US (remittances, packages and visits) will not be enough to keep an economy afloat that is incapable of standing on its own two feet.

In short, Castroism is giving Cubans, in the third millennium,  a taste of life at the beginning of the second, 500 years before Columbus proved that the Earth is not flat.

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