To have a sip of coffee in the morning is the national equivalent of breakfast. We can lack everything, bread, butter and even the ever unobtainable milk, but to not have this hot, stimulating crop to wake up to is the preamble to a bad day, the reason for leaving the house bad-tempered and fit to burst. My grandparents, my parents, all the adults I saw as a child, drank cup after cup of that dark liquid, while they talked. Whenever anyone came to the house, the coffee was put on the stove because the ritual of offering someone a cup was as important as giving them a hug or inviting them in.
A few weeks ago Raul Castro announced that they were going to begin mixing other ingredients in the ration market coffee. It was nice to hear a president speak of these culinary matters, but mostly it was the source a popular joke, that he would say something officially that has been common practice – for years – in the roasting plants of the entire Island. Not only citizens have been adulterating our most important national drink for decades, the State has also applied its ingenuity without declaring it on the label. Nor will they use the adjective “Cuban” in the distribution of this stimulating beverage, as it’s no secret to anyone that this country imports large quantities from Brazil and Columbia. Instead of the 60 thousand tons of coffee once produced here, today we only manage to pick about six thousand tons.
In recent weeks “the black nectar of the white gods” — as it once was called – has become scarce. Housewives have had to revive the practice of roasting peas to ensure the bitter sip we need just to open our eyes. Whether it can be called coffee, we don’t know, but at least it is something hot and bitter to drink in the morning.
He cleared his throat before explaining why they were meeting, in the sober drama that is rarely seen anymore. In his hands he held, like a script, the blue booklet with the guidelines for the Sixth Communist Party Congress, and behind the table those present included municipal and provincial officials. Before yielding the floor, he stressed that they should stick to what was written on these pages and only discuss economics. He stressed this last word to emphasize it, to ensure that they didn’t claim their right to “free association” or demand that they be allowed “to freely enter and leave the country.” E-CO-NO-MICS, he stressed again, widening his eyes and raising his eyebrows to emphasize it again, while staring directly at the most troublesome employees.
With such an introduction, the meeting became a tedious process, one more task added to the workday. Mechanically, dozens of arms went up when they were asked if they agreed with each point. Awkward silence followed the phrases, “Who is against it?” and a certain fatigue could be noted after each, “And who abstains?” Only one young man questioned the current prohibition against buying cars or houses, but a militant immediately took the floor to read a long eulogy to the figure of the Maximum Leader. And so it was every time someone pointed out a problem, others jumped in to emphasize the country’s achievements. The apologists were stationed equidistant around the auditorium and reacted as if they’d studied a script and rehearsed the choreography. The feeling of being at a staged assembly competed in intensity with the desire to leave — as soon as possible — to go home.
The next day the workplace had returned to its routine. A mechanic who had been sitting very close to the president no longer remembered a single one of the guidelines. The girl from the warehouse summed up the discussion of the previous afternoon for her friends with a simple, “Ah… more of the same.” And the manager’s chauffeur skeptically shrugged his shoulders when a colleague asked what had happened. Many experienced that day as sample of what will happen in the Conference Center next April, a sneak preview of the Cuban Communist Party Congress. In just a few months they will see the same staging unfold on their TV screens, but this time it was they themselves who were the actors, raising their hands in unanimity before the stern gaze of the director.
It is getting close, but it hasn’t arrived; they announced it but it’s not concrete. We may be able to see it soon from Punta de Maisi, nevertheless it seems so distant and remote to us. For more than two years the fiber optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela has been the carrot dangled before the eyes of the inhabitants of this disconnected Island. Its thin threads have served as an argument against those who insist that the web access limitations have more to do with political will than lack of bandwidth. We have paid attention to the sluggish wanderings of the umbilical cord that will connect La Guaira with Santiago de Cuba, the boat that brought it from France, and the news which announced it will increase our data, image and voice transmission speed by three thousand times. But something tells us that this cable already has a name, an owner and an ideology.
With its 640 gigabyte capacity, the new tendon will be particularly devoted to institutional projects monitored by the government. When the official press mentions its advantages it stresses that “it will strengthen national sovereignty and security,” but not one word is directed to the improvement of the information spectrum for citizens. At a cost of 70 million dollars, this underwater connection seems destined more to control us than to link us to the world, but I am confident we will manage to upset its initial purposes. In these times, when several installations from the so-called Battle of Ideas have been converted into hotels to raise foreign currency and there are warnings that unprofitable businesses will be liquidated, it is quite likely that many of the digital pulses will reach the hands of those who can pay for them. With authorization or without, connection hours will be sold — to the highest bidder — in a country where diversion of resources is a daily practice, a strategy for survival.
When we are connected with Venezuela along the seabed, it will be even more immoral to maintain the high prices for access to the vast World Wide Web from hotels and public places. They will also lose the justification for not allowing Cubans to have accounts at home, from which we can slip into cyberspace, and it will be more difficult to explain to us why we can’t have YouTube, Facebook and Gmail. The pirated connections will increase and the black market for films and documentaries will feed on those megabytes running across our island platform. In workplaces with Internet the employees will also use it to register with the U.S. visa lottery, surf foreign sites looking for work, and engage in lovers’ chats. They won’t be able to prevent our use of the cable for things very different from what is planned by those who bought it, those who believe an Island can be neatly tied up — with no loose ends — with a simple fiber optic cable.
He bought a box of strong cigars though he doesn’t smoke, a cloth bag for errands, though he already had one, and two boring copies of Granma on the same day. He did it to help the trembling ancients with their bloodshot eyes who sell endless bits and pieces on the streets of Havana. People with legs stiffened by arthritis, hair gone gray years ago, a cane to complete their spindly anatomy. Old men and women thrown into the informal market exhibiting their meager goods in the doorways of Reina, Galiano, Monte and Belascoain Avenues. Septuagenarians forced to sell their constantly dwindling ration quotas, sad-faced grandmas who eat thanks to the candy and peanuts they themselves sell outside schools.
Thousands of Cuban seniors — at the end of their lives — have had to return to work, this time facing illegality and risk. Hands shaking with Parkinson’s offer sugary snacks at bus stops, wrinkled faces offer razor blades for only five pesos. Their pensions are extremely low and the well-deserved rest they planned to enjoy has turned into jittery days hiding from the police. The system they helped to build cannot provide them with a dignified old age, cannot spare them from misery.
That ungainly octogenarian, dragging his feet to the corner, hawks sponges to scrub with and tubes of crazy glue to stick everything together. A passing girl checks the contents of her wallet. She doesn’t have enough for either one, but in the morning she returns to buy something, if only one of those national newspapers in whose pages the faces of the elderly are always happy and satisfied.
The snack bar on 13th between F and G — that afternoon on December — is full of security agents and admirers. The first are the ones who follow this restless blogger, like a tragicomic troupe that dances around my body, my house; the second pursued the radiant face of the actress Julia Stiles, with her laugh from the full-color big screen. Enormous confusion, when they watched the girl who plays the role of Nicky Parsons sitting at the same table with the author of Generation Y, and chatting affectionately. But yes, the famous New Yorker reads my virtual diary, is interested in scratching below the surface of the picture postcard images that export our reality. She barely wanted to talk about herself, although I wanted to know more about her professional life, or even stoop to ask for an autograph.
Julia and I are of that generation of American and Cubans who have been separated and faced with the rhetoric far from our own desires. Descendants of the Montagues and Capulets who tried to pass on to us their grudges and hatreds. But looking objectively, they didn’t manage it, and the result has been quite the opposite. Close, but separated, similar and yet set at odds, like many young people from here and from there we are tired of this outdated “cold war” and its consequences in our lives. So the meeting with Julia had the character of a reconciliation, as if in the middle of combat two opponents approach each other and begin feel each other out, to embrace.
No one in the cafeteria heard the noise of arms being tossed aside, not even those who were there to watch us saw how we dismantled the walls separating us. In the end, the smiling girl from the movies and the girl from Havana who should have been the “New Man” hugged each other and said, “See you later.” Each went to her own side, returned to her life, in front of the cameras or in front of the keyboard, in the Big Apple or in a Yugoslav-model building. But since that afternoon, whenever I hear the television seething against our neighbors to the north, I recall Julia, and it is a kind of therapy to remember her laugh and the little armistice we managed that day.
The hands move with confidence and speed, having barely 30 seconds to slip the cigars that will go to the black market under the table. Two cameras pan the room where the fragrant leaves are rolled and put in boxes with names like Cohiba, Partagás, H. Upmann. Each glass eye rotates 180 degrees, leaving — for a very short time — a blind spot, a narrow stretch of unguarded rollers. Just enough time to put that Lancero or Robusto — to be sold later outside the official market — out of sight of the supervisors. Another employee is charged with paying the guards to let them out of the premises and within twenty-four hours a strong aroma will already be on the streets.
When my Spanish students asked me about the quality of the cigars sold “outside,” I would joke with them saying that inside those boxes they might well find rolled-up copies of the newspaper Granma. But I also know that a good part of the clandestine supply comes from the same institutional places where they make the ones exhibited in the legal stores. Three out of every five Habaneros, if challenged, would brag about knowing a real roller who can get them authentic and fresh puros. The business of nicotine involves thousands of people in this city and generates a network of corruption and earnings of incalculable size. The challenge is that the final product looks just like the one the State sells, but costs three or four times less.
Among the most common proposition a tourist hears is, “Mister! Cigars!” or “Lady! Habanos!” shouted from every corner. At least it’s not as shocking as when some pimp sidles up to whispers his catalog: “Girls, Boys, Girls with Girls.” So the sequence that starts in the factory, in those thirty seconds when the lens of the camera is looking the other way, ends with a foreigner paying, for twenty-five cigars, what would otherwise be enough to buy only two. Everyone leaves happy: the roller, the guard, the illegal seller and… the State? OK… but who cares?
With their colorful covers and nylon sleeves, the new supply of CDs and DVDs fills every corner of my city. Selling music, TV series and movies is one of the self-employment professions that has expanded — more and more rapidly — in recent weeks. Everyone wants to have their own distribution point; the most creative offer compilations of the same actor, or the complete discography of a singer. There are no copyright barriers and the American and Spanish serials are the most commonly purchased. Piracy is no longer something whispered in the ears of those interested, rather the merchandise is displayed publicly on makeshift wooden and cardboard shelves. Anyone can wrap up record labels or producers, as long as they don’t cross the line of the ideologically acceptable.
Given the audacity shown in ignoring copyright, it’s striking that no one dares to offer the popular — but banned — programs readily available in the alternative information networks. Absent from the public catalogs are the documentaries — so often watched in Cuban homes — that approach our national history through a different lens from the official. Nor do the shelves in doorways and windows display films that show the situation in the Romania of Ceausescu, or in Stalin’s Russia, or the North Korea of Kim Jong Il. The real hits of the underground world would jeopardize the licenses of these newly minted self-employed. Warning “visits” to the new entrepreneurs make it clear, don’t even think about providing certain controversial materials. The censorship pact is in place.
Beyond the issue of control is that of profitability of these small businesses. When they first started to emerge, the price of a DVD with five movies was around 50 national pesos. Today, in view of the profusion of vendors, it’s dropped to around 30. Many don’t survive the first quarter as independent workers. Others diversify their production and expand their sales. But to stay afloat and become profitable, they will probably need to turn to themes currently banned. In a few months, a good part of them will have, in addition to the visible offerings, another hidden shelf only for trusted customers, to satisfy the restless seekers of the forbidden.