The last domestic appliance distributed through the merit system was a Chinese Panda brand television. In my building there was a meeting to give away ten brand new ones within a community of more than three hundred people. Some neighbors nearly came to blows during the discussion to get the equipment, for which they had to pay four thousand Cuban pesos*. Among those who took home the color TVs were, coincidentally, the most combative and ideologically inflexible.
Those who didn’t catch the evasive Panda satisfied themselves with thinking there would be a second round in which they’d have a greater chance. But the Asian giant didn’t send new televisions to feed the meritocracy, nor even spare parts to fix the existing ones. Being on duty for the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) or going to the criticism meetings have lost their attraction because it doesn’t appear that the reward will be the allocation of a washing machine, a telephone line or a portable radio.
Those who made it to the last round of the appliances allocation aren’t very happy either, let us say. A good share of them haven’t been able to meet the payment deadlines, as the Panda purchase left them with a monthly payment equaling a third of their salary. I know an elderly woman, for example, who bought the fought-over television only because she was convinced that she would die before she finished paying for it.
Among those who thought they’d received a benefit, worries are now surfacing about the enormous monetary debt contracted with the State. They were those who believed themselves beneficiaries of a privilege, without noticing they were just paying tribute to an error. The mechanism that favored them then is the same one that today prevents us from buying an appliance without showing convertible currency, or without relying on a certain political trajectory.
Translator’s note: 4,000 Cuban pesos is roughly $160 U.S. or about $180 Canadian (exchange rates as of today’s date). The average state salary in Cuba is about 350-400 Cuban pesos per month; the average state pension is less than half that. At these rates, the TV would be paid off in about three years.