Cuba’s “Special Period” Remembered
March 12, 2014
HAVANA TIMES — It caught us by complete surprise in the 90s, and no one
expected it to last the many years it did. Even today we continue to be
haunted by those infernal years, as though we were unable to find a way
out of the crisis. One need only mention it to conjure up those dark
At the time, I worked in an art gallery. My job consisted in looking
after the pieces and guiding visitors. I wasn’t expected to offer
gallery goers a flowery description of the works, just to show them
around the exhibition areas and kindly wait for them to leave.
I would leave my house at 8:30 in the morning with a pathetic excuse for
a breakfast in my stomach: a bread roll and a glass of sugared water
(milk was a luxury at the time, and all food was expensive). The dollar,
which was illegal at the time, came to be valued at 120 Cuban pesos.
Anyone caught carrying that currency risked a long time behind bars.
Because of transportation shortages, I would walk to work, even though
the gallery was 15 blocks away. I would enjoy the morning freshness and
gaze at the vegetation at parks. I would return down the same streets in
the afternoon, uphill.
The gallery had a small book and souvenir shop. They asked me to work
there several times (when there weren’t many visitors, of course), and I
quickly learned to treat customers and sell things. I was a book addict
and would recommend the works I found most interesting.
Those books were sold only in dollars. The other woman who worked there
had told me she had many of those same books at home (old gifts she had
kept). Her idea took shape: we would sell her books and share the
earnings and everything would be fine.
I was happy to have such a “piggy box” to fall back on, a place to put
away the money needed to overcome some of life’s hardships. I was also
able to help my family a little. This happiness lasted only a little
while, though – until the books ran out, to be precise.
In those days I had sudden fainting fits that frightened people. I
assume they were caused by my empty stomach most mornings. I would feel
better after lunch. At work, I would brush my teeth without toothpaste,
because we only had one tube for the whole family and we had to save as
much as possible.
I would walk around Old Havana with a gay friend of mine who had the
complexion of a European. We would dress up as foreigners to be able to
access certain stores Cubans weren’t allowed in (unless a relative
living abroad came along and took you shopping).
Since we had almost the same measurements, he would lend me a pair of
shorts and some shirts. His situation wasn’t anything like mine, because
he had relatives in the United States who sent him remittances. Inside
the stores, we would speak a little bit of English, using just the words
we needed to keep them from finding out we were Cuban.
With the money I made from the books I was able to buy shoes, food,
shampoo and soap (on occasion, I had to use laundry soap to bathe) – not
soft bathing soap, but the kind they gave out once a month as part of
one’s ration, the rough kind that left your skin feeling like sandpaper.
Our disguises also allowed us to make some foreign friends who invited
us out to eat and other places. I recall that, on one New Year’s, Hans,
a German friend of ours, treated us to a beef steak dinner, red wine and
dessert. I look back on that with some nostalgia.
That friend of ours felt so much pity for us he left us 100 dollars
before he left. We did have to walk around the entire city and take him
wherever he wanted to go, tired as hell, because “they” love to walk and
lead nomadic lifestyles.
My uncle got a job as a bathroom attendant at a cabaret and would come
home with a little extra money, sometimes more than 2 dollars, and that
also helped the family economy.
My boyfriend would collect seeds at Lenin Park to make craft hanging
curtains which he would sell at 100 Cuban pesos each. That also allowed
us to go out on occasion.
I recall the first power cuts, when the city became a kind of ghost
town. We used to sit at the park along G Street to chat and make the
heat and boredom a bit more bearable.
Despite the circumstances, we managed to have a good time and even plan
adventures. It’s true we went hungry often and faced many hardships, but
we invented ways of riding out the storm, good Cubans that we are. It’s
no accident we have been christened as “the kings of invention.”
Source: Cuba’s “Special Period” Remembered – Havana Times.org –