The Other Face of Cuba

by Nilda Bouzo

I am bewildered as I watch how life unfolds in this country with two faces: the one they show us every day in the news and in the Mesa Redonda… and the real one, the one in the streets, the one we face every time we have to go out, despite being people with a high risk of infection in this pandemic, irrespective of the discipline we maintain, because we want to live. Of course, we want to live while we can manage on our own and our minds remain sound.

According to the news, the most vulnerable people are those who suffer from medical conditions and people over 70, those who live alone, or elderly married couples. Ives is 85 years old and suffers from high blood pressure, and I am 78, with advanced heart disease and other chronic conditions. I walk with the support of a crutch due to osteoarthritis and knee problems. If we catch this new coronavirus, I’m certain we won’t make it.

On the TV they say ‘…we’ve guaranteed that people over 60 who live on their own can stay at home because kind souls visit them daily to help them deal with their basic needs’, and ‘…we have to make sure grandparents stay at home’. They repeat all that every day.

It seems Ives and I are ‘the invisible married couple of grandparents’, or maybe in our neighborhood, the ones in charge have a crystal ball where they can see that we are doing fine because until now no one has enrolled us in any care plan for the elderly so we can stay at home.

I’m not telling this to depress anyone with our human miseries, and I’m sure we’re not a unique case. I’m only mentioning it so you know it’s not true that all senior citizens are taken care of and watched over as they say in the news. I’m aware of what’s happening globally with this pandemic; of the situation in other countries with thousands of sick and deceased people; of how poorly their economic and health systems are faring.

To be frank, today I know more about other countries than about my own.

What they show us of our country and of the way our system works makes one think we live in a dreamland, compared to the rest of the world. Sometimes I ask Ives why we don’t go to live in that Cuba they show us on television.

In the four or five daily newscasts on every channel, they bombard us with news of even a needle lost in a haystack, all the better if it happens in the United States, the country we know more about, with their historic racism, true, their widely known desire to rule the world, true, the blockade that we –most of the Cuban people– have endured, very true… and now it’s the protests that have that country in upheaval and the comments by people in the streets, whom independent journalists interview. And they answer with their hearts, openly criticizing the government’s poor administration. That’s what we see every day on Telesur.

But I’d like to know more about this country, about our deficiencies, our domestic problems; and I’d like it if journalists, as in the rest of the world, would ask any Cuban what they truly think, and that we could also listen to their answers, whatever they are (not just the favorable ones, as they always show you), on Telesur.

Everyone is having a tough time because of the pandemic, but there are differences in the difficulties each country faces. In ours, the greatest danger of infection is in the hours-long lines we must stand in to be able to buy a bottle of cooking oil and a piece of chicken meat, with no guarantee we’ll actually get them, as it happened to us yesterday when we waited in line from 11 am to 3 pm to buy chicken breasts, only for them to announce at that hour that they had sold out. All they had left was the food we shouldn’t eat, so we went home empty-handed and in very low spirits.

Today, still feeling tired from yesterday, we braved going to another shop, because we had to buy something to eat. Two hours into the waiting I could no longer stand due to the pain of my slipped disks, and I asked Ives to take me to the front door of the shop to ask the servicemen who control those activities to please let us in. I had looked at those who were waiting and had seen no pregnant women or elderly people. Everybody was young or middle-aged. At no point were we ignored or mistreated, on the contrary, they explained that if it was up to them, they’d let us in, but that the people in line would protest, which was unlikely, but it was how they saw it.

I explained our situation in full detail: that we are an old married couple suffering from medical conditions and with no one else at home, but their answer was always NO. Felling such helplessness I was overcome by tears. They advised me not to cry because it could affect me. I told them I wasn’t crying, that I just felt nullified as a person and that it seemed unbelievable that a Cuban married couple of our generation were forced to wait in the long lines that form every day at any shop. The people at the front of the line, about to enter the shop and really close to where we stood saw and heard everything. I imagine to them it was like watching one of the best episodes of the soap opera, but none of them were kind enough to raise their voice and ask the group if they opposed our going in, as we’ve done many other times for pregnant women or for people who are even older than us.

Since I told them that too, unable to stop crying because of how helpless I felt, and their argument was still that the other people would be upset, and since my arguments were also sound, his suggestion was: ‘the only thing I can think of, so you can maaaaaaaybe come in, because I can’t guarantee anything, is that next time you come you bring the Rationing Card, to prove to ‘the line’ that you live by yourselves, and also bring your medical summaries, to prove you have conditions… and look… I’ll let you in, but you can’t buy chicken meat’. His words left me ‘astounded’, as the late comedian Churrisco used to say’, which made me feel even worse.

I explained to him that what I must eat is precisely boiled chicken, boiled lean pork (which I can’t find anywhere either), rice and boiled vegetables, because of my blocked coronary arteries. He made a gesture showing he was sorry for our situation and repeated that I could go in, but without buying the chicken meat. There was nothing left to say, nothing left to do staying there for the amusement of the people standing in line. Since we’re educated people, modesty aside, we thanked them and went back home, feeling more miserable than the day before.

I don’t know why that old Belmondo film came to my mind, and I said to Ives that what we had been through could well be called The Tribulations of a sick, lonely old couple in Cuba. That’s the chronicle of our last two days.

The government is handling well the issue of the coronavirus, that’s the talk… but it’s not handling lines well. And those lines, in which both the young and the old must stand, are a source of new cases. It’s hard to understand how the numbers of infected people can go down, because the masses of people outside markets look like the crowds for a film or theater premiere, instead of an organized line keeping the required distance. If they haven’t figured out how to make it easier for people who live on their own… imagine what it’s like for those who are also sick. At least in Vedado, where we live, no one has enrolled us in any plan.

We decided not to stand in a line again.

What happened today, to use an expression, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We will continue to eat what they sell with the Rationing Card, which could very well be used to sell something extra to people who live on their own if they had the will to make better arrangements. I know this is a country of elderly people, but it’s a smaller number of people like us, who don’t live with a family. And no one is asking that those products be subsidized, only that we have the certainty we’ll be able to buy them at our designated place, but without being exposed standing in a line that’s a danger to anyone, and that could be fatal for a sick, old person.

Here we have such perfect, rigorous, and strict control of the population that they know who lives with a family and who doesn’t. Our friends and relatives who live in countries that have it worse with the coronavirus maintain that we shouldn’t worry about them. They follow safety measures designed to avoid infection, and they can do so perfectly. When they go out to get the necessary groceries for a couple of weeks, they don’t go through the hazardous difficulties to which we Cubans expose ourselves.

Even though it looks like they’ve been able to manage this COVID business with intelligence (which seems to be an amazing miracle because of what we see in the streets every day, leading many to look at the numbers in disbelief), they haven’t been able to handle the situation of long lines for products. They have left that to the good conscience and discipline of the citizens when we all know that Cubans aren’t disciplined even in misfortune. And that’s something that those in charge know perfectly well.

They said on TV that from now on we’d have more solidarity, more sensitivity, more unity, more humanity, but I see the opposite. I feel like the people from my generation no longer belong to this world. Our victories and our illusions have long been left behind, and I’m not exaggerating. Lately, I’ve been wondering whether we became invisible long ago and have failed to notice. The helplessness and indignation we feel are overwhelming.