by José Manuel González-Rubines
Although it’s not common practice in all of the country’s municipalities, the convoy that picks up the contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the city of Los Palos drove past me recently. The Sunday drowsiness of that town in the southeast of Mayabeque province was broken by the howling of police car sirens. Behind a patrol car, half the town assembled in their porches watched a car with doctors drive by, followed by two buses and another car, also with a siren, which parked across the middle of the street like in a gangster movie. They came to pick up a man, linked to a recently confirmed case.
It was a frightful scene, as it was so atypical and over-the-top. And it became even more dramatic, since the contacts of other people, rounded up in other neighborhoods, waved from behind the bus windows with blushed faces and tearful eyes as if they were on their way to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. When the unpleasant parade was over, an idea materialized in a collective cry and broke the prevailing startlement among the neighbors: What a show!
Indeed, what a show. Transported in that convoy that guzzles the scarce fuel needed to always maintain an ambulance available – because, it’s worth remembering, people still have heart attacks, bouts of appendicitis or strokes –, the contacts of confirmed cases toured the town like lepers in the Middle Ages. In this case, those shrill sirens were the Saint Lazarus clackers that announced their approach.
For some reason I ignore, since the coronavirus arrived in our tropical republic it exacerbated that harmful and almost inherent inclination we have for the extreme, for the surreal. There are more than enough examples to illustrate this, and many that are more outlandish than this local and specific one.
It’s impossible to forget how, after the tremendous and rather successful effort made to control the virus, the authorities relaxed the measures as the holiday months approached and that brought about this new outbreak, statistically more terrible than the initial one, and which has jeopardized, among many other things, the normal start of the school year. The situation truly seemed more or less under control back then, and with the familiar epic discourse, we wished to proclaim that we had ‘won the battle’, instead of waiting before letting people go celebrate in beaches, pools, and bars. But we didn’t wait, and since the virus knows nothing of epics, it affectionately came back, thanks to the lightness of those above and to the imprudent indolence of those below.
Also, few other things have been as over-the-top as the so-called fight against illegalities, which has stolen the show during family nights along with the Cuban soap opera. With the arrival of COVID-19, as if it were an expected surprise visit, an army of officers, guided by the accusations of the officious, has swooped more viciously than ever on hoarders and people who profit at shop queues or by re-selling products. They have fined and apprehended other men and women who, in many cases, had been committing the same illegality for years, in the same place and in front of the same people. But it seems their time is up and now, on a pandemic whim, they must obey the law.
And that’s good, better late than never. But the illegalities are only a consequence of the economic precariousness that has prevailed for a long, long time; the causes remain immovable, like the prehistoric rocks at Stonehenge, and the true corruption often hides behind reports, in offices, far from the long lines and the sweat, detained in pointless meetings.
Some of those cases – which have merited a curious TV spot with the funny hashtag #NoMarquesMás (roughly translated as ‘don’t hog the queue’) and the corresponding shoehorned Martí quote – make us notice other excesses. One example is the issue of people profiting from exchanging foreign currency. Certainly, the Cuban Penal Code establishes sanctions for that offense. That’s unchallengeable. But also unchallengeable is the existence of shops that operate with Freely Convertible Currency (FCC), which is acquired from international currencies that, ironically, are impossible to acquire legally in Cuba.
Then, the only ones who can buy in those stores are those with people abroad sending them money? Are they off-limits for the rest of Cubans, those who didn’t have an aunt leave during the Mariel exodus or a cousin sail away during the Crisis of the Rafters? It turns out now we do want and we do need those who left in order to refloat our socialist economy. What’s a person with no way to acquire foreign currency to do, if many staple products can only be purchased in those shops?
Another prime example is one of the illegal white cheese producer. His productivity levels, the quality of his product, and the inexistence of it in the state-run market, far from eliciting solidarity regarding the detection of an offense, generated questions about the State’s failure to satisfy many demands and about the potential to do so in the non-state sector, if it weren’t restricted by countless and mostly inexplicable hindrances.
Such enterprising practices, still outside the law, contain the solution to some of our more pressing problems, by extrapolation of the homeopathic principle that like cures like (similia similibus curentur).
Precisely in the same realm of this matter is the unlucky appearance on a recent broadcast of the Mesa Redonda by comrade Sobrino Martínez, who helms the Food Industry, one of the most sensitive ministries due to its direct impact on the well-being – or ill-being, in this case – of the population. The charismatic minister has laid bare the inability of some political actors to lead fundamental processes and has taken to the extreme the grotesque nature of political discourse in times as delicate as these.
We know what to do to fight the virus and we’re doing it.
We have also known for a long time what to do to improve the economy, at least the part that’s up to us, but for reasons that escape understanding it still hasn’t been done, and we keep indulging in extremes that turn our existence into an unbearable torment. At the end of each failed test, and bearing the weight of the experiments and measures that don’t work, are us Cubans.
Between tripe, spent hens and tons of imaginary croquettes, sweating away life in never-ending lines, running away from a virus that refuses to leave us, waiting for a monetary unification that shrinks and extends like a spring, suffering through the last few episodes of El rostro de los días and keeping an eye on the arc of the Lesser Antilles for a hurricane that might give us the coup de grace, most of this country spends its days during the pandemic, resisting, enduring, surviving. We’ll have to see for how long.
Translated from the original