In the Newsroom

March 27, 2009
Cubans complain about food, bureaucracy and too few jobs

Cubans in line for food. Photo: Peter Eisner

Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner recently reported on the signature series Cuba After Fidel. He describes political life in Cuba and the changes in society he’s seen over the last couple of decades.

Before my recent reporting trip to Cuba for Worldfocus, I hadn’t been back to this island nation for 14 years.

I’d spoken with Cubans here and kept up with developments, but with the Fidel Castro era at the crossroads, I was interested in reporting firsthand what might be changing on the political and economic fronts as well as on the street.

Politics in Cuba is largely a guessing game. Since Fidel Castro receded from view, his brother, Raúl, has tantalized the country with scenarios hinting of a new era — do they await a Cuban glasnost?

Cubans have been encouraged to debate more in public, and the gregarious islanders are doing that, gingerly. I heard little griping in public back in 1995. This time I found Cubans, old and young, far more willing to speak outside the party lines, and give their names.

Not enough food, too much bureaucracy, too few jobs — the complaints came from people not about to jump on inner tubes and make their way to Florida. I spoke to people who complained but also valued what the Cuban revolution had accomplished.

Some wanted to leave, no question; but I heard mainly political discontent far short of insurrection, from people intent on staying. They did not mass behind the old party line. I was hearing both the complaints and the aspirations of people who were frustrated enough to try out the freedoms that apparently were being offered them. Stay tuned.

Cubans have more food to eat than they did back in 1995, the toughest part of the “Special Period” when the Soviet Union stopped its food supplies and financial aid, further isolating its statist model in the Americas.

Back then, I spent time with a group of Cuban writers and was overwhelmed by their creativity, their poetry and their generosity of spirit. One day back then, at lunchtime, I was hanging out with a group of five or six writers; one pulled out a package wrapped in paper from his shoulder bag. It was two homemade flour tortillas with processed cheese melted in the middle. Everybody tore off small pieces of the tortilla and they offered a bit to me — they called it Cuban pizza. There was hardly enough lunch for six.

It is evident — and Cubans agreed when asked — that life is much better now. State-controlled rations “guarantee” a decent amount of food to everyone, though there are often shortages in the stores where ration coupons can be used. Scrounging the money for extras, and sometimes for basic necessities such as shampoo, requires conniving or bending the rules and working the black market.

Cuban government officials argue that the U.S. trade embargo is not only unjust, but also anachronistic. While we were there, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet came to town for the annual Cuban Book Fair. Progressively, other countries have disregarded the U.S. trade embargo, which a succession of presidents enforced with pressure tactics on U.S. allies, especially those in the hemisphere.

That policy has collapsed; Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the Cuban National Assembly, told me that at first he considered the U.S. trade embargo a nearly successful effort to isolate or even annihilate the Cuban revolution. But he was proud to say that Cuba survived, and “few countries could have withstood that pressure for even three months.”

Now, 47 years later, “it is the United States that is isolated,” he said.

- Peter Eisner

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Comments

8 comments

#8

I HAVE BEEN IN CONTACT WITH SENATOR HARRY REID REGARDING THE EMBARGO. TO PROTEST I INTEND TO DELIVER A PIZZA FROM KEY TTO HAVANA BY AIR.ON SATURDAY, JUNE 26. I HAVE THE PLANE AND PILOT BU SO FAR NO OK FROM THE CUBAN INTEREST SECTION IN WASHINGTON. REPRESENTITIVE TITUS, SENATOR REID, REPRESENTITIVE HELLER ARE ALL WORKING ON THIS ISSUE.

#7

The Cuba issue is very complex. I think that this article was a little simplistic. Cuba has many issues with equality, corruption and discontent. Cuba also has many accomplishments that deserve merit. This embargo really hurts the common people, not the burguoise or party members. From what I gathered while there and talking to people who weren’t afraid to talk, once the embargo comes down things will change for the better. Castro’s grip has been made stronger by the embargo, the day its removed Cuba will slip out of his hands for ever.

#6

By what is known in spanish as “Simple Inspection” he language, the structure of this article, clearly denotes ideas coming from the deepest den of the south Florida, ultra-right-wing, reactionary Cuban-american hate industry.

To pretend to ignore the disastrous and criminal effect that the embargo, blockade or wicked abuse against a small and defenseless country, can be explained simply and not with subterfuge that Cuba can purchase whatever it wants across the world.

Let’s assume for a moment that any other powerful ethnic group would impose on the Cubans living in South Florida, that they can only gas-up their cars in north Florida or Georgia, that would not deprive them of buying gas, except that by the time they get back to south Florida, if they make it, they need to fill up again.

That is why, this cynical, hypocritical or blatant lie that they have construed, have fallen apart over time and no body except the handful of fossilized octagerian, repeat a bunch of lies that no one else believes in.

If the embargo is so innocous, if it does no harm to Cuba, why not just remove it unilaterally?

That is why today, the world is assisting to the wake and funeral of this political abortion, that once was self promoted as Freedom Fighters, when in reality, they were nothing more than a bunch of thieves, racists, tortures, murderers, forced out of Cuba forever!!

#5

I just assumed that there are several Jorge Gonzalez’ out there and this was obviously not the one from the excellent and constructive http://www.cubajournal.blogspot.com blog.

#4

I disagree with Jorge Gonzalez when he tries to belittle the effects of the blockade on Cuba, independent of the deficiencies and inefficiencies in the Cuban economoy. The blockade makes Cuba pay exhorbitant prices for many things, keeps it from being able to purchase some technology, and as he should know, boats that dock in a Cuban port cannot do so in a US port for six months. That, of course, is a big discouragenment for businesses in other countries to do business with Cuba because trade with the US is far more important to them. To help prove Jorge right or wrong on his blame theory is a good reason to work to end the blockade, or embargo if he prefers to call it that. Then we will get a chance to see what Cuba and its leadership can do with its economy without a major disadvantage compared to other countries. To read more about Cuba check out http://www.havanatimes.org

#3

I disagree with Jorge Gonzalez when he tries to belittle the effects of the blockade on Cuba, independent of the deficiencies and inefficiencies in the Cuban economoy. The blockade makes Cuba pay exhorbitant prices for many things, keeps it from being able to purchase some technology, and as he should know, boats that dock in a Cuban port cannot do so in a US port for six months. That, of course, is a big discouragenment for businesses in other countries to do business with Cuba because trade with the US is far more important to them. To help prove Jorge right or wrong on his blame theory is a good reason to work to end the blockade, or embargo if he prefers to call it that. Then we will get a chance to see what Cuba and its leadership can do with its economy without a major disadvantage compared to other countries.

#2

Comment #1 was not posted by the Jorge Gonzalez who publishes Cuba Journal (http://cubajournal.blogspot.com). The highly negative comment is typical of the gusano mindset of the Miami extremist ultra right wingers.

What the Miami exiles can never accept is that today they do not rule the island. That is the most important thing to me. Keep their capitalist corruption in Miami.

Yes, Cuba makes mistakes. Who doesn’t? I will take the Cuba of Fidel and Raul anytime over the Cuba of Yankee supported Fulgencio Batista.

#1

Kudos for at least calling it an embargo and not a blockade, but where you get lost is implying that other countries “disregard” the embargo. Cuba is free to trade with any country it wants, whether it is Israel or South Africa or Mongolia, etc., and it does. And the United States is already one of the top trading partners for Cuba (look up the statistics - check how much rice and beef Cuba has purchased from the USA). Find out how much Cuba purchases from other countries and how much goes to feed and cater to the tourists and not its own people. So don’t put all the misery of Cuba under the fault of the embargo. Most of the blame is on the leadership and the system of government that is more “anachronistic” than the embargo.

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