Monday, October 31, 2005

Cubans, used to getting by with so little, take Wilma in stride

Posted on Sat, Oct. 29, 2005

Cubans, used to getting by with so little, take Wilma in stride

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

HAVANA - No es facil, goes the Cuban refrain. It's not easy.

There are blackouts, overloaded buses and empty shelves, and now after
Hurricane Wilma, about 2,000 damaged homes, many flooded up to their
ceilings. Recovery comes slow. With average salaries at $12 a month, and
no insurance, a refrigerator often represents a life's savings.

"I don't want to be rich," one woman told me as the storm surge receded,
"but to survive a little better."

Cubans have been coping with so little for so long that they have
developed mechanisms for survival that make them seem unconscious of
themselves. If you stop to ask someone for directions, be prepared for
that person to jump into the back of your car.

If your beer gets warm before you open it, you can exchange it for a
cold one when you walk past the next sidewalk cafe. You can buy
cigarettes one at a time, and you can have your disposable lighter
refilled on the corner.

But during Wilma, when the lights blinked out all over Havana, Cuban
ingenuity shone a little more brightly.

Within half an hour of coming into our blacked-out office Monday, our
office assistant had juiced up all the vital electronics - computers and
cellular phones - with a spaghetti pile of extension cords run from who
knew where. When I turned around she was kneeling on the floor, using
the last outlet on the power strip to steam double-strength coffee.

"Don't worry about it, chica," she winked.

Residents who relied on electricity to pump water to upper-level
apartments dropped buckets over soap-dish balconies, and pulled the
water up by rope. Others crowded around corner stores, collecting
rations of gas for cooking. There was no rush to gas stations, mainly
because there are so few cars. The slap of dominos sounded throughout.

Power outages are serious business in Cuba. When rolling blackouts
plagued the island this summer, discontent simmered so high it sparked
speculation of social upheaval. But in a country with little to buy, and
less to power, Wilma's passage was taken in stride. The lights came back
to most Havana barrios within a day or two.

Floridians, meanwhile, are looking at a longer wait. And we're not used
to things not working. We also have more stuff to plug in.

Few Cubans have cable television, but standing outside a tourist bar
this week, they might have seen reports on record profits for oil
companies, spliced with images of SUVs and Hummers splashing through
rain puddles in their quest for an open pump.

Or, just a few weeks ago, they might have glimpsed images of Houston
highways at a dead halt, as Texans fled Hurricane Rita. An excess of
big-ticket consumer items had trumped even the most thorough disaster

These are big problems that bring deep hardship. But sometimes the
solutions are simple.

Deprived of the Internet and "Desperate Housewives," a colleague in
Miami told me she'd been spending the evenings just talking with her
husband - by lantern light.

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