Monday, February 25, 2008

Food not politics on Cuba's mind

Food not politics on Cuba's mind
BY Maite Junco

Saturday, February 23rd 2008, 12:28 PM
Fidel Castro's announcement this week that he's stepping aside has all
eyes on Cuba's election tomorrow. Galeano/AP

Fidel Castro's announcement this week that he's stepping aside has all
eyes on Cuba's election tomorrow.

HAVANA - Many Cubans here are fond of saying, "Things are not meant to
be understood." After a couple of days, you get a sense of what they're
talking about.

Havana is a city of contrasts and contradictions, a place where the most
spectacularly restored colonial building can stand near two crumbling
structures held in place by wooden planks.

A place that endured a decade of daily blackouts but is going green with
energy-efficient appliances to replace American- and Russian-made
refrigerators, washing machines and blenders.

A place where an egg can cost, in Cuban pesos, 15 cents, 90 cents or
1.50 - depending on where it is purchased.

"Before, I used to go out every day, but not anymore. Because when I go
out I spend. Everything is very expensive," said Gilma Dieguez Tamayo,
68, who was shopping for produce at an outdoor food market in Vedado.
The retired bank worker lives on a pension of 200 pesos a month.

"First time that I see myself this tight [financially]," she said,
carrying a bag of grapefruits. "You come to the agro and you can spend
100 pesos."

Agros are a network of small produce markets where Cubans can buy in
pesos. A pound of papaya was selling yesterday for 3 pesos and onions
for 6 pesos. The average Cuban makes about 300 pesos a month.

On the eve of Sunday's National Assembly to choose a successor to Fidel
Castro as the head of the island of 11.2 million people, Cubans seemed
more concerned with the rising cost of living than politics.

Each Cuban receives a monthly allowance of food, referred to as the
libreta, or food from the bodega.

It includes 6 pounds of rice, 10 ounces of two different types of beans,
10 eggs, chicken parts, sugar, salt and oil. Cubans pay for these items,
but at a subsidized price.

The rest of the produce comes from the agros. There are two kinds of
agros, operating next to each other: the subsidized, state-run agros and
the independent ones.

The results can confuse even the best mathematician. For example, at the
bodega, a pound of rice is 25 cents but at the agro it's more than 10
times that.

Cubans can get only 10 eggs per month through the libreta. The first
eight eggs are 15 Cuban cents each through the libreta; the last two are
90 cents each. A Cuban who wants more than 10 must go to independent
sellers, where they cost 1.50 pesos each.

"People who say they can live on the libreta are lying to themselves,"
Dieguez Tamayo said.

She and many other Cubans across Havana said they would like to see
changes from within.

"We are already in socialism," she said. "They [the U.S.] hate this
system. This system has its advantages and disadvantages."

A nationalized health care system, education for all, and sports
development top her list of pluses stemming from the revolution.

Maria Antonia Gonzalez, a 40-year-old gynecologist from central Havana,
said the announcement that Fidel was stepping down and would like to be
replaced by his brother, Raul, was "no surprise."

"As a matter of fact he's already directing," she said of Raul Castro,
who most people expect will be named president tomorrow. "It's a matter
of ratifying what already happened."

Gonzalez and her teenage daughter were waiting at Parque John Lennon for
buses to go away to Santa Cruz for a weekend at the beach. She makes 820
pesos a month, almost three times what the average Cuban takes home.

"It's not that you have extra, but at least it's enough," she said.
"It's not an exquisite diet."

Ten years ago, when Cuba lost Soviet aid, Havana had barely any cars,
only a few shops for tourists and daily blackouts.

Today, the city is crowded with traffic, outdoor cafes and even a tapas
restaurant overlooking the Malecon, a giant sea wall stretching a little
more than two miles. Internet service is available for visitors and cell
phones are ringing on the streets.

"There are many more things for sale. More possibilities," Gonzalez
said. "There's not that many but there are."

Still, the black market flourishes for scarce commodities like milk.

"[Milk] is the equivalent of caviar and champagne here. You can't get it
legally," he said, "so I must buy it on the black market."

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