February 16, 2011
HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 16 — It turned out that I experienced the most
difficult moments of the Special Period crisis when I was only 16. I
had just entered high school when we received the news of the collapse
of the socialist camp; the consequences would soon follow.
It seemed as if they had robbed us of our way of life and left us with
another, one that was very different. For all Cubans the change was
sudden and patent, and many people still haven't been able to forget the
hardest days…when it got so much worse that we thought we couldn't survive.
I remember we found ourselves without sheets or towels at home; people
washed themselves with chlorine or water mixed with ashes. There were I
don't know how many other inventions, and these destroyed my bed linen
in less than a year.
I had a pair of black tennis shoes, which were my only school shoes and
"dress shoes" for going out. My father had to undergo several
surgeries, but no matter how much they stitched him up and dressed the
incisions, he always bled. The holes in my tennis shoe soles were
easier to remedy, a piece of cardboard solved the problem.
My dad ended up wearing a pair of plastic shoes that were scary looking
– I mean real ugly! Such a strong odor stuck to them that we had to put
them up on the roof at night and pray that nobody stole them because he
didn't have any others.
The saddest memory I have is seeing my father walk several miles loaded
with firewood to sell. Thanks to the money he made from those sales, my
parents, my siblings and I were able to survive those terrible moments.
Dollar Stores and Jiñeteras
When a year later I started at the Eastern University, in Santiago de
Cuba, the country's economic situation had improved a little. By then
more than half of the Cuban population had given up their gold jewelry,
exchanging them to buy clothes or shoes in what were then called
"diplotiendas" (diplomat stores or "dollar stores").
The doors opened up to tourism, to the dollar and a little later on came
the "stores for the collection of hard currency." Although the value of
the Cuban peso hit the floor, at least one could find soap and tooth
paste, although these went for exorbitant prices.
I never worried a lot about following the fashion; there were too many
other needs that my parents couldn't satisfy. At my dorm I had to sell
soap and coconut oil, nougats and I don't know how many other things so
that I could buy the things I needed most to go into the classroom,
because unfortunately we didn't have uniforms to help us out.
With the beginning of tourism came the "jineteras" (literally "female
jockeys"). I think they were called this so as not to resort to the
epithet that existed before the Revolution. But since there don't exist
prostitutes without pimps, these too became commonplace. There also
appeared beggars, swindlers, and many other problematic types that hurt
Cuban society deeply.
While at the university I didn't escape the societal problems. The
schools were filled with jineteras who studied by day and "hustled" by
night. It was a question of life or death; either you prostituted or
you left the university.
I remember one day my group had an exchange with foreign students. They
gave us gifts that they called "souvenirs." They gave me $100. I
couldn't believe that a student, the same as me, gave me more money than
my dad could earn in more than six months.
Hard Times Are Back
Store in Trinidad, Cuba. Photo: Elio Delgado
Difficult times are again returning to the island: the scheduled layoff
of almost a million workers, price increases for transportation and many
other services, the gradual elimination of the ration book, tax
increases on self-employed workers, wages that increasingly fail to meet
the population's basic needs, emigration that drains away many of our
best professionals and a large part of the youth population – the
Now, more than ever, we need a true form of socialism to prevent us from
returning to those sad years. This is precisely so that our families
won't have to depend on dollars, euros, or pounds sterling, sent by
relatives; so that our youth don't have to emigrate or sell their bodies
to wear clothes that are in style, or that a person doesn't have to pray
for some foreigner to give him a bill that his own labor and effort
cannot give them.