Saturday, August 8, 2015

Havana - Sweltering Heat and Chicken for Fish

Havana: Sweltering Heat and Chicken for Fish / Ivan Garcia
Posted on August 7, 2015

Ivan Garcia, Havana, 1 July 2015 — In a dimly lit butcher shop directly
across the street from the Passionist church in Havana's La Vibora
neighborhood, two boys play a game of dice on the counter. An assistant
calmly sharpens a pair of knives while the butcher, shirtless and
sitting on a rickety stool outside, works on a year-old crossword puzzle
in Bohemia magazine.

On a blackboard there is an announcement: Chicken for fish* and ground
meat. A few retirees line up with their shopping bags and take shelter
from the sweltering heat under an eave.

It is reminiscent of a surrealist Chagall painting. "Neither the chicken
nor the ground meat has arrived but the truck could arrive at any time,"
the butcher informs the customers without looking up from his puzzle.

It does not matter to the grandparents trying to take shelter from the
sun. They have time on their hands. They chat aimlessly and remember
back when every nine days the government distributed beef to all the
members of one's immediate family through the ration book.

"Now everything is a luxury. Beef, milk, fruit. In the 1980s beef was
rationed but at least we had it from time to time. We were better off
before the Revolution, when a roast beef sandwich this big (indicating
the size with her fingers) cost fifteen cents," one of them notes as she
moves the tip of her tongue to the corner of her mouth.

The most moving image in today's Cuba is that of the elderly. Many,
abandoned by their families, live on the edge by selling plastic bags or
loose cigarettes.

Others beg for money on the street or near nursing homes. For them Raul
Castro's lukewarm economic reforms are like a distant comet. They are
the big losers.

It is already noon in Havana. The sun warps the asphalt. Steam rises up
like wisps of smoke. The street looks like a match about to burst into
flame. Only the most intrepid dare go outside to run an errand or make a

But there they are. Two dozen people wait in line to pay their phone
bills at the ETECSA office. A crowd strolls among the stalls at the
farmers' market.

Antonio, a bank employee, does some mathematical calculations on his
mobile phone. On a shelf in front of him lie several pork chops with
flies buzzing around them. He wants to negotiate a lower price with the
butcher. "Hey, forty-five pesos (two dollars) for a pound of pork chops
is high. If he drops the price to forty pesos, I'll buy fifteen pounds,"
he says, describing his offer.

The vendor, wearing the green scrub shirt of a surgeon, does not even
budge. "Look, tomorrow the price will probably be fifty pesos. This is
all I have. If you don't want them, some else will," he says, puffing
away on a menthol cigarette.

Even though it is the middle of a work day, streets and businesses are
deserted. "No one works here. It's a country of bums and drunkards,"
says a man gazing at a sidewalk bar across the street.

By nine in the morning all the tables in the dingy bar are occupied.
Several men brave the oppressive heat to down cheap rum or a light amber
brew sold as beer on tap.

Everyone is talking loudly in the "distinctive" Cuban vernacular. They
stop swearing long enough to call out to the bartender: "Asere, get me
another round." They place their orders with faces are marked by
tragedy. Not surprisingly, there is no fan in the place and everyone is
sweating buckets.

Drinking alcohol is one of the three national pastimes, along with
playing dominoes and planning to emigrate.

Next door to the makeshift bar is a hard-currency cafe, which sells
desserts priced like gold. The good news is their beer supply arrived
two days ago. They offer imported Heineken and Bavaria for 1.80 CUC and
domestically produced Cristal and Bucanero for one CUC. The bad news is
all the tables are full and the air conditioning is turned off.

"This heat is melting me. Please, turn that machine on," screams one

"The management has ordered us not to turn it on until 3:00 P.M. to save
power," replies an employee.

"With the prices you charge, you can't afford to pay the light bill?
What is the government doing with all the money?" asks a customer. No
one answers.

Just outside the seating area, summer awaits. The thermometer reads 91ºF
in Havana. School holidays have already started. Families rack their
brains to ensure their children have two meals a day and count their
pesos in hopes of taking them on a weekend trip to the beach.

Meanwhile, La Vibora's elderly retirees await chicken for fish.

Ivan Garcia

*Translator's note: A common expression in Cuba which indicates ration
card holders may substitute chicken for their allotment of fish, which
has become nearly unavailable to average consumers.

Source: Havana: Sweltering Heat and Chicken for Fish / Ivan Garcia |
Translating Cuba -

No comments:

Post a Comment