Luxury and Excess in Socialist Cuba / 14ymedio, Marta Requeiro
14ymedio, Marta Requeiro, Miami, 26 February 2017 – I don’t know how my
mother managed always to know a little more about my friends and their
customs, and even those of the neighbors, because her limited time did
not allow her to gossip; but she continually warned me that things are
not always as they appear.
That is how I ended up having a lover who was to her liking. I confess
that he was attractive, but we had frequent differences when we talked
about topics of daily life that ended up opening a breach in the
Contrary to what the Island’s Government always suggested, without being
apparent except to the most rebellious or those with the “clinical eye,”
the beginning of the abysmal separation that today exists between the
two known population groups, the governing elite with all of its
coterie, and the people, was immediately conceived.
I realized soon after beginning the relationship with him that there
were people who projected an image of humility but, behind closed doors,
had covered all the basic necessities that for common mortals – like me
– were impossible. And more so, they came to be luxuries.
I later learned, thanks to that relationship, that there was a segment
of the population that accessed a life unknown to the majority of
Cubans. Ordinary Cubans who served once a month on the guard duty for
the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), more than
anything in order not to be robbed in the night by their own neighbors
and despoiled of what they had achieved with their own effort. Ordinary
Cubans who marched to the Plaza Jose Marti on dates commemorating some
important revolutionary event in order to sing hymns and feed their
faith in the process of change (a change that still has not arrived),
and who subsisted on what they would acquire through the ration booklet
and who always carried the empty bag that was indispensable when leaving
the house so as not to be surprised and unprepared for the arrival at
the warehouse of some product among those that were distributed only
sporadically and that, hopefully, would be something good.
Many families had only the ration book to count on to provide them with
petty rations, which, even if they were well managed and “cultivated,”
did not even allow them, at least once a day, to bring to the table a
serving of decent food.
Even so, the markets and warehouses of that time were not as poorly
supplied as now, and that little ration booklet meant something.
Already by the ‘80’s the economic impoverishment, forecast only to get
worse, was obvious, today inhuman for the ordinary Cuban, who is always
the most affected.
As young as one was, one could tell. In most cases what was missing was
enough courage to publicly say it and in a form of protest, as happens
today with the internal dissidence that, in spite of the vexations that
those who dare to raise a voice are subjected to, there are more who
join them in order to protest their discontent.
It happened one day that a friend invited my lover to a house in Vedado
that belonged to one of his cousins who would turn fifteen. My mother,
knowing that I would go with him – after already having investigated his
background and knowing that he was from a good family – and making him
promise that we would be back early – granted me permission.
I had time to prepare my best clothes to go in accord with the occasion
since he advised me several days ahead that I had to go elegant.
The day and time came and we climbed into the car of his friend who,
accompanied by his girlfriend, would carry us to the party that would
take place in Vedado.
We went up 23rd Street and, now well into the trip, the driver took a
turn I could not say where; but there was a time when I did not exactly
know our location. I was not at all familiar with that place where the
The neighborhood that emerged before my eyes was at a glance far from my
neighborhood and what was familiar to me until then. It was composed of
beautiful houses with immense gardens that extended from the sidewalk to
the entrances, some with tall bars of black balusters. The car kept
going until it came to an immense wooden gate in a fortified wall that
extended for almost the whole block.
We got out, and the uninhibited driver went forward to press the
doorbell, which turned out to be an intercom. It was strange for me to
look around and see majestic houses, well-cared for, painted, to hear
silence and await a response from that artifact attached to the
concrete; in my neighborhood it sufficed to yell from the sidewalk the
name of the person sought for him to come out, and in the air you could
always hear the mixed sound of different rhythms and someone or other
calling vociferously highlighted by dogs barking in the distance.
Finally we heard a voice come from the apparatus asking “who is it” and
with a simple “I,” said by the driver, the handle of the solid wooden
door was magically activated so we would enter invading the immense
barricade that impeded access and visibility from the streets to the
Passing the threshold, I marveled at the beauty of the immediate area.
If they spoke to me then I swear I do not remember it. I felt like and
must have had the same expression as Alice in Wonderland.
Some hundred guests had already arrived, all dressed elegantly. My
boyfriend, while we were there, asked me several times if I was alright.
Surely my unusual quietness was making my surprise evident.
I saw for the first time live – and in full color – a domestic service
team. Until then I had only seen it in foreign films. It was composed of
about half a dozen women dressed in green guayabera dresses and white
lace-up tennis shoes.
I saw there for the first time Pringles Potato Chips, and beer acquired
without the well-known scavenging for the five boxes on the ration book
only allocated if you were getting married or turning fifteen, and in
cans. I tasted – with a grimace – the Spanish brandy Terry Malla Dorada.
I felt strange before this conglomeration displaying the bourgeois
behavior criticized by the Government.
The two smorgasbord tables in the middle of the immense room with a
marble floor never emptied. Trays with all kinds of snacks and
sandwiches were brought by the waitresses.
Outside, next to the entryway, was the bar attended by two young men
with white guayaberas who asked what we wanted to drink or what we
desired, including glasses for the beer.
Later the rueda de cubana dance was unleashed to the furor of the music
of the Van Van hits and it reminded me how beaten up Cuba was.
I felt like leaving, I had nothing in common with the others there,
nothing was familiar and known to me except my companion and the music;
then I suggested that he invent an excuse and that we leave. That
opulence and excess were inconceivable for what was proclaimed from the
other side of the wall, although the reason was a fifteen-year-old’s party.
I asked the friend to get us out of there and take us to the nearest bus
stop. He agreed after trying to persuade us, without success, and
wanting to know the reason for our sudden departure.
Outside I felt relief, and I breathed comfortably. I commented on it
with my fiancé, and he told me what little he knew of the mysterious
family of his friend, whom he believed was from State Security or a
bodyguard for someone important.
How was that way of life kept in silence, how was it not criticized on
television, and where did it come from and how was that luxury and
excess that was not just a festive event paid for? How was there a
capitalist form of existence inside Cuban territory, supposedly
socialist and egalitarian?
Back then it was undercover; today we know how it is and that the
behavior of the ruling leadership far from surprising us proves the
existence of two social classes or poles that they themselves do not
want to recognize as so disparate: The experts in training and
subjugating so that the Cuban people do what they say and not what they
do, and the people themselves.
We have learned about the excess expenses for recreation and tourism of
one of Fidel’s sons and the carryings-on of Raul’s grandson/bodyguard.
The international press and Cuban dissidence have unveiled those two
faces of those who for almost six decades have had control and power on
the largest of the Antilles.
It is true, looks deceive!
I met some people who lived in secret opulence supporting Castro-ism,
which stayed in power with a public image as protector of the underdogs.
It’s not that I don’t like the good life but that condition is given in
Cuba only to those who speak of equality without practicing it.
Opulence and abundance should belong to those who earn it, inherit it or
work for it, not to those who steal it. Submission is not dignified,
even less for so long a time. Let’s hope that once and for all the Cuban
people open their eyes and reclaim the rights that have been denied them.
Translated by Mary Lou Keel
Source: Luxury and Excess in Socialist Cuba / 14ymedio, Marta Requeiro –
Translating Cuba –