The Special Period

Our shower at Perla del Mar drops little more than a cold, cold trickle this morning. I soap up, hold my breath, and duck under to dribble the suds off. My arms are goosebumped when I step out into our air-conditioned room.

We dress in long pants, and spray our exposed skin with bug repellent: Cultural Event Number One this morning will be the Botanic Garden outside Cienfuegos, and we have been warned against mosquitos bearing Dengue Fever.

Ariadna gives us a lecture on Cuba 101 as we zip along on the Great Bus of China.

Cuba divides its timeline into three periods, she declares:

•    The Colonial Period dates from the 1500s to 1868, and ends in a ten-year war for freedom from Spain, led by Jose Marti, tailing into a second anti-Spanish war, tailing into the US Spanish-American war, which starts after the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in 1898. She tells us that the Maine’s sailors came bearing Coca Cola; Cubans added rum: y tenemos el Cuba Libre.

•    The US left in 1902, and the Republican Period began. It covered many successive presidents, the last of whom—Batista—declared himself president-for-life and ended free elections.

•    Castro’s revolution overthrew Batista in 1959, and the Revolutionary Period began. And continues today, with Ariadna’s caveat: “I think of the Revolutionary Period as two periods: The Soviet Time, and Everything that came after.”

After 1965, the Soviet Union supplied 80 percent of the goods in Cuba, including the island’s oil. It was the major importer of sugar from the island. The Union fell apart in 1991—and what came after was a spectacular economic depression that the Cuban government called “The Special Period.”

Ariadna was 10. Her mother was a dentist and her father worked in a factory; they were not rich, but the family lived well. “I had never known ‘want,’” she says.

Suddenly, it was as if “the roof collapsed on my house. Survival was the important thing at that time. We only could think of food, of something to eat. We went to bed at night and thought of what we would eat in the morning.” Crime exploded in the cities: theft and prostitution became common; respectable people begged. Families that she knew left, sometimes on rickety boats.

Her family had lived in her grandparents’ house in town, and her other grandparents owned a house and some land in the country. “My father decided he would become a farmer. ‘Let’s survive by working,’ he told us.”

They moved, and her father tilled, planted and sowed, jobs that had once, like his former factory work, been streamlined by oil—which ran the machinery and provided fertilizer and insecticides. Animal feed was next to impossible to find, because it had also come from the USSR. Her mother made coconut candies, and Ariadna sold them from a table in front of the house in the mornings before she went to school.

Thinner, hungrier, and more self-sufficient, the family survived.

The US initially permitted NGOs to send food and medicine, but as the 90s progressed, we tightened our embargo to a virtual stranglehold, ultimately punishing allies that dealt with Cuba economically. In time, the island forged alliances with powers that were not our friends—notably China and, with the 1998 election of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela, which sends oil in exchange for labor and the services of doctors. We’ve passed billboards in the Great Bus of China that show Chavez’s smiling face, and announce, Venezuela: our best friend!

What will happen to Cuba now that Chavez is dead remains to be seen.

What also helps the island’s economy now is that US shadow aid that I’ve mentioned before. Ariadna claims that 95 percent of Cubans have family in the US; their support is vital.

In 2006, Fidel Castro became sick. Ariadne says, “Everybody was afraid of Raul” because, of the two, he seemed more severe. But so far, under his aegis, the country seems to be lurching slowly and awkwardly toward change.

For example, Cuba now has digital TV.

What it doesn’t have is universal Internet access. “We closed our doors to technology in the 70s,” Ariadna tells us, “and opened them in the 90s.” The government discovered the Internet in the 80s, but kept it to itself; then, in the 90s, it opened access to include students and those whose jobs depended on the connection. She says the Internet is now legal for Cubans in their homes, but—she shrugs—it’s too expensive, so nobody has it.

Ariadna used the Internet in college. She continued to use it during her three years’ public service as a French translator. “It changed my life,” she says, her tone wistful, almost reverent. Her current tourism job doesn’t require the Internet, so she was paying a journalist 5 CUC an hour so she could email. “I had the money, and he needed CUC,” she says. The rate, while high, still beat access at tourist hotels at 10 CUC per hour.

The government recently made the journalist account for every site he visited. He had to justify her Yahoo address—which, of course, he couldn’t. So she’s been off the Internet for the past three months.

After the Garden—massive stands of bamboo, Brazil Nut, Ebony; clouds of swallows swooping to gobble those infamous Dengue mosquitoes; pink-flowered bushes, all sprouting from soil once owned by a US sugar baron named Atkins—we stop for lunch at a defunct sugar plantation.

We run a gantlet of women, and a few men, to get to the Big House. They ply us with hand-embroidered white tablecloths, seed necklaces, and dolls that, with a flip of the skirt, switch from a blonde white girl in gingham to a turbaned black woman in satin. I’m not sure if these are a take on master-and-servant, or a facet of Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion that’s very big in Cuba. They make me uneasy—but not as uneasy as the press of bodies insisting that, when I come out again, I “remember me, Senora!”

It’s a government-owned restaurant, of course. We eat on the open balcony, at a long table, each place marked by a carved black female servant figure. The meal is rustic—a decent soup with root vegetables; indifferent rice and beans, bland boiled yucca, pork for the carnivores—with entertainment provided by a good band whose spokesman plays an instrument that resembles an oversized thumb piano. The usual Welcome Cocktail: a choice of weak mojito or weak Cuba Libre.

Paul overdosed on pork the night before, and has an upset stomach, so he excuses himself to hang out at the bar and drink un-spiked Mexican Coke.

The band hawks CDs and takes up its collection. Paul, who’s still a bit green, opts to stay at the bar, and I leave to climb the tower.

The tower is a block away. It has a legend, told to us on the Great Bus of China by the intrepid Ariadna: two sons of the plantation’s master, Pedro and Allejo, fall in love with the same woman. She sets them a challenge: Pedro has to build a tower, and Allejo, to dig a well. Whichever turns out the longest (highest, deepest) structure wins her hand.

Pedro’s high tower trumps poor Allejo’s well, and he wins the maiden.

“It’s a lie,” Ariadna added. In truth, the tower was probably built by the master of the plantation to keep track of his slaves.

It’s incredibly high. I pay the lady at the table below two CUC, and climb and climb the creaky wooden stairs until I hit the top. Green countryside stretches below me: mountains in the distance; farms, the restaurant Big House, a sprinkling of bony horses cropping grass; plowed fields and tangled jungle. And, too, I see the gantlet of venders below, re-assembling to assault me anew when I come down.

And they do. Ultimately, I buy one of the un-PC white-to-black dolls, a small pair of marimbas, and five seed necklaces. I’d brought pencils and some kids’ stickers to give away, and the vendors clean me out. Do you have soap? Toothpaste? they beg. Madam, I have a baby—you have something for the skin? Senora, see my belly? I have two babies at home—give me a CUC.

Heidi rescues me before they tear me apart for loot I don’t have, and hustles me off to the Great Bus of China, which is departing for the next Cultural Event.

I settle next to Paul, and we pull away. I watch the vendors attack the next busload of tourists. It reminds me of our trip to Viet Nam in 1999, this desperate poverty.

But even in Viet Nam, no one had begged me for soap.