From inside Cuba

Distributed by Cuba Free Press, Inc. -

HAVANA, July 29, 1998, Cuba Free Press.

NOT EVEN ONCE A YEAR. By Ernestina Rosell, Cuba Free Press.

HAVANA, Cuba Free Press.- I remember a picture of a Cuban girl holding a piece of wood in her arms, published on "Bohemia" magazine in the first months after the triumph of Castro's revolution.

According to the reporter, the piece of wood served as a makeshift doll that her parents couldn't buy her due to poverty, and the article predicted a different future now that the revolution had gained power, one in which children would not lack for toys.

However, nearly 40 years later, the same scene is repeated under a different guise: now toys can only be obtained for dollars at the "shoppings", at prohibitive prices, since they far outstretch the purchasing power of the average Cuban worker.


I vaguely remember the image of the planes of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces "bombing" the Sierra Maestra with toys in sharp contrast with the bombs dropped over this mountainous region by Batista's planes during the insurrection. But that symbolic attempt of a start on a different path for all Cubans, was reduced to an image of hopefulness, frozen in time into the psyche. >From that giant distribution we moved, shortly thereafter, to the meager sale of 3 toys per child, once a year. Like the popular phrase goes: "From the sublime, to the ridiculous".


Henceforward, the letter to the 3 Wise Men was replaced by 3 ration card coupons. January 6th, closely linked to creation and love, was replaced by July 26th, the preamble of death. The celebration of the Epiphany succumbed by the government's official decree to the anniversary of the assault on the Moncada Barracks.

Those who don't know of the agony faced by parents trying to obtain toys, could very well characterize as just and egalitarian such a system of distribution and sale. The toys were classified as "basic", "non-basic", and "additional". (So much wording to twist and hide so much misery!)

Those in the first spots of the massive queue line would be rewarded with the best toys. The last ones, would oftentimes not even get to buy any toys, and the less fortunate parents would have to return home with whatever they could get, not necessarily what they wanted to buy, according to their children's wishes. Money was worthless: they were captive consumers.

But not all Cuban families faced the same problems. Those who could afford the better toys, would sell one or two of their basic coupons in order to buy some of the less quality toys. Others, much poorer, would sell all their coupons in order to alleviate their hardships, even if only for a short time. Poverty continued sending its accusatory signals.

Nothing had changed in the end. It seems that the situation worsened with the "captive consumers" and the not knowing over hours or days in an endless queue line.


Unexpectedly, the annual sale of toys was stopped. They informed us – as if an order is given to subordinates – that the 3 "famous" toys could be purchased any time throughout the year, at the convenience of the consumers. The shadowy information was soon cleared up: the toys disappeared from all the stores.

As if they had never existed, someone thought of creating handmade toys, as a response to "the needs of the children" during the so-called "Special Period. Of course, the "initiative" was not welcomed by the people and it barely made a dent on the situation, due to the immense demand of the large population of children in Cuba. Because they were not even able to guarantee the rustic toys of national production.

As I noticed the prices of toys in a store which sells in hard currency, I was left speechless. A plastic tricycle, $28.90 dollars, equivalent to 578 Cuban pesos. A patrol car, 10.80: or 216 pesos. A cellular phone: $9.50: 190 pesos….. Barbie dolls 5, 6, and 10 dollars… 100, 120, 200 pesos. The average salary of a Cuban worker, according to government data, is about 200 pesos per month. No need to comment on this.

There's what is called "a dollar store" where they also sell toys for 1 dollar, some 20 pesos. Of course, we're talking about a small toy, which used to cost, before the national fever over the dollar took over, some cents.

All this brings to mind the song by Carlos Varela, in which he talks about the childhood that he lived, with the toys once a year. I think Varela should modify his song and compose others for those who, now, not even have one, not even once a year.

By Ernestina Rosell, Cuba Free Press.

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