Desde Dentro de Cuba.

Distribuido por Cuba Free Press, Inc. -

January 5, 1999, Cuba Free Press.


SANTIAGO - The term "old clothing" (ropa vieja) has two meanings in Spanish. One is simply used clothing; the other is boiled, shredded and slightly dried beef, mixed and then fried with various herbs and spices and sometimes tomato sauce. This once was one of the favorite dishes of Santiago natives. That was BEFORE. It disappeared many moons ago.

But this piece is not about the succulent dish but rather the real old clothing, the kind that Santiagans who are not of the ruling class must hunt for if they are not to go about in rags. (But sometimes that's all they have - rags.)

Now every clothing store in Santiago has used clothing for sale, with the national currency - the peso. Even so, the prices are as high as if the clothing - some of which may even be dirty - were of the latest style and brand new, i.e., exorbitant.

The roots of this state of affairs took hold in Cuba when the communist bloc fell to pieces early in this decade and we began the noble epoch that the government named the "Special Period" - of austerity. At the beginning of this 'temporary' stay "in hell" - as the French poet Arthur Rimbaud would call it - products once found in the ordinary commerce of this city gradually grew scarcer, along with the government subsidy of the prices.

Thus it came about that such now-scarce items as cloth, shoes, electrical appliances and general hardware tools and equipment - to name only a few - which had been available to the public began to disappear as if by slight of hand or other magic. All that remained, with difficulty, were stores of dry goods, basic grocery stores, where the provisions became less available and then only to those citizens who could present their ration coupons.

After the communist bloc's help faded away, only two or three commercial establishments remained which sold hardware products - at high prices and of the lowest quality. On rare occasions after the Berlin Wall was torn down, the Cuban Ministry of Domestic Commerce - also known as the Ministry of Misery Distribution - would come up with some shoes, shirts and trousers. Again, the state had to have its profits so the prices were at astronomic heights.

The show windows of the commercial establishments along the downtown streets of Santiago began to deteriorate. Their shelves, partitions and drawers began to fill up with curious plaster figures, paper flowers and indescribable designs that even today still exhibit their horrible taste and help nauseate the passersby, especially the tourists.

About four or five years after the Special Period began, stores of every type began to appear. They would sell their products only for dollar$ or their equivalent in convertible pesos. In places where department stores used to be found, now could be found certain products of a normal civilization. But today, the stores that handle leather goods, or clothing or electrical appliances will accept only US dollar$.

Shortly after the "money of the enemy" was given sainthood and became the watchword of Cuban society, these other establishments appeared that immediately 'polemicized' the population: They are the "consignment stores," where just about anything may be found, immediately, from a wash basin to a kerosene torch - but with a lion's portion of profits going to the state house by virtue of its business status.

More recently, throughout the city little shops showed up that carried used clothing for men, women and children, without notice of season, whose procedures even today are cloaked somewhat in mystery. Their prices always are just above the reach of the ordinary person although considerably lower than before, when these very items were exhibited new in the famous "shoppings" stores.

Because of the mystery, this correspondent interviewed some of the workers in these establishments. They said that all they know about the business is that the used clothing - old clothing or ropa vieja, as the people call it - arrives for Santiago at a central warehouse in the suburb of Boniato, a village less than three miles from here. From Boniato the merchandise is distributed throughout the network of this territory.

At the beginning, the clothing that people bought from the consignment stores was sent to the state laundries of Santiago for washing and ironing and sometimes for some adjustments to fit different sizes and shapes. But some months ago such niceties petered out. Now just about everybody goes along with whatever, maybe a missing stitch or button, sometimes even a disagreeable odor and always with prices soaring to the clouds.

This is the sad, bitter and tragic destiny of those who have the "immeasurable luck" of being able to live in this bastion in the struggle against imperialism. They can not - rather I mean WE can not decide where we live, where we go, what we eat, with whom or how we are educated, what religion we profess, what we see or hear - by radio, television or the movies - what we talk about, what we read, with whom we meet, with what we roast or toast or how and with what we dress ourselves. But it doesn't matter; the important thing is that we know when to smile and applaud, with vehemence.

In sum, we Cubans have all the luck! We know that because President Castro told us so in his own words recently at the CÚspedes park during the celebration of his four decades in power. He also said that we are just beginning the revolution: "So far so good!"

Margarita Yero, Cuba Free Press.

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