Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

In Cuba: Sending the Cockerel Off to Valhalla, or Wherever Annoying Creatures Go To.

There's an email exchange going back and forth with some people I work with about this article on "urban agriculture" in Cuba.

Thank Christ one of the guys on the email list (an old Brit) actually lived and worked in Cuba in the 1980s and promptly dispelled the common American Leftie myth about how Cuba is a paradise.
"My wife and I lived in Cuba from 1985 to 1988. I returned several times afterward, for business trips, and to get our old maid out. In May 1987 our younger daughter was born ... in Texas. (Infant mortality in Cuba, for the "foreign" community, was 35%. Parents were never given the bodies of their dead infants. Hence my wife flew to San Antonio to deliver our daughter. Her leaving Cuba, to go to Texas, heavily pregnant, is a story in itself.)

The much vaunted Cuban medical system was a disgrace. Still is. It simply did not work at all. I know that from personal experience. We took my daughter to Cuba when she was two weeks old. On our way back to Cuba, in Mexico City airport, the stupid clod at the Mexicana Airlines check-in desk told me that our daughter would not be allowed to go to Cuba because - get this - she didn't have a work permit. Can you believe that? The fact that she was 14 days old made no difference to him. I asked him to tell me what kind of work did he think she was going to do. That really got up his nose.

Much heated arguing later, I took our little girl from my wife, and passed her to the idiot check-in man and said, "You are now the proud owner of a brand-new baby girl. Here is her passport. We have to catch the flight. Goodbye." My wife, of course, was frozen speechless in horror. So was the clod. He swiftly passed Alex back to me and said, "She can go, but don't ever do this again."

We were classed as Diplomats, which meant that we had very distinctive plates on our car. We also had the right to shop in the "Diplomercado," or Diplomats' supermarket. The problem was that, whenever there was meat (goat) for sale, we had to fight against the Russian Diplomats' wives, and the Russian Navy seamen. The seamen were from the Russian nuclear submarines and surface warships, permanently present in the harbour, all of them painted a dull black colour. (Habana, or Havana, means "safe harbour," and it is a very safe harbour.)

We never won. The only other food available was tins (mostly without labels) of various things from Canada, all well past their sell-by date. Really! The Russians paid for their food with "Inter" money (like Monopoly money,) while we paid in the much despised US$ (that everybody wanted!) We had lots of money in those days, because Cuba was classed as a "Hardship 1" posting by the British Foreign Office and, as such, the posting paid very well.

Lots of money or not, there was never much food to be had, and you can't eat money. We used to buy electric fans, fridges, and similar goods that Cubans were not allowed to buy (from the "Inter" tourist, souvenir shops!) and go out into the countryside to swap the fans etc for live chickens, the odd potato, carrots and so on. My wife made baby food out of these things, and froze them in ice-cube trays in our freezer. Then we would lose the electricity for a few days and all the frozen food for our little girl would spoil. So we would start all over again.

I went back to Cuba over the following years and, for old times' sake, I visited the new Diplomercado (built with Canadian money, as was the new airport.) The Diplo was enormous, excessively air-conditioned, and the rows of gleaming, new shelves were stocked with just two things: tomato ketchup and cat food. All well past their throw away dates, of course. The Diplo was empty, apart from the totally disinterested staff and myself.

The lack of everything was very trying so, whenever we went on leave to Miami, or the BVI, we would buy a huge trunk there, and fill it with everything we couldn't get in Havana. Soap, shampoo, toothpaste, you name it, we bought it. In spite of our Diplomatic status, some of it was "confiscated" by the customs officers in Havana, as soon as we arrived, but we usually got the bulk in.

I smuggled in seeds to grow food in our "garden." The garden had been abandoned for decades and was full of rubbish, snakes and large scorpions. Even worse, the topsoil was about 10 cms deep and then you hit granite. I acquired a very heavy iron bar, about 2 metres long, and broke holes in the granite. We "liberated" soil when we were in the countryside, and filled the holes (called canteras.) We planted the seeds and grew all our fruit and veg. All crops grow like crazy in that climate, it is really easy.

We didn't choose our house; we were allotted one by the State. It was pre-bugged with electronic ears. Even our car was bugged. On one side of our house was a block of revolting, stinking apartments. The inhabitants were dreadful people (thanks to the system) and all they seemed to do was loll about and spy on each other. All day. The "spies" were the "State Committee For The Defense Of The Revolution," and they reported on me, and their own neighbours, every day, to the Secret Police. Every block had its spies.

On the other side of our house was a small bungalow, in which lived a General and his family. Both sets of our neighbours were intrigued and fascinated to see foreign "Diplomats," outside, pouring with sweat, fixing our garden and growing food. I gave both of them seeds to grow their own food. They did nothing, but were always trying to scrounge food from us. I told them to sod off.

The Cuban people could have been growing their own food, in urban gardens, since 1959, right after the Revolution. Unfortunately, the Communist system was such that, if you grew something yourself, the local spy would report the fact, and you had to share your produce with your neighbours. Therefore nobody did anything, except for "exempt" people like us.

When the Soviet Union collapsed (nothing to do with Ronald Reagan and his "Tear down that wall" speech - it was already well on its way to collapsing anyway,) the oil-for-sugar deal with the Soviets ground to a halt, and Cuba was in seriously deep trouble. It still is.

So, it is no surprise to me that the Cubans are now growing their own food in the urbs; they have no choice. Grow it or starve.

One of my last acts before we were mercifully transferred from Cuba to fabulous Belgium, was to kill the cockerel that lived in the filthy shambles of a "garden" belonging to the block of flats next door. That damned bird had no sense of time. It would consistently crow its head off, all through the night, and wake us up. My pleas with my neighbours were all in vain. The cockerel was kept for the simple reason that looking after it called for zero effort. It strutted about all day, scratching for whatever it could find, and crowed all bloody night.

I acquired a powerful air pistol from the British Embassy, and one night, with the aid of a torch (flashlight?) I sent it off to Valhalla, or wherever annoying creatures go to. My neighbours were in uproar, but I just denied everything. They knew I was lying, but they couldn't do a damned thing about it. Anyone harming a foreign official just disappeared."

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