The Perverse Path of Repression
Agustin Valentin Lopez Canino, Translator: Unstated
L is for Liberty
"Good morning," said the woman with the thick voice and deep tone. My
sister responded in kind and the woman began offering medications for
sale. The clock indicated it was seven minutes past eight in the
morning. The twins had just left for school. Yesterday a neighbor
commented on the shortage of books and notebooks in the schools and the
difficulty obtaining uniforms.
I stopped writing and went to the room where the woman was still
offering medications. I said hello and began observing her with
curiosity. She was corpulent. The mixed-race skin of her face suggested
someone in her sixties, but her appearance gave the impression of
virtuous health. It was now eight minutes after eight. At schools around
the country the morning assembly had begun with the Young Pioneers
shouting, "Pioneers for communism. We will be like Che."
I observed the little nylon bag the woman held in her hands from which
she pulled out strips of pills and another small bag with injections
while my sister kindly told her about possible buyers in the neighborhood.
The day before I had asked two mothers about the issue of school
uniforms. One told me they were being sold for a coupon or a voucher
that you could get from the schools. For preschool they would let you
buy two uniforms for between fifteen and twenty pesos in national
currency.* After that you were not eligible to another until the second
The other woman said that in preschool they did not give you the coupon
because things were so disorganized and you had to buy it on the black
market where it never costs less than one-hundred pesos.
"But how?" I asked. "They provide a uniform for each child."
"That's how it is supposed to be," she said, "but sometimes it doesn't
work out that way. As long as they follow all the rules, regulations,
laws and intents in the black market, you have to pay."
It was now eight minutes past eight. The woman was still offering her
medications. I finally decided to ask her a question. "Ma'am, why are
you doing this?"
The woman was taken aback, almost frightened. "Look, they gave me this…
I only… It's for…" She was almost stuttering. She did not know what to
say or do. With obvious nervousness she moved to start gathering up the
medications, intending to go. I had caused her to feel uncertain. There
was fear in her eyes. The adrenaline was escaping through her dark skin.
She was thinking that I could be a government agent, a policeman or a
bandit. I tried to quietly calm her down.
"Listen, don't be afraid. You are under no obligation to answer me. I
don't mean you any harm. I am only interested in knowing why, in knowing
what it is like for people near the bottom. I am a defender of human
rights, concerned with social justice."
"Everyone who works should receive a decent salary so that they don't
turn to corruption," I added. "Elderly people like yourself should not
have to denigrate themselves in order to be able to enjoy a
much-deserved rest in the last phase of their lives. I think society
should reward them for their work by providing enough for them to have
some comfort in the few years they have left. But this society is
structured so that this does not happen. There is no accumulation of
capital, nor of property, that might provide an elderly person with some
well-being and security in life and meet their basic needs."
The woman's face changed shape, her fear turned to curiosity, her
adrenaline must have gone down to normal levels, but she still seemed
evasive, elusive. My sister finally put her at ease.
"This is my brother. I assure you that you can speak openly. There's no
problem," she said smiling.
The woman turned around and faced me, holding the little bag with the
medications. "I get these from pharmacies," she said. "They are
medicines that can cost up to six CUC,* but I sell them for a lot less.
I was looking for something to make ends meet. So were the people who
gave them to me. This is how we all live. With our salaries we cannot
buy enough to eat."
"That is what I was looking for," I said. "The sincere truth."
As the woman started to open up, I saw an opening for my second
question. "Are you sure of the origins of these medications? Couldn't
they be counterfeit or tampered with?"
"No way," she said. "They come from the pharmacies and are sealed. They
are from people I trust and I don't sell them to just anyone, only to
people I trust."
Four more minutes had passed. It was now thirteen after eight. The
teachers must be starting class now, or scolding the first student who
talked to his neighbor or who blew a raspberry.
I told her that I have seen with my own eyes the tampering with and
packaging of a multitude of products in small, clandestine factories. On
occasion I have even been defrauded myself. It happens with foodstuffs
as well as with consumer products and basic necessities like soap,
toothpaste, detergent, perfumes, deodorant, soft drinks and alcoholic
beverages – including brand name rum – tobacco products and cigars.
The containers, labels and products are taken at different times and in
a variety of ways. Sometimes it is through outright burglary. In other
instances it is through the actions of a company's corrupt financial
officers, who cover up their embezzlement by cleverly cooking the books,
thereby avoiding being discovered by auditors who have not already been
bought off through bribery, extortion, lavish meals or gifts. Many of
these products end up in state-run hard currency stores through
arrangements with the stores' personnel. I can write about this because
I have been concerned enough about this phenomenon to find ways of
observing it. In many cases I have become involved with it in order to
discover how the process works.
In the 1990s bottles, labels and the rum itself were taken from a
factory in Santo Domingo. The rum, which was later secretly bottled,
appeared to be genuine, having been sealed at the factory. Personnel at
every level were involved in the operation. It was rumored that a
security agent from the area was able to buy his 1958 Chevrolet with
funds obtained from rum trafficking, though I never had direct contact
with the man to confirm this.
Many of those who drank this rum in Varadero were fooled. The
differences might have been minimal and virtually imperceptible, but
they were there. I could describe the manufacture and bottling of some
brand-name beers – Hatuey, Manacas, Polar – as well as soft drinks,
pasta products such as vermicelli and elbow macaroni, ham, cigars,
coffee… A large number of these products have made their way into the
web of state-run stores, thereby covering up their clandestine and
illegal production. Almost all appear to be genuine, but their level of
quality and purity are minimal.
So many values have been lost. Conscience and dignity are in short
supply. Corruption has become so widespread that it does not surprise me
that medicines are being tampered with and plaster is being
unscrupulously added to aspirin.
"I don't want to cause you harm. I only want to be sure of the origins.
I am not going to judge you, though I don't approve of corruption. If
you are detained by the police, they will apply the force of law or
demand a bribe. They won't care about the motives for your actions. I
need to know the why's," I told her. This made her feel more secure.
Then I asked my sister a question: "How are things here?" She said that
in Lisa things have not been going well for the Ladies in White. The
vendors say that, because of them, agents from the Ministry of the
Interior, the Technical Department of Investigation and state security
are all over the place. They can no longer sell their contraband
products on the street through the black market, so they have told the
Ladies to get lost, so they say.
She said a few other things that I did not hear. I was thinking about
how to explain to her truth as I know it. How to make these people
understand that becoming corrupt and denigrating themselves by acting
wretched and perverse instead of demanding their rights only leads to
misery and perdition?
The woman stood in front of me with her bag of medicines. Another minute
had passed. It was now 8:14. The teacher would be at the front of the
class now, asking for the attention of the boys and girls who tomorrow
will be adult and elderly, like the drug tamperers and clandestine
traffickers. Or like the pharmacy workers, or the mothers discussing the
need for school uniforms and the black market, or like this victim of
I looked at her directly, but her illiteracy in ethics and social
responsibility did not allow her to value the importance of this issue,
and she did not hold my gaze.
"Ma'am," I said, "It's not as they would have you believe. I know the
Ladies in White very well and what is really going on. Everything is not
being sent to them from the United States. They simply receive some help
from foreigners who have visited them and perhaps from some
organizations made up of honest and honorable Cubans who were expelled
from the country after having been denied their rights as citizens and
treated as pariahs by a barbarian and aberrant form of discrimination by
the regime. But this help has always been insignificant and much less
than what the State has received and is receiving, or what the families
of the five spies — the so-called Cuban Five– get for their political
trips and extravagant personal expenses compared to the rest of the
Negligible given the resources dedicated to the power to rebuke. The
Ladies in White are people who have had the courage and decency to speak
out for the rights of the people, for hers, and for all these old people
to be able to enjoy their retirement relaxing, or traveling with their
needs met and not having to smuggle drugs or other products to eat and
so those pharmacy workers receive a fair wage that meets their needs and
do not see the need for such denigration.
But it happens that government agents make them believe and use the
opportunity to create intrigue and disinformation and take advantage of
it all to deploy the police against the smuggling and blame it all on
the Ladies in White, so the corrupt people do not realize and against
those who are demanding everyone's rights there is a vicious circle of
denigration, and many of the acts of repudiation are perpetrated by this
corrupt and evil people.
She knows, that people who are part of the opposition can not buy from
the black market because they are constantly monitored so they can be
accused of some criminal offense and taken to prison, this, besides
fearing for their lives, poisoned food or another product that could do
damage to them, and this not because I think it but because the Power
has shown that it doesn't want there to be any claimants of rights,
freedoms and justice.
The woman now looks at me a little surprised and almost cries, Really!
People do not know and they say other things, this is very bad and worse
every day, you have to do many bad things just to be able to eat.
Finally, I say to her, she can be sure that what I've said is true
because I know this firsthand, if someone needs clarifications she can
send them to me, and not to worry, I won't do her any harm. She turns
around and without letting go of the little sack with medicines and
leaves for another house in the neighborhood.
It's eight fifteen, two more minutes in the existence of this miserable
country with its satanic government.
Perhaps when the teacher turned back to the blackboard after her first
demand for respect the teenager blew another raspberry, a child learned
to add, a mother bought a uniform on the black market, my twins looked
around mischievously, thinking of their uncle who is not in the hands of
the dictatorship, some trafficker in medicines graduated from one of the
medical technical schools, or medical schools, and will gain the rights
he deserves, but he won't get it with his work and in the next few
minutes I will keep asking others, why?
Trying to shoo away the fear of the power that they have taped to people
as if it were another gene, to accomplish logical answers and transparency.
Note: I am not against the release of the Five Spies, as spies, as long
as they serve their sentences, a benevolent pardon would inflame the
perverse politics of the Castro dictatorship but would demonstrate once
again the shamelessness and prevarication in the case of the
imprisonment of the North American Alan Gross and the public warning
they are trying to send via the Spaniard Carromero.
*Translator's note: There are two currencies in Cuba. Salaries are paid
in the "national currency," the peso, with the average salary equaling
about $20 US per month. The convertible peso, or CUC, is pegged at about
one-to-one to the dollar. Many basic essentials can only be purchased
legally with CUC's at government-run hard currency stores.
September 13 2012