Obama’s announcement this week brought me back to the months I spent living in Havana in early 2014.
While there was no quinoa or rice cakes (some of my Canadian staples), we never experienced a shortage of basic food items. Some simple household products however, you could go for weeks without seeing. Toilet paper was one of them. Not a ration item (in fact, there are few ration items), four small rolls (non-dyed and non-scented) cost you $1.80 CUC ($2.25 CDN) and it is also hard, dry and very thin. At that price, particularly accounting for relative costs of living, toilet paper is a luxury good for most Cubans.
If in a bind, some popular alternatives included using the pages of a libreta (a notebook) or the granma (one of the two national newspapers). Crinkle well beforehand and you have a softer surface to work with.
Where to find toilet paper was a common topic of conversation in households. The shortage was also aggravated by the fact that people purchase toilet paper in bulk when available, to sell for a profit when scarce. The same package would run you $2.20 CUC during a shortage. Walking around Centro Havana and Habana Vieja, you might find the rolls lined up on the step in front of someone’s house along with any other black market goods they were selling (e.g., eggs, coffee, etc), and maybe some peso coffee and flan.
In Cuba, out of necessity, everyone to a degree is an entrepreneur. It’s a part of the expansive black market system, sometimes referred to as the ‘la mechanica’ (machine). In the photo below, the lady is selling juice in old pop containers.
One afternoon, in my daily walks I was lucky enough to find some toilet paper at the store. After lining up and making my purchase, I walked home feeling quite happy about my find. Several people also took interest,
“China!” I heard this often. “Donde compraste el papel?”
I responded, “En la tienda al final de O’Reilly antes del prado”. There are many students from China studying Spanish just outside of Havana, so I was often mistaken for a Chinese student.
One time I was also lucky enough to see a truck of toilet paper. I thought this was rather incredible, and I asked the delivery guy to pose for a shot.
A shortage of toilet paper does not create a crisis, but it reflects a challenge that Cubans have faced for more than five decades; access to goods. With the announcement made this week, will come soon greater access to toilet paper, but also more importantly to well needed medicines, technologies and information. Hopefully with access will come lower costs, but only time will tell if they will translate into lower prices.
A move to ‘normalize’ relations is good news, and a change that is long overdue. But to be completely honest and I feel a bit guilty sharing this, a part of me will also miss the old Cuba. It is rare to find country accessible to visit, yet free of American advertising, constant access to the internet and social media, and absent of American businesses and hotels. Enter soon as well, cruise-ships by the day.
Rather than stare into their cell phones on buses and in lines as we do, Cubans chat: with their family, with their neighbours outside into the wee hours of the morning, and with strangers. Kids play freely in the streets. There is a sense of camaraderie amongst Cubans that I have never seen anywhere in my travels (definitely not in China, the other ‘communist’ country I've been to).
It is said that Miami is the New Havana, but how long before Havana is the new Miami?
In speaking with my Cuban friends here and in Cuba, everyone agrees the announcement is good news and on the island, renewed hope is in the air. Yet, there is also a general sense that change will take time. I hope the Cuban people, especially those most impoverished will benefit from the policies being introduced, and that the policies will be designed and negotiated as such.
One thing is certain, change is coming. If you would like to join me in Havana this January for dancing, and perhaps one of your last chances to see Fidel’s Cuba, please send me an email and check out the Bailando Cuba page.