In the Shadow of the Sierra Maestra
“Two dollar fooky fook,” muttered the old man with the limp in his right leg and the bottle of rum I had bought him sticking out of his pants.
“Two dollar fooky fook,” I repeated, held captive by the rhythm of the phrase.
As we made our way downhill, our party of four was joined by the town drunk who staggered wildly across the road in front of us.
“She no love you. She only want your money. She no love you, she lie to you,” he intoned, his voice filled with the passion of a preacher, the echoes disappearing into the darkness of the empty street.
The object of the old man’s economic one-liner and the town drunk’s derision sobbed silently. A sweet-faced mulatto girl barely out of her teens had latched on to my friend, Vishal, earlier that evening.
“No, no es la verdad,” she whispered as her eyes filled with tears. “No, that isn’t true.”
Santiago de Cuba lies at the foothills of the Sierra Maestra range in eastern Cuba. It was from these highlands that Castro and Che Guevara launched the Cuban revolution. It is a 14-hour train journey away from the policed streets of Havana. Here, Castro’s communist morality had not just broken down, it had mutated into something unknown. In the mid-90s, in a desperate bid to save the economy following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba had officially embarked upon a two-currency policy.
Visiting foreigners were to use the American dollar and local Cubans were to use the Moneda Nacional or the Cuban peso. It soon became obvious that those Cubans who dealt with foreigners would be the recipients of vast fortunes (relatively speaking) in the form of American dollars. Those who worked as good socialists in the factories and fields would continue to earn their meagre socialist salaries. In fact, the situation was so bizarre that doctors and scientists had started working as shoeshine men.
Youngsters could see no economic sense in taking up a profession any more demanding than driving a taxi or waiting at restaurants in the major tourist zones of Havana. Barring a radical governmental turn-around, it appears that Cuba’s painstakingly built intellectual and scientific traditions are soon to disappear.
The wonderful woman who invited us to stay at her home in Baracoa a few days later was a doctor herself. It was she who revealed to us the mechanics of the madness we had witnessed in Santiago. A fully qualified physician, she earned the equivalent of $25.00 a month (which I must state is a perfectly decent sum of money given the free education, free housing, free medical care and subsidized food and transport that all Cubans receive).
Things fell into perspective, though, when she began to compare this amount of money with the incomes that other “professionals” might expect – a shoeshine boy might earn $4.00 an hour, a waiter $10.00, a taxi driver $10.00 an hour and a prostitute up to $25.00, if not more!
In Santiago these economic figures mutated into madness. Come six o’clock in the evening, the women literally came out of the woodwork. Sidewalks that had been occupied by hawkers and parks that had previously been occupied by geriatric philosophers, were suddenly overwhelmed by made-up women in short skirts – sitting around, standing around, chatting, laughing, making half serious attempts at flirtation with foreigners.
A carnival-like atmosphere filled the air. We could only smile at the pleasantness of it all. Mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, the young, the very young, the old – they were all there – each attempting to make some pocket money, slipping into their nightly roles as easily as they’d slip into their roles as teachers, vendors, office workers and farmers during the day. Laughing at rejection, shouting orders to their husbands inside their homes and comparing their imitation Versaces, the “flesh trade” of Santiago revealed itself to be one of the most bizarre on the planet.
And that particular night in Santiago, we found ourselves bang in the middle of this stage. The old man with the limp played the part of a disinterested pimp, the town drunk played preacher and the mulatto girl played victim of a cruel fate. We played the part of the audience. We lied that we’d return the following Thursday and meet them all at exactly the same time in exactly the same bar. We lied in order to make an easy escape.
The irony that we had to lie about our return to people who themselves could never leave, was not lost on us. It further added to a certain sense of pathos that filled the air in Cuba – a pathos tinged with the beauty of an innocence long since lost to the capitalist world – an innocence captured by the tears of a prostitute who had just been accused of selling her body.