HAVANA — It’s likely the same everywhere, but I don’t want it to happen here. Each crisis situation promotes opportunism, speculation and an ugly display of human misery (it’s pretty much inevitable) but I refuse to accept that it should occur inCuba.

Much recovery has been done since Hurricane Irma’s passage, but only in Havana, a city she only sideswiped. Four thousand 288 homes were affected, 157 of which collapsed entirely and 986 partially, according to preliminary reports, and cement is already being sold on the street for 12 convertible pesos (CUC) a bag, even 15 CUC.

How come cement is being sold on the black market? Who has turned a blind eye so this might happen? Is it because only those who dare to steal it will sell it to you? But for that price?

Not long ago, a friend told me that the utilities company installed her neighbor’s phone after endless paperwork but only after she “tipped” 100 CUC [100 dollars]* to the office clerk and 50 CUC to the workers who did the installation.

After Irma, another friend told me she heard haggling between a woman and a utilities company lineman to restore her electricity as soon as possible — at a time when more than 3 million 559,000 people and businesses were without power.

Last Friday, I heard that expediting home sales at a notary public’s office would cost 100 CUC — up from 50 CUC — because “well, you see, so many cases have been delayed by the hurricane.”

–“How much are those bags of onions?”

–“We have them for 4, 6 and 8 pesos, dearie. Everything went up after Irma.”

The most expensive bag used to cost 5 or 6, and I’m talking about CUC, what people call pesos, because the truth is that the CUP [national peso] is increasingly losing its value.

Getting a job in a business office used to cost a 1,000 CUC bribe (yes, one thousand, three zeros is right.) How much does it cost now, I wonder?

The way things are, I shouldn’t complain about the bodega clerk who — after I gave him the last 20 CUP I had in my purse — returned 10 CUP to me, charging me twice the value of a box of salt that sat on a shelf next to its official price tag. Should I have complained?

–“This box costs 10 CUP, lady. Or do you want the wet kind?”

It’s bad enough that the world’s poverty index is based on a family of four with an income of less than 120 dollars a month. In this country, that’s the standard.

It’s bad enough that a storm leaves many, many people without a home and belongings, few as they were. Bad enough that among the dead in the Caribbean were 10 Cubans, 7 of whom lived in Havana, almost all due to negligence that is being analyzed.

It’s bad enough that we always go on the street with trepidation and apprehension, because we’re surrounded by tricksters and flimflammers.

A policy of severity has been applied against those who committed crimes in exceptional moments, such as the passage of Hurricane Irma. In fact, 18 trials are underway for vandalism against retail stores.

But this process of recovery is also an exceptional case. In the market at 17th and K streets, a man attempted to buy all 400 plastic bags in stock and the people waiting on line dissuaded him by shouting “the people are watching!” And this is only one instance of Cubans elbowing their way past the rest.

According to the TV program The Round Table, the crimes recorded so far include looting, armed robbery and, of course, speculation and hoarding. For hoarders, the Attorney General’s Office is asking for the confiscation of their goods.

After the arrival of more than half a million dollars in humanitarian aid and resources, materials and tools for reconstruction, mosquito nets, tarps, water bottles, cooking and hygiene kits, etc., many Cubans have posted on Facebook that “please don’t send aid to official institutions.”

How sad disbelief is! I couldn’t believe it when Irma brought down the optician’s office in Holguín that had been expensively restored barely six months ago. Or when it removed the roof from the Avellaneda Theater in Camagüey, which had been slowly rehabilitated. Or when we see that the cement we cannot find in hardware stores (because it is a priority for the homeless) is being sold in the black market. You heard right: the black market.

Isabel Santos and Luis Alberto García said it in the movie “Not Like Before”: “To resolve is the national verb.” But we have to see how far, how long, to what end we allow this decadence that brings us down.

The collapse of a balcony over a bus should never have happened, no matter what the condition of the building. I don’t know if it’s the job of the Civil Defense (which is most efficient in these situations) to foresee and prevent the collapse of other balconies at the least expected moment.

This is an exceptional situation of disaster, of crisis, when the tricksters come out, saying “I have,” “I’ll solve,” “I can get you this or that” and you listen to them — because there’s no alternative.

These times are bad and Cuba knows well how to deal with them. The government removes the Cuban flags outside the U.S. Embassy and hangs them to dry in an entire neighborhood. Ordinary citizens bring homeless people into their homes because we’re still supportive and cheerfully help others however we can.

We sing as we go, like our artistic brigades.

And even though I want to believe with poet Mario Benedetti that “all that’s green will grow again,” we’ll need to see what shade of green grows back.

*For every one hundred dollars exchanged into CUCs, Cuban banks and exchange houses give you 87 CUCs in return after taxes imposed on the U.S. dollar. 

Photo by Eileen Sosin Martínez.


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