For a handful of dollars

July 16, 6:30 pm. My mother, in her 70s, is sitting on the edge of her bed staring at the television. A group of officials is trying to convince the people of something. Something that has to do with foreign currencies. I hear the phrases: freely convertible currency, the enemy, social networks, ounces of beans, etc.

I don’t pay attention to what they say. As a matter of course, I am suspicious. I don’t believe them.

I invest my time in looking at my mother’s face. She nods. This is different, she tells me. Now they are really trying to help us.

I can’t stand it and I laugh. Mom doesn’t listen to me and keeps attending the Round Table like a little girl.

Apparently she believes them.

I put the phone aside and start detailing my mother’s body. Her fleshy legs full of veins. Her knees that bring her so much trouble. Her sleeping gown.

(My mother, with the accuracy of a Japanese train, goes to bed every day at eight o’clock).

I look at her arms. The wrinkles on her neck. Her excited eyes. Excited once again.

The news today is that the dollar is going to cost the same as the Cuban convertible peso, and that they are going to open a bunch of new stores, but only for those who have dollars.

I look at my mother’s hands. She has a habit of playing with her nails. I remember how years ago, many years ago, she left her studies to go cut sugar cane for the Revolution. She also left one of her boyfriends to go plant coffee for the Revolution.

(My mum has not been very lucky in matters of the heart).

I look at her chin. There is a drop there left from the café con leche we had at dinner.

She devoted her youth―and she was pretty, intelligent, useful―to the great dream. To the splendid project that was going to take us all out of poverty.

There is a recording of Fidel talking about beef, chicken, milk and eggs, which looks like a scene out of a bad science fiction movie. Mexican science fiction. Saints against national production, it could have been the title.

Just yesterday she was telling a friend about “operation cobblestone” (my mom was a craftswoman, she sold stuffed potatoes, rented a room, she was also an editor and a book designer). As the story goes, one of her friends, a very good craftsman, was arrested during this operation, supposedly for having acquired the leather he needed for his work in some kind of shady deal. For those who don’t know, “operation cobblestone” was a police operation against the artisans. It happened many years ago.

Well, the thing is that this friend of hers, whom the police went to arrest at his house, had a $100 bill stashed among the pages of an old book by Martí. One of the policemen checks the bookcase. He grabs the very book, opens it, turns it over, shakes it, and by some miracle or one of those things, the bill remains in place.

At the time, it was illegal to possess dollars. So this guy got momentarily lucky. His friends got together and through some contacts in high places tried to intercede on his behalf, but his good fortune had run out. They tricked him, they told him they were just taking him to a meeting, when in reality they were taking him to jail. He was in jail for a year, just for the sake of it.

According to my mum, after that, the mulatto never again made anything of value. He had been damaged.

An aunt of mine had to swallow a $50 bill to avoid going to jail.

I’m not good at telling anecdotes, but I’ve seen mom tell them countless times.

However, today my mum was like a sheep, innocent, believing what they were telling her on TV: everything was for the well-being of the people.

Mom had to raise me almost by herself, with the help of my grandmother, and she worked like a horse to keep us afloat. In the middle of the Special Period, she had to put aside her health issues to ride a bicycle and travel miles in search of shark meat or waste cooking oil.

The oil looked black, you can imagine what that did to our arteries. But it doesn’t matter. We were lucky. Some people were doing worse.

My mum went through the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, the 2000s, and now, in the middle of a pandemic, this weird thing was also happening.

My mother, before 2006, could not enter the hotels, just like the rest of the Cubans.

She couldn’t have a cell phone. She couldn’t travel. She couldn’t, and can’t, buy a car.

My mother earned about 20 dollars a month.

She was lucky enough that her father was an ambassador, and for a while, once a year, she could go to the supermarket on the intersection of 3rd and 70 to buy food that was impossible to find anywhere else on the island.

For a while, my mum made me sleep with her in a little bed in the living room of our house in order to rent the room in the back. During this period, a neighbor reported her for not having a license to rent and she had to pay a $400 fine.

Currently, my mother has a hard time understanding and working out the conversion rates for the three different currencies available in the country: dollar, Cuban peso, and Cuban convertible peso.

I look into her eyes. How many more Round Tables will she believe?

How much longer will the ordinary men and women continue to suffer this situation?

My mom doesn’t remember what cow’s milk tastes like.

The officials on the screen today are not the same guys from a few years ago. There are things that have changed, but, in general, everything is still the same.

The city is falling apart and hotels are still being built. At the entrance to Varadero there was that big sign that proclaimed: “Everything that is collected here is for the people”.

How will those who were imprisoned for having dollars feel?

Cuba is like a big charade. Yesterday’s reasons for punishment could be today’s reasons for a congratulation.

If yesterday they told us “jump”, today they tell us “duck”. And people, just like that, comply.

Right now I have only one purpose, to try and keep my mum happy, and to eat every day including some kind of protein, and some salad or bananas or sweet potatoes. I have a few dollars, a few pesos and a small amount of convertible currency, and I have no idea what I should do.

I don’t have a guide. I know that whatever I do, I’m going to lose.

But that is my problem.

I get up from the floor and leave the room.

The memes and jokes about the new measures are starting to appear already in the Internet.

“Humor is what saves Cubans”, they say.

The “new normal” doesn’t seem to bring anything good. But we knew that. A country that had already been in crisis for a while must now be worse off.

It seems that the program is coming to an end. My mother drags her flip-flops as she goes to the refrigerator. She opens the door, leans down, looks inside. Time stands still. The cold air hits her face.

Aire frío, Contigo pan y cebolla, El año que viene, Nitza Villapol, condom cheese pizza, Russian meat, chicken for fish. I remember all that while looking at mom.

I am almost 40 years old and I need to clear my head. I have to defragment the hard disk. My God, what a load of crap they’ve thrown at us!

Mum grabs a piece of bread and puts it on the stove. I can’t leave her alone. I imagine her, alone, in her 70’s, in a huge line trying to buy something in any of these currencies.

What will happen to the old people who are alone if the stores in Cuban pesos, the stores that sell subsidized goods through the ration card and the stores in convertible pesos suffer, have suffered and will continue to suffer from an appalling shortage?

If the authorities only seem to say: “foreign currency collection, foreign currency collection,” without thinking about the human cost.

If we Cubans are paid in Cuban pesos, and we have to pay for food in another currency, with a huge tax on top of that.

If the prices are atrocious.

If the officers who guard the State monies stand on the sidewalks with their big weapons…

How could I leave my mother, innocent, old, alone? In the middle of the Wild West.

Many images come to mind. Dust. Bullets. Old horses. Revolvers.

A western by… Clint Eastwood. Sergio Leone. John Ford.

The survival of the fittest. Run for your life.

I don’t understand this experiment. I don’t believe anything on TV. But, perhaps as in Good Bye Lenin, my mission is to keep my mum happy, sheltered from any worries.

I have no idea how this film is going to end. This cinamatheque film has already lasted for too long. I just hope it ends soon and that it ends without blood.

But who is to know. In any case, in every good Western there is always a duel at the end.

Carlos Lechuga (Havana, 1983). Filmmaker and writer.


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