Cuba: peanuts, camels, caravans
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the illegal economic blockade by the US has meant economic crisis for Cuba. But the Cuban people and their supporters are finding some ingenious ways around their difficulties...
Mani, mani, mani!
Capitalist craze hits Havana
Until recently you could walk from one end of Havana to the other without being able to buy anything at all to eat or drink. Then, suddenly, with the relaxation of Cuba’s rigid economic system, there were cones of peanuts or popcorn on offer every few yards of the way.
The first ‘craft fairs’ appeared on the streets in September. ‘Agromarkets’ selling private and co-op farm produce alongside that of the state were reopened in October. In December came the indoor ‘industrial markets’ for tools and household goods. Suddenly everyone seemed to have something to sell.
At the craft fair, prices are marked in US dollars. Hardly anything actually arrives on ration any more and agromarkets are the only places where meat and fresh vegetables are available. So they set their prices accordingly: a banana might cost the equivalent of six dollars.
This was probably the kind of thing Fidel Castro was talking about when he promised in November that ‘we will never go back to savage capitalism’. But so far no-one’s complaining about the reversal. A sign at the entrance to one agromarket says: ‘There’s no joy like being able to buy what you need.’
‘Capitalism’ is the latest in a long line of crazes. Bicycles and queues are already an art form. Now it is the turn of ‘business’, and no-one wants to be left out.
The craft fairs are accompanied by music and children’s games. Fruit sellers try out ever more extravagant lines of patter. People lavish presents on each other – flowers, turtles, canaries. A magazine designer spends her evenings sewing tacky dolls for a tourist stall. An administrator sells home-made coconut sweets at the bus stop on her way home.
The explosion of energy, the profusion of goods on sale is astonishing. The begging bowls, too, have appeared overnight, each with its flakily-painted little saint.
What will become of all this once the novelty has worn off? ‘Just another mixed economy in a Third World country. Nothing special,’ says one observer.
For now, at least, the cry of street sellers all over Havana sounds to the outsider like ‘Money! Money!’ In Cuba ‘mani’ means ‘peanuts’.
Beast of burden
‘Train-buses’ supplement bicycles
In 1993 it was an everyday occurrence to see hundreds of Habernos (people who live in Havana) waiting at bus stops for hours and then literally punching their way through when a bus eventually arrived.
photo by SALMAN YUNUS
The Government embarked on a programme of austerity measures to overcome shortages in fuel and spare parts. One was the introduction of the camello, the ‘camel’, to the streets of Havana. It consists of a trailer converted for passenger transport. Though not always comfortable it can carry up to 300 people and is quite reliable. Camels have replaced the old Hungarian buses on most of Havana’s busiest routes. Similar vehicles known as Super Tren-Bus are now being used on provincial routes.
A method of travel that is popular among young Cubans is the botella, the equivalent of hitchhiking, but with one substantial difference. They are supported in this by the Ministry of Transport, which has posted inspectors at all the main junctions. Their function is to stop all vehicles and allot passengers to each according to its destination.
For those who prefer pedal-power, the introduction of Chinese bicycles, now used by some 500,000 Habernos, is infinitely preferable to either punching or thumbing.
Last but not least is the work of solidarity groups from around the world. Havana alone has received some 400 buses, mainly from Spain and Canada, but also from Italy, France and the Netherlands. The 400 route from Havana to the beach resort of Guanabo, for example, is now entirely operated with buses from Montreal, Canada.
Though such contributions will not resolve the country’s economic crisis they constitute a moral support that is of great value.
photo by SARAH PODRO
Last November 200 US citizens successfully crossed over the border to Buffalo in Canada with 150 tons of humanitarian aid destined for Cuba.
The fourth US-Cuba Friendshipment was organized by the Minneapolis-based Pastors for Peace. Previous caravans had faced violent confrontations with US authorities and anti-Castro terrorist groups. On the second caravan 14 participants went on hunger strike for 23 days until a school bus that had been seized by US Customs was returned.
This time, in Montreal, Canadian dock workers volunteered to load the shipment for free. The caravanistas flew to Havana to take part in a conference in solidarity with Cuba, attended by some 2,000 delegates from around the world.
The ‘caravan’ now consists of some 12 routes through the US where aid is collected and public meetings take place. The routes converge on Washington for national demonstrations. On the first march, attended by some 8,000 people, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark called the blockade ‘a physical assault on an entire people and a crime against humanity’.
The next assault on the blockade is planned for June or July this year. Pastors for Peace are keen to have more representation from Europe in particular. The possibility of organizing a parallel European caravan is also being discussed.
‘Most people in the US are not aware that their Government is pursuing a policy that is illegal,’ says Tom Hanson, director of Pastors for Peace, ‘that it is contrary to international law and to some of the conventions to which the US is a signatory’.
When last discussed by the General Assembly of the UN, 101 nations voted against the embargo and only the US and Israel voted in favour.
Pastors for Peace, IFCO, 331 17th Ave, SE Minneapolis, MN 55414. Tel 612 378 0062. Fax 612 378 0134.
both photos: STEFAN A SMITH
People in pieces
Pointless Kabul massacre persists
One early-autumn afternoon a PM-21 heavy rocket landed in the middle of a busy bazaar in the centre of Kabul. The victims were immediately brought by taxi, bus, bicycle and tank to the Jamuriat hospital run by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF). One taxi had a mother with six children in the back seat. Another had five children in the trunk.
When the doctors attempted to remove them they realized that none of the victims was in one piece. Within minutes the courtyard of the hospital was scattered with rows of limbs, torsos, severed heads. The death-toll of this particular attack was put at 54 dead and over 200 injured. MSF say that at least 90 per cent of casualties they see are civilian.
Such scenes are commonplace in Kabul, where the daily bombardment of the city has claimed about 20,000 lives in the last 12 months. Each day up to 300 rockets, countless mortars and small-arms bullets fall indiscriminately.
They are fired by troops loyal to renegade Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who opposes the ‘government’ of President Rabbani, whose troops in their turn fire out from the city centre. Both sides, of course, miss the military and hit the civilians.
What the factions are good at is switching sides – more often than not for purely financial reasons. For their loyalty the Mujahedin receive about $15 each per month, plus the perk of looting bus passengers and setting up checkpoints for the ritual intimidation of anyone who passes through them. Speaking with the various party leaders is rather like listening to a talking Action Man. The jargon of ‘Islamic revolution’, ‘free elections’, ‘neutral interim government’ and so on is reeled off parrot-fashion. These leaders are little more than mercenary warlords, using the word ‘Islam’ to manipulate rather than liberate.
The front lines zig-zag the city. Civilians cross them during moments of cease-fire to collect firewood and visit surviving friends and relatives. During the winter they face a choice of freezing to death or getting shot.
When they speak it is without enthusiasm for their ‘liberators’. Most people have given up trying to understand who is fighting whom or for what. The hierarchy of arms means that resistance or complaint is impossible. It will be a long time before they can pick up the pieces of their lives, and they know it. Unfortunately, the rest of the world does not.
Stefan A Smith
Eritrea hospitals plug in
On 29 February 1992, in newly-liberated Eritrea, women and men of Adi Quala celebrated the commissioning of the country’s first fully solar-powered hospital system. Adi Quala is an agricultural town of 14,000 people about 70 kilometres south of the capital, Asmara, and 30 kilometres from the border with Tigray.
On good days electricity used to be received from Asmara for just a few hours in the evening. This caused constant problems for the hospital, which caters for 50,000 people with a staff of 21. Now the solar-powered system provides all essential requirements completely independently from the grid connection.
The success of this pilot project led to a larger second-phase project with three similar hospital systems installed by local technicians, followed in June 1994 by a further 12 systems. To date Dulas Engineering, based in Wales, has supplied more than 60 solar-powered refrigerator units for clinics and hospitals in Eritrea.
‘Photovoltaics’ (PV) for medical applications is now a mature technology for converting sunlight into electricity. The initial costs may be high – in the region of $37,000 for the system installed at Adi Quala. But a study in the Gambia in 1994 calculated the cost of a dose of vaccine, using PV refrigeration, to be 33 per cent cheaper than if a kerosene refrigerator had been used. Increases in fossil fuel prices, combined with low maintenance and no fuel costs have greatly improved the economics of solar power. The lack of infrastructure to support the new technology and supply spares remains, however, a practical restraint on further development.
Although technically complex when compared with traditional appropriate technologies, solar power has now become an economic option for off-grid medical operations in tropical countries. If the practical and conceptual barriers are overcome, little then remains to prevent the rapid expansion of decentralized, fuel-free electricity generation around the world.
Meat by name
British supermarkets have been bending over backwards recently to offer their customers ultra-cheap meat products. Many of these feature ‘mechanically-recovered’ meat.
For the curious, mechanically-recovered meat means that the carcass has already had the best meat removed: the remaining bits are put through a rather vicious washing machine to strip the last shreds of soft tissue off the bones.
This makes a watery greasy paste or slurry, grey-white and potentially full of bacteria. ‘Ensure the product is cooked throughout,’ says Tesco of its Value Burgers, and ‘Ensure no trace of red remains,’ warns Kwik Save about its No Frills Burgers and Grills.
Living Earth & The Food Magazine Vol 3 No 28
International warbling megastar Whitney Houston took South Africa by storm. ‘It is my spiritual home,’ she gushed. She took time off from her singing for two other priorities.
The first was to pledge a million Rand (about $250,000) to local children’s charities, saying that all children needed a safe place to live, good health and nutrition.
The second was to invest an undisclosed sum in a local business, New Age Beverages, whose main activity is canning and distributing Pepsi.
Living Earth & The Food Magazine Vol 3 No 28
An environmental group in Russia has been making a desperate attempt to organize a clean-up of 150,000 tons of oil that spilled from a pipeline near Usinsk between June and August 1994.
The Socio-Ecological Union (SEU) says that with the spring thaw the oil will seep into the Kolva, Usa and Pechora rivers and thence into the Arctic basin. KOMINEFT is a drilling company responsible for the clean-up but, says SEU, it has no knowledge of environmental protection.
The Russian Ministry of Ecology remains dormant. SEU has developed its own clean-up scheme in consultation with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the European Union for Coastal Conservation in Holland, and seeks urgent international support for its efforts.
‘There is a kind of cultural racism going on when people think African musicians have to make a certain kind of music. No-one asks Paul Simon “Why did you use black African musicians? Why don’t you use Americans? Why don’t you make your own music? What kind of music is Paul Simon supposed to do?” ’
Beninese pop singer Angelique Kidjo’s reply to saxophonist Branford Marsalis asking her
why she used drum machines and synthesizers instead of traditional rhythms.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.