The Battle For Food
by Ron Ridenour
Bill’s bicycle whisked through city traffic, mounted the first countryside hill and glided to La Julia in Batabano municipality.
I cycled the 50 kilometers by noon so intent was I on taking a break from noisy Havana and the many Yankee T-shirt-clad unconscionable people. I especially looked forward to revisiting the farm where I had often volunteered in the first half of the 1990s.
GIA-2 was the state collective (granja) nomenclature before it became Colonel Mambi Juan Delgado contingente, later changed to the José A Fernández UBPC (Basic Units of Production Cooperation) cooperative.
Hungry farmers milled before the camp kitchen. Benito, the tall lanky Microjet drummer, approached me. Microjet was the irrigating system—hoses fixed in the air or on the ground from which comes a fine spray. Benito had been a contingent member, who had formed the Microjet band with other volunteers.
“The Microjets are gone, Ron. I’m the only one remaining. But others you knew are still here and most have their houses. I’m way down on the list since I am single. But Edgardo and Guillermina got theirs.
“The camp is improved. We are fewer here now so we can share a room with only one person instead of six. And we got rid of that fucking sex restriction. Now we can have a woman in bed,” old Benito grinned.
I biked the kilometer to the concrete-block housing compound, which I witnessed started with four houses. As I gazed at the identical grey structures, a woman walked out of one. Despite her sombrero, I recognized the muscular Guillermina Montero. Surprised lit up her face. After embracing, we walked into her house to see her husband, Edgardo Rochet. They insisted I stay for lunch.
Most workers have their own houses now, and those who have no longer eat at the camp cafeteria. If they do eat there, a meal costs 50 centavos. Guillermina and Edgardo showed me their home and insisted I stay with them. They have plenty of space: four rooms, bathroom and kitchen. Since they live alone, one room is used to store fresh harvested foods and three unused bicycles, all lacking tires and tubes, “which cannot be found”, lamented Edgardo.
Their kitchen is charred black from an accident with the kerosene cooking apparatus.
“We should use gas but it is not as available as is kerosene. We are all to get the new electric plates this month, and then I’ll `find´ some paint to brighten up the kitchen,” Edgardo said.
“The state says it will be making refrigerators available to us also,” interjected Guillermina enthusiastically. “We haven’t had one for years since ours broke down and there were no parts.”
The bathroom light burns constantly because of a broken fixture, which will soon be replaced with the new energy-saving filaments and bulbs. The sink is broken. More often than not there is no running water for showering or flushing the toilet. Buckets are kept filled for both functions. The residential compound gets its water from the well at the nearby countryside school, but there are no set times for water flow. Since many of the couples both work, it is often a house-wife neighbor who fills up empty buckets for others.
The living room is the centre of attention, because of the Chinese Atec-Panda television set, which Guillermina “won” for being voted destacada (distinguished) worker many times. She is paying half price (4000 pesos) on a three-year time plan without interest. Her average wage is 500 pesos a month, which supplements her 262-peso retirement. Guillermina retired last year. At 56, she is the oldest woman worker.
“I like to work and helping out the banana plantation crews, plus we put away a little extra for some future event,” the broad-faced woman said, showing youthful white teeth. After lunch, she returned to her bananas.
“Now, that we have specific work responsibilities, I’ve decided to take the afternoon off. I’m caught up with weeding our papayas,” explained Edgardo. He wanted to talk with me while cleaning house and preparing for dinner.
Edgardo, now 50 years old gets 700 pesos monthly. These “wages” are advances based upon the previous year’s income. The crews earn according to the product results they cultivate. All workers spend some time on the libreta (rations) crops like potatoes plus their own designated crops.
At the end of each season, sales are divided amongst the workers after the cooperative takes its cut for maintenance, administration and new investments. Last year, Edgardo earned 8000 pesos over the advance monthly “wage”. Workers in the more demanding guayaba fruit plantation earned twice that. Some crops require less work and bring in less income.
“We can feel the differences, Ron. We are more comfortable since share-profiting was introduced and since we got our house, in 1997. We’re earning three times what we did when you were here. We pay a pittance for the house until we own it outright (they can’t be thrown out by law), and nothing for gas, water or electricity.
“Of course, not all is roses. They didn’t come near their promise of housing construction and we still don’t have more say running things but the system is more open. So I decided to join the party. I’m now a militant.”
Guillermina came in with a small chicken in one hand and a bottle of my name in the other. She had taken off work early to buy her favorite meat at 60 pesos, and a cheap rum at 30 pesos.
“We celebrate your return, Ron. Cheers,” and we downed a tingling shot.
Guillermina caressed our dinner with a large callused hand. Its eyes closed peacefully and she twisted its neck in one motion. Not a pip. It took Guillermina just minutes to pluck and cut up the chicken. As it simmered in a pan, and as the sweet potatoes, rice and beans were cooking—which Edgardo had prepared along with a fresh green and tomato salad—the loving couple took a bucket bath together. Edgardo had heated the water with a Chinese spiral electrical heater.
Dinner was delicious and festive.
My hosts’ home-town baseball team and a Havana club were starting a three-game series, which must be seen. After the Walt Disney cultural imperialism hour, we watched the game on their 101-channel television set—merely Cuba’s five stations can be seen. Only five of the 23 families in this compound have TV sets so several neighbors roared or moaned with us.
Read the rest of it here.