As the daughter of a U.S. Diplomat, I was allowed to visit my parents there, so when the opportunity presented itself, off I went. My trip was rather short, a mere 15 days, but even after some 20 or so odd years, certain stark observations have remained forever etched in my memory:
1. The first thing that struck me, upon arrival, was the amount of gun-toting military personnel at the airport, and everywhere else for that matter. I can't be sure this still remains the case, but it was pre-9/11 and all the security precautions that have sadly become a necessity these days, were not prevalent in those, so the presence of so many uniform-clad men was a rather ominous sight.
2. The paranoia that is part of the Cubano's daily life was clearly evident, and there was a constant, palpable sense of fear. I recall chatting with several young men in a secluded area of a bookstore, one day. I don't remember the conversation, per se, but what I do vividly recollect was the panic in their faces when someone wandered into our section of the store; without another word, they turned away and quickly exited the premises. The reason: Cuba has a system of neighborhood snitches called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), so people are very careful not to associate with foreigners. There's a lot at stake if they are reported.
3. Driving around Havana was like stepping into a time warp, and I don't think much has changed since. The once beautiful buildings were dilapidated and dirty, and other than a few new cars that were imported from Iron Curtain countries, the majority of the vehicles were circa 1940s to '50s. The only areas and buildings of Havana they bothered to maintain, in somewhat decent condition, were those populated by tourists. In spite of Castro's promise to eradicate poverty, most Cubans lived (and continue to do so) in abject poverty.
Dilapidated building in Havana, Cuba
4. The lack of available food was a major problem then and now. There were Diplo-mercados (exclusive Supermarkets for members of the Diplomatic Corps, who had to pay in U.S. dollars, by the way) that were sufficiently stocked (though with nothing too exciting), but the local markets were often bare, a few tins from the Soviet Union, Canada or Panama gracing the mostly empty shelves. Trying to find fresh veggies (other than potatoes) was well-nigh impossible, which was not very pleasant for this vegetarian. Meat, however, was plentiful for the foreigners, but rationed for the Cuban people who were allowed to purchase it once a week. Most other food items were also rationed, if you could even find them. Free education and medical care do not a stomach feed.
Empty market in Havana, Cuba
So it was with great interest that I read an article in the Washington Post, about the problems Venezuela is currently having with food supplies. According to the article, meat and sugar are very scarce now, and other staples are hard to come by. I've talked about how Chavez seems destined to drag Venezuela down the same miserable path that Castro did with Cuba, and I find it fascinating that they're already having food distribution problems; although the country did begin having sporadic food shortages commencing in 2003, after Chavez started regulating prices on 400 different products from milk to coffee. His rationale for fixing prices on those items, was to counter inflation and protect the poor, but what it has obviously caused is greater hardship for everyone, including 'the poor' that he claims he is trying to protect. And instead of curbing inflation, it is now at a hefty 78 percent, in an oil-rich country to boot. Food prices have also increased substantially, and the problem distributors are having, is that the actual cost of food far surpasses the prices the government has set for said items. Of course, the government is quick to deny any inherent problems with price-fixing.
And reminiscent of Cuba's CDR (snitch system) the Venezuelan government has created a toll-free number for people to "denounce the hoarders and speculators". According to the Information Ministry,"The weight of the law will be felt, and we demand punishment."
It's only going to get worse!
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