As a foreign correspondent back in the 1980s, I realized that Marxist Nicaragua’s economy had officially flat-lined on the day that a peasant in the countryside who had helped a colleague with a broken-down car asked to be paid not in the cordoba, the country’s official currency, but toilet paper. When you can non-metaphorically say that a country’s money is not worth wiping your butt with, it’s time to face the fiscal facts.
I had a similar economic epiphany about Cuba while reading Havana Real, a compilation of posts by renegade blogger Yoani Sánchez about her communist shipwreck of a country. She wrote in 2009 of chatting with a friend named Xiomara who lives in Pinar del Rio, the tobacco-farming province at the far west end of the island.
Four months earlier, Xiomara said, the always balky distribution lines of Cuba’s command economy had reached a new height of glitchiness: shipments of sanitary napkins had ceased to arrive. Though Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl have often boasted that they are constructing nothing less than socialism’s New Man, they have yet to design New Ladyparts, and Xiomara and her friends were frantically cannibalizing their dwindling supplies of towels and pillowcases to make recyclable feminine pads. “Because of this, we might refuse to go to work,” she said.
“I imagined a ‘Strike of the Period,’ ” muses Sánchez, “a massive protest marked by the cycle of ovulation . . . . There are those who think that the dismissal of officials, or a merger of ministries, is the road to real change. I feel, however, that the triggering spark of transformation could simply be a group of women tired of washing out, every month, rags for their menstrual cycles.”
If you think blogs offer a useful corrective to the misfocus of the mainstream media in the United States, consider the case of Cuba, where government newspapers (that is, all of them) were enthusiastically reporting that potato harvests had exceeded their quotas at the time Pinar del Rio’s women were reinventing the gynecology of the 14th century.
Born in 1975, Sánchez began writing her blog Generación Y (Generation Y) in 2007. She quickly gained an international following, with hundreds of volunteers translating her blog into at least 15 languages. She was soon winning international journalism awards, getting shout-outs from President Barack Obama, and making Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Generation Y takes its name from the demographic cohort of Cubans born during the 1970s, by which time Fidel Castro had reduced the island to an arid economic, cultural, and political moonscape.
It is sometimes poetically suggested, usually by members of Generation Y itself, that they were the first to be born without delusions about Cuban communism. That’s an exaggeration. Most of the 125,000 refugees who bolted from the island during the Mariel boatlift in 1980 were young Cubans who already saw their lives at a dead end. And they were hardly the first.
What is true, however, is that Generation Y was the first raised without any hope — in the wake of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis — that the gringo cavalry up north would ride to its rescue. And it was just reaching adolescence as the rest of the communist world imploded in 1989, leaving Cuba to stand alone without massive Soviet subsidies for the first time.