As most of the country watched on television, anxious for clues about whether and how Raúl might diverge from his brother’s path, he made a promise that was little noticed by the international news media but stunning to his countrymen: milk, enough so that every Cuban could drink a glass whenever he wanted. “To me, someone who grew up on a gulp of orange-peel tea, the news seemed incredible,” writes Sánchez. “I believed we would put a man on the moon, take first place among all nations in the upcoming Olympics, or discover a vaccine for AIDS before we would put the forgotten morning cafe con leche, coffee with milk, within reach of every person on this island.”
Sánchez’s estimation of the likelihood of the promise’s fulfillment was evidently shared by cooler heads in the Cuban government. The line about milk did not appear in the official government newspaper Granma, either in print or online. And when the speech was rebroadcast on television, it had skillfully been edited away. Winston Smith, whose job was rewriting old newspaper clippings and retouching photos every time the government shifted policy, casting all evidence of the past down a “memory hole” to an incinerator, would surely have smiled in recognition.
Smith might also have been amused at one of the reasons milk is in such short supply through official channels: Farmers give newborn female cattle names like Brave Bull and Stud Ox, reporting them as male to agricultural apparatchiks, so they won’t be required to sell their milk at the government’s low-ball prices.
Sánchez’s modern-day Cuban cowboy stories are reminders of why communist economies don’t break down more completely than they do: the black-market production and distribution channels created by canny peasants to evade state restrictions. In the crumbling cities, even something as basic as water must often be obtained through the black markets. As water mains fail, the residents of have-not neighborhoods must buy from the haves.
Unlike some of the so-called independent Cuban bloggers who believe that the country’s problems are not systemic but merely an excess of bureaucracy and a few undemocratic individuals in high places, nothing that can’t be cured by a little dose of good-government socialist reform, Sánchez recognizes that the island’s Marxist economics are inextricably intertwined with its political totalitarianism. That’s why, she observes, Cuba’s sporadic economic liberalizations never last long before they’re rolled back.
In 1994, she recalls, a loosening of restrictions on the small private restaurants known as paladars (the word is actually Portuguese, enviously lifted from a fictional restaurant chain in a popular Brazilian telenovela) briefly let a thousand culinary flowers bloom: “A stroll along the streets of Central Havana confirmed that the previous scarcity hadn’t been born of an incapacity to produce, but rather from ironclad State controls on private ingenuity,” Sánchez writes. But officials quickly slammed the lid on the opening when they discovered that successful paladar owners not only threatened economic orthodoxy (creating restaurant chains, planning the launch of a gastronomic magazine, and generally turning into Mini-Me Donald Trumps), but also developed bourgeois desires, including better cars and trips to Paris. For their customers, it was back to the old menu.
Her irony may soon change to genuine nostalgia. The Castro brothers — both in their 80s — show appalling signs of immortality. Not so with their patron saint Hugo Chávez, who having survived October’s presidential election is unlikely to have similar luck with the cancer for which he has already undergone three surgeries. His successor is unlikely to continue the gargantuan flow of aid to Cuba. Merely cutting off the supply of flea-market-priced oil — two-thirds of Cuba’s supply comes from Chávez — will turn the island into an economic zombie. Don’t be surprised if her next book is a collection of condom recipes.