As the U.S. nears the end of the economic blockade, one Cuban family finds that no amount of education and hard work can end their struggle
Reporting: J. Brady McCollough | Photography: Michael Henninger
Every Monday night, at 8:30 sharp, the Cuban government dispenses a much-needed morsel to its people. They are used to waiting for treats, so they are grateful to change the TV channel to Cubavision, eager to be fed something that is not overtly political.
That is just one irony of the wildly popular “Vivir del Cuento,” the half-hour-long satire of Cuban life today, 57 years after the revolution: To take a real look at the country’s problems, the Cuban people still must depend on the government, which has always allowed some type of fun to be poked at its expense. After all, laughter at one’s situation sure beats anger.
“Vivir del Cuento,” or “Live the Story,” pushes the boundaries further than ever before. On this warm Havana night, inside a small house tucked away in a barrio well outside the famed central part of the city, a family gathers in the living room to watch.
Isabel, the mother, sits on the floor, leaning against a pillow, as her 4-year-old, Mateo, rests his head on her lap with his eyes closed. Isabel is a doctor who makes the equivalent of about $75 a month, and it has been another long day of helping her patients.
Javier, her husband, looks on from the sofa. He studied the sciences in college and now works for the government. He makes about $30 a month. Javier believes that Isabel’s surprise pregnancy with Mateo was the best thing that ever happened to him, even though it was hard enough feeding the family when it was only their 14-year-old, Emilio, and Isabel’s mother.
Fearing repercussions from the government, Javier and Isabel have agreed to describe their life in communist Cuba, as long as they are not identified by their real names.
Javier and Isabel love their country. They never wanted to leave as so many of their peers have throughout the years. Their life is here. But they can’t deny the desire for more — the same thing “Panfilo,” the frail, elderly protagonist of “Vivir del Cuento,” strives for each episode.
“I don’t want to be a millionaire,” Javier says.
In this week’s show, Panfilo and his friend, “Checkbook,” receive an invitation to travel to Australia. They pay the $160 — more than a year’s salary for the average Cuban — to get the passport and complete the embassy interview, but eventually it is revealed that they don't have money for the plane tickets. Realizing that they just threw it all away, they decide that their only option is to swim.
Javier chuckles heartily throughout. The humor hits close to home. He is nearing 60, and he has never left Cuba. He can barely afford to take his family to Old Havana’s tourist sites. When Javier brings Mateo there, he has to save up for ice cream.
Javier and Isabel love their country...But they can’t deny the desire for more
“I have no way to explain why he can’t have one,” Javier says. “It’s really difficult.”
In another episode of “Vivir del Cuento,” Panfilo has a broken water pipe and bribes the city repair worker for quicker service by offering her a bottle of shampoo.
Isabel knows that truth all too well. A bottle of Head & Shoulders would cost her about a fifth of her monthly income. She is able to find humor in the show, too, but she feels conflicted.
“Many times,” she says, “I do not want to see it because it depresses me to see on TV the problems of the reality that we have every day, and that they give us some laughs.”
Improved diplomatic relations with the United States, starting with President Barack Obama’s speech in December, provide the family some hope. Maybe the 55-year-old trade embargo, or “el bloqueo,” will finally go up in flames, opening Cubans to a new world of goods and services that is now reserved for tourists and those who cater to their whims. But for now, pessimism reigns, and a divide remains. It is one that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, back when they were just young idealists carrying guns in the mountains, could not have fathomed.
The socialist dream has died. There are haves and have-nots in Castro’s Cuba, and for one family, as the credits roll on another week’s TV comedy and a light rain begins to fall, there is nothing to do but wait.