Queues. This is probably the first thing you notice when you go outside the resort areas in Cuba. Queues are everywhere. They stand in grocery stores and shoe stores, they stand for clothes, and sometimes they stand for nothing - without even knowing what it is for. What if there's something useful? Everything will be useful.
On the streets of Havana, especially in the morning, you can find people with cellophane bags filled with rice. On top, right on top of the rice, are bottles of oil, bags of sugar - brown and white - and something else. These are ration packs given out on a monthly card. It lasts, they say, for a week.
Toothbrushes and diapers. Water and car candles. Frozen potatoes and pads. Canned tomatoes and beer. The stores have empty shelves that, to make it look less scary, the owners fill with what they have. It looks strange - I saw a grocery store where all the racks were stocked with identical bottles of water and there were dozens of identical toothbrushes lined up in the window. There was no food.
Cuba is now, as the locals say, in the worst food shortage since the nineties, when it was really bad. The Union collapsed, and all its friends fell with it. Now nothing collapsed, but the Cuban authorities started an economic reform - they actively collect dollars from the population, replaced the usual cookies with pesos, banned currency circulation in the country. You can exchange dollars and euros for coupons - pesos - but not vice versa.
Tourists are most actively milked for dollars. For example, to rent a car, you have to pay part of the rent in dollars. Only in dollars. Where to get them if you do not bring them with you - no one knows. They advise: "Well, you find other Russians and buy dollars from them - and bring them. As a result, there is a wild black market of dollars and euros among tourists in Cuba - everyone sells something to each other. There is another way out, of course: you can ask a clerk at the hotel. He promises to bring all the currency you have and show up the next day - with 22 dollars in hand. Twelve of them are change. You won't haggle with him over the exchange rate, you'll be embarrassed.
Sitting in a hotel, you complain about the meager food - fish, pumpkin, chicken, sausages, rice. You get to Havana, walk into a store, see toothbrushes - and you're embarrassed again. You can, of course, buy groceries at the black market, but you need people you know.
Cab drivers, who used to make good money on their old cars from the '50s and '60s, are now dying out. Their main customers are tourists. And there are no tourists. The driver, sitting in a huge antique car with red leather seats and wooden panels, in a mixture of English, Spanish and gestures says to me: "Thank you very much, Russia. If the Russian tourists hadn't come now..." - and then opens his mouth and makes a gesture with his fingers as if eating something, and shakes his head from side to side.
It became especially hard, they say, during the isolation. Very many people were left without means of livelihood, there were more beggars and drunken people on the streets. Everything is locked up - bars, restaurants, hotels, only some cafes work only for take-away. And after 9 pm life in Havana generally comes to a standstill - the curfew begins. Quiet, however, only on the main streets, and in the alleys make noise: on the first floors open windows and doors and, sitting like that, almost on the street, watching TV with the family. Or they talk from window to window, shouting, listening to music, dancing while standing on the doorstep. They say that before, they could at least hang out.
But everyone wears masks. Everybody wears masks. They sit with masks in their cars and buses, they walk around with masks on the streets and even on the beach. A policeman passing by on the square makes a remark to me: I've pulled my mask off my nose. My face is sweating in the heat, it's hard. Put it back on.
Local Russians often repeat the same mantra: "Communists hold out as long as there's rum and cigars. And they add: "But that's about to change." Everyone is sure that perestroika according to the Russian scenario is in full swing in the country: everything that is state-owned will be secretly given away to the inner circle, the market will be opened and people will be allowed to stew in their own juice under the watchful control of the security services.
With the security services, they say, is a separate story. There is an opposition in the country, but it is very uneasy. People used to get killed. But it was easy, because you were dying and your family was sad, but they moved on. Now they don't kill. Now they put you in jail and cut you out of life, create the image of an "enemy of the people" and hang the stigma on family members. "You're alive, you're sitting there, and your family is suffering - and it would be better if you just died. You look at that and you don't want to protest anymore."
Coming to Cuba now, of course, was my wrong decision. I wanted just to rest, but instead I got a very sad social experiment-a trip back in time.