Fabiola Santiago: Americans are experiencing what it’s like in Cuba, Venezuela without coronavirus

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On a recent group chat, one of my teacher daughters working remotely in north Florida texts: “This makes me so sad. I talked to a parent today who said she spent the morning running around town looking for meat and toilet paper.”

All I can think to answer is one thing, and it comes from the heart.

Americans, in the midst of food and supply shortages and limitations on personal freedoms, are getting a taste of what it’s like in Cuba and Venezuela — without coronavirus.

Ever heard of surviving on only food bought with a ration book? Or standing in an hourslong line, and when your turn comes up, the bodega has run out of what you came for?

It’s an everyday reality for the Cuban people, who after a short period of bounty and hope during President Barack Obama’s opening to some trade and relations, were forced to return to sanctions, a tightening of the U.S. embargo, shortages, repression and economic mismanagement from their new Communist leadership.

It’s the same story in Nicolas Maduro’s socialist Venezuela, a country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world where children literally are dying of malnutrition, as the New York Times reported long before the coronavirus struck, and in the middle of the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Maduro. He and other top officials are charged with turning Venezuela into a narco-state by collaborating with a leftist Colombian guerrilla group that exported cocaine to the United States.

Now, desperate people in Caracas’ poorest barrios, wearing towels as masks, defy quarantine in search of what isn’t running through their old pipes and they can’t live without: water.

“How can I wash my hands if there isn’t water?” asks a man on an EFE news agency video of people congregating to fill plastic jugs.

“I left behind a very sad Cuba,” a Cuban woman who arrived recently in Miami with a tourist visa told me. She fled Cuba’s delayed reaction to the coronavirus threat and the outrageous courting of foreign tourists in Europe when everyone else was closing borders to limit transmission.

“Everything is adrift, people lack information,” the woman said. “The food lines are unbelievable. Whatever is happening here is a huge improvement to being there.”

But, for Cuban Americans, what’s happening in the United States rings of a familiar story.


Before the novel coronavirus sent us all in a frenzy to pack our refrigerators and pantries, I already suffered from an only-in-Miami form of PTSD, the growing up in Cuba kind.

It was bad enough that Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’ persistent praise of Fidel Castro and communist Cuba’s education system threw me back to my police state childhood anxieties. Now here we are, in the good old USA, in the middle of food and supply shortages.

Wha-a-a-t, no malanga at my Cubanized Winn-Dixie?

The pollo is all gone at Publix!

The bountiful, international hot food and salad bar at Whole Foods is empty!

No fresh milk, no eggs — and my mind throws me back into my father’s car on a forbidden trip to the countryside to bring back to the city food supplies in post-U.S. embargo, ration card-only 1960s Cuba.

On the way back, green-fatigued milicianos intercept us. My mother starts to tuck meat and vegetables under her clothes, looking as if she were pregnant, as my father says to stay calm and gets out of the car. I don’t know what he did but the grown-up me suspects he bribed them.

They walk around the car in a pretend search and wave us through the checkpoint.

The shortages were epic before we left Cuba for the United States in 1969. You were only allowed to buy, for example, one quarter of a loaf of bread per person. They only got worse.

Imagine what it was like for the people who stayed behind and lived through Cuba’s “special period” in the early 1990s after the island lost Soviet subsidies. They had to make patties out of orange rinds and kids drank sugared water for breakfast. I remember my mother sending my cousin vitamin C tablets to treat scurvy, an end-of-the-18th-century disease.

Is it any wonder that an exodus to South Florida of people in homemade rafts and boats followed extreme hunger in 1994?

Or why, decades later, we’re now suffering in the age of coronavirus a sort of Cuban American, Venezuelan American collective PTSD over shortages and shutdowns?

Our homeland experiences perhaps also explain why people in Miami-Dade are hoarders, whether it’s when a hurricane looms in the Caribbean, or now, when we are preparing for a pandemic apocalypse that will keep us homebound who knows for how long.

Toilet paper and meat

Take heart, Americans.

Cubans routinely have no toilet paper.

They use the official state newspaper, Granma.

Meat is considered a delicacy, too expensive when available to people whose average salary is $44 a month.

Coronavirus is teaching us humility.

This can happen in what we like to boast is the greatest nation on Earth.



Fabiola Santiago is a columnist for the Miami Herald.


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