by Susana Corona Cruz
Cubans are solidary by nature. Cuba’s legendary solidarity is not just a political gimmick or government propaganda, yes, the state is at the core of it but helping out, being neighbourly, assisting the needy are all values embedded in the soul of every Cuban. It’s Cuban nature.
Cubans’ solidarity is legendary. From sending doctors abroad to fight critical health outbreaks like the ebola in West Africa to brigades in special health campaigns sent to impoverished regions in Latin America and beyond.
But when it comes to helping out their own, the coronavirus crisis has shone a light on the solidarity of not just the Cuban government, but Cuba’s private sector putting their own resources at the service of their community to help those most in need.
A challenging present, a fighting spirit against all odds
It’s no secret to anyone that Cuba is a developing country with serious economic challenges. And just when its economy opened up to the private sector bringing new opportunities for Cuban people and Obama had lifted travel restrictions boosting entrepreneurs’ hopes, Trump’s administration came in and took measure after measure to scale back on the new openings and bring back misery to hopeful Cubans who were finally free to make a living for themselves.
Despite the setbacks and stream of negative news coming their way, Cubans are among the most resilient and hopeful people on the planet and the coronavirus crisis is also proving this. Now, more than ever.
Cuban entrepreneurs at the frontline of the aid
From trendy new restaurants that flourished among the celebrity crush status that Cuba enjoyed between 2014 and 2017, preparing and delivering free meals to vulnerable homes and the elderly to fashion firms sewing and donating face masks for free, Cuban entrepreneurs are at the heart of Cuba’s private sector solidary response in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.
Paladar owners – free meals for the most vulnerable
Private restaurants in Cuba might no longer be able to open to the public and make a profit. But despite their recent difficulties earning a living, they’re still giving out to those in need. For this, they’re joining forces with local government agencies to ensure that their efforts go to those who need it most.
Such is the case of Saverio Grisell, the Italian co-owner of Havana’s Bella Ciao, a private restaurant famous for their authentic 100% Italian pizzas. Grisell who frequently meets with expats, tourists holidaying in Cuba as well as more affluent Cubans, revealed to Reuters that he discussed ways of helping out his neighbours by working closely with the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), a neighbourly entity that looks
The president of his local CDR gave him a list of 29 elderly people and upon receiving it he immediately set up a plan to ensure they received at least one decent meal a day:
“I decided to give them a meal for free every day”
In turn, the CDR helps him deliver Bella Ciaos pizza and pasta dishes directly to the homes of these vulnerable senior members of the community.
The idea is for the elderly to stay at home as much as possible to avoid contagion as they’re among the most vulnerable groups to COVID-19 and with Cuba having one of the oldest populations in Latin America, many lives are at stake.
In Grisell’s view, it’s nothing but “a small gesture of solidarity” as he added that his aid pales in comparison with the medical help Cuba sent to his home country in the form of doctors and nurses.
Similarly, Café Cristal in the municipality of Cotorro announced that it would be donating their dishes to the elderly at least until they run out of ingredients, although they said they’re open to donations that would help keep them going in their selfless labour.
Fighting against all odds – food scarcity in Cuba
Finding food in Cuba isn’t easy these days. Not even by lining up in long queues you are guaranteed to get your hands on the food items you want. This is why it’s vital that the elderly aren’t queuing up to buy food and that the community helps them obtain supplies without risking their lives.
It doesn’t help that Trump’s administration’s not budging and refusing to lift restrictive measures to help Cuba obtain vital food imports. Long queues and the unavailability of home delivery or online grocery services is putting Cuba under enormous pressure to feed the population, so every bit counts and every initiative counts.
Casa particular owners in times of coronavirus
Casa particular owners in Havana and beyond are also pitching in and doing what they can to help their local community. Even when they’re one of the worst hit due to the closing down of the tourism industry and their income dramatically stopping overnight, they’re among the first to try and help out where they can.
Some casa particular hosts are donating money, fabric, bedsheets, and materials to fabricate face masks and distribute them in their communities. Others, especially those who offer meals and, are also distributing meals or bags of ingredients to citizens.
Fashion entrepreneurs – making fabric masks
One of the latest waves of entrepreneurs to make their debut in the island after decades of the fashion business being practically inexistent in the island, Cuban clothes-makers and designers have been taking initiatives to help out and give back.
Dador, a Cuban fashion Brand based in Old Havana is sewing face masks out of bright, lively or patterned fabrics. These fabrics are then distributed for free to vulnerable members of the community. According to its co-founder, Lauren Fajardo, they collaborated with a group that assists the elderly by donating 160 face masks.
“For the elderly (…) in neighbourhoods with overpopulation and those that don’t have the option to stay at home because they have to work or find food”
Among Cuba’s private sector, Cuban entrepreneurs have stepped out in the midst of the crisis to demonstrate solidarity in the face of adversity and their actions have been praised by the government, the same government that wanted to curtail the proliferation of independent business in fear they would present a threat in terms of competition against government organisations. But it seems their solidary moves are going down well with regional and national state-run entities, as even a government-run news site published an article on the Bella Ciao project.
Average Cubans doing their bit
It’s not just entrepreneurs putting their business on the line to help out those in need, but other in Cuba’s private sector. Ordinary Cubans who own a sewing machine or can sew by hand are using all little available resources they have to make masks and ensure no one goes without.
Thanks to the collective effort of the Cuban community you hardly see anyone not wearing masks on Cuban streets. As a neighbour from the Playa municipality in Havan, Roxana Ventura explains:
“The face masks [iniative] has turned out very well. We were talking about that at home the other day, how in some developed countries people complain because there are none available and here everyone has started making them. My mum has made some for everyone at home, for family and friends and today a friend is bringing bedsheets so she can make more, other people in the neighbourhood have asked for her help.“
“You don’t see anyone out on the streets without a face mask. I don’t want to be too generic, but in virtually every public place there’s a worker with a bottle of hypochlorite so that everyone arriving at work disinfects their hands and the lay down rugs or cloths on the floor with chlorine to disinfect people’s shoes upon entering buildings”.
But Cubans don’t just donate what they have, many go out of their way to donate items that they themselves lack or haven’t got plenty of. Such selfless acts of kindness put the scenes we’ve seen of Europeans emptying supermarket shelves overnight in shame. And this is the kind of solidarity that stands out and can be seen across many neighbourhoods in the country, including one initiative that we’ll proceed to mention in the next section.
A culture of making do with a big heart
Cuba doesn’t have the infrastructure or the necessary widespread internet connection that would allow for grocery deliveries to Cuban homes. While some private restaurants continue operating by shifting to home delivery (as is the case of the famous La Guarida paladar, who had never previously done home deliveries), supermarkets don’t offer this option, meaning that long queues in front of supermarkets and government establishments are a frequent sight that concerns many. There are no authorities defining a minimum distance between queues and some seem to think that wearing a mask is enough. Hence why many Cubans, as part of Cuba’s private sector, are taking it upon themselves to ensure the elderly don’t have to go out to shop for food.