It seems that the expansion of social apathy has reached its peak in Cuba and has ended the only thing that remained intact after 50 years of setbacks: the celebrated Cuban sense of humor. So, now we don’t even have the joke that somehow worked as a palliative in the face of misfortunes. At least, from my personal impressions, everything indicates that after decades of anxiety, heartaches, losses and shortages, laziness has conquered humor and we are witnessing the disappearance of that wittiness, often criticized and not without reason, but always encouraging for its perspicacity and vivacity, that has been with us even in the most difficult moments.
Almost imperceptibly we have been losing the opportune joke, placed in the middle of the most varied and irritating situations: a long and tiring line, a jam packed and hot bus, a widespread black out… In these situations there always seemed to appear some funny guy who would improvise a bold and malicious jab which, as a general rule, would get everyone laughing. Certainly it’s not always opportune to joke. Critics of the renowned Cuban flippancy maintain that this is a national trait of immaturity, a kind of safety valve that led to the shirking of civic responsibility: laughter instead of action.
Well then, there is evidence now that this has changed. For my part, I don’t remember when was the last time that I heard a joke on the street or when the last Pepito story appeared. Because, as people say, Pepito is a kind of folk hero, the most famous Cuban of all, the one we all know. Pepito seemed immortal, fresh and fearless, even when reality was as dark as it could be. Who doesn’t remember his presence in the ‘90s? There, in the absurdity of the greatest misery that several generations of Cubans could remember, the epoch of “root pasta,” and “fricassee,” of the “pertaining to meat mass” and of “gutless dog”—gastronomic monstrosities responsible for a great deal of gastritis and whose effects are still claiming victims. There Pepito arose, happy and fun, also suffering hunger and all kinds of hardships, also emigrating, also immersed in the barter needed to survive, but never defeated or sad.
Somehow, in the midst of that crisis, many of us felt that we were forced to change. The old world had been transformed, now there was no socialist camp, no Comecon, we didn’t have the Soviets, the Cuban government was compelled to allow small family businesses and farmers markets resurfaced, tossed out in the ‘80s, now new necessities to alleviate the acute food shortages, at least for those families whose purses had the capacity to face the stunning prices of the new reality. At the same time, the proliferation of foreign currency stores and the decriminalization of the dollar (the first, until then, restricted to foreigners and a small group of Cubans with access to hard currency; the second whose possession had been severely penalized before the crisis), extended access to their products to Cubans, primarily those receiving family remittances from relatives abroad, which would become a major source of income for the State.
Nearly two decades later, the current crisis does not seem like a joke to anyone in Cuba. While in the ‘90s there was a kind of quiet tolerance form the government in the face of certain illegalities and shady dealings, if then the government allowed itself a little leeway to avoid major consequences; now the reality is quite different. In the economic crisis in which the hurricanes Gustav and Ike were only catalysts and not the real cause, is added the worsening repression against “every kind of illegality.” Correspondingly, there is not a single light in the bleak national picture. When there is not even hope, it’s clear that there’s nothing to laugh about.