28 January 2009
Cuba Today: The Petrol Station Attendent
Cuban petrol stations are the same as petrol stations pretty much anywhere else in the world. The forecourt is where the petrol and diesel are pumped and the small shop is where the customer pays his bill. Usually, as elsewhere in the world, one can buy cigarettes, drinks of various kinds and snacks. The 24 hour stations come in handy when children decide that they are hungry at three o’clock in the morning and father has to wander the streets looking for something that will fill their growing stomachs and thus allow him to get back to sleep.
Knowing better than to argue with plaintive cries I got dressed and walked the short distance from the hotel to a petrol station. I had shopped there before, so was on nodding terms with the security guard who helped man the place. As I went to open the door he held up his hand to stop me: the place was closed because the cashier was eating her meal. It would open in about an hour’s time. O-Kay – so a 24-hour petrol station was closed – I looked around and saw that two lorry drivers had settled themselves into their cabs to await madam’s pleasure. I figured that I would have to join them.
As luck would have it the security guard had got to know me and he went inside to ask if this foreigner could buy some drinks and nibbles, please? The cashier looked through her window and saw the bloke that she had been talking to the day before, so I was allowed to pass through.
I had a chat with her again. Was it normal, I wanted to know, for petrol stations to close so that the staff could have their breaks? Oh, yes, replied the girl, how else could they eat – I didn’t expect them to work and eat at the same time, did I?
The funny thing about this attitude is that the day before that same attractive young woman had been complaining about shortages, power outages, and how everything was the government’s fault. Would she like to swap her meal breaks and security of employment for some consumerist toys I wondered?
She did not understand the question. Most Cubans have never lived under capitalism. They equate it with the ability to buy things from shops that are always bulging. They do not realise that goods are rationed under both systems. At least under socialism they are rationed to everyone equally. Under capitalism they are rationed by price. And for most of the people on this planet, most of the goodies that capitalism offers will always be out of reach.
I contented myself with the remark that I had been a projectionist for years. Twice a week I used to work all day, showing films from early afternoon to late at night with no breaks. at all. I had also been made redundant three times in ten years. No job, of course, means no money to buy things.
The conversation ended there as I returned to my family with my purchases. The girl was very quiet as I left, but I don’t know if she really believed me – or even if she understood my words fully. How do you explain unemployment to a person who has never experienced it? Come to think of it, how to explain a letter that I had just received from a nephew in Manchester? He had been working at some McJob or other and had refused to go in on his day off. Thus he had lost what admittedly was a pretty shit job: but all the jobs are shit jobs – there are few unions with any real powers in Nu-Labour Britain.
If capitalism ever returned to Cuba that young petrol station attendant will find herself in the same boat as my nephew. She will have to jump when the boss tells her to jump and if she refuses then she will be slung out of work. That is the way that the system works.
The problem is that Cubans just don't get it. They seem to think that they can keep the economic security that socialism has given them and add on all the goodies that capitalism offers to the select few.
If Cuba falls for the blandishments of capitalism, then they will be in for a very rude awakening.