September 5 , 2007

The secret love of Cubans: the imperialist refrigerator

By Simon Romero. International Herald Tribune, Sunday, September 2, 2007.

HAVANA: Anyone who thinks the Cold War ended years ago clearly has not spent time in Cuban kitchens.

Before he disappeared from public life, an ailing Fidel Castro enlisted the prowess of Chinese industry last year to get rid of some of the most resilient totems of American imperialism: Frigidaire, Kelvinator and Westinghouse refrigerators from the 1950s. The government acquired more than 300,000 new Chinese replacements as the centerpiece of a project to improve energy efficiency in a cash-starved country and eliminate what Castro called "dragons which devour our electricity."

But the vanquishing of these refrigerators (along with some Soviet models imported in the 1970s) has caused some wistfulness and angst here. In their decades of isolation from the U.S. economy and from global prosperity, Cubans have been taught to take pride in the way they have kept grandiose old mechanical marvels running - ancient Cadillacs and Russian-built Ladas included.

"They took away my señor and replaced him with a little guy," said a 47-year-old cook who lives in the Reparto Zamora district in western Havana. Welcoming a visitor to her kitchen, she pointed to the slim, white Chinese-made Haier that had taken the place of the bulky, pink Frigidaire that was in her family for 24 years.

She called herself Moraima Hernandez, but indicated with a wink that she was concealing her real name - the only way she felt able to speak without fear of retaliation. Well, up to a point. She declined to say why she felt Castro was casting a shadow over items as banal as household appliances.

Instead, she simply opened the Haier to reveal its meager contents: bottles of water, a few eggs, mustard, half an avocado and some "textured picadillo," soy protein mixed with a bit of ground beef.

Her old refrigerator was so big, she said nostalgically, that two legs of pork could fit inside.

Continuing her tale, she said it had taken eight men to carry the Frigidaire from her second-story apartment down to the street and that they'd had to remove part of her balcony to make way. The Haier, by contrast, was carried up with ease.

The Chinese model makes less noise than the Frigidaire. And like many other refrigerators in Cuba, it already has an affectionate, if mocking, nickname: "Llovizna," or "Drippy," because of the moisture that accumulates on its shelves.

Cubans do not have to switch to Chinese refrigerators, but there are strong incentives to comply. When the exchange program is offered to a town or neighborhood, it is presented as the apple of Fidel's eye, and as an opportunity to show one's patriotism while lowering one's electricity bill.

But unlike education and health care in Cuba, the cost of the refrigerators is not covered by the government. A concern for Cubans is the price of the new Chinese models: about $200, a small fortune in a country where the average monthly wage is about $15.

Ten-year payment plans have been made available. But officials have already acknowledged problems in collecting installments. Granma, the Communist Party's daily newspaper, reported that provincial officials had promised "actions intended to elevate payment discipline in the beneficiary population."

Of course, debt and interest remain elastic concepts in Cuba, which is not a member of the International Monetary Fund or any other multilateral lending organization. Today, its top trading partners are Venezuela, which provides Cuba with cheap oil, and China, which buys raw materials like nickel from Cuba while selling it items like refrigerators.

Cuba's economic isolation, compounded by the U.S. embargo in place since the early 1960s, has made a necessity of preserving technology from before the revolution. Inspired by the ingenuity it took to keep American refrigerators working so long, a group of Cuban artists last year transformed 52 of them into art. They put on a show called "Instruction Manual" that was a big hit in Cuba and is making the rounds in Europe this year.

In the show, the artists Alejandro and Esteban Leyva pinned medals on an old GE refrigerator, painted it olive drab and named it "General Eléctrico." Another artist, Alexis Leyva, installed oars on his refrigerator, drawing on the politically loaded symbol of the homemade boats Cubans use to leave the island illegally. Others were made into cars, skyscrapers, a Trojan horse and a jail cell.

Ernesto García Peña, a painter, turned his into an eroticized female image. "In this heat," he explained, "the refrigerator is almost worshiped for its role as an absolute necessity of modern life.

"We treat it with very special affection."

Still, necessity most often trumps sentimentality in Cuba. Many thousands of old refrigerators are simply being taken to junkyards, where technicians recycle everything they can.

According to the government, the refrigerators weigh an average of 122 pounds, or 55 kilograms, including 93 pounds of retrievable steel, 18 of plastic, 3 of aluminum and 2 of copper.

The steel goes to plants like Antillana de Acero in Havana, where it is transformed into construction material. The copper goes to the Empresa Conrado Benitez to produce telephone and electric cables. The aluminum is used to make kitchen utensils and parts for other appliances.

International Herald Tribune Copyright © 2007 The International Herald Tribune |

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