A report by Anthony DePalma for The New York Times.
The first WhatsApp message from Cuba asking whether my family and I were all right in New Jersey took me by surprise. Internet access in Havana is limited and very expensive, and the typical Cubans I came to know as I researched a book over the past few years have rarely kept in touch. I’m usually the one reaching out, worried about how they’re handling hurricanes, government crackdowns or critical shortages of food and medicine. But not now.
“The news from New York is really bad,” one couple wrote, “and we’re worried about you.”
That happened just days before life in New York came to a screeching halt a month ago. Cuban officials had yet to admit that any people there were infected, and I assumed that whatever their citizens had been told about us probably had made conditions here seem worse than they were.
It wouldn’t have taken much. Cubans generally belittle our health care system, compared with their own, and I know that the Communist Party’s newspaper, Granma, never misses a chance to condemn Yanquis, as they call us. Already, the paper had published an article putting the blame for the growing pandemic on an American plot to weaken our enemies.
Small wonder, in a way, because this time such propaganda had more than a little fact with which to back it up. According to the Cuban government, a big donation of masks and medical equipment from a foundation headed by the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma couldn’t be delivered because the airline that was supposed to bring in the supplies feared prosecution under the six-decade old American embargo on commerce with Cuba. Indeed, the Trump administration was ignoring calls from the United Nations and human rights organizations to temporarily lift such sanctions during the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis.
For its part, the State Department accused Cuba of spreading disinformation, stating that over the last two decades the United States has authorized the export of billions of dollars of American-made medicines and equipment to Cuba. But when Cuba had sent doctors and nurses to Italy and offered to help other countries, the State Department had objected, reminding those countries that the Cuban government takes most of the money that its medical corps is paid. Washington has labeled that modern slavery, while Cuba’s government presents it as elementary socialism.
I was touched all the more that my Cuban acquaintances were worried about us — a reversal of attitudes that have festered for so long. Empty shelves and long lines for toilet paper in America? Well, they must have thought, welcome to our world.
Messages of concern came in from several other Cubans I’d met. Once I assured them that I and my family were fine, self-isolating and keeping our distance, I asked how they were doing. I knew it couldn’t be good. I was in Cuba in February, and even then they were desperate to find soap and toilet paper. None had ever seen hand sanitizer.
The Cuban government eventually admitted that the coronavirus was there, brought in by European tourists. Then, as the number of cases increased, the island took precautions like the rest of us. Cuba’s fragile economy, already suffering from Trump administration restrictions on travel and remittances, was dealt a sharper blow when all tourist hotels were forced to close, putting more than 120,000 people out of work.
When I checked with the Cuba scholar Richard E. Feinberg about what the shutdowns meant for the Cuban economy, his forecast was grim. “Dark days ahead,” he told me.
Still, while nonessential services were closed, food stores remained open. Some set out plastic soda bottles filled with water and a couple of drops of bleach to substitute for hand sanitizer. People were urged to stay home if they could, and keep social distance if they absolutely had to go out.
But I knew that none of those who wrote to me could afford to stay home, where even under the best of times there’s not much in the refrigerator to eat. They were well aware that they risked being infected if they bunched up in front of a store where a shipment of chicken or pork was expected. But they reasoned that starving would be worse.
An artist I’ve known for years, one of Cuba’s most famous, wrote to say he was worried about me before quickly pivoting to his own predicament: “We don’t leave the house. Pretty soon hunger will overtake us. There’s nothing to eat. Hugs.” And a former high-ranking member of the Communist Party, who is now one of Cuba’s 500,000 self-employed entrepreneurs, told me that she had suspended her private business making blouses and pants; instead, she was using scraps to manufacture face masks that she designed.
When the government ordered workshops like hers to close, she arranged for her seamstresses to continue sewing masks at home. She sells them for about a dollar apiece, but gives them away to anyone who can’t pay. And even with our own government’s insistence on embargoing essential deliveries to Cuba without cash payments, my Cuban contacts keep sending messages of solidarity and concern about our welfare.
I don’t think they’ve heard anyone say, “We’re all in this together,” as we do over and over these grim days. But it’s clear they feel that way. And it will be to our shame if Washington doesn’t get the message.