A young South African medical doctor, who studied in Cuba for more than six years, speaks with tearful eyes about the sporadic suffering that swept through Havana and elsewhere in times of the periodo especial (special period).
It was when the effect of the United States economic blockade against Cuba caused severe shortages of basic goods.
Dr Tebogo Motsepe, one of the medical students who had been dispatched by the South African government to Cuba, said this week the first thing to strike her mind – when the news of the Barack Obama-Raul Castro rapprochement broke – was the devastating effects of the economic blockade. “But then the Cuban people have learned to do things for themselves, such as homemade mayonnaise and other delicacies.”
Motsepe said it was the effect of the economic blockade that changed her outlook on life. She has dedicated herself to working with the rural poor at health clinics in villages.
Her journey, in the company of other students from across South Africa, started in 2000 when the department of health called on wannabe medical doctors to apply for scholarships to study in Cuba.
She described the long flights from OR Tambo International Airport to Madrid and then to the Cuban seaside city of Sagua La Grande as a horror movie because of the long hours spent waiting for departure from Johannesburg and the connecting flight in Madrid, where 10 additional hours were spent in the precincts of the airport in the Spanish city.
The one-year study in Sagua La Grande was known as a pre-medic, with the students transferred to Cianfugos for a further five years.
“Cuba is indeed a strange country. There you don’t find very rich or very poor people. [But] there are no vagrants, no crime,” she said.
But, Motsepe said, during the periodo especial, things turned nasty, with many people surviving on such unlikely “delicacies” as pan con aceite (bread with cooking oil), and fried banana.
The Cuban government rationed black rice, beans, coffee and sugar, although bread and pizza could be bought from shops or pavement stalls.
She said that under the circumstances the Cuban government looked after its people well in terms of health services and education.
“For instance, education from entry level up to medical school is free. The houses are all state-owned and there is no such thing as the homeless.”
And, for the bergies under the highway bridges of Cape Town and Johannesburg, there is no law in Cuba prohibiting the consumption of alcohol in public.
As for crime levels, Motsepe swore a group of girls could party in the streets of Havana without feeling vulnerable.
With the possible lifting of economic sanctions, the periodo especial might well go up in the Havana cigar smoke.