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The Donkey Eaters

By Lurker

This is how the story has been told and retold to me. I wasn't there at the time, so I might have some of the details wrong, and there are one or two places where I have embroidered a little where nobody could tell me about something I considered important. If anyone really cares, I'd be happy to tell you which parts are general consensus, and which parts I embroidered.

This took place in the mountains of Guantanamo Province, in a small settlement near Palenque in 1991, soon after the fall of the Soviet Union. We'll call this settlement La Guasima La Guasima has about 50 houses, all built after the revolution, all right next to each along a gravel road. Every house is identical, with a metal roof and cement floors, and a small outhouse behind. Many of the houses have a few pigs wallowing around near the outhouse, and some of these houses appoint someone to sleep on a chair near the back door to make sure that none of the neighbors steals any of their pigs. The main work for this settlement is cacao, although there is a little bit of coffee and some fields of malanga here and there. In short, a fairly typical guajiro agricultural cooperative- the kind of place that so many Guantanameros have run away from.

The hardest workers in the town were the four donkeys owned by the cooperative. The rest of the agricultural machinery consisted of one ox, and of course the inhabitants of the town. The ox was reserved for bringing water from the well, about a kilometer away (when the settlement was built a nearby creek served as the water supply but this creek was now said to be polluted.). The ox also was used to plow the malanga fields and bring felled trunks of hardwoods like Caoba and Mahagua back to the village from the road where the campesinos had carried the trunks down from the mountains. Although these woods are valuable to furniture makers, in this region they are mostly used to cook rice and beans.

The area is very mountainous and most of the cacao was planted on the sidehills and that's why the donkeys were so important. Donkeys and mules can walk up the narrow trails and do all the work that no one else can do.

Anyway, one night, all four donkeys simply disappeared. And when they didn't show up the next day, it was as obvious to the settlers of La Guasima is it is to the readers who have looked at the title of this story - someone was eating the donkeys!

But who, where, how? If the regional paper, Sierra , had been interested in this type of story, a good investigative reporter might have been able to find out what happened right away, but Sierra has always been more interested in the percentage of the coffee crop that had been harvested in the various towns, in the war against mosquitoes, and in occasional human interest stories about old men and women who picked more calabaza than anyone else, and who were grateful for the opportunity. Compared to Sierra, Granma is a literary supplement.

And since Sierra never wrote up this incident, or any similar incident, the honor of breaking this story is mine. So this is what happened.:

The theft had been planned for weeks, principally by the Collazo brothers- Ivan, Ramon, and Leonides, but with the help of Victor Luis, who was the son of the Secretary of the Communist Party for the municipality. The Collazos were genial good for nothings, but Victor Luis was an engineer, very militant in the Joventud, with all of his opportunities ahead of him. The Collazos had always been chicken thieves, with the general attitude that anything they could get their hands on was rightfully theirs. It's hard to know exactly why Victor Luis got involved in this criminal activity, unless he was just as hungry as everyone else.

All four donkeys were led away during the night about a mile from town, up one of the footpaths that lead to even smaller settlements that are not accessed by any road. The donkeys were taken to a small hollow that the Collazos had dug out, and one by one Victor Luis stabbed the donkeys in the heart with a long sharp knife. I'm not sure if the donkeys were somehow gagged, or if the donkey thieves were worried that the donkeys might cry out as they were slaughtered and cast suspicion. But when you think about it- who pays attention to a crying donkey off in the mountains in the middle of the night?
The donkey meat was then cut away, rubbed with salt, and packed in two plastic drums that are used to store water, previously stolen. Since four donkeys provide much more meat that can fit in two drums, the thieves selected only the best cuts, lay the remaining meat and bones in the hollow, and buried the evidence. The two drums of salted donkey were then buried in another hole dug by the Collazos near a small stream, to keep the meat as cool as possible. The only meat eaten that night was one donkey heart, divided in four, eaten raw- a matter of pride.

Over the next several weeks, the Collazos, Victor Luis, and their friends and family, were eating much better than the other people in La Guasima. Although the truth is, many people had an opportunity to eat these donkeys, including one of my wife's cousins who was a good friend of Leonides. For all their faults, the Collazos were generous. The Secretary of the Party had her share of donkey, and she knew enough to keep her mouth shut when she wasn't eating. No one squealed for months, which is somewhat amazing, since there are no chivatos like guajiro chivatos.

There was one close call that my cousin told me about. He was eating donkey and rice when a policeman came up to the front door. This guy had come all the way from Guantanamo. Perhaps he was investigating the missing donkeys, or maybe he was just poking his nose into whatever came along, or maybe he had a girlfriend in the area. Anyway, he went to Leonides' front door, accompanied by a police dog, and asked for Leonides by name, although Leonides had never seen this guy before. My cousin walked from the kitchen to the front door, and called out to Leonides that the police wanted to talk to him. That's all the hint that Leonides needed to throw a few pounds of donkey out the back door- which got the full attention of the police dog who within moments was destroying the evidence. While the police was solicitously asking Leonides whether he had found any work, his partner was literally cracking the case, and when called by his master, all that was left was a small bone with a little bit of meat on it that only Leonides and my cousin were eyeing suspiciosly. I guess it could have been goat meat. Leonides asked the police if he wanted to stay and eat something, but the police told him that he had other things to do in town, which leads me to conclude that he had a girlfriend roundabouts.

No good story is untold forever, so the plot was broken up four months after the crime. Many people in town say that suspicion settled on the Collazos because they were slowly growing fat, but I believe, without hesitation, that one of the people who graciously accepted the gift of meat enjoyed the meal first, and then went to the police..

Oddly enough, only Ivan, Ramon, and Victor Luis were fingered. Maybe Leonides was protected, because he was the youngest brother. Although some people say that Leonides was the chivato. In Cuba, more so than in most places, it's very hard to know exactly what happened.

Ivan and Ramon were charged with stealing government property, sacrificing government livestock, and anti-social behavior. The anti social part is a little bit ironic, because the Collazos were always very sociable, always ready to volunteer to help someone dig out an outhouse or carry down firewood. They were given ten years and they served all ten. It might have been worse if they had eaten the ox. They got out just last year. Ivan is back in La Guasima, still working a little with cacao, and Ramon got a good job in Moa at the nickel factory, despite his criminal record.

Victor Luis was only given 4 years, because this was his first offense, and because he had otherwise been a model citizen, active all the way up from the Pioneers, UJC, and the CDR. However, he never again worked as an engineer. I don't know if he was actually prevented from working in his profession, or whether he chose otherwise, but according to my sources he went to Havana and worked guiding tourists to restaurants on commission.

None of the other donkey eaters were sentenced, although technically everyone was guilty, including the Party Secretary. Either for lack of evidence, or for the sake of mercy, no one else was punished.

But the strangest part of the story is what happened to Leonides. Inside of a year of the donkey glottony, Leonides was arrested after a particularly creative and foolhardy crime spree. Somehow he got his hands on a police uniform and a little notebook that the police use to fine people. Some people say that he assaulted a policeman in Santiago with a pistol and stole his clothes and multa book. Others say he bought the paraphrenalia from a policeman who only claimed to have been robbed. Anyway, once he had the equipment, Leonides went to the city of Holguin, where he had never been before, and began to fine people for illegal economic activity. During his short term on the force, Leonides was one of the most efficient policeman in Oriente, because he was a propio cuentista cop, whereas the other police were just part of the bureaucracy. Leonides fined all the peanut salesmen, all the candy cane salesmen, everybody on the street selling illegal tomatoes or illegal underwear or illegal dolls for children. He generously gave all the miscreants a chance to either pay the fine or hand over the contraband. Most people turned over the goods, because Leonides was a tough cop, tough on crime, who generally gave out the maximum fine. When he ran out of multa forms, he no longer gave the option of fines, and simply forced the thieves to hand over their stolen property, which he then sold himself back in Guantanamo. But like many businessmen who have a good thing going, Leonides eventually became arrogant. He was caught when he demanded a patente of the owner of a video salon who didn't have permission to show videos. Under the law, Leonides had the right to confiscate the VCR, and demand a multa of 1,500 pesos. However, the video owner, instead of seeing the offer to waive the fine as a business advantage, couldn't believe that the police actually had the right to seize her VCR and so she went to the real police to complain. So Leonides was undone by a small venture capitalist who didn't know the law. He was busted the next time he went back to Holguin. And although his offense was by all measures more serious than eating stolen donkeys, he was only given three years, and then he went back to La Guasima, where he is still the same old Leonides.

Getting back to the donkeys- I'm not sure why they were stolen. My friends assure me that during the special period, many, many people in the campo of Oriente actually starved to death. Certainly, a lot of people were very hungry. But I tend to think, despite everyone telling me otherwise, that one of the causes of the donkey crime, and maybe the police impersonation as well, was simply boredom and frustration. Outside of drinking, screwing your neighbor's spouse, and fighting with your neighbor, there really isn't much entertainment out in the mountains. I know all of the Collazos, just as I know many delinquents who live in my small town in the States, and really, there is not much comparison. The Cuban delinquents seem to be far more non-violent, gentle, almost gentlemanly, in the pursuit of their criminal activity. Maybe if everyone had meat to eat every week, and satellite TV, maybe more Cubans would stay at home minding their own business. Or maybe criminal activity is in the blood, and few criminals can escape their criminal tendencies. This is a question we will leave to the criminologists

















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