HAVANA TIMES — Now that I am devoid of an Internet connection, I take advantage of my free time to survey the neighborhood from my balcony. The fifth floor of an apartment building in Alamar is not a privileged vantage point: nothing spectacular can be discerned near or far, no human creation that we could call grandiose for any specific reason. The most interesting elements in sight are afforded us by nature: the changing tonalities of the sea, the always-green tree canopies and the daily traffic of people.
The difference between what is said about Cuba on the Internet or TV and what I observe from my balcony is immense.
Dissident web-pages exaggerate the country’s economic misery, its crisis of values, the virulence of anti-government demonstrations, police repression and public reprisals. The official media, on the other hand, underscores how well the “updating” of Cuba’s economic model is faring.
No one can deny that there’s poverty and police repression in Cuba, but Alamar is not exactly representative of these phenomena. The most serious symptom of poverty I see during my strolls around the neighborhood are people rummaging through garbage bins. They collect “raw materials”, recyclable objects and food for their pigs. With a bit of effort, it could even be turned into a decorous trade.
Public and premeditated demonstrations of political discontent (spray-painting campaigns, walks, rallies, strikes, calls on the people) are probably not very frequent, considering I haven’t heard of any (and the grapevine still works wonderfully in Cuba). The last public reprisal I’m aware of took place about twenty years ago. It was aimed at writer and journalist Maria Elena Cruz in response to a letter she sent Fidel Castro, as I understand it.
Even spontaneous and local protests have gradually been divested of political content. People complain about how often they are shortchanged at the market, the poor quality of bread and other State services, the crisis of values, education, public transportation….Some blame things on the Castros, others believe that a deus ex machine (capitalism, the Chinese, the Russians) is going to solve all of our problems.
I have never, however, heard any resident of Alamar invite others to debate, to exchange ideas and to try and move forward through our own efforts. That would be what I’d call an authentic political mindset, and that never, ever happens.
Of course, there are also no demonstrations in support of the regime, save for those the regime organizes using children from schools and the like.
At my building (and I don’t think we’re the exception), we don’t even have a working Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). No one wants to be president and no activities organized by this institution that is allegedly in line with the regime are organized. The tenants gather at the request of natural born leaders to solve specific problems. They help one another, work together and, once the problem is solved, everyone heads straight home.
Though the country’s political life has long been non-existent, its social life still continues.
I have heard the widest range of possible exaggerations in connection with the social life one finds in Cuba’s neighborhoods. Idealists believe it is a rich tapestry of human relationships, a nest of lofty values, capable of self-organizing and taking on complex tasks like administering justice and distributing scarce goods. At the other end of the spectrum, it is thought to be controlled by local mafias and to be governed by the law of the jungle. Common mystifications are the reduction of neighborhoods into commuter cities or conceptions of the neighborhood as places where social bonds have become wholly commercial. It happens, but not to the extent that some who are prone to exaggeration claim.
I have no social life, but I’m an exception. I have resigned myself to solitude, to missing others and being a stranger (something that even dogs seem to notice…or am I slowly becoming psychotic?). I am told that, at the end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, Alamar had an extremely intense cultural life impelled by young people who had the same kinds of interests I do. The tsunami of emigration razed the movement to the round. They say that, at some point, hip hop caught on in these parts. Today, only reggaeton flourishes.
I don’t have one, but I do notice that many others enjoy an intense social life. In my building, for instance, a group of tenants gathers outside every afternoon to converse, share gossip, make fun of people and play dominos. From my balcony, I can see them having a blast down there.
At night, even on weekends, the young prefer (or have resigned themselves or become accustomed) to meeting within the near-mystical “Zone.” Nightly outings to Havana are becoming more and more frustrating because of how bad public transportation is and how expensive it is to have a good time in the city.
The young meet up to listen to music from their indispensable players. There, they have a few drinks (one is hard pressed to see any of them drunk), hook up (what was referred to as “making out” before) and chat. I am surprised how little they need to have a good time.
Compared to my generation, which longed to conquer the world and have powerful, existential experiences (recall the impact Trainspotting and Tango Feroz had on us), this one strikes me as better prepared for the coming energy crisis. The have fulfilled the historical mission that fate bestowed upon them, to learn how to be happy modestly and locally once again. We ought not to expect a revolution from them.
We neighbors get along but do not make up a Community, in the strong sense of the word. We are not organized in any manner, do not have a common fund with which to address specific problems, do not gather to make decisions (save in extreme circumstances, when we do so rather inefficiently), have nothing remotely resembling a council that can administer justice or settle conflicts and do not even have a community locale or space where we can meet. The few that existed in the past have already been privatized. Occasionally, a brawl or squabble between neighbors breaks out and no one intervenes. The strongest ends up winning or the police settle the matter its own way.
For now, these mechanisms work, and the neighborhood survives in a dignified manner. The baptism of fire will happen when oil supplies become scarce, in less than a decade, I anticipate. The arrival of another Special Period, this time without any hopes for a short-term solution, will place us at a crossroads. Either we become an authentic community, or get eaten by the lions.
I will then have no other choice but to renounce to my position of analyst, observing everything from up here, and to go down to the collective soup kitchen, if I want to eat, that is.