From My Balcony in Alamar, Cuba

Erasmo Calzadilla

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.

8 thoughts on “From My Balcony in Alamar, Cuba

  • Jim, are you aware that Fidel Castro Ruz is a grade 3 Jesuit? Joseph Stalin studied for four years for the Jesuit priesthood and Fidel’s great Canadian pal Pierre Tudeau was also a Jesuit. He went to Cuba and gave Fidel $4 million of Canadian taxpayers money, with a further $10 million on loan interest free declaring publicly in Havana “Long live President Fidel Castro, long live Cuba.”
    As a side comment, the US Constitution is now way over 200 years out of date and badly needs revision and amendment.

  • You seem to have a ‘thing’ against financial success and wealth accumulation. It is reflected in nearly all your comments. It would not be well to “just leave Cubans alone to solve there own problems” anymore than it would be to step over a homeless person in the street with their hand open for help. Cubans deserve better than what the Castros have given them. To turn a blind eye to the beatings received by the Ladies in White is inhuman. To ignore the reasons why Cubans are still willing to risk their lives to cross the Florida Straits in rickety rafts in un-American. You may not agree with how Americans express our charity but to suggest that American charity is wrong is a mistake.

  • This is a very intelligent and indeed insightful essay into the present and possible future of Cuban economic reality if the Venezuelan subsidy is lost and the foreign investment laws do not work. The laws, with unrealistic Fidelista style controls are very flawed and in their present state will they do not encourage multinationals to invest in Cuba in fear of nationalization of their interests as well as the Party maintaining control of hiring, firing, and the payroll. This is simply not how the global economic systems work even in the so-called communists states of China, VietNam and Russia. The Fidelistas just cannot let go and let free the free economic dynamics prevail like the do in the few private services that are allowed to exist. Also, the author is wise enough to realize that Capitalism is no panacea and is a cyclical system with numerous failed periods and right now is in a dramatic slump and in the USA, less than 5% has the money and also has the power to control the way the Congress votes and the government is no longer for and by the people. It is for and by the corporation. Private property is a grand idea when we could really afford it but when the banks and companies failed and our homes and pension funds when down with them our private was more public then we thought. Our social security which many of us have put hundreds of thousands of dollars into is on the calendar for collapse. Capitalism as we have known it no longer works unless one of course is in the less than 5% then you are singing happier songs. Alamar is a tough life, but so are 3 jobs to support your family and living in NYC apartment projects with real high crime where gun ownership is encouraged and a symbol of american Machismo and a mistaken interpretation of 1780’s constitutional amendment based on 1780;s weaponry. My only comment to Erasmo is a personal one and that is that his isolation from society will not help his mood and he should try and get amongst his neighbors especially because he has such interesting insights and is such a good writer that he has so much to share with the world. It is important for intelligent people like him to record his emotions, observations, discussions and more and in the Jesuits in high school would tell us that we had a duty to speak up and out and raise our voices into the universal discussion. I hope we all can encourage this bright man to be more socially present. I have lived in Cuba performing art research and have seen the many layers of Cuban life; the joy, the absolutely funny, the beautiful, the sadness, the abuses of foreigners against young men and women turning them into their sex objects, the dancing and music and the art, the wonderful discussions, the pristine beauty of the beaches, the soulful discussions, gaining best friends, being taken by people, being suspected as a saboteur or USA agent at the border and questioned for 3 hours, losing an iPad at the airport and going back 2 hours later and a poor cart man having turned it in, the kindness of strangers, and an island and a culture that calls me back like a magnet and yet I am not totally sure why, I know Alamar and it is not pretty to my eyes. None of the Cuban Russian projects are. The Cuban architects are wonderful. Mario Cuyo would never have signed off on that. He was too proud of a professional. Cubans are a proud people. Erasmo, keep on writing. It is a wonderful essay in such as small space you cover so much. Bravo.

  • Addendum:
    I would never apologise for capitalism. Yes, it has its faults but is so superior to any other ecconomic/political alternative that they are relatively insignificant. I guess that’s why China and Vietnam have both become practioners! The sooner Cuba follows the example, the sooner living standards will improve for the people.

  • You Dan should not take up any form of analysis.
    You say that Cuba is “Just like it is all over the world”. I am struggling for the correct adjective but will settle for Basura
    Perhaps oddly, when on this site my mind is upon Cuba. Injustices other parts of the world do not eradicate those in Cuba. The fact that Kim Jung Un’s dictatorship in North Korea is worse than the dictatorship in Cuba does little to assuage life for Cubans.
    I am uncertain about which country you are in your fury regarding as “my own damn country”. You may have deduced from my name that I was originally a Scot, but I have lived in five countries – including Germany for over a year long before your later arrival. If you are referring to Canada, it has constantly been graded within the top five countries for living standards by the UN. But they perhaps would bow to your frothing unqualified opinion. How do you know whether I have or have not contributed to assisting in improving the lives and conditions of Canadians and when in the UK to those there? Tread with care when trying to abuse others Dan!
    Your concern for others is clearly displayed by your statement:
    “My whole point is – why not just leave Cubans alone to solve there (sic) own problems?”
    If Cubans lived in a free democratic country rather than in a Communist dictatorship you might have a point, because they would be able to access a site like this and speak for themselves. An unfortunate turn of fate removed that possibility for them. As my home is in Cuba where I am related to 68 people and where I do the shopping and discuss the reality of the country and the plight of the population there with others in the community I have a reasonable knowledge of the country and endeavor to reflect that in my comments. I am restricted to commenting on this site during my shorter periods in Canada.
    You will be pleased to know that I am not going to respond to your somewhat childish insults or to your apparent display of an inferiority complex regarding “class”. Knowing the reality I find your description laughable – and the proverbial cat would share my merriment.

  • Actually, I agree with Erasmo. It’s a good article. I am not starry-eyed about Cuba. It is life. Just like it is all over the world. My responses to someone like Erasmo would be totally different than to someone like you and Moses. Mine is a reaction to your absurd distortion of the Cuban reality, coupled with a comical selective blindness to much worse injustices elsewhere, including your own damn country, which you could and should be more concerned about precisely b/c you have the power and duty to change them. My whole point is – why not just leave Cubans alone to solve there own problems ?
    I note that you mention having been in Eastern Germany, and feel qualified to comment on the failure of socialism there too. Were you in the pre- 1989 DDR ? How’s your German ? I actually lived in Berlin in 1980 -1981 and frequently took the U-bahn to the other side of the wall. I saw, heard and tasted things there for myself. I juxtapose that with what I read or hear from the average Yuma like you who doesn’t seem to realize there were Wohnsilos in the BDR too, even w/ the Marshal Plan, or that many, many Ossies who remember and can now compare say Es war nicht alle schlecht.
    I would also point out that you are safely ensconced in an armchair of your own – that of 1st World, upper middle class privilege. Trips to Europe, 6 month vacations in Cuba…. You ain’t no Walmart cashier or Amazon picker. If you were, or if you were a Mexican bracero or maquiliadora worker, you might not be the same fervent apologist for “Capitalismo” that you are.

  • Thanks for this insightful piece which follows the golden mean, and thus approaches closest to reality (if one can ever approach closely what is real (certainly not what is Real)! How the neighborhood has changed since I and other Venceremos brigadistas attended the innauguration of one of the Alamar neighborhoods in 1969 or 1970 (probably as much as have the neighborhood where I grew up, on Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia, which has transformed from a functioning and cohesive middle-class and working-class neighborhood of the 1940’s and early 1950’s into a bombed out neighborhood. I hope you are taking advantage of your lack of internet by catching up on your reading. I’ve been without it for a month now, while visiting my 92-year-old Aunt in California. Instead, I’m reading two wildly dissimilar novels: Jane Austin’s Mansfield Park and Leonardo Padura’s The Man Who Loved Dogs!

  • We have friends in Alamar who would dearly love to move but are entrapped by their limited income and caring for two children. Alamar does not appear to have a soul but reflects the same type of development I have seen in the former East Germany – the Russian concrete block, block. Those I saw in East Germany had been deserted and were sitting empty as memorials to socialist planning failure. Could that be the future of Alamar?
    As Erazmo Calzadillo explains, he like most Cubans is devoid of Internet connection and later says:
    “No one can deny that there is poverty and police repression in Cuba.”
    He is wrong!
    There are those who safely esconced in their arm chairs in free capitalist countries who will openly declare in these columns that he is wrong, that Socialismo is a success, that the Castro Ruz family are benefactors and have for fifty five long dreary years used their evrrty endeavor to serve the common people. John oodrich will give a sigh and say that if only Cuba would accept his definition of socialism based on Chomsky, all would have been well in Cuba. Dan and Dani will say that Erazmo doesn’t know what he is talking about and rodrigvm much admired by Lisa B will splutter that Erazmo is cfortunate that he isn’t black and living in Ferguson where they grow gladiolli.
    Erazmo Calzadillo has recorded the reality that is Alamar as he lives there – dare anybody have the gall to challenge that?

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