On the centennial of the birth of Cuban national “Apostle” Jose Marti -in 1953- the youth of the Havana decided to march through the city. From the steps of the university, and carrying lit torches, they began their demonstration against Batista’s régime of torture and tyranny.
This bold action became a tradition after the victory of the Revolution in 1959; it memorialized the most universal qualities of the Cuban people and the actions of 1953.
Fifty-six years later, on this past January 27 around midnight, some friends and I were coming out of the Yara Cinema, just a few blocks from the steps university. There, we ran into an unusual commotion: a crowd of uniformed polytechnic students, some with torches in their hands.
It then hit me that they were holding the “March of the Torches,” which didn’t take a lot of convincing to get my friends to participate in. We walked closer to the area and found a sea of people clenching smoky torches and heading down San Lazaro Street toward the Malecon seawall.
It was a truly moving site.
We advanced from the end of the column, passing amid the throngs of parading youth, who were tossing the remains of torches to the sides of the street, some still lit. We kept our eyes wide open to prevent anyone’s inattention from ending up in an accident. The odor of burning kerosene was suffocating.
We didn’t know where the march was going to end up, we just wanted to get to the front of the procession; but no matter how much we hurried, we were always held back.
Suddenly, there broke out shouting that had nothing to do with the patriotic slogans and songs that were being chanted along the route. This clamor prompted us to run for safety on the sidewalk, far from where a brawl had erupted – though I never learned how it started, who were involved, or how it ended.
As we continued following the march, we could see the image of the enormous multitude that was in front of us projected on several giant screens located on several streets. A multitude we were unable to appreciate from our vantage point.
But that enormous crowd on the screens did not resemble anything like the one I was observing around me.
The group ringing us was made up of young people who were waiting for the slightest opportunity to escape from the march to run down the first side street they could find, without torches, and completely lacking the enthusiasm displayed on the screens.
Nonetheless, it was when we got to the Malecon that the disappointment hit me. After a few minutes waiting for the resumption of the march, which had been held up for some unknown reason, there were no vestiges of what I imagined would be the traditional March of the Torches.
No one was following each other down the thoroughfare; no one even carried a torch. No one knew anything about anything. The chaos of people and cars racing along the same street was disconcerting, so we decided to slip away.
Our walk back was unusually silent. Somebody made a comment about the movie that we had seen at the Yara Cinema, the latest national premiere, and we immediately said goodbye, without going into our usual discussions before going home and to bed.