The Dying Throes of Havanas Carnival

Isbel Díaz Torres

HAVANA TIMES – Havana’s official weekly newspaper Tribuna is announcing that “the Havana carnaval is on” with photos of picturesque masquerades. The contrast with one’s actual experience any given night at the ocean drive is significant. The two realities are completely divorced from one another, or, to say the same thing with different words, the Cuban press is lying to us as usual.

It is no longer possible to sit on ocean drive wall during the carnivals. Year after year, the government works to dilute the city’s festive spirit with an insipid performance that combines bored, bad taste, restrictions, mistreatment and increasingly high prices.

We can begin by pointing out the fallacy inherent to selling the carnival as a “citywide festivity”, when, in fact, these encompass less than ten blocks down the ocean drive (from the Anti-Imperialist Grandstand to Parque Maceo, to be precise), where large numbers of people crowd.

A new figure, the “comprehensive supervisor” – an inspector in a blue vest who applies fines on anyone who sells balloons, toys or candy to children without a proper license – has entered the scene, already plagued with police officers and numberless metallic barriers that block one’s view of the sea and the show.

Any non-State commercial activity is reserved for the self-employed who, beyond their fixed license fee, must pay an additional tax of 60 Cubans pesos a day for those with carts, 70 for those with set stands, 200 for those with food stands and 250 for those selling food and other products, notes Tribuna.

Improvised State establishments selling watered-down, warm and foul-tasting beer on tap at 5 Cuban pesos the cup abound in the area.

For the same price one can purchase a tiny bread roll with the least imaginable amount of roasted pork inside. A skewer with two tiny bits of pork and three small slices of pineapple can be bought at the unaffordable price of 25 Cuban pesos.

At this price range (between 20 and 30 Cuban pesos), one can find such food offers as roasted chicken and lunch boxes with rice and chicken or ham.

As I see it, however, these details are not the most significant. Cubans have suffered these kinds of financial hardships for decades. What’s worrying is that the institutions that plan the carnival should do so in complete disregard of the people and their real financial possibilities.

The old Cuban tradition of dancing in line behind the floats and masquerades (which I remember from my childhood in Pinar del Rio and earlier on, in Santiago de Cuba), has been razed to the ground by the all-controlling bureaucracy. The police forbid it.

The fences restrict access at several levels. Down the ocean drive, next to the ocean, the poorly-decorated floats devoid of lights and masquerades advance, each separated by long silences. To be able to see them up close (without having to push your way through a tight crowd), one has to buy tickets for the tiers and seats ahead of time.

To purchase the 5-peso ticket that entitles you to a place on the tiers (or the 15 and 20-peso tickets for the VIP and front-row seats, respectively), you must go to the Payret, Acapulco or Lido movie theaters, or the Coppelita ice-cream parlor located on 25 and Malecon between 10 am and 5 pm.

After the show has started, tickets can only be bought at a booth located on Humboldt street, between 23 and Hospital. A woman guarding the entrance to the tiers, however, gave me a knowing look and told me to wait nearby when I asked her how much I had to paid to go in.

The authorities were unable to foresee that the tiers would remain practically empty, and not precisely because people don’t want a place to sit at, rest and be able to see the show.

Here, one can see people trying to make out the parade of far-from-merry puppets through the metal bars in front of the tiers, offensively turned away from the great mass of people who crowd in the side of the ocean drive not facing the ocean.

Most of the time, people remain seated on the curbs, unable to see anything and conversing amongst themselves. When all is said and done, this is yet another symptom of how the system continues to lose its popular bases – the people will always manage to assemble its network of relationships, despite the government’s attempts to prevent this.

In an article published by Tribuna, journalist Ada Oramas clearly expressed the government’s official perspective on the carnival: “The people of Havana enjoy the carnival as a show, hence its popularity.” Before that, she had expressed that “our National Revolutionary Police protects, looks after and preserves public order. This is one of the great advantages of these parades, where the entertainment is to be found in the choreographies (…)”

It would seem Oramas comes from a different tradition. For her, the unruliness of the carnival is something loathsome. Excessive alcohol consumption and noise go against “families in Havana, who enjoy the masquerades immensely, while many of the spectators vote in secret for their favorite floats and chose who is to win the popularity award.”

Such a sugary view of things, so divorced from reality, supportive of an insipid and anti-popular culture, is the one encouraged by Cuba’s media. That is why public officials and the police, responsible for the design of Havana’s carnival, have been able to murder this tradition with impunity.

As Rafael Duharte Jimenez said on referring to these festivities in Santiago de Cuba, “the carnaval, under the pressure of government planning, has lost much of its orgiastic nature, which does not mean that our spirituality has been on the rise.”

Neither spirituality nor our festive spirit have been on the rise, while stress continues to grow and people (who care nothing about the popularity award) find it harder and harder to satisfy their craving for consumption. One thing is certain: the carnival is dying before our very eyes and no one does anything to save it.