By Lorenzo Martin Martines
HAVANA TIMES – In the early hours of Tuesday September 27th, Hurricane Ian hit the southern coast of Pinar del Rio province, classified as a Category 3 storm. Ian swept through the tobacco-producing lands with devastating rage, and a sustained wind speed of between 180-220 km/h.
The destruction it left in its wake was apocalyptic. In just under five hours in Pinar del Rio, it had managed to rip up trees from the roots, send roofs flying and get walls a tumbling. Rivers swelled and overflowed, flooding some of the most fertile lands in Cuba.
Tobacco drying barns were one of the hardest hit by the treacherous weather phenomenon, and most of the harvest stored in them was lost. After the hurricane finished wreaking its havoc here, shocking images began to appear.
After the hurricane, the National Grid collapsed and most of the country is still in darkness today, Saturday, four whole days later. Thanks to a neighbor with a generator who doesn’t have space at home for it and uses my backyard to run it, I haven’t suffered the harshness of the blackout. But my mother lives in a remote municipality and refuses to leave the house alone, so I’m forced to store food for her, charge up her lamps and take bottles of frozen water over to provide some relief for her ordeal.
I leave the house early to buy food, as my supplies at home are already running low. I soon realize that this was useless: all of the stores are closed because there isn’t any electricity and the MLC stores have a generator but they can’t connect to the network to use their tills.
With no other solution in sight, I have no choice but to turn to the neighborhood resellers. I can only buy a couple of tins, as I’m not risking buying fresh produce with no way to keep it cool. I complete the shopping with a couple of packets of spaghetti, tomato puree and a packet of La llave coffee to split with my mom.
After waiting an hour and a half for the bus, I give in and began to walk to 60th and 11th Streets, in the distant Playa municipality. It’ll look like I’m training for a marathon, I’ve been doing this walk for four days now and my mom is stubborn and doesn’t want to spend a few days with me.
I walk along Carlos III, in Vedado, smoking one cigarette after another, I cross the Almendares bridge and approach my destination. There are still some 20 blocks left, but once I’m in Playa, it doesn’t feel like I have a long way left.
The streets are full of the remains of fallen trees. People sitting in doorways and on sidewalks, with sadness etched into their faces, they mull over their frustrations. Unaware of the tragedy, a small group of children here and there play soccer, taking advantage of the empty streets.
An old woman, whose age I can’t guess, asks me to give her something so she can buy food. I automatically stick my hand into my wallet and pull out 20 pesos, I look at them and think that it’s nothing and that she won’t be able to buy much with it. She takes them hurriedly and barely saying thank you, takes off with her face all lit up. I shake off the sadness, I’m happy to be able to help out my mother and I continue on my way.
At about 2 PM, I finally turn onto 11th Street, on the corner of 60th, and I can make out the car of my sister’s husband and think that the day really is screwed now. The guy is a counterintelligence captian and she is a colonel of the National Revolutionary Police. We don’t get on very well because of our great ideological differences and our encounters generally end in an argument, because we inevitably end up arguing about the same thing we always do, no matter how hard we try not to.
I enter the house, I just about babble a hello and go straight to the kitchen to leave the provisions. Maria Luisa, my sister, greets me with just a gesture and continues to rock in her chair. The husband, Dennis Raul, who is more manipulative and hypocritical, follows me to the kitchen and greets me warmly.
“What’s up brother-in-law? We haven’t seen each other in a while,” he says as he touches my shoulder.
“Not much, just helping out the old lady,” I say as I remove his hand indiscreetly.
Mom appears from the back of the house and gives me a kiss and one of those hugs that revives your soul, while I open the door and drag a seat over to sit in the doorway. She asks me to stay inside, and I listen. The poor woman goes to superhuman lengths to get Mari and I to get along.
While Dennis hasn’t wasted any time and prepared coffee. The aroma escapes out of the kitchen and fills the living room. My sister seems to react, she gets out of her head and let’s out a smile that looks like a grimace to me. The steaming hot cups come in my brother-in-law’s hands and we each take one.
Dennis lights up a cigarette and gives me another one. I politely refuse, take one out and light it to enjoy with my coffee.
“Well, tell me, how are things in the neighborhood?” Dennis asks me.
“Don’t you have the Internet? I’d be surprised if you didn’t know,” I reply briefly.
“Yes, but I wanted to know firsthand.”
“Well, if you really want to know, I’ll tell you. A couple of buildings have collapsed which they are now blaming on the hurricane. There isn’t any light, electricity, gas, or food… but you already know that. What you really want to know is what people are feeling, hahaha.”
“That too, it’s always good to have fresh opinions and if they come from the enemy, even better,” he tells me cynically.
“Look, let me make it clear, I’m not your enemy. You behave like an enemy of the people just because they think differently and want prosperity for their homeland. But I’ve got news for you… this is also your homeland, that what you do is unjust and inhumane and sooner or later, your Revolution is going to go to hell, and you won’t fit on the leaders’ airplane.”
“I don’t know why you talk to him about anything,” my sister interrupts, “it’s like he’s being paid from Miami to talk badly about the Revolution.”
“Mary, if I were paid a cent for every time I talk or think the worst about your Revolution, I’d be a millionaire by now. But let me tell you something else, if they paid the same amount to every Cuban who does this, the whole US treasury would go bust. The person who speaks the worst about your Revolution is you with your actions, with your repression, hunger… sometimes, I wonder if we really grew up together and when was it exactly that we grew so different, when was it that you lost all sense of reality or decency,” I reply insulted.
“Ok, that’s enough,” my mom scolds us both, “you’re like cats and dogs when you get together. God, will I never be able to have you both at home in peace at the same time?
“But this one comes along with his worm talk and disrespects the Revolution, instead of being grateful,” my sister answers.
I finally drag my chair out to the doorway, putting an end to the disagreement. Dennis comes up to me there, with another batch of steaming hot coffee and he sits next to me in silence. My sister comes out a little later, Dennis stands up and bids farewell.
“Look after yourself, you’re my brother and I love you, don’t walk on the street too much, things aren’t looking good,” she tells me as she walks to the street.
They get in their car, and I quickly lose sight of them. Mom comes to try and change my bad mood with a couple of kisses. I flash her a smile and go to the kitchen to help her prepare some food before leaving.
As I’m cooking the spaghetti with tinned meat, my thoughts fly around. I wonder how two people raised with the same principles can think so differently. I wonder what it is that my sister gets out of this regime that has even pitted her against her own family. At what point did she change so much? Does she really believe in what she says or is it just a speech she gives to the public? How can she be so hypocritical defending this Government, but then living and accepting the remittances that her daughter sends over from the US?
I’m tired of asking myself so many questions without an answer. I finish the spaghetti. I serve it for two. We eat in silence; my mom knows I’ve got something floating around my head and she respects it. She asks me to stay. I remain quiet, but I nod with my head.
I’m tired and not just physically. I’ll get up early in the morning and go back to my house. I just pray to God the electricity comes back and life returns to the same old routine. A miserable routine, but infinitely better than the one we’re living today.
*MLC system of stores established in Cuba where you can only purchase goods by depositing Dollars or Euros on magnetic cards, called Freely Convertible Currency.