A Holguin Native in Havana

Osmel Almaguer

View from Holguin. Photo: Caridad

On occasions I’ve heard people say — half-jokingly, and half seriously — that fewer Havanans live in Havana than immigrants.

As far back as the end of the ‘80s, the popular musical group Los Van Van came out with the song whose refrain complained “La Habana no aguanta mas” (Havana can’t take any more), referring to the phenomenon of inter-regional immigration within Cuba.

That sort of exodus, common not only to the human race but also to a great number of species in the animal kingdom, has accompanied the different epochs of our national history.

Ever since Havana became the country’s principal economic center, people began to emigrate here in search of better opportunities, each person with their own dream.  The upper class was thinking of business opportunities that would bring them even juicier profits, while the poor, at first emigrating to lesser degree — a relationship that would be reversed with the passage of time — were looking only to survive or to simply better their position.

With the 20th century, Cuban society changed.  Conditioned by the worsening of rural life, the flow of immigration intensified as Havana stood in marked contrast to the countryside.  Though having its defects and injustices (what place doesn’t?), the capital city was vastly more developed than the rest of the country.

After the revolutionary of 1959, plans were created that sought a certain degree of egalitarianism between the different regions of the country.  Laws, nationalization, the redistribution of resources, administrative reforms at all scales and levels aimed at improving life in smaller towns and rural areas were able to slow the flow of immigration – but not sufficiently.  As I mentioned, twenty years after the revolution, Los Van Van was already singing “Havana can’t take any more.”

However, I’m of the opinion that it can in fact “take it.”  What prevents the capital from bursting at the seams is another type of exodus that began in the ‘90s.  This is the one where people move from Havana to Miami, other US cities, Europe or almost any other part of the world.  I’ve heard some people say they’d even be willing to move to Haiti (clearly, in my opinion, they don’t know what they’re talking about).

Historical immigration to the capital is such that those who say there are less Havana natives in Havana than campesinos aren’t so far off the mark.  In fact, few people can affirm to not having some relative in the provinces, or they themselves came to the big city in distant times.

As for me, my father took advantage of his enlistment into the armed forces and the confusion of the 1960s to migrate here from Holguin.  I still have a number of relatives there who I’ve never met.  My father says that he must have about two hundred relatives counting his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and all his nieces, nephews, and cousins still there.

People in the capital usually joke about those who have relatives from the country that show up in groups and without warning.  They always run through one’s little reserve of rice and beans in no time flat, and there are even stories of disputes over housing: “They got here a week ago and now they’re demanding the right to live here,” some people will tell you.

A few days ago we received a cousin from Holguin.  He came to work as a private taxi driver. To do this he needs an official place of permanent residence – my father’s house.  When my mother found out, she became scared and worried by stories like the ones I just cited.  But Carlitos isn’t that type of person.  He’s one of those people who will give you everything they have without asking for anything in return.

His dream is to save up enough money to build a house in his province.   Notwithstanding, I suspect that by the time he accumulates enough cash he’ll prefer to build here – especially when you consider that a taxi driver brings home daily no less than 40 CUC (about $45 USD), which is to say 100 times more than what the average worker gets paid.

Plus, life in Havana is generally better than in Holguin, and for someone who has money it’s even better still.

Now what he needs is a lot of help.  He came here with that ingenuousness characteristic of people from the rural areas, but here people tend to be pretty slick and have a big thirst for swindling anyone who lets them.