My Barren Land

Verónica Vega

My dog Surat that I found in 2006 abandoned on a beach.

HAVANA TIMES – I have the sensation that Cuba is changing at a much more frenzied rhythm than can be perceived by plain sight.

When I talk with friends and acquaintances, the twists in the conversation reveal a surprising and frightening panorama. My personal experience seems to shrink into nothingness, and I feel that I am living in a bubble of ignorance…

One friend commented that he and his wife have lost their desire to go to Las Tunas where her family live. Crimes motivated by jealousy have become so common that they are no longer considered newsworthy: a man carved a cross on the face of his ex-partner with a machete because, after breaking up with him, she had joined a Christian congregation. Another man there is now ticking off a second murdered wife.Even my friend’s wife has a female cousin who was killed by a machete.

One curious fact is that within such a macho environment, some of their neighbors interchange spouses with no scruples whatsoever. My friend doesn’t see this as an expression of open minds, but of degradation, because the sexist attitudes and other prejudices remain unchanged. Girls have a price tag put on them as soon as they reach puberty, and their supreme aspiration is to marry a foreigner.

During another recent visit, a woman friend related the story of her neighbor who had a leg operated on. Apparently a tendon was unnecessarily removed, causing gangrene to set in. Now the woman, who lives on the third floor with her husband who lost a leg in an accident, also has to have an amputation. I thought about my recent experience in the hospitals, where the desperation provokes a total loss of order in the emergency ward and once again I felt that I hadn’t seen anything.

But the culmination of this sensation was produced when my friend’s husband mentioned a mutual acquaintance who is self-employed and has to deal with the public. In the face of some inevitable conflicts, she has been approached by some people offering strange services: “For ten convertible pesos, what body part would you like him to lose (referring to a man)? Would you like him to be missing an eye? Where do you want me to poke him (with a knife)?”

In the last neighborhood assembly in our zone, the person who presided over the meeting in place of the delegate – since no candidate has appeared for months – hurried through a summary of the general situation in Alamar, admitting that robberies had increased, along with drug consumption, diseases, viruses… Meanwhile, I was thinking that if someone who had never been to Cuba suddenly landed at that meeting, they would want to flee this island as fast as they could.

Con Shanti

In this way my stupefaction is complemented by the old question of what do I hope to harvest from this land that almost all of my family members and friends – emigrants all – declared barren so long ago. Many of my new friends have already arrived at that same conclusion and are packing their bags. My family continues tearing itself apart. My sister from Miami insists that I should give up being here, that I shouldn’t waste my life and that of my son in this hellhole.

And in a trance of confusion, I think about the little ones who are dependent on me, whose loyalty doesn’t count in the paperwork, those who had been abandoned like disposable objects with no explanation. And a sigh of relief comes with the memory of that poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Song of the Road.”

For who would gravely set his face
To go to this or t’other place?
There’s nothing under heav’n so blue 15
That’s fairly worth the travelling to.

On every hand the roads begin,
And people walk with zeal therein;
But wheresoe’r the highways tend,
Be sure there’s nothing at the end

I repeat to myself that responsibility has a price and that I want more, much more: the right to free myself from that fatal disjunctive: “to stay or to leave”; the right to extend the concept of homeland to the whole world and to traverse it physically or mentally without guilt, without tearing up my roots.

I remember that the most indispensable things aren’t even tangible and I can find them anywhere, including in a land that is as apparently sterile as this one.