Text and Photos by Irina Echarry

Cleaning up the reef at the Malecon seawall.

HAVANA TIMES, July 30 — Traditionally when someone visits Havana, there are two places they cannot miss on their journey: one is the Capitol Building, and the other is the Malecon – the city’s seawall.

Locals and foreigners alike head for the wall to contemplate the evenings or to watch the sunset, to escape the afternoon heat, or simply to socialize.

One morning this past month, six of us agreed to meet at La Punta, the point where the Malecon wall meets Havana Bay. Despite the siren call of the sun and sea, we didn’t go there to swim, like many were doing, but to clean the shoreline. Katia came up with the idea, and Euquenis, Yaima, Alexandra, Erasmo and I followed suit.

We formed a small troop against so much filth incrusted in the reefs. For more than three hours, we harvested dank paper, aluminum cans (though very few of them, since people exchange these for money at waste collections centers), plastic bags, cloth, glass and plastic bottles, rusty metal, and lots of condoms, as if there had been an orgy the night before.

All of this went into only two polyethylene bags that barely supported the weight of the garbage. One ripped open quickly and we had to perform magic to conserve the other one. By sheer chance there was a garbage container nearby that allowed us to empty the sack a couple of times.

Leonardo the diver who told us about the dead octopuses.

Leonardo, a diver who was circling close to us, asked us, “Are you guys ecologists or something? Oil is leaking into the bay and you can barely see the bottom. If you want, I can lend you my tanks so you can go down and see for yourself. Right around here there are 40 dead octopuses; it’s a disaster.”

No one jumped at using the diver’s tanks, but we could indeed see the dead octopuses on the reefs and in the hands of a boy who was playing with one of them.

Unfortunately, our coast suffers from our lack of a culture of ecological attention and hygiene.

We heard a little girl say, “Look, mom; they’re doing volunteer labor…” Her phrase sent chills down our spines since that expression is often used in Cuba for labor that is far from being voluntary. However, ours was indeed just that.

Among those who had come to the Malecon were many there to swim, some who were going to make offerings to the Saints and others there for cleaning. But instead, they left the area filthy since their “cleaning” involved throwing plastic bags with their offerings into the sea.

Others sat on the wall to watch us. Two or three foreigners wandered over to see what we were doing; “good job,” they said, followed by “good bye.”

Alexandra hard at work.

We didn’t succeed in getting anyone else to follow our example. There was only a strange type of distance between us and them. We don’t know if it was because of the griminess of the work or out of insecurity or shyness.

What was most surprising is that when you walk on the reefs you can see sewer water pouring into the sea – in the same place where people swim. Adults and children (even ones only a few months old) were preparing to swim in the middle of all that pollution.

If posters were put up every few yards saying “Danger” or “Polluted Water,” people might think about it more.

It’s a difficult task, but we like the idea of coming down to the Malecon and seeing it clean. Some of those who participated didn’t know each other, but we all were united by the desire to continue trying. We know that more people will join in the next time, and we will advance more than the 500 yards on our upcoming try.

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4 thoughts on “A Small Troop for So Much Filth

  • This is a great example of free association and civic responsibility.
    If I see them next month during my visit, I will definetly join them !
    Meanwhile, work with the children, teach them not to throw garbage in the streets.
    I promisse you that in a few years, behavior will change for the better.

  • ADIOS MIO AYE BENDITO CON……LOL NOT QUITE CIRCLES!! HOW ARE U?

    good Article

    In the US we have cameras installed in major citys to catch people who like to drive as if they are the only ones on the street , and to see others doig thier dirt as well..The cameras take ther photo of the car lic and gfrom there the perp is mailed a ticket.
    Perhaps the Castro Adm may want to invest in this type of service or one which best fits our country and when they read those cameras daily or whenever use the info to secure a fine.
    Also at the airport there should be signs posted warning tourists that there is a charge if caught polluting and make the fine large enuff to discourage thier filth dropping…Pollute your own..NOT Cuba
    Cuba is our country, and if we as citizens are not willing to help keep it clean and healthy then who will?
    As for the volunteers it is a good thing, however like anywhere in the world that is not thier job and anyone who thinks it is is probably a polluter themselves.
    i will return in a few days and hope that what i have seen in the past is no longer..Even though we live in Matanzas we have a few dirty people there as well
    Good article

  • Very good story and great work on the volunteers behalf. From the top of the wall the water looks so inviting that i have even considered going for a swim along with the locals. It is now very disturbing of what lies just below the surface. I do wonder, is the oil that the diver speaks of a result of Cuban pollution or oil from the disaster in the gulf?

  • Ad hoc volunteer labor is a very nice thing — but it’s no substitute for (indeed) organized “voluntary labor” (here in the West, much of this was paid labor: often unionized workers in the postwar era, in the cities — but more and more of it is “voluntary” — i.e. unpaid — now. If it is still being done at all. Which is less and less all the time). What would be even better would be a mass socialist consciousness: wherein almost nobody throws any garbage away carelessly anywhere and at any time — and where a big part of society’s functioning is actual involvement in making sure Humanity’s impact on Nature maintains the smallest ‘footprint’ possible.

    Of course, none of this is possible in a society where essentially poor/insecure/ignorant people still think that stealing and swindling and fraud is ‘smart’ behavior — let alone that they are encouraged in this thinking and behavior by malevolent outside forces. Clearly, *the people of Havana/Habana are the ones primarily responsible for keeping the Malecon, etc. environment clean*. And they should be officially, democratically *self*-organized to do so.

    In the meantime: next time bring more bags, eh?
    ;>

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