By Leonardo Padura Fuentes
HAVANA TIMES, May 3 (IPS) – One of the actions prior and during the recently held Tenth Havana Art Biennial was the placement of six large sculptures at the entrance of the city’s Paseo del Prado esplanade. These magnificent works, by first-rate artists, embellished the capital’s emblematic boulevard for several weeks.
However, along with their generous and thought-provoking presence, they also served to alert us to the necessity to breathe life into our cities through urban and artistic actions that can rescue and dignify them. This need must be addressed.
However, the same day that the six sculptures were officially “inaugurated,” the winds of reality blew through the Cuban streets whipping around these figures. Since the lighting of the works was provided by only the faint and sometimes nonexistent illumination of the deteriorated neighborhood streetlamps, one of the pieces had its name plaque ripped off, and another evidenced its having been baptized in teeming torrents of urine.
Meanwhile, only a few yards from the last piece (or the first one, depending on your viewpoint) a few children-machetes in hand-were busy hacking down one of the recently planted ornamental saplings. It had been put there to replace the previously destroyed landscaping along this stretch of the walkway. Surprisingly, in the backdrop of this mayhem, four uniformed police officers stood present.
While observing that confrontation between the antagonistic forces of beauty and barbarism, I wondered: What is stronger: art or reality?
Company X (it doesn’t matter which firm, because I’m not trying to lay specific blame, but instead to reveal a general condition) is undertaking an important work, which once completed will be of tremendous public benefit.
For this they will have to rip up the water and sewer lines under streets and sidewalks. To do that they will use modern machines, those doted with what the Cuban press usually calls “state-of-the-art technology.”
In opening up a trench, and placing inside the new materials that will offer so much benefit, Company X sometimes covers the work with the same excavated earth and rubble, or other times pours concrete or lays asphalt to seal the job.
However, since that company is not the one directly responsible for that part of the work (this responsibility lies with Company Y), neither the sidewalks nor the streets turn out the same; often they are never again passable.
In one of the sites where Company X has been carrying out this vital and important task, several streets have wound up being practically impassable. Apparently, those most affected by this “impassibility” have been the vehicles used for collecting solid waste, the garbage trucks. This situation has caused an entire part of the neighborhood to be transformed into a bog of filth. Into it the nearby residents throw all types of things-the imaginable and the unimaginable-from garbage bags and debris, to dead animals and all sorts of junk.
To address this accumulation of reeking garbage, which produces maggots, flies and rats (transmitters of disease), just a few yards away from people’s homes, sporadic clearance efforts have been made using bulldozers and mechanical shovels. Likewise, the waste has been burned, sending into the atmosphere-in middle of the city-toxic discharges of incinerated plastic and nauseating organic waste.
One of these persistent dumps is situated exactly on the edge of an 18th century cemetery that truly deserves protection as a monument (if not as a national one than at least as a municipal memorial, as would occur in any other place in the world that has respect for its past and its historical legacies). The significance of the situation is that when the bulldozers, shovels and trucks leave the place clean, the absence of garbage does not last even a day.
Those in charge of gathering the waste are limited to collecting the bulkiest items and removing the earth, without then asphalting the area or placing dumpsters. Area residents are therefore forced to maintain their habit of disposing, close to their houses, the debris that the blocked garbage trucks would otherwise pick up.
Most people believe that with the first major downpour, the whole area will become a rancid swamp; still, the day-to-day problem remains one of where to get rid of trash. It’s not strange that people who live in that Havana neighborhood think and act this way. Their behavior is dictated by the circumstances in which they live, and for that reason their reaction is the same as that in any place in the country where similar situations converge.
Nor is it so strange that if the authorities end up supplying dumpsters, somebody will remove the wheels, melt down the plastic or use the containers to store water…
The example of how to act in those cases, by the way, is offered-gratuitously and in an exemplary manner-by the municipal office of Community Services (by pure coincidence, the same agency in charge of collecting solid waste, but not for asphalting the streets, although neither does it dig them up or repair them, as does Company X).
In front of the headquarters of that community agency is a sewer leak that runs down the street, passes in front of an elementary school and forms a putrid lagoon 150 yards further down.
What is significant is that this situation does not exist only in front of the school and the Community Services office, but also passes by a full-care health clinic, from which every day exit dozens of anti-mosquito campaign workers, who promote health measures that protect us from epidemics.
Which of those entities (Community Services, Public Health, Education, or the Water Department) should take the reins of this problem? Is what’s happening in that neighborhood-an example of indifference and irresponsibility? Is it the exception or the rule?
The children who study in the school next to where the fetid wastewater collects must have by now learned the lesson: every day one can live crossing a river of excrement and waste. Likewise, they are taught that neighborhood residents can exist with the streets and sidewalks torn up for the important work of Company X, which for whatever reason was never completed by Company Y.
The kids must have also come to understand that any place is suitable for throwing garbage, and they have probably resigned themselves to living among maggots, bloated rats, disgusting odors, and stray dogs that feed on trash, while people mistreat animals for being what they are-mangy mutts.
Is this an illustration of Cuba or the poorest of the Third World?
While this profoundly Third World reality assaults many thousands (millions?) of Cubans every day, certain artistic reflections as to how these people live and react are dismissed, censored or excluded from television channels and radio programming.
Some officials consider that an artistic representation of this sordid, dirty and painful reality is not the most appropriate when projecting an image of Cuban life. Isn’t a car submerged completely in a ditch of a Havana neighborhood conceptual art worthy of the Biennial?
What’s certain is that this situation exists thanks to either an official who is suffering from the most severe form of lethargy or is tired from rowing against the current, or thanks to other community officials who turn their head to ignore a situation that is not in their “work plan.”
Out of this much greater evils in Cuban society are slowly growing: those of spiritual lethargy, a degraded visual environment, and an uncaring attitude towards the surroundings in which many Cubans now live and are educated. This is transforming us into a vigourless and vulturous people, with neither a sense of belonging nor respect for collective or personal property.
Reality is much stronger that art, plus it has the capacity to both feed and devour you. Cuban reality is a few beautiful pissed-on sculptures along the Paseo del Prado, but also those garbage dumps, spewing sewage lines, disease-festering breeding grounds, and putrid mires that exist and multiply.
Nevertheless, a lot of people say that don’t see them; or is it that they don’t want to see them?
Translated by Havana Times