Baracoa, Cuba and the Curse of Matthew

by Alexander Londres

El Pelú de Baracoa

HAVANA TIMES — A story belonging to Baracoa’s vox populi, tells us that, at the time of our great-great-grandparents, a strange man became famous for having put a curse on Cuba’s first city and its inhabitants, who had kicked him out of the town because of his ragged clothes and beggar ways.

In light of the town’s rich oral tradition, I imagine El Pelu – the tramp’s nickname – as a kind of Havana’s Gentleman from Paris, lost in Cuba’s far-east.  The curse he placed to sentence Baracoa and its inhabitants to bad luck because of the abuse he suffered at their hands, has made him endure in the collective imagination for generations along with the mystery that surrounded his story.

Since then, many Baracoans have attributed the misfortune they’ve had to suffer over the years, especially from Mother Nature, to Pelu’s curse: gale force winds and storm surges being among the most common.

The disaster relating to Hurricane Matthew (October 2016) hasn’t escaped the influence of this popular curse neither.

Downtown Baracoa months after the hurricane. Photo: Leonel Escalona Furones/ Venceremos.

Four months after the combination of extremely strong winds, intense rainfall and dangerous rough waters which devastated the region, it isn’t the lack of recovering homes which has sealed Baracoa’s fate. Reconstructive efforts continue to make headway. Government media has been sure to report this extensively from the very first moment they began.

They give us encouraging stats about revival, recovery and the reconstruction of accommodation. If only these numbers were true and didn’t respond to the urgency of a flash job with an established and inappropriate deadline, which translates a lot of the time into very poor quality completed homes. (They have banged their heads against this wall on countless occasions.)

It’s clear that this has been a great feat in what has been managed to be recovered up until today, given the scale of the damage. However, we must be careful with over-confidence and exaggerated optimism because there is still a lot left to do. Regardless of what’s done, it will never be enough, taking what local residents have lost: among the most treasured are their homes and also other belongings which are impossible to get a hold of, replace or put back together in the medium-term, let alone the short-term.

And to make things worse, natural adversity continues to sweep through the affected area in the meantime: there is water everywhere, no matter where you go – which breaks down the stable progress of agricultural and infrastructure recovery, and conditions shortages in a direct proportion. That is to say, they make one tiny step forward and they are pushed back by a greater wind.

The repaired La Rusa and Rio Miel Hotels El Hotels. Photo: Leonel Escalona Furones/ Venceremos.

But rather than using the curse to justify this, the logical and rational explanation for the events that have taken place lies in the fact that this geographical region, throughout history, has been a favorite place for constant and abundant rainfall over most of the year. Nevertheless, there are always people who believe, who follow superstitions – and even take advantage of them – who continue to assure us that this is all happening because of a silly curse.

Beyond the city limits of Baracoa border, the provincial capital and other settlements in the region – which haven’t been cursed by some hairy, miserable man – shortages also became common, especially in farm products and building materials. Disaster consequences – real or not from the hurricane – which have fallen on Matthew.

Has Pelu’s curse spread?

It’s still hard to find a coconut or some kind of cocoa by-product in any state-run store because Baracoa, the Cuban capital of both of these products, was left destroyed. The hurricane also took away our bananas, which are so present in our diet in all its forms, along with other root vegetables and other regular vegetables. Some of these have gradually begun to reappear although not like before, they’re now a little more expensive; but at least “Matthew” has given them back.

A bridge that wasn’t used for many years was reactivated as an alternative to reopen the road from Baracoa to Moa, Holguin. Photo: Leonel Escalona Furones/ Venceremos.

How lazy and opportunist Matthew is! who as well as “bringing bad luck” to those who wanted to repair or rebuild their own houses by themselves, and they can’t right now. Why? When this question is asked, the answer is that every possible and available resource has been sent to those affected by you-know-who.

After the sad, unforgettable events of October 4th 2016, everything that isn’t in its place, or isn’t as it should be, has also been transformed into Matthew’s legacy. If there isn’t this or that, if you can’t do this or that, it’s because of the aformentioned Mateo with an Anglo-saxon name, and who can doubt that? Ah, and our country’s bureacracy which, in spite of the need for urgency, condems aid handouts to those affected to the slowest of processes. Is that also Matthew’s fault?

In short, we are already familiar with the Cuban people’s attachment to name those to blame.

Thinking about it a little bit, it seems to me, for one, that the people of Baracoa need to update not only their popular beliefs and forget the wretched Pelu’s terrible predictions, because this time it wasn’t his fault, and it isn’t our geographic fatalism that people from Guantanamo come looking for when they can’t find anybody else to blame. Not even a cow is to blame!

It’s all Matthew’s fault, or at least, its curse.

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