HAVANA TIMES — Miguel Angel Rivero, 83, has lived long enough to prove that most of the time it isn’t worth getting worked up over something.
He still remembers the exact day that he learned this lesson. It was in the afternoon when they told him, along with many others, that the Sierra de Cubitas sugar plant would no longer mill.
A hundred and ten years after its machines first started running under the name Lugareno, and having survived many political and technological changes, while having fostered all of its identity around sugar cane and the regular rhythm of its mallets, it was time for this sugar factory to disappear.
It’s been thirteen years since that happened. His past of over four decades as a puntista (somebody who makes sugar crystals) isn’t too different from that of others; maybe it’s just their ages that make them different. When he turned seventy, life took a path without a lot of uncertainty: retirement and directing his efforts to cultivating a small neighboring field, where most of the root vegetables and fruit that they eat in his home are grown.
The solitude of those below
Miguel Angel lived this experience firsthand. He was one of those present the day that the MINAZ bosses (at that time, the Ministry of Sugar) came to give the news and their dictates for the immediate future. He was one of those workers who raised his hand to ask why they were doing this. Apart from the many promises and calls for commitment, they didn’t get a reply.
In the end, nothing or very little happened. In the following years, the town gradually sank into a lazy drowsiness which took over every corner. For years nothing was heard about the farming machines and irrigation equipment that were supposed to arrive, and the land was slowly taken over by weeds due to the missing sugar plantations and the slow but unstoppable migration of the former sugar mill/plantation workers.
Miguel Angel tells us the most painful thing was the feeling of having been abandoned.
Odlanier Matos, who at the time was a delegate at one of the People’s Councils agreed with him.
The “La Tarea” program helped people out for a short time, however in a sugar producing town the sugar plant resolved many other problems that didn’t just have to do with workers’ paychecks. Even chairs for homes were made in the sugar factory’s workshops. All of these facilities disappeared overnight.
The other thing was watching how some “genius” figured that these fields could be maintained by using just oxen, hoes and buckets of water – without machines or power. You didn’t have to be a psychic to imagine what was going to happen without the prioritized equipment that MINAZ had promised. If those who were calling the shots had taken the time to come here, anybody could have told them that.”
After the sugar plant closed down, social problems such as alcoholism and violence flourished; the theft and killing of livestock also spiked, as well as house burglaries.
“It was as if they’d taken life away from us,” complained Maritza Herrera, the manager of one of the town’s bodega ration stores. “Why didn’t they go to the government’s local or provincial authorities or to the National Assembly even?”
None of those interviewed knew how to answer this question. Not even Odlanier, who back then could have demanded reasons as a delegate of the local People’s Power Assembly. “The first thing they told us at a municipal meeting, a short time before they told the whole town what was going to happen; was the idea that other sources of employment would be established once the “Noel Fernandez” (Senado) and the “Sierra de Cubitas” (Lugareno) sugar mills closed down. “These measures that the central government takes aren’t normally argued, somebody makes the decision and that’s that.”
Stories like that of the Lugareno sugar mill town have been repeated, with their differences and defining features, throughout the entire country. Miguel Angel, Odlanier and Maritza could have been called a hundred different names. Of course, another part of the story is that they no longer wait for answers from any local government authority or the National Assembly.
Therefore, the situation and representation of these government authorities has done nothing but exacerbate the problem. Even when they haven’t served even half of their terms, today many delegates at the Municipal Assemblies of the People’s Power in Camaguey have had to be replaced.
They don’t give up their responsibility because of corruption scandals or abuses of power. It’s rather the opposite. Even though there are no official statistics about the subject or an institutional opinion, the fact is that many leave because they’re fed up, which is a direct result of the impotence they face.
This is a phenomenon that is becoming more and more common throughout the country, regardless of people’s financial standing or professional level. Its effects are so marked that it has been the subject of analysis at various meetings between the presidency of the National Assembly and delegates from different areas on the island.
There is a great distance between the authority that theoretically these people representatives have and their real power to make themselves heard. Local government institutions haven’t taken a turn for the better either. Neck deep in dealing with everyday emergencies, municipalities only have time to meet the orders that they receive from higher authorities and to keep society’s most essential institutions running.
The Peoples Power delegates were and continue to be the last card in the deck. They are aware of the people’s needs but have no resources to resolve them. Decisions continue to come from above; it doesn’t matter how deeply they affect the lives of the communities who reside there. They are still made by the same central authorities that closed down the Lugareno Sugar Plant and sentenced the town to death by decree.