Havana Residents Day-to-Day Lives after Irma

By Irina Echarry

Foto: Elio Delgado Valdes

HAVANA TIMES — When uncertainty takes over people, it creates chaos. Global peace, on the whole, is hanging off of a thread right now. In Cuba, peace is hanging off such a fine thread that it could break at any time.

We Cubans often feel insecure; firstly because we’re human, we’re mortal and secondly, because we live in a poor country with a leadership which stands in the way of personal initiative. We know that anything could happen tomorrow to wipe out our hopes, the years of hard work and daily habits in the blink of an eye. A natural disaster or government policy can do away with all of this.

After Hurricane Irma, the island has been left with some serious problems, which will be hard to resolve even in the long-term. The US decision to ban visas for Cubans has only increased people’s hopelessness. The nag of uncertainty has taken a deep root in people living in Havana, which wasn’t even the most affected place by Irma; what can you expect from people living in other regions of the country?

Alicia walks through Central Havana on her snack break, she approaches a street seller selling fried corn snacks. She asks for three and gives her a 5 pesos note. “That’s not enough, they’re three pesos each.” Alicia smiles, “They aren’t a peso anymore? and what are these fried snacks made out of?”  “Corn,” the woman replies annoyed, “a bag of corn costs 200 pesos, can you believe it?”

Alicia can’t believe anything; she’s just hungry and surviving off an income of 500 pesos (20 USD) per month. “I can’t afford it, really. I don’t even like these fried snacks, I know they mix them with chicharos, but it was the cheapest thing there. I couldn’t have a snack.”

“The worst thing about this is that we were already in a bad spot,” a young vendor who has several strands of onions on him says interrupting, “so this is only going to get worse. Now I ask myself, what will the people who lost their homes do?  If you go to a shelter, you’ll probably end up dying there. Not paying more than 50% of the price for building materials is great, but the State can’t give away everything for free to so many people, if it was only a small group then maybe, but there are thousands,” he adds.

Foto: Juan Suarez

The young man is referring to the 158,554 homes that were damaged by the hurricane across the island, a figure which includes partial and complete collapses and the homes that had more or less severe damage to their rooftops.

Now, Alicia wants to go further away, before she asks: “free? No, my dear. Where does the State get its money? Think a little…”

Some people believe it is a lack of respect on part of the Government to announce that repairing tourist hotels and facilities is a priority before fixing private homes. According to Alberto, a man from Las Tunas who is passing through Havana:

“You didn’t say these kinds of things a few years ago, the man,” he strokes an imaginary beard, “used to make you feel a lot more at ease; it’s true that tourism is a source of income for the country but this is a sensitive time. Do it, but keep it quiet… you have to understand that the State needs to repair schools that were damaged, health centers, failures in agriculture… a whole load of things. But, what about the people who were left with absolutely nothing? Goddamnit. And now they don’t even have hopes of traveling to the USA to get their lives back on track… this is just getting worse and worse every day.”

Mornings and afternoons are more complicated than before, transport services have gotten worse. This is what a neighbor from Alamar claims who needs to get to Vedado every day before 8 AM.

“Look, they haven’t said anything but they have put hundreds of trucks out onto the street to collect garbage, fallen branches, rubble and the garbage that was out on the corner before hurricane Irma. I think that’s a good thing because the dumpsters were beginning to take over, but I’ve realized that this uses a great deal of fuel. If you add to this the trucks that are traveling to other provinces carrying electricians and people to help out, plus the black beret units cars that drive through the city day and night… what fuel is left over for the buses that we move around in?”

The majority of Cubans are worried about prices. At the agro-market, products are of an inferior quality and they cost a little more. Teresa Labori is 89 years old, she lives in Cerro and she has spent her whole life in front of the stove in her house.

“I have lived through very tough times, but the truth is that I didn’t think that we would see another Special Period again, this makes me very sad. In the ‘90s, I was a lot younger and I had the strength to go out and invent. Now, I’m tired. There aren’t any eggs, they only put out hot dogs and sometimes chicken at the hard-currency store and you have to get in line to buy them. Prices are on the rise or if they aren’t, they are doing the same thing they did with pineapples, they continue to cost 10-12 pesos, but its robbery because they are too small. As soon as you take off the skin, you’re left with nothing. You can’t buy that. Word has it that they are going to close down private agro-markets because the State is going to collect all of the root vegetables and hand them out, but you know what’s going to happen, don’t you?”

This news still hasn’t been made official, although it could happen. Irma has greatly damaged the farming sector and its infrastructure. According to the report published in Granma newspaper: In agriculture, the main damage has hit the poultry sector, with 466 farms damaged; 348 of which have already been repaired. Meanwhile, approximately 95,000 hectares of several crops were hit by hurricane Irma, and over 35,000 of them have been recovered, among which 20,000 hectares of banana trees particularly stand out. Short-term growing vegetables and other crops are also being planted so as to ensure that the Cuban people have access to these products.

Right now, the US has announced that visas for Cubans have been suspended. Therefore, those who once had the hope of traveling to get their financial status live and kicking again in the neighbor to the north are now condemned to seek out other options. Maria de los Angeles was hoping that it would be her time to get an interview, in early November she was supposed to go there for an event. “It was an opportunity, as well as being able to travel for the first time, I had thought about bringing back a small laptop for my son who needs it for his studies and I can’t buy him one here.”

When toilet paper is not available or too expensive, many Cubans use pieces of Granma newspaper. Photo: Alejandro Arce

For Madelin, it’s a matter of bad luck. “We have no chance, we are never going to come out on top. Between the crisis in Venezuela and Trump’s craziness, we can’t breathe. What we need is somebody young, with fresh ideas, to come into power here in Cuba and this is a chimera. Next year, the Cuban people will vote for Diaz-Canel, who isn’t showing any signs of changing anything. So we will continue to be buried under our needs, with hurricanes and the apathy we have. It’s true that many people travel to the US to bring back things that you can’t have here, or to work for a time being and to make some money. But, if you think about it properly, these are individual solutions. Maybe now that they can’t do it, they’ll realize that the only solution is to have a radical change here in Cuba.”

It’s a difficult scenario, there’s no doubt about it. The hurricane has caused damage in thirteen out of the country’s fifteen provinces. The funny thing in all of this is that the national press wants to put a positive spin on this no matter what the cost and this contrasts greatly with people’s experiences. They aren’t talking about destruction but about recovery; they only mention shortages if it is accompanied by some kind of solution, even if it is in the long-term. So, while stores still don’t have certain products, the news shows pictures that tell a whole other story.

“These images of people calmly buying toilet paper are a lie, when they do take out a load, everyone goes crazy,” Gustavo says, an employee at the Transport Ministry and he adds smiling: “I believe that wars in the immediate future won’t be over water or oil, but toilet paper…”