Cuba: On Fences, Walls and other Demarcations

Ernesto Perez Chang

HAVANA TIMES — I have no recollections of places devoid of fences or walls that divide spaces into two. Whenever I take a stroll around the city or go on vacation with my family – even when I step onto the balcony and gaze at my surroundings – my eyes invariably settle on walls and boundaries.

You see them in photographs, even when you try to avoid them and focus on the prettier parts of the landscape. These demarcations are never photogenic but, since there are so many of them everywhere, our minds end up integrating them into the surrounding landscape, as it does electrical towers, telephone posts and water tanks on the roofs of buildings.

The best places in Cuba have been partitioned into a thousand different pieces, each of them classified on the basis of the social standing of those who frequent it. Beaches are a case in point. There are very good beaches, isolated and well protected, aimed exclusively at first-class tourists.

Other strips of beach, hugging the best stretches of the sea, have been seen by very few, because they are something like a different planet with its own, private sun. No one can even have a peek at them, and only a handful of people know the way there, since these places are reserved for a very select caste: high-ranking military officers, top-level government functionaries and people of tried-and-true loyalty to the system.

We run-of-the-mill citizens and second-rate tourists have to sunbathe and go for a dip at the left-over places, those “popular coastal areas” where the sand is no longer so white and the waters aren’t as pristine.

I am thinking of places like the outskirts of the town of Guanabo, to the east of Havana, where the humblest of the lot arrive, crammed together inside a rusty old train. Every summer morning, a line of wagons spits out throng after throng of people looking for a place where they can spend time with their kids.

The best places at a Cuban beach are often restricted, closed-off by a fence or simply a post where someone in uniform says you can’t go in.

On one side, beyond the sea grape trees or pine-covered hills, precarious huts improvised out of canvases and sticks are propped up and crowds of people swim and sunbathe in faded, worn bathing suits, while some children play with bits of driftwood.

On the opposite side, lying on recliners facing the sea, beneath colorful parasols, people drink brand beers and luxury beach houses with glass doors and windows, where someone has a picture of their Caribbean vacation taken, are erected. Rich women walk their purebred dogs while bronze-skinned children push the pedals of their water-bicycles or sail across the blue line of the horizon on sailboats.

On the side of the common folk, families gather around the food they’ve prepared the previous night – late into the night. The men speak about everyday things and swing back bottles of cheap rum. The racket grows louder as the day progresses and the yelling of the hundreds of vendors selling peanuts, fruits and knick-knacks drown out the noise of the sea and the soft music that drifts in from the other side. There is no free spot on the overcrowded beach, and the sea grows cloudy as the day wanes.

Beyond the protective walls, there are plenty of bars with open terraces overlooking the ocean, and the restaurants offer dishes very few of us can prepare in our kitchens, food our palates no longer have any memory of.

The waiters smile as they take these delicacies to the shore, where a couple rests and talks about the sun, the sea breeze and the pleasures of an island that, on close inspection, doesn’t strike them as bad as they’ve been told it is.

I know I will run into fences and walls that delimit lives anywhere in the world. Lines that separate one place from another can be found in all the world’s cities. Some are allowed in and others are not. Some have, earn or buy their rights and others are denied these.

I also know I will come across “no trespassing” signs everywhere, that these are the demarcations of ownership, of private property. But those are not the places that concern me, as I have never spent much time in any of them.

Abroad, I don’t feel part of anything. The fences and walls in Cuba’s beaches and cities are the ones that bother me, particularly when a government official uses the excuse that it is something normal, that that’s the way it is around the world, followed by a long spiel about the many years of revolutionary struggle and the abolition of inequalities.

Sometimes I think the brains of these people who put up fences and walls in Cuba are themselves partitioned by solid wire fences, by impregnable steel walls with embrasures fitted with cannons and draw-bridges, opened and closed at their convenience, depending on the circumstances.

On one side, they keep the words they use to speak of socialism and the freedom to go to the beach and from wave to wave, in that open and democratic place that the sea ultimately is.

On the other, the dark side of their minds, they keep the rolled-up fences and heaps of signs reading “No Trespassing” or, offhandedly, “The management reserves the right to refuse admission.”
Of course, they never explain what their criteria for classifying people a

re, because that’s not necessary. We know they are referring to the type of bills one has, the number of these one has in one’s pockets, to one’s degree of political loyalty or, quite simply, to their irresistible passion for divisions.

5 thoughts on “Cuba: On Fences, Walls and other Demarcations

  • As a tourist, I found a good number of beaches to be public beaches, even in Varadero. This story reads like the American song, “Signs”. In my home city I have had my access to the river taken away (after I acquired a boat) & then returned years later with the stipulation that any vehicle parked along the river would be subjected to a $100 fine, so the boat launch remains there for commercial use only, technically. If I try to launch anywhere else along the river for several miles in each direction posts will get pounded into the ground to disrupt any track. Private property saved my bacon, there. I know that in Mexico, they had to ban outright foreign ownership of beachfront properties as they were everywhere. Maybe Elio is lamenting that things would be so much better without tourism, but I’m not sure what is really being said. As far as fences & barriers, if I don’t pay a monthly fee to a security company, I will end up with no possessions, nor doors & windows, so now you know why there needs to be barriers at times. I do agree that public spaces need to be in the majority, for the public is “at large”. The biggest offence I took to a sign was when I became prohibited from climbing a mesa in the U.S. for fear of prosecution. This was a landmark that I had traversed before & after ignoring the sign & reaching the summit I found that nothing had changed! You are right. Signs are way too easy to erect & many times display an abuse of power.

  • I am with John on this one. Cuba is not a Communist country nor has its current government any intention of implementing such an ideology – contrary to appearance. Personally i think you can only implement communism from below never from above by a self-appointed avant-garde.

  • As kids we used to describe a mission like yours to convince the world that China, Vietnam and Cuba should no longer be described as “communist” as ‘selling ice water to eskimos’. No one is buying it John. I suspect you would better off inventing a new term for this fantasy form of government. How about ‘Democrasmo’ or ‘Bottomupsia’ or since it’s your wet dream call ‘Johnism’. I say this because it has gotten boring to read your comments. All you ever whine about is what is “true” communism with a little “c” or your bulletless, bombless, troopless “war” on Cuba (with nary a shot fired in 50 years).

  • Neither Cuba’s government nor its economy fit the description of communism as accepted in 99% of institutions of higher learning.
    You can test this out by going to any major university and asking those who teach associated subjects .
    To claim that Cuba is communist, puts the intelligence and intentions of the author, book and poster in question.

  • Almost all beaches in Canada, especially those on large lakes and oceans, are free open public spaces. It is curious how in so-called Socialist Cuba, most beaches are closed to Cubans.

    Reinaldo Arenas’ briliant novel, “Farewell To The Sea” is about a couple who go on a vacation to a beach outside Havana:

    “Twice confiscated by Cuban authorities and rewritten from memory, this extraordinary litany of despair is the story of life in Cuba under Castros told through the voice of a wife (who remains nameless), then through that of her husband, Hector, a disenchanted revolutionary and poet. Hector, his wife and baby vacation for six days at a small seaside cabin. There, in feverish lyrical outbursts they each lament the loss of the freedom they had barely begun to know in early Castro years, and with its passing the loss of everything else: enthusiasm, rebelliousness and hope. Nothing except terror remains, and as it grows, Hector and his wife’s relationship becomes intolerable.

    “What have they forbidden today?”, “How are we to behave today?”, “What new vital instinct did they condemn today?” are the questions that shriek in Hector’s mind as the couple returns to hellish Havana. Nightmarish, at times an impenetrable tangle of myth and dreams, this is a horrifying description of life in Cuba todayand one of the best descriptions to date of life in a Communist country.”

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