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.