Ernesto Perez Chang
HAVANA TIMES — I don’t know whether Cuban readers who are around my age remember this, but, in the 70s and 80s, the cafeterias of some primary schools on the island had a so-called “model table”, a table which was simply put on display for students to see or that was sometimes used by the more outstanding pupils. All of us, as I recall, wanted to earn the right to eat there.
Set aside from the rest, the “model table” was always decked with the best tablecloth and adorned with a flower vase, dishes, glasses and cutlery. The service one got there was more or less personalized and the menu was somewhat different.
At all other tables in the cafeteria, food was served in rustic trays and water poured into aluminum cups. One had to eat with the same discipline demanded of soldiers in the army.
Schools at the time also had “model classrooms”, as well as model exercise areas, science labs and vegetable gardens. These were places that were scrupulously looked after, to the point of artificiality, uncommon spaces that teachers used to show visitors – delegations, government officials and other people they wished to impress – with the best face of the school.
We also had and continue to have entire schools, like the well-known Ciudad Libertad (formerly, the Columbia military headquarters), which were veritable exhibition spaces, vast shop windows where progress in the educational sector could be showcased. They were as immense as they were fragile.
Outside the school walls, in practically all economic, political and social spheres, places and objects solely designed to be exhibited to foreign visitors were created.
While miserable and overcrowded settlements grew beneath the La Lisa bridge or the more remote backstreets of La Guinera, the modern Camilo Cienfuegos neighborhood or the Villa Panamericana project were erected. These were complexes they could proudly point to when someone criticized the urban chaos caught sight of in neighborhoods like Alamar or the insalubrity of places like La Timba.
The country had and has cinemas, theatres, restaurants, factories, hospitals and even literary workshops that are genuine examples of unparalleled services. It’s always one or two for each species, and they are meant to steer our attention away from the hundreds of cinemas, theaters, restaurant, factories, hospitals and even literary workshops in deplorable condition and utterly poor services.
While absurd projects were being undertaken and hair-raising constructions built, something with unique characteristics was constructed in order to be presented as the paradigm of good sense and beauty. In the 80s, they even opened a “model store” (stocked like no other) on Havana’s Reina street, in the building now occupied by the Computer Sciences Club, yet another model establishment where one has access to computers and an Internet connection which has no real impact of any kind. Just go there and see for yourself.
In Cuba, every thing, place and even individual has its exhibition version. We have our representative and exemplary visual artist, writer, musician and athlete. The exemplary sugar cane grower, sugar refinery, scientist and young politician, the child snatched from the claws of the monster and even a super-cow that breaks milk-production records. Make a game out of it: think of anything, and you’ll invariably find its perfect, official prototype.
They are like the fancy clothes we reserve for important occasions: put away in the best part of the wardrobe, entrusted with a mission similar to that of a weapon. People may call us ugly and torn during the day, it doesn’t matter. At night, when we put on our dinner jacket or Pierre Cardin skirts, people will take back their comments en masse.
As I was watching the televised images of the tour offered several heads of State through the newly-created Mariel port, as I heard about how good and beneficial this trade zone would be for the country, I wasn’t thinking about a possible future of wellbeing and a definitive end to the empty pockets and the hunger of many. I was thinking, instead, about that “model table” back at school, gleaming but empty, reserved for exemplary students and designed for the enjoyment of a handful of visitors.