Havana at My Back with an Outstretched Hand

Ernesto Pérez Chang

Obispo St. Old Havana
Obispo St. Old Havana

HAVANA TIMES – It’s noon on a Monday, chilly and I am drinking a cup of coffee with some writer friends who are passing through Havana.  We like the four tables that have been planted in the middle of the street, across from the San Gerónimo school. The almost perpetually suffocating heat in Cuba has made this hour of sun, even at its zenith, exceptional cool.

To converse under a winter sky, drinking something hot while people pass by is something akin to a miracle. Even more so, because I spend every day of the week writing, working under the pressure of time in several projects at once.  I’m not accustomed to doing this sort of thing, much less treating myself to the gift of a daily coffee in a tourist establishment on Obispo Street. But I want to be a good host to my friends who aren’t Cubans and that day I am being their guide in a city they know very little about.

I love the city I live in, and there are moments when I get pleasure from talking and writing about her. There are others, though, in which that enthusiasm deserts me, and I refuse to even look out the window of my apartment.  As if the state of things could infect me just by sticking out my head.

Obispo St.
Selling on Obispo St.

If I observe and remain silent, I become an accomplice of whatever is going on; if I were to complain in a loud voice, moved by an excess of fury, only a confused noise would come out of my mouth, far removed from actual words.

The exercise of telling stories about the city where one lives can be exhausting. However, the understanding that each unknown person who inhabits our immediate space carries a very personal city inside of them – intimate, secret, sometimes incommunicable – motivates me to become a translator of gestures, appearances, daily routines much more than a simple chronicler of events.

Sitting there in that café on Obispo St., my writer friends want to know about a Havana that no longer exists, but that they’ve read about in a certain novel from the nineteenth century or a piece by Ernest Hemingway.

Obispo St.
Begging on Obispo St.

They leaf through their tourist guides and ask me to take them on a kind of journey in time because they like repeating that absurd idea that on the island the clock has stopped and that it’s only the years like clouds of melted lead that pulverize the cobblestones, that crack open the stone fronts of the buildings or that numb the hands of an old woman who comes up to our table to beg us for a little money.

She’s cold, and she entreats us insistently.  My friends don’t look at her: they don’t see her, they don’t hear her.  They drink their coffee and pore over the maps spread out on the table.  Meanwhile I think about the scarce and tightly budgeted money that I am carrying in my pocket, not about the rags the woman is wearing, her worn-out shoes or the shame she feels at having to beg.

If I give her some coins, other beggars watching us from nearby will arrive in a swarm. I cast about in my mind for some way of extricating myself from the situation. I know that the woman has confused me for a foreigner because of where I’m sitting.  If I tell her that I’m Cuban, without a doubt she’ll head somewhere else, because she’ll understand what I’m trying to say: “I’m poor, just like you are”; or she’ll know that I am just pretending to be indifferent.

So I pretend that I’m absorbed in what the others are planning for the afternoon and I turn my back to the old woman.  I know that if I don’t give her any attention she’ll go away to some other area.  She’ll bother our neighbors at the next table or the groups of passers-by that are constantly coming and going along Obispo St.

I speak loudly to cover up the sound of her demands. I say things just to be talking, to round out that atmosphere of confabulation that excludes her, that makes her completely invisible.

Obispo St.
Human Statue on Obispo St.

Ignoring her has proven an effective solution because the woman stops asking and moves off with quick steps, later pausing at a corner where a man has called her over to give her some money.  She takes it and thanks him with a smile that suddenly renders her face familiar; and that discovery sends a shiver through me.

I leave my friends, walk off and head to where the woman is standing.  I observe her closely; trying to associate her extinguished features with those of someone I knew but had not seen for a very long time.  Someone very important to me, but whom I had begun to forget because I had left her far behind me, in the long-distant years when I didn’t think of the written word as a basic necessity – or even as a trade – and when the city seemed to be a place that might become anything at all, except the scene of so much tearing apart.

That idyllic era when innocence allowed us to ignore everything; when few of those around me doubted the idea that the future of Cuba had to be ever brighter and brighter. The time of our first school years, when that same hand, not yet numbed by tiredness, traced with a contagious joy and faith my first letters on a blackboard; or wrapped around my own hand to guide it over the pages of a notebook during those classes where I began to be won over by the written word.

I love the place where I live, really I do, and I believe that only because of that love do I feel at times that I could come to hate it.  Above all because since that strange Monday in the café on Obispo Street, she who was my teacher has remained there, at my back, as if she were a city with her hand outstretched.

23 thoughts on “Havana at My Back with an Outstretched Hand

  • Slam Dunk!

  • No matter how much a person visits Cuba iuntill they spend time in Matanzas they have not seen Cuba Sorry

  • If you are waiting to accept as valid only that criticism that comes from perfect people who live in perfect countries, your wait will never end. Some comparisons of life in Cuba to the outside world are relevant. The price of a car made in France when sold in the Cuba should not be 8 times more than the same car sold in Mexico. That is a valid comparison. On the other hand, 235 cable channels in the US compared to none in Cuba is not a useful comparison. I trust your intelligence to discern when a comparison has merit and when it doesn’t. To rule ALL comparisons as good or bad is beneath intelligent discourse. The struggles that my wife’s abuelo face as an elderly retired Cuban have very little to compare with the pensioners in one isolated city in the US.

  • My point is that only in Cuba are doctors and other professionals who have sacrificed much for their education still forced to live in slums. You and I may disagree as to which slums in the world are worse, but you must agree that Havana has slums AND that doctors live in them.

  • I know off topic, but I have to say I enjoy reading all your comments on this article and others. (Moses, John, Dan) I may not agree with everything said but have to say I respect all views. Please keep writing and commenting, I am how you say new to Cuban politics but I have fell in love with Cuba the country and the people, including my wife:-). Not sure how to say, I am pro Cuba, not pro Castro, before anyone gets the wrong idea. However I still respect with some things the Castro’s have done, and at the same time I can say there is things they have could have done better. I will leave at that now and try to get into some these great discussions.

  • I have noticed, that no matter what the topic of the essay, a number of commenters respond with hysterical denunciations of the USA. It’s as if the Platt Amendment was triggered in their brains, and the USA automatically intervenes in their thought processes. You are free to post what you like, even if it is off-topic. I read this blog to learn about Cuba, not to wallow in the anti-American obsession of non-Cubans.

    You are completely mistaken about what killed Detroit.

    By the way, Michael Totten is an independent journalist, but he is hardly a neophyte. For more than a decade has been reporting from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The man as more guts and savvy than any dozen so-called reporters from CNN or the BBC or the NYT.

  • “Yes Dan, there are worse slums in other countries. But this is Havana Times, so we discuss Havana.” Wait a minute, when did that rule go into effect ? ( Great way to dodge the issue, though.) I could have sworn I’ve seen hundreds of posts at HT comparing Third World Cuba to superpower USA in the realm of everything from car prices to building conditions to freedom of the press. BTW, Detroit was destroyed by industrial outsourcing and predatory lending by big banks. Moses laments his suegro living a spartan life after giving his all for the Revolution. Detroit public employees are having their hard earned ripped off from them and are being reduced to poverty. The difference is, there is no embargo against Detroit.

  • Yes Dan, there are worse slums in other countries. But this is Havana Times, so we discuss Havana.

    As for Detroit, it is a perfect example of what a corrupt political machine run by unions and the Democratic Party can do to a once vibrant city. In 1960, Detroit was the most prosperous city in the USA. Today it’s near the bottom. Interestingly, Cuba has followed pretty much the same trajectory: in 1958, it was the wealthiest country in the Caribbean. Today it is second poorest, just ahead of Haiti. Socialism destroys wealth.

    By the way, you won’t find any slums in my city, Toronto. We have poor, to be sure, but we do provide basic public housing that is far better than what the majority of people in Cuba live in.

    I have strolled along Obispo Street and it is an example of the gentrification for tourists I mentioned. But very little of the money spent by the tourists goes to the average Cuban. As has been well documented here, the FAR and their numerous business operations ensure the hard currency cash flows into their pockets.

    On Obispo St. and around Centro Park, I was approached by old beggars dressed in rags, asking for a few coins.

  • Griffen – I read that link in Worldaffairs by that neophyte reporting on the horrors of Cuba. Two things I noticed as I skimmed the usual drivel. The CDR turning someone in to the police “for cooking a black-market chicken”. What do you say to that ? You’ve been to Cuba. And do you agree with his assertion that the Cuban economy would “go ballistic if the embargo were lifted”?

  • Moses, I think by now I have seen ever square inch of Havana. I don’t know how you can begin to compare the worst of that city with the tugurios and favelas of Mexico,Peru, Brazil,ect. – countries that had an embargo imposed on them not for a single day, much less 50 years and counting. The residents of those drug and gang-infested barrios can only dream of becoming a doctor. In fact, they may have never even seen one. If they can sell some dope or rob a tourist, they can walk down the hill to McDonalds and buy a hamburger though. Can’t do that in Havavna.

  • Dan, within the municipio of central Havana is the barrio Cayo Hueso. While it lacks the hills of a favela in Rio or the graffiti of a walk-up in Detroit, it is every bit the ‘slum”. Worse yet, there is a good chance that a Cuban doctor or engineer lives there. You don’t see that anywhere else in the world.

  • Obispo, which is one street, is full of stores and hotels. Retail businesses that make money for the country, not exclusive residences for the wealthy. As for your comment that Havana Centro is a slum, you obviously have never been to a real slum in the hillsides or outskirts of a city like Medellin or Port au Prince or Lima. Aren’t you in Canada, Griffen? Close to Detroit ? Why not take a walk around there and send us your report about the invigorating effects of capitalism on that metropolis in contrast to the misery “the Castros” have inflicted on Havana.

  • I agree with you that all credit for what Havana looks like today is owed to the Castros. The collapsing buildings, the gutted Malecon waterfront, the open sewers, the wretched sidewalks and impassable streets are definitely BECAUSE of the Castros. Have you seen Havana from the air? On one of my trips to Cuba, the plane was forced to circle Havana a couple of times in queue for permission to land. At the plane leaned to my side, the view of Havana was best described by my seatmate. He likened it to his hometown of Beirut, Lebanon early on after the bombing began in 1982. Without a lot of foreign investment, including some KFC’s, McDonalds and WalMarts, there is no hope for improvement.

  • You have some cojones to think you speak for or even understand the CUBAN people. Inevitably, with the demise of the Castros, human nature will take its course and capitalism will return. The only challenge is mitigating the evolvement of the FAR

  • Well Dan I certainly wouldn’t want to see another McDonals on el Malecon, but honestly it’s not up to us now is it. You’llrobably end up seeing a subdued version of one tucked away someplace there I’m sure. …and it will happen no matter your “pataleas”

    But you honestly believe la Habana is beautiful because of the Castros? Lets just hope that foreign investment arrives soon, before any more buildings collapse.

    Click on the link to view a nice picture of the Castros Malecon. http://blogs.bootsnall.com/shoestringtraveller/files/2008/07/malecon.jpg

  • The main reason many German cities have been “restored to a luster like never before” was that…well, they never even were before! Allied bombings during W.W.II reduced them to utter rubble, and they had to be rebuilt from the ground up; such was also the case for the factories, transportation systems, etc. Hence, when German idustrialism finally came back on-line in the 1970’s, it was in new facilities; our older factories were less competitive. (And instead of re-investing in our manufacturing base, it is now in the same shape as most buildings in Centro, Cero, the unrestored sections of Habana Vieja, etc., which is to say, abandoned, crumbling , or worse.)
    One of the reasons Germany is on top of the world now is due to its superior system of education…not only for the 1%, or the 10% support staff for the 1%, but also for the lower-middle class and working-class. Germany has an outstanding system of technical education and apprenticeships. German higher education, with its emphasis on science and engineering, was the model for a better system even as far back as the mid- to late-19th Century. If it were not for WWI (consequences of which caused WWII), Germany would have been ahead of the U.S. now.
    Due to its education system, which has produced a relatively sophisticated and skilled work force, Cuba will attract some foreign investment. I think it would be a mistake, however, for Cuba to depend only on foreign investment, or even largely on foreign investment. This would be similar to the earlier stance of many post-industrial cities here in the U.S., which hoped for some new corporation arriving and reopening the crumbling factory of its former major employer (i.e. a latter day version of New Guinea’s “Cargo Cult.” The results of such a naive policy litter the Connecticut Valley from south of my home, in Southern Vermont, all the way to New York City, not to mention the Rust Belt of the Mid-West. Instead, I hope that Cuba continues to encourage its pharmaceutical industry and similar ventures.
    Besides interesting major investors, I hope that the Cuban diasphora will continue to invest in their relatives and friends opening up paladares and other small- to mid-sized enterprises. One of the greatest mistakes of the Revolution was in closing these down in the late 1960’s. Live and learn!
    Finally, in view of Cuba’s aging population, and likewise, the aging population here in the States, Cuba could be revamping all those abandoned “Schools to the Countryside” campuses (like the one on the Isla de Juventud) into retirement communities. Most Americans, especially the ones who took hits on their 401K’s, union and city pension funds or, due to extended unemployment, had to draw down part or all of their retirement accounts, could have a better retirement in Cuba. Here, they will barely be able to survive! Mexico, Central America and other nations in the Caribbean are already taking advantage of this by wooing American retirees. Ditto the medical tourism industry. In this past week’s Sunday NEW YORK TIMES there was a major story about how, despite Obamacare/A.K.A., hospitalizations and medical expenses are increasing, with ever greater velocity. (Now many specialists, for example, are making over a million a year, some several million!) Cuba should take advantage of becoming a major destination for both retirement and medical tourism.

  • If you believe for one minute that the Cubans , after resisting U.S attempts to force capitalism down their throats for some 54 years will do it on their own, you’re deluding yourself.
    Foreign investments: the ownership and exploitation of much of pre-revolutionary .Cuba was one of the prime causes of the Cuban Revolution and while you might welcome the return of that most feral capitalism , the Cuban people have amply demonstrated that THEY would not.
    Do the right thing . Call for and work towards an end to the U.S. economic war on your own people and allow them the right to chose a society THEY choose and not one forced upon them by the U.S..
    Do that , end that war on the people of Cuba and then we can all work on creating a democratic government there under normal conditions.

  • It has happened before. German cities, destroyed by WWII, have been restored to a luster like never before. It will take herculean effort and a lot of money and the absence of the Castros to make it happen however.

  • Yeah right. Havana is beautiful today BECAUSE of the Castros. Otherwise, Havana would look like every other city in the world, from my home town to Firenze, Italy. A conglomeration of KFC’s, McDonalds and Walmarts.Gentrification and slums. And the teacher in the article will STILL be begging. She’ll just have much more company.

  • There is beauty, absolute beauty to be found in la Habana, a city 500 years old with architectural beauty that is unsurpassed. Hopefully one day soon, when the Castro’s meet their inevitable fate, foreign investment will start to revitalize this once beautiful city and it can once more take it’s rightful place as one of the most beautiful destinations in the world

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