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

  • January 21, 2014 at 2:42 pm
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    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.

  • January 21, 2014 at 1:42 pm
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    “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.

  • January 21, 2014 at 10:14 am
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    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.

  • January 21, 2014 at 10:12 am
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    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”?

  • January 21, 2014 at 9:19 am
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    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.

  • January 20, 2014 at 9:33 pm
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    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.

  • January 20, 2014 at 4:00 pm
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    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.

  • January 20, 2014 at 3:50 pm
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    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.

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