Ernesto Perez Chang
HAVANA TIMES — The truck comes to a stop at one of the corners of the park. From the license plate, everyone knows it’s come from Havana. They’ve seen it before. They tear themselves free from their provincial, afternoon lethargy and quickly approach the vehicle. It’s around four in the afternoon in Guantanamo, Cuba’s easternmost province.
The park is full of people talking and children playing. Some men are simply waiting. They’ve been waiting hours for this truck, which has been coming routinely, on the same days and at the same time, for some time now.
The vehicle belongs to a construction company in Havana which regularly needs unskilled manpower, workers willing to do the hard, badly-paid jobs people in Havana are unwilling to accept, aware that the black market in the capital, which is perhaps the only effective market accessible to most citizens, offers higher earnings than ten hours of work under the hot sun.
The laws that regulate internal population movements in Cuba forbid a person who lives in any of the island’s eastern provinces from moving permanently to Havana. Someone from the east or a “Palestinian” – as they are called, owing to the restrictions and dangers they face – cannot stay in Havana for more than 72 hours, on risk of being deported to their place of origin under the worst of conditions.
So-called “Palestinians” are segregated and humiliated by these control measures. The loathsome scene of a police officer detaining one of these second-rate citizens can be witnessed at any street corner. These people from the interior can be recognized by their peculiar accent and physical characteristics, particularly the color of their skin, which tends to be dark.
They are asked for ID and their travel ticket, which is used to check the duration of their stay, and, if applicable, their “transit document”, a kind of card issued by the civil registry offices of the Ministry of the Interior.
These authorize those who have somewhere to stay – having paid or entered into a dubious agreement with someone that seldom involves any generosity – to stay in the city merely for six months, provided housing officials have approved this after an inspection.
These procedures tend to encourage abuse, extortion and all forms of blackmail. If a person doesn’t have their papers in order, they are detained, cuffed and taken to a detention center, where they are kept in deplorable conditions for several days, until they are placed on a train, inside carriages monitored by the authorities.
To avoid these disgraceful experiences, on the one hand, and the kind of bureaucratic corruption that surrounds and permeates the pertinent legal procedures, many people from the east-laying provinces prefer being hired by a company based in Havana.
The residence permit can be extended for as long as a year if the person has been hired by a company authorized to offer jobs to people from other provinces.
Only the inhabitants of Santiago de Cuba, Holguin, Guantanamo, Granma, Las Tunas and other provinces (with the exception of Pinar del Rio and Matanzas) can know how much of a joke the slogan one reads on entering the city, “Havana: The Capital of All Cubans”, actually is.
There aren’t many job opportunities in their provinces and, if there are, the wages paid (which border on the absurd) are not enough to lift them out of poverty. Living and working in Havana for a brief time is a relief for them, their one bet of basic survival.
If chance should lead them to a better job, or help them find a partner with a home, or to find a place within the black market, which the authorities are unable to control (owing to the degree of corruption of government officials and the depth and breadth of the phenomenon), they will have succeeded in their efforts.
Havana is made up by hundreds of layers of illegitimate practices – layers which, rather than neatly-stacked, are interwoven – and only a handful of these are addressed in the official discourse. The sugarcoating is just too clumsy for people to actually believe it.
These other layers of society, sometimes exposed, sometimes deeply buried and bound by their own laws, are the terrain where the lives of more than ninety percent of society are played out.
These unofficial interstices is where common citizens have a chance of getting by with what they earn and what they allow themselves to dream, with their feet always firmly planted on the ground.
Everyone, “Palestinian” or not, understands the importance of settling in Havana and never leaving, such that taking the risk to come or stay is the central dilemma in the lives of many Cubans.
When the truck from the construction company comes to a stop at the park in Guantanamo or any other park, many are the men who put out their hands to grab hold of a contract, any kind of contract.
They don’t care about the long working hours, spending months away from their families or sleeping in dark shelters, among sweaty men who drown who knows what melancholy or grief in alcohol.
All they are thinking as they get on that truck with a Havana license plate, tired of sinking into the mire of provincial lethargy, is that they may well be starting their journey towards survival.