HAVANA TIMES, August 25 – This past August 13, our country celebrated the 84th birthday of the leader of the Cuban Revolution, Commander-in-chief Fidel Castro Ruz. That same day, a group of friends and I collected garbage along a small strip on Havana’s coast.
We didn’t choose the date for any special reason, and had we been able to plan in advance, we would have done the cleaning on the previous Friday, August 6. However, some people would not have received the announcement in time and would have later been upset about not having been able to participate.
Though it’s difficult to believe, some of these friends picked up garbage a few weeks back and those of us who couldn’t participate got mad. So this time an invitation was sent out by e-mail several days in advance saying that at 5:00 in the afternoon of August 13 we would meet at the Malecon Esplanade, which is in front of where Prado Avenue intersects with this street that skirts the shore.
For most of the people who were on the Malecon at that hour, August 13 was a normal day, meaning, a day to go swimming off the coast, to chat while sitting on the Malecon wall, to drink rum or beer and to eat peanuts out of the paper cones – and then to throw all those containers and paper into the sea. Some foreigners passed by and took photos; it was a normal summer afternoon in Havana.
For others it wasn’t such a normal day. Their activity consisted of viewing —or rather monitoring— the activities of others, and without much attempt to hide it. Although now it occurs to me that this was in fact a normal day for them too, given that their way of life revolves around what others do and making them know “we’re here and we’re watching you.”
Nor can we forget what the date was that we’re speaking of. It was August 13, a date that seems more favorable to expecting some type of action or provocation against the government. In short, what should have been a good reason for celebration (the fact that any human being on this planet reaches one more year of life), also became a good reason for monitoring the goings on among certain people.
Cans and bottles
We were waiting a while for a friend to bring us a few pairs of gloves that would facilitate the work. We had already foreseen some alternatives, like using plastic bags to cover our hands, though we still wouldn’t have been able to pick up pieces of glass, which was one of the things that was most abundant around the site.
Fortunately the young woman arrived, and while we distributed the gloves we discussed the possibility of inviting our vigilant comrades to participate with us in cleaning the coast. Actually, someone did indeed end up inviting them, but I can’t say what their reaction was because they were too far away. I also prefer that my friends have the chance to tell about their own experiences with garbage collection on August 13.
We picked up plastic and aluminum containers, candy and cookies wrappers, old shoes, pieces of glass and other objects that people discard and that end up in the water. There were also lots of empty paper peanut cones, but we decided to concentrate on materials that were non-biodegradable.
It was not exactly a task aimed at beautification, that would have taken us much more time and there were no more than 10 of us. We would have been able to tackle a larger area had there been more people; if for example some of those people who were having a good time had devoted a few minutes to picking up some litter, or if people showed a little awareness and stopped tossing their garbage in the water, on the ground or wherever they feel like.
A few days before the clean up, I commented to a friend what we planned to do. He told me that it was necessary for people to have more trash cans and containers to drop their garbage in. But the reality is that there can be a trash can or container two or three yards away and they’ll still throw their paper or empty can on the ground simply because it’s easier than walking a few steps. Sometimes the containers are empty and garbage is spewed around all over the street. In that same place, maybe a yard from the Malecon wall, was a big dumpster that was where we emptied our sacks and plastic bags full of garbage. But what we found was that there was much more garbage lying on the coast and on the sidewalk than in the dumpster.
Punishment and Paranoia
In that same conversation, my friend told me that perhaps the problem would be solved if coercive measures were taken, if people were fined. Although I could only agree with him on that point, the fact is I find it sad that people in my country —or at least those from my city (any town in the provinces is cleaner than Havana)— can only do the right thing on the basis of coercion and fear of possible punishment.
During the collection effort I didn’t lose hope that we would be joined by someone who was suddenly motivated by what we were doing. The invitation that circulated by e-mail made it clear that anybody who wanted to participate would be welcome. We’re not a brotherhood or an exclusive members-only organization. In fact we’re not an organization of any type, only a group of friends with common interests, which includes cleaning up the city.
The sole person who appeared was a woman who greeted me with a “good afternoon” that almost made me jump. To me it sounded just like the greeting of a policeman when they ask you for your ID card. But in fact she was a friend of Isbel, one of the guys who was participating in the collection.
I laughed at my own paranoia; I’ve been stopped too many times by the police while walking on the beach, sitting in a park or waiting for a bus. I have associates who participated in last year’s march for non-violence and later received unexpected home or workplace visits. Others got unexpected visits even before they had time to participate in anything. No one who was a complete stranger to everyone suddenly asked to help.
I’m sure that almost all the people who were there, including (and mainly) those who were devoted to the important task of monitoring us, actively participated in “voluntary” labor actions summoned by a leader or “official” organization.
I would have loved it if they had joined us, but on the other hand I’m happier that they were there enjoying the water, the view and the peanuts – doing whatever they wanted with their free time.
If suddenly the political and mass organizations, the unions and the management of workplaces —following orders— called for a day of voluntary labor to clean the coast, Havana’s Malecon would be filled with people to the point of them bumping heads, and everything would end up squeaky clean (although the very next day those same people would be filling it back up with garbage again).
That’s why I prefer to long for the day that people stop waiting for orders in official speeches and participate in any action that improves our lives in this country.