Taking Out the Trash in Havana

Martin Guevara

Martin and El Nene
Martin and El Nene

HAVANA TIMES — One day in 1980, my mother told me she hadn’t received any letters from my father in a long time and that she didn’t know where he was, that she thought he was already in the prison he was to be transferred to, but that she had no certainty of this. Curtelli, a Uruguayan political prisoner who had been released by Argentina’s military junta after a long and harsh sentence, to reunite with his family (exiled in Cuba), had told us the stories first-hand.

This man had spent some time in the same prisons my father was kept in and, in addition to telling me of my old man’s integrity, steadfast character and solidarity towards the other inmates, he spoke to me of the transfers and how they were often journeys to the next world, be it because of the way prisoners were beaten, the fact very little was done to save inmates at the infirmary or directly as a result of their murder somewhere along the way. Several of their comrades had disappeared during those transfers.

I’d been hearing about and picturing all kinds of atrocities for years, but that first-hand account got to me particularly.

It’s not that I feared the worst. I wasn’t in the least bit prepared to accept that the old man had been killed and dumped in a ditch somewhere. I decided to only think about it at night, when I simply couldn’t help but do so. Those were brief but very intense times, in which I made decisions I wasn’t able to come back from (nor did I want to).

I also started drinking straight rum on weekdays. This led to me quitting school all of a sudden and, free and wanting to have a good time, I found a job as a maintenance assistant at a military company in Guanabacoa.

The Dump

My friend Nene and I were given this notable position thanks to another friend, Orestes, who’d worked there two years in a row, during the break, to earn a few bucks.

Raul Castro was at the helm of this ministry and the army. We could say the armed forces were the exception when it came to productivity in Cuba, manufacturing a large part of the materials they consumed (in terms of light industry, for all armaments came from abroad, from the socialist bloc).

For cleaning up different areas, we were paid 92 Cuban pesos each. Even thought I had absolutely no need for this money, it was a way to shut up those who had begun to scold me for having quit school.

The person at Cuba’s America Department who offered my family different privileges thought that the main reason I’d decided to work instead of study was to provoke those around me, to rebel against that mandate shared by the relatives of high-ranking officers, calling on us to become well-rounded revolutionaries and all that jazz, and the bourgeois tradition of becoming an educated, well-to-do person. The truth of the matter, however, is that I didn’t even plan the things I did during the day at the time.

They told us to clean out some garbage bins containing the remains of an enormous banquet they’d had (where they’d paid tribute to themselves with huge quantities of chicken and pork), the weekend before we’d started working there. We were like two front-guard soldiers inspecting the enemy terrain before the troops made their attack. It was torture for our nostrils, and it became worse and worse as we kept leaving it for the day after, owing to the insufferable stench that issued from those bins and our scant experience in the area of actual work.

Nene had been given the keys to a forklift, the kind used to lift pallets, which would aid us in the task of dumping the eight bins of rotten (and by then bloated) food – but it proved of little help. When we tried to lift the first bin to take it to the dumpsite, it tipped to the side and spilled the chickens whose green and bloated breasts and bellies had been peeking out of the container.

After this accident, we spent the rest of the week doing menial chores and taking long naps inside the forklift, until Friday came around and the pot-bellied boss, who wore a guayabera and had an aura of pride about him (because of his position and corpulence) had a fit, threatening to fire us on Monday if we didn’t finish our work, complaining that all of the windows had to be closed because of the stench of those rotten chickens.

We went to an enormous dumpsite in a truck they gave us for this purpose. We’d loaded the back of the truck with the bins using the forklift, and headed to the dump, carrying the filth we’d tried to burn using kerosene, to no avail.

Before arriving at our destination, we were intercepted by a crew from the Cuban Film Art and Industry Institute (ICAIC). Microphone in hand, a journalist wanted to interview us about the job we were doing. First, we had a fit of laughter and debated whether it was advisable to be seen in an ICAIC newsreel, the kind shown back then at theaters before the movie. We gauged the kind of laughter and mockery girls and friends would subject us to and, in the end, we decided we would grant them the interview.

Nene told the crew we were working during the school break “for the good of Cuba.” When I heard that, I couldn’t help but start laughing. When the journalist asked me why I was laughing, I told him it was because we were being interviewed while working as “lions.” I had to explain that, in Havana’s street parlance, garbage people were referred to as “lions,” not because of their ferocity, but their powerful odor.

We dumped the rotten and half-burnt chickens at the site, bins and all. The driver suggested we retrieve the bins.

“Alright, start the engine and let’s head back,” I said to the driver. The fun was over.

A week later, I got paid for two thirds of the month and a form explaining why I’d been fired from the place (in case I needed an official document for this). Were they kidding?

That typewritten document bearing the official seal of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, attesting to my questionable work ethic and scant discipline, was the only thing I could proudly show others in the weeks that followed – that and my peculiar version of Travolta’s dance moves in Saturday Night Fever and our cameo at Havana’s movie theaters, showing the world our stint and feline good health.