HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 20 – I was born and raised in the city of Havana, the country’s capital. At some moment of my childhood or adolescence, I learned that Cuba could be reduced to the province of the City of Havana, and that the rest is just countryside; that those of us born here are “Habaneros” (Havanans), while those who come from other provinces -mainly from the eastern provinces- are “Palestinians,” a word that puts into the same sack people from Holguin, Camagüey, Las Tunas, Granma, etc.
Once I asked why they were called “Palestinians,” and somebody told me that it was because they were searching for the Promised Land. I also learned that they were invading Havana with their “llega y pon” (thrown-together shanties); that when one of them settles here in Havana, all their kin soon follow.
It’s not that I recall ever having had any experience with those “Palestinians,” but there was no reason for me to be bothered if someone referred to them with that offensive term; I was among the “privileged” set of Havanans.
For several years I posed for a sculptor and also served as a model for classes that he gave to his students. In one of those classes, while they modeled my head in mud, I began to talk about those “Palestinians” – disparagingly of course. After several minutes, one of the students -unable to take any more- told me in a low voice, and in the kindest tone he could effect, “But Yusi, I’m from Holguín.”
I’m not going to say that at that moment I experienced some profound epiphany with respect to them. In addition, I was much younger than I am now; so the only thing I could feel was tremendous embarrassment. I had offended an extremely proper young man who always spoke to me and others with the upmost courtesy and respect, with no distinction whatsoever. How would I have felt if somebody had been talking about black people in such an offensive way?
I sometimes I think it’s inherent in human beings to take advantage of situations in which we’re in the majority; we avail ourselves of situations to discriminate against, humiliate, mistreat… other human beings.
Europeans hunted African blacks to bring them to this continent, transforming them into slaves. But in Africa there already existed forms of slavery and many of those blacks had been owners of their fellow denizens. Even after having abolished slavery, black people have had to face many forms of discrimination.
By that same token, many people, from their universally accepted and legitimated position as heterosexuals, have joined in with discrimination against those who have a different sexual orientation. Likewise, Jews suffered an attempt at their extermination in concentration camps at the hands of Nazis during the Second World War, yet the Israeli government is presently committing genocide against the Palestinians (those from Palestine).
Our national press and television news programs feature stories about people who illegally migrate to the United States and Europe. These people risk their very lives and are sometimes arrested and deported to their countries of origin. These facts are always contrasted with the protection offered to Cubans who migrate illegally to the United States. It’s made clear to us that this protection is the exception to the rule, and that this exception is conditioned by political interests.
European governments have taken steps to restrict illegal emigration into their countries from the African continent. But even legal immigrants face prejudice and discrimination; in many cases they have to work harder and for less pay at jobs native residents don’t want to do. (Right now I feel like I’m using the same words of official discourse on the issue).
I met a Nigerian who told me that his father couldn’t be made a manager in the German factory where he worked, despite his qualifications as an engineer; I was explained that this was because the white natives wouldn’t accept being subordinate to a foreigner or a black.
In moments of economic crisis, when unemployment levels rise, native residents of countries that receive large numbers of immigrants become more fearful for their jobs, their standards of living and their traditions; they blame the immigrants for poverty and social problems.
Despite this, emigration from underdeveloped countries continues; people continue trying to escape misery, they risk dying in that attempt when they can no longer imagine a situation worse than the one in which they’re living. In contrast, no one wants to escape from paradise.
Cuba’s East-West Migration
What is the situation of Cubans who live in the eastern provinces of the country? What are the opportunities for them there, their employment sources? Why do they leave scrambling for Havana: “The capital of all Cubans”?
During the worst years of the “Special Period” crisis of the 1990s, Havanans received five eggs a month through their ration book; that was little, so naturally people complained. But I met a woman from the east who said she went more than three months without receiving a single egg.
I saw the documentary “Buscándote Havana” (Looking for You Havana) by director Alina Rodríguez Abreu, during the 2007 Festival of Young Producers. The documentary reflects the life of eastern immigrants in illegal settlements in our capital. This issue is not touched by our media, and nor have they given much coverage to this documentary. In it, one of the main characters said something I’ll never forget: “Ground soy-burger from Havana is great; it has almost no soy.”
Here, people talk about the poor smell of ground meat; the best thing I’ve heard somebody say about it is that “there’s hardly any stench.” There are those who buy it to feed their dogs, and others who simply don’t buy it. Yet those who have no other alternative but to eat this “meat” have to come up with 20,000 concoctions to digest it.
There was only one thing that I disapproved of in the documentary; it didn’t show the life of people in their provinces of origin. Someone told me that the director filmed scenes of life in Guantanamo, but that the police confiscated her camera and what she’d filmed. (I cannot affirm that this was true.)
ID Checks and “Deportations”
The saddest thing is to see police requesting IDs from people from other provinces and telling them that they’re “illegal” in a part their own country. My friend “W,” from Pinar del Rio Province, was stopped by a policeman here and carded. When they checked and found that he wasn’t from Havana, he was fined and made to return to Pinar. They say Havana is the capital of all Cubans and, even for tourists; but for them? – No.
A couple of years ago I saw the movie “A Day Without a Mexican,” which begins showing the discrimination that Hispanics suffer in the United States. In it, American citizens wake up one day and all the Latinos have disappeared. Suddenly everything’s a disaster.
This led me to imagine a day of our life here in Havana without “Palestinians.” The first thing that would happen is that we’d lose a great part of our police force. These are same ones who ask for ID cards from people like themselves, though they’re not from this province either.
Also disappearing would be many construction workers and junior high school teacher-interns. Wait a minute, it seems I’ve hit the wrong button and opened up an inopportune window: the lack of teachers in our capital, the resulting measures that have been taken (including bringing teachers from other provinces), and the lack of effectiveness of these measures in many cases, which have led to more serious problems.
But we wouldn’t officially notice the disappearance of those reflected in the documentary “Buscándote Havana” (those who are “illegal” in their own country), because they don’t exist. They’re not counted in the census; they don’t have a ration book (like we still “enjoy”).
The exodus of people from other provinces to Havana is only another of the ways in which the reality of this country is reflected – a country that is not only Havana, though many continue to think Havana is Cuba.