Ivan Garcia, 5 October 2016 — Right now, it’s easier to get to Miami than to Santiago de Cuba. To visit the second largest city on the Island, there are two daily flights that are rarely on time; you have to take a train for around 20 hours, or buy a bus ticket, a whole adventure where you get a mix of satire, drama, and, of course, the chance to pay five or ten convertible pesos under the table as a bribe.
If anyone knows hardship, it’s the Cubans who live in the eastern regions. Living far away from the coasts of Florida, diplomatic headquarters and media focal points, their first step toward migration is to escape to Havana.
Havana is a city where, to their misfortune, the Cuban Adjustment Act doesn’t exist. Long before Donald Trump tried to enter the White House, with his primitive isolationism and huge stupidity, Fidel Castro advanced a project to build a legal wall: Decree 217, or the Law of Internal Migratory Regulations, which, since April 22, 1997, restricts those born in the east of the Island from living in the capital, which supposedly belongs to all Cubans.
The worst things in Cuba happen to easterners. Regulations, laws to put the brakes on their internal migration, being exposed to earthquakes, drought, and, in 2012 to Hurricane Sandy, and now, with the imminent arrival of Hurricane Matthew, they suffer more devastation caused by natural phenomena than the central and western provinces.
Their sing-song accents, extended mania for throwing down rum and for living in subhuman conditions, are the stuff of jokes with racist and xenophobic overtones made by habaneros, residents of Havana, who call them palestinos, Palestinians.
If you visit any of a hundred illegal slums set up in the darkness of night and constructed with recyclable materials in different districts of Havana, you will see that most of the residents are orientales, easterners, who are fleeing from poverty in search of better salaries.
Néstor is one of them. For seven years he has lived in a hut made of poorly arranged bricks with a tile roof, in a foul-smelling and dingy field that is a stone’s throw from the landfill of Calle 100, in Havana’s Marianao district.
He lives from garbage. He earns money by collecting raw material that has apparently ended its useful life, like shoes, electric appliances and sports watches, which, after a process of repair, are sold at low prices in the traveling stalls that are set up in Havana.
“The eastern part of Cuba is at death’s door. There’s no money or food. I worked as a custodian in a school and earned 225 Cuban pesos a month — around eight dollars — and when I went to a shop to buy a pair of shoes, the price was from 500 to 600 pesos. Havana is dirty, many houses are held up by a miracle, but you can find money there,” says Néstor.
Luis, a santiaguero, resident of Santiago de Cuba, living for 10 years in Santos Suárez, a neighborhood south of the capital, sells tamales. While driving his tricycle-trailer, he hawks his hot tamales as soon as they’re made.
“Not even in the distant past was nature in favor of santiagueros. Earthquakes, drought, and now we’re also threatened by this powerful hurricane. There people are butting their heads against the wall trying to invent money. Recreation is dancing reggaeton and drinking homemade rum. Things in Cuba are bad, but in the east everything is much worse,” points out Luis.
With the arrival of Hurricane Matthew, thousands of easterners who are settled in Havana worry about the future of their relatives. “Every evening I call my mother and brothers, and I pray that the hurricane won’t carry away their little house. We are from San Pedrito — a neighborhood in Santiago de Cuba — and we have more trouble than a slave working under the sun. It’s pitiful. As soon as they get up, people start drinking alcohol and gossiping about the neighbors,” says Lucila, a worker in an agro-market in El Cerro.
The disgust of many people from Havana toward easterners is provoked a little by the myth and by the rude behavior toward the citizens by the police, composed mainly by natives of those regions*.
“Easterners are known for being informers, bums, and alcoholics. It’s all the same to me if the hurricane goes through Oriente, and if it does, the orientales can piss off,” sneers Octavio, a habanero who kills time by talking nonsense on street corners.
Carlos, a sociologist, considers that many people have a real problem with Cubans born in the east. “What bothers habaneros the most is the terrible treatment by the police – their lack of culture, bad manners and inferiority complex. Probably they’re not pleased that most of the State officials, headed by Fidel and Raúl, come from the eastern provinces. There is the false belief that cheap whores and hustlers arrive by train from the east to create more problems in the capital. The State, with Decree-Law 217, opened the door to xenophobic feelings that have always existed below the surface in a segment of the population born in Havana. I don’t think it’s a serious problem. But more attention should be paid to the frankly pejorative attitude towards easterners,” indicates the sociologist.
Like any group of Cubans, Havana is only the first step for the easterners. The next trip, if they get enough money or are claimed by their relatives on the other side of the pond, is to land in Miami.
Hispanopost, October 3, 2016.
*Translator’s note: Easterners are recruited to be police officers in Havana with the incentive not only of a steady job but also of the nearly-impossible-to-obtain permit to live in the capital city.
Translated by Regina Anavy