Iván García, 15 February 2019 — Before the violent tornado overturned cars in the Santos Suárez neighbourhood, pulled out electricity poles, and destroyed hundreds of homes, Aniel, a cook in a five star hotel in Old Havana, hardly said hello to his neighbours.
He fenced in his house and transformed it into a fortress, proof against burglars and muggers. Every morning he ran five kilometres through the back streets of Santos Suárez, then he took a shower, while he listened to jazz on his smartphone, and took a shared taxi to his work.
“That was my daily routine. I didnt say good day or hello to anyone in the area. Nor did my wife, and my 10-year-old son hardly had any friends. Stuck in his room all the time, entertaining himself with videogames on his computer. The inequality in our society, people who looked on with envy when their neighbours improved their quality of life, and general egotism, has converted us into hermits.
Havana is a long way from the violence of Caracas or Rio de Janeiro, but when you take a walk down the streets here, you can see that the majority of families have shut themselves in behind railings or walls, to protect their privacy.
“Most of my stuff I got under the counter (illegally), and, so as not to do it in full view of the CDR (Committee for the Defence of the Revolution), and the neighbours, it seemed the best solution was to shut myself off from everyone. Parties were just with family or work colleagues.
But, after the tornado had gone by, when I looked out of my door, and saw the destruction around me, I was left speechless. I went around the neighbourhood, and when I got back to my house, after having seen all that stuff, which was like scenes from a film about the Second World War, many things changed, right away”, admitted Aniel.
As his house wasn’t damaged, he prepared a spare room and offered it to a young couple and their daughter. “I knew them by sight. Their house was three doors down from mine, but I didn’t even know their names. One night I came home from the hotel and it broke my heart to see them sleeping out in the open as they had lost their house. My wife, my son and I agreed we should put them up. Where three people can fit, so can six. People don’t need to go to church to listen to a mass in order to redeem themselves,” Aniel concluded.
It has become a cliche in the streets of Havana to go on about the loss of social values, bad manners, and people deforming the Spanish language with shouting and swearing when they talk, using vulgar and incomprehensible slang. Regina, a single mother with two children, trying to get by in the difficult conditions of Cuban socialism by doing the washing and cleaning private houses, has this to say:
“You saw how the rich kept their distance from the poor. They looked down their noses at us, because of our bad luck in life, with no fashionable clothing, or latest model cellphones. But, after the tornado passed, they showed support and altruism. Neighbours who had never spoken to me, gave me money, food and clothes. And I wasn’t one of the worst off.
When the government gives you a few building materials, even though they let you have them for half price, you still have to pay for them, you have to support an enormous bureaucracy, and, as well as that, they ask you to vote Yes to the Constitution. But people give you the little extra they have without asking for anything in return.”
Although the olive green government has described neighbours’ supporting each other, the state media has devoted little space to the free and disinterested aid given by hundreds of private businesses, artists and famous sportsmen.
Carlos, a sociologist, thinks that “the government, as always, goes on exaggerating its own successes and hiding its failures. They avoid the fact that the procedure for buying building materials (and not all the materials you need to build a house), apart from being annoying, you have to pay for them.
The conditions in the accommodation provided for those who lost their homes, aren’t the best. But Diaz-Canel, in a boastful kind of voice, prefers to emphasise that it was the government that restored the electric supply in five days and the water in four. That is what any public administration is supposed to do. They have tried to brush aside the help provided by the private sector, the church and Cuban ex-pats.”
A few little examples. The singer Haydée Milanés went around distributing water , clothing and cleaning materials in Luyanó. The Fábrica de Arte Cubano has organised dozens of musicians and artists to help people in Regla and Guanabacoa.
The young actress María Karla Rivero Veloz, daughter of the journalist Raúl Rivero and the actress Coralita Veloz, travelled from Miami to Havana with a load of useful things which she collected in record time from fellow countrymen in Florida.
The baseball player Alfredo Despaigne, who plays in the Japanese league, gave $21k to victims in the Jesús del Monte area. Owners of independent restaurants and cafes in the capital gave food and served meals at knock-down prices.
After the tornado, thousands of ex-pat Cubans sent money and parcels to the victims, whether they were family members or not. “Every day, on average, we delivered 10 – 15 thousand convertible pesos. But over the last two weeks, the money orders from the United States and Europe have tripled,” according to a Western Union employee in Tienda Brimart in Diez de Octubre.
While she is waiting in a line to pick up the money sent by her brother from Tampa, Diana, a housewife, got things off her chest: “It annoys me that the government boasts about how quickly and efficiently it has made good the damage, when that is its responsibility. Not everything it says is true, some things are lies.
There are people who lost their homes 20 years ago because of a cyclone and they still haven’t given them a home. It also annoys me that the government and the press in Cuba don’t like to recognise the important role played by Cuban families living abroad.
They never publicise the amount of money sent, but it is thousands of millions of dollars. A greater percentage of Cubans can eat and live better because of that money. Now, following the tornado, while the state asks for a mountain of paperwork to give you sand, blocks and cement, and lets everyone know about it, a friend of mine who lives in Miami sent me $500 to fix the roof of my house, without any of that stupid nonsense.”
If there is one thing ordinary Cubans agree about is that the efforts of thousands of people in Havana was impressive. We have never seen such an enormous and spontaneous movement. Hopefully this feeling of togetherness will continue.
Photo: The singer Haydée Milanés, with sunglasses, was one of the first artists who, of her own accord arranged donations for neighbours affected by the tornado, which caused fatalities, injuries and a lot of damage in various parts of Havana on the night of Sunday January 27th, 2019. Afterwards, again, of their own free will, dozens of musicians, comedians, actors, sportsmen, informal journalists and private business people joined in.
Translated by GH