Iván García, 21 March 2017 — In the slum of Lawton, south of Havana, the need for housing has converted an old collective residence with narrow passageways into a bunkhouse. With dividers made from cardboard or bricks recovered from demolished buildings, “apartments” have appeared where a dozen families reside, living on the razor’s edge.
Among the blasting Reggaeton music and illegal businesses, cane alcohol, stolen the night before from a state distillery, is sold and later used in the preparation of home-made rum; or clothing with pirated labels, bought in bulk from stalls in Colón, a stone’s throw from the Panama Canal. A while back, when cattle were slaughtered in the Lawton or Virgen del Camino slaughterhouses, you could get beef at the wholesale price.
These overpopulated townships in the capital are cradles of prostitution, drugs and illegal gambling. Lawton, like no other neighborhood in Havana, is the “model” for marginalization and crime. People live from robbing state institutions, selling junk or whatever falls from a truck.
But don’t talk to them about political reforms, ask them to endorse a dissident party or protest about the brutal beatings that the political police give a few blocks away to the Ladies in White, who every Sunday speak about political prisoners and democracy in Cuba.
Let’s call him Miguel, a guy who earns money selling marijuana, psychotropic substances or cambolo, a lethal mix of cocaine with a small dose of bicarbonate. He’s been in prison almost a third of his life. He had plans to emigrate to the United States but interrupted them after Obama’s repeal of the “wet foot-dry foot” policy.
Miguel has few topics of conversation. Women, sports, under-the-table businesses. His life is a fixed portrait: alcohol, sex and “flying,” with reddened eyes from smoking marijuana.
When you ask his opinion about the dissident movement and the continued repression against the Ladies in White, he coughs slightly, scratches his chin, and says: “Man, get off that channel. Those women are crazy. This government of sons of bitches that we have, you aren’t going to bring it down with marches or speeches. If they don’t grab a gun, the security forces will always kick them down. They’re brave, but it’s not going to change this shitty country.”
Most of the neighbors in the converted bunkhouse think the same way. They’re capable of jumping the fence of a State factory to rob two gallons of alcohol, but don’t talk to them about politics, human rights or freedom of expression.
“Mi amor, who wants to get into trouble? The police have gone nuts with the businesses and prostitution. But when you go down the path of human rights, you’re in trouble for life,” comments Denia, a matron.
She prefers to speak about her business. From a black bag she brings out her Huawei telephone and shows several photos of half-nude girls while chanting out the price. “Look how much money. Over there, whoever wants can beat them up,” says Denia, referring to the Ladies in White.
Generally, with a few exceptions, the citizens of the Republic of Cuba have become immune or prefer to opt for amnesia when the subjects of dissidence, freedom and democracy are brought up.
“There are several reasons. Pathological fear, which certainly infuses authoritarian societies like the Cuban one. You must add to that the fact that the Government media has known very well how to sell the story of an opposition that is minimal, divided and corrupt, interested only in American dollars,” affirms Carlos, a sociologist.
Also, the dissidence is operating on an uneven playing field. It doesn’t have hours of radio or television coverage to spread its political programs. The repression has obligated hundreds of political opponents to leave the country. And State Security has infiltrated moles in almost all the dissident groups.
“The special services efficiently short-circuit the relation of the neighbors of the barrio and the people who support the dissidence. How do you overcome that abyss? By expanding bridges to the interior of the Island. I believe the opposition is more focused on political crusades toward the exterior. The other is to amplify what the majority of Cubans want to hear: There isn’t food; to buy a change of clothing costs a three months’ salary; the terrible transport service; the water shortage….There is a long list of subjects the dissidents can exploit,” says Enrique.
I perceive that around 80 percent of the population has important common ground with the local opposition. The timid economic openings and repeals of absurd regulations were always claimed by the dissidence, from greater autonomy for private work, foreign travel or being tourists in their own country.
According to some dissidents, many neighbors approach them to say hello and delve into the motives for their detentions after a brutal verbal lynching or a beating. But there aren’t enough.
Rolando Rodríguez Lobaina, the leader of the Alianza Democrática Oriental (Eastern Democratic Alliance) and director of Palenque Visión (Palenque Vision), felt frustrated when street protests demanding rights for everybody were taking place, and people were only watching from the curb of a sidewalk.
“One night I was in the hospital’s emergency room, since my son had a high fever, and I initiated a protest because of the poor medical attention. Several patients were in the same situation. But no one raised their voice when the patrols arrived and the political police detained me by force. That night I realized that I had to change my method to reach ordinary Cubans. Perhaps the independent press is a more effective way,” Lobaina told me several months ago in Guantánamo.
Although independent journalists reflect that other Cuba that the autocracy pretends to ignore, their notes, reports or complaints have a limited reach because of the lack of Internet service and the precariousness of their daily lives.
For the majority of citizens, democracy, human rights and freedom of expression are not synonymous with a plate of food, but with repression. How to awaken a Cuban from indifference is a good question for a debate.
Translated by Regina Anavy