Iván García , 21 February 2017 — The wood charcoal embers are slowly browning half a dozen kebabs with vegetables, pineapples and pieces of pork, while, on a shelf, the flies are hovering around the steamed corn cobs.
From very early in the morning, Jesús, a chubby mulatto with calloused hands, gets on with cooking chicken, pork fillets and sautéed rice, to sell later in his small mobile shop positioned in a large car park, at the main entrance to the International Book Fair in Havana.
A line of kiosks with aluminium tubes and coloured canvas tops offer local favourites, like bread with suckling pig, ham and cheese sandwiches, jellies, mineral water and canned drinks.
“My kiosk specialises in dishes from San Miguel de Padrón. But the truth is that in this particular fair, sales are sluggish. Mainly because the organisers prohibited the sale of alcohol. You can forget about books and all that intellectual shit, you have to give Cubans beer and reguetón if you want them to feel happy – the rest is secondary”, says Jesús.
Thursday February 16th started off rainy in Havana. Idelfonso, a self-employed clown, looks up at the overcast sky and mutters, “if it starts raining again, they’ll have to take the circus and its tent away, because no-one will bring their kids in bad weather. This fair has been pretty bad for us. No-one has any money, and those who do prefer to spend it on books and food”, he says, in his bear get-up.
In different parts of the car park, private businesses rent out inflatable toys for fifteen pesos for the kids to bounce about for thirty minutes, and five pesos for a quick ride on a horse.
“Many families don’t come to buy books. They would rather their kids enjoyed themselves playing with the equipment. There are hardly any amusement parks in the capital”, says Rita, who deals with charging for the horses.
Families and groups of friends lay towels out on the grass and picnic on a hill from where you get a unique view of the city across the bay.
Gerard, a young man with tattooed forearms, feels uncomfortable. He tells his wife to go off with the kid to play with the inflatable toys while he complains about the lack of any beer.
“These people are really party poopers. Whose idea was it to stop selling lager and nips of rum? I can’t imagine it was because of Fidel Castro’s death, as the bloke has been pushing up daisies for over two months now”, moans Gerard, knocking back a lemonade as a temporary solution to the matter.
Dora and Germán come from El Cotorro, in south west Havana, with two enormous bags to buy “fifteen or twenty boxes of drink. We have a cafe and we buy stuff here for ten pesos and then we sell them there for twenty. If we have time, we buy a few books for our grandchildren”.
The Book Fair always was a good excuse for thousands of Habaneros to amuse themselves. Kids skipping classes looking over displays of foreign books, inveterate bookworms, pseudo intellectuals who take the opportunity to come over as writers, the peripheral catwalk of hustlers and pickpockets selling tourists fake Cohíba cigars made in shacks in deepest Havana.
But this time the organisers decided to put a stop to “sideshows which have nothing to do with reading”, says Idalia, a Editora Abril bookseller, who adds:
“The fair has been turned into a mess. Like a strip club. Hustlers who came to pull foreigners and people with money who have never read a book and were downing beers ’til closing time. The number of people coming here has definitely fallen, as nearly two million people came here two years ago. Now the numbers have fallen to less than half” says Idalia, who, in exchange for offering her opinions for Martí Noticias, asks me to buy some books.
“The thing is, we get commission on our sales. And we aren’t selling much”, she emphasises. From the books on display, I choose the biography of Raúl Castro written by Nikolai Leonov, an ex high-up in the KGB and personal friend of the Carribean autocrat.
The book, which looks good, costs 30 pesos, equivalent to three times the daily minimum wage in Cuba. According to the official press, it is the best selling book of the year. Idalia thinks differently.
“You can put any rubbish you like on paper. They give the book, just like they did with Fidel’s, as gifts to lots of people who attend events, and then they record them as sales. And, being prioritised by the printers, they have gigantic print-runs, and are on sale in all the bookshops in the country. But, I haven’t seen too much enthusiasm among Cuban readers for Raúl’s biography. Foreign lefties certainly do buy books dedicated to Fidel”, she tells me.
Although the present Book Fair is dedicated to Canada and the tedious state official Armando Hart Dávalos, the dead Fidel Castro is the prime actor.
There is no lack of sets of Fidel Castro’s speeches on the local publishers’ stands, a revised edition of History will Absolve Me and cartoon books eulogising the dictator from Birán.
“God help us! Fidel everywhere”, says a lady walking through the Mexican pavilion looking for a diary she has promised her granddaughter. The foreign publishers are the busiest, in spite of the high foreign currency prices.
They also sell pirate Leo Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar teeshirts, as well as a collection of Barcelona and Real Madrid posters. A Mexican bookseller tells us that “We take advantage of the fact that Cubans like football, and so we push this merchandise”.
At midday St Charles Fort looks just like an informal flea market. A few serious readers sit down, leaning against the ancient cannons which protect the fort, in order to read George Orwell’s 1984 or a Gabriel García Márquez novel.
The less serious fill up nylon bags with books on spritual advice or magazines about fashion and cooking. Then they form a little queue at the exit from La Cabaña, to get the bus going to the centre of Havana.
Few visitors know the dark history of the fort, an ancient prison and location of hundreds of firing squads for Castro opponents. The thing is that in Cuba the disinformation, fear of knowing the truth, and amnesia help people live apathetic and apolitical lives.
Translated by GH