Iván García , 22 June 2016 — The park at Galiano and San Rafael is a beehive of activity. At one end, several teenagers play soccer, using a school desk as the goal, while 50 men and women are connecting to the Internet, sitting on wooden benches or the ground.
Conversations with relatives or friends mix together. Here the wifi is confined exclusively to talking with family through IMO or chatting on Facebook, the island’s new virtual drug.
Of course it’s also used to flirt with a foreigner, commit camouflaged prostitution or request money from a cousin in Hialeah. Darío, an old man of indefinite age, among the hubbub and heat, sells salted peanuts at one peso a cone.
The peanut seller remembers that three months before, on Tuesday, March 22, a disproportionate police deployment in the park scared off the hustlers, prostitutes and marginal people.
“It was already known that Obama was going to give a speech in the Gran Teatro of Habana, on Prado between San Rafael and San José, beside the Capitolio. The whole zone was taken; I never saw so many security guards together. In the neighborhood they said that Obama was going to walk along the San Rafael boulevard and talk with the people. The police let pass only those who lived around there. They told people to remain at home,” recalls Darío.
Erasmo, who resells Internet cards, comments that “on that day the businesses were basically quiet. Throughout Central Havana there wasn’t a prostitute, drunk or beggar scavenging food in a garbage bin. I went up to the roof with a friend, and with my mobile phone, I recorded the moment when The Beast — Cadillac One — arrived at the San Cristóbal paladar [home restaurant], on San Rafael between Campanario and Lealtad,” he comments, and he shows his video as evidence.
“I’m never going to erase this from my phone. This was the most important day of my life,” Erasmo adds.
After crossing Galiano, the multi-colored, narrow streets of San Rafael are less agitated. Ruined shells of buildings, women always selling something and a swarm of private shops.
Roger, nicknamed “El Pali”, is an extroverted, talkative guy who sells bananas and meat in a State agro-market on the corner of San Rafael and Campanario. He confesses that he’s an “excluded.”
“I was a prisoner in the U.S. Then I was released, but I went back in the tank for a robbery in New Jersey. In any event, I’m more American than Cuban. Before they sent me back to Cuba I was in the U.S. for 22 years. I even have a son over there. The day the President arrived,” — his work buddies laughed their heads off — ” I planted myself on the balcony of a friend’s house with an American flag and yelled in English. I don’t know if Obama heard me, but before he went into the paladar, it looked like he saw me on the balcony,” said El Pali.
On the same block where the private restaurant, San Cristóbal, is located, there are seven small family businesses. Barbara rents out rooms, and in a narrow apartment which looks out on the street, Sara, an old retired woman, sells freshly-ground coffee. Just in a house next to the paladar, a poster indicates that the president of the CDR resides there.
“But the woman never does anything. She also was with the neighborhood people at the party, getting drunk with those who came to see Obama,” says a blond in denim shorts and rubber flip-flops.
In the doorway of the San Cristóbal paladar, at 469 San Rafael between Lealtad and Campanario, the doorman, a corpulent negro dressed in a red shirt and dark pants, is on the hunt for clients with a menu in his hand.
But his excessive prices horrify the average Havanan. A plate costs around 30 dollars. And a good mojito, six. “Eating there can give you a heart attack. But you have to go with a suitcase full of money,” says a neighbor.
The doorman, friendly and relaxed, was there on the night of Sunday, March 20, when Obama’s wife, two daughters and mother-in-law went to dine at San Cristóbal.
“There was tremendous intrigue in the neighborhood. The zone was full of police. In the morning some gringos came and told Raisa and Cristóbal, the owners, to reserve all the tables, that some American officials were coming for dinner that night. No one imagined that it was Obama. I saw him from the same distance that I’m talking with you. The President and his wife shook my hand. I went for a week without washing it,” he says, smiling.
Ninety days after Obama’s visit, Carlos Cristóbal Márquez Valdés’ business has benefited. “A lot of foreigners want to sit at the same table and eat the same meal as Obama. Thanks to Saint Obama, the paladar is always full,” affirms the doorman.
Walking in a straight line down San Rafael, leaving the boulevard and going down the busy street of Obispo up to Oficios, in a small garden at the back of the Rubén Martínez Villena municipal library, Michelle Obama, her daughters, Sasha and Malia, and her mother, Marian, planted two magnolia bushes.
“The magnolia is a shrub that survived the epoch of the dinosaurs. An American told me that the variety planted belongs to the Magnolia virginiana. On the morning of March 22, I had the luck to see the First Lady and her daughters when they came to plant the flowers. I was very happy, since in the late afternoon on Sunday the 20th, it rained a lot, and I couldn’t see Obama at the Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral,” relates Alberto, a used-book seller in Old Havana.
Michelle Obama, a sponsor of the Let Girls Learn project, on Monday, March 21, joined a dozen students in the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, on Calle 26 at the corner of 11th, Vedado. The meeting barely was mentioned in the press, and it wasn’t possible to identify any of the young women participants.
Although the trivialities and the sensationalism caused by President Barack Obama’s travels throughout the world also affect the people of Havana, many think the most impressive part of his visit was the speech he gave in the Gran Teatro de La Habana. And they are sure that after March 20, 2016, Cuba will not be the same.
Martí Noticias, June 20, 2016.
Translated by Regina Anavy