Iván García , 3 November 2016 — Situated between sugar cane fields and with the Escambray mountain chain visible in the distance, at the side of the old Central Highway is the village of La Esperanza, part of Ranchuelo, one of the 13 towns of Villa Clara province, some 290 km east of Havana.
It’s an unpretentious village, similar to thousands of hamlets and little groups of outbuildings deep in the heart of Cuba. Smelling of molasses at sugar harvest time, a parish with commercial and neighbourhood life going on in the village park. A place where everybody knows everyone else. They know every family’s ins and outs, and outsiders live the life of Riley.
“The smaller the town, the worse the gossip. When my husband and I want to drink a few beers, we go to Santa Clara, the province capital, 16km from La Esperanza, because otherwise the comments start up right away: ’Look at that, those guys have money’. Here, people just have enough to get by, says Dianeye, 36-year-old mother of two children and wife of Servando, who has a 1936 Harley Davidson and is probably one of the most important guys in the village.
In La Esperanza, people count their centavos. In the El Colonial restaurant, at the side of the park, a lunch of white rice, pork chops, red beans, plantain chips and seasonal salad for 2 people costs 34 pesos, less than two dollars.
The currency exchange shop is empty. Two bored assistants chat about the current TV soap and one shows the other one how to connect to the internet via wifi on her cellphone, in order to sign up to Facebook.
“So that I can make friends”, says the girl. “She’s trying to get a boyfriend”, says her friend with a smile. And in these villages, getting married always affects the family’s future.
Dianeye knows it only too well. When she was fifteen, she married Servando, the father of her children. Often she rides pillion on the old Harley Davidson to get to out of the way places on the island. “Yes, once I wanted to move to Santa Clara or Havana, but I got over it. My husband built a good sheet metal house. After spending so much money we’re not going to leave the village, which isn’t very entertaining, but it is peaceful”, says Dianeye.
Peaceful and boring. In La Esperanza, minutes seem like hours. The clock stands still. You can chatter forever, and only four minutes will have passed. And the time also passes slowly if you decide to walk the two kilometers round the village.
The kids who have finished with high school, give each other moral support in the park. The pensioners read their single-focus national newspapers and talk about baseball, while they yawn. The drunks share a litre of Ron de Caña (Flor de Caña rum, made in Nicaragua) and when they are completely pissed they sleep it off on the red-painted iron and wood benches.
The bus that takes you here and there passes at certain times. If you want to go a short distance, you take a small horse and cart. A noisy out-of-date Girón bus (a type of bus introduced in the ’70’s to alleviate the transport problems of the time, also known as “aspirinas” — aspirins, because they helped a bit but didn’t cure the problem ), which has Cuban-made bodywork and a Soviet-era engine, and an exposed roof showing the metal structure, takes you the 16 km separating La Esperanza and Santa Clara.
Santa Clara, capital of Villa Clara province, is something else. Although still nothing to write home about. But it’s Cuba’s third or fourth town. In the avenues, there are more than enough slogans commemorating Che Guevara, a cantankerous Argentinian who occupied the town on New Year’s Eve 1958, during Fidel Castro’s guerrilla war.
Santa Clara has impersonal architecture. Self-built houses, groups of Socialist Realism buildings, same and ugly and planned without parks or leisure facilities. Some were built with ancient Yugoslavian technology, which town planners should not hesitate to knock down some time in the future.
Just as in La Esperanza, but occupying a larger space, you will find Leoncio Vidal Park, surrounded by baroque or classical-style buildings and a modernist-looking hotel, the Santa Clara Libre.
There are several excellent privately-owned restaurants. You can have a generous portion of prawns for 4 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC, about 4 dollars) and a medium size red snapper for 3 CUC. La Terraza is one of these eating places, located in a narrow alley close to Vidal Park. It’s always full of foreigners passing through Santa Clara.
There’s a wifi point in the park, where youngsters chat to their friends, suitors or family members, on their cellphones, using the IMO app. The older folk, with their portable radios, discuss the Villa Clara baseball team’s performance, play by play, in the National Series. The fans get their hopes up over their national team.
“It’s two years since Villa Clara qualified for the second round. Now we have a chance to put up a good show. I’m sure Alexander Malleta, reinforcement for the Industriales (a successful Cuban baseball team) will perform well”, says Mario, a total baseball fanatic.
The young people in Santa Clara, just like in the rest of the country, prefer football. And in the afternoons they get together in a cafe on the ground floor of the Santa Clara Libre Hotel to watch the Real Madrid or Barcelona Champions League games.
You need to be comfortably-off to go to this cafe. A beer costs 25% more than in other bars and it has a satellite tv channel. Around 11 at night, a dirty and half-naked crazy man begs for money from the regulars.
A security guard throws him out into the street. The number of beggars in Santa Clara is rocketing, just like in Havana and Santiago de Cuba. They are referred to as ’itinerants’ in government-speak.
There seem to be three things which can’t be dealt with in Cuba. The future, the invasive marabú weed, and poverty. Santa Clara is not exempt from any of these.
Translated by GH