14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 30 July 2015 — Every city has its nerve centers, and one of Havana’s is where Monte, Cristina, Arroyo, and Matadero Streets intersect, and where the “Mercado Único” (“The Only Market”), also known as “Cuatro Caminos” (“Four Roads”), is located. This nearly one hundred year-old colossus has been closed since February 2014, in the hope that a renovation project could help it regain some of its former splendor. Nevertheless, the slow pace threatens to weaken the economy of the surrounding community even more than it already is.
If the question was where to find sapodilla, eggfruit, or delicious soursop, the answer was – until a little more then a year and a half ago – “go to ‘La Plaza,’” or “The Square.” Every inhabitant of Havana knew that “going to ‘La Plaza’” meant going to the former “Mercado General de Abasto y Consumo” (“The General Dry Goods and Provisions Market”), opened to the pubic in 1920 by its original owner, businessman and politician Alfredo Hornedo Suárez.
Havana’s City Hall played favorites with Mr. Hornedo Suárez’s market by forbidding any similar establishment within a 1.5-mile radius, hence “Mercado Único,” or “The Only Market”. This advantage allowed Cuatro Caminos to reign supreme for almost half a century until 1959 when it was turned into a warehouse. During the Revolutionary Offensive of 1968, the top floor was closed, allegedly because it was too run-down.
In the middle of the 1980’s, during the “rectification of errors and negative tendencies” campaign, Cuatro Caminos – with a horn of plenty affixed to its façade – became a battlefield between peasants who did not work for the state and the government. Now the market displays the scars of the economic ups and downs the country has endured in the last fifty years, as well as the authorities’ hostility toward independent distributors and merchants.
Nonetheless, the importance of this yellow and red behemoth not only rested on the assortment of fruits and vegetables available there, which were far better than at any other Havana market. Cuatro Caminos was the epicenter for the sale of herbs, live animals, and other essential items for Santería rituals. From several living rooms in homes in the immediate area some people still try selling husks, necklaces, clothing for statues of the saints, flowers, candles, basil, hens, and pigeons. But it is just not the same.
On July 28th, 72-year-old Israel was looking for the clay pots he still needed for his niece’s Santería initiation ceremony the following weekend. “The list of what I want is very long. You used go to Cuatro Caminos and find everything you needed,” he explained. For the moment, customers have to visit several of Havana’s shopping areas to find all the articles required for Santería rituals. One of these locales is the market on Egido Street, but which is too small to accommodate all of Cuatro Caminos’ merchants.
Just by crossing Cuatro Camino’s entrance it is quite evident that the restoration work is not going anywhere. On July 27th, a couple of men were straightening a few steel rods, while pedestrians who passed by tried sidestepping the dirty water, dust, and urine that collects behind the columns. No one has an expected date or timetable for the renovation’s completion.
The upper floor has been closed for decades now. Sunlight pierces the holes in the roof, and is then filtered through skylights, some of which are missing glass. The only thing left of the basement is a crater-like hole where a few stray dogs have found refuge. All of the Cuatro Caminos’ 108,000 square feet seem to be screaming out for the restoration to be completed as quickly as possible, but the authorities are taking their time.
Now water from the rainstorms of the past few weeks has collected inside the market, having flowed downward to this low-lying area where Central Havana, Old Havana and Cerro Districts converge. Add to this cracked columns, a roof that is barely holding up, and a stench coming from stalls – where vendors once hawked tamarinds and oranges – that is akin to being punched in the face. The decline of this emblematic marketplace has also dragged down many adjacent businesses with it.
“The community depends on this market working right,” explained an elderly man selling disposables razors and small pictures of saints at one of the markets’ exterior walls. Fortunetellers, plumbers, pedicab drivers, sellers of peanuts in paper cones, people who offer to watch one’s car for a fee – who now are so bored they just fall asleep – and even prostitutes who offer their services to Cubans, are all counting the days until the reopening of “La Plaza,” their “Plaza.”
“I guess what we need is a decision from the top,” said Gretel, a thirty-something who used to rent out rooms in her house to truckers from other provinces who supplied merchandise to the Cuatro Caminos. “My business has collapsed,” she added. Area residents now rarely walk down those same streets that used to teem with handcarts, people carrying bags, and lots of yelling. Under the shade of the La Plaza de Cuatro Caminos a man hawked copies of the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma, but there are no takers. Sitting against the wall, bored and weary, he fanned himself with a copy. The headline read: “The People’s Victory!”
Translated by José Badu´