A Speech and a Cyclone / Yoani Sánchez

A zinc roof tile flies off, performing an incredible choreography in the air before falling onto the roof of another building. The winds of the tropical storm Paula tore off branches, caused 22 buildings to collapse in Havana, and left us without power for more than a day. On an island accustomed to the passage of powerful hurricanes, this little meteor with a woman’s name has been a disagreeable surprise, keeping us semi-paralyzed for more than 24 hours. It was so unexpected because the media, not wanting to trigger an alarm, underestimated the effects of the wind and rain. Nor did they take into account the country’s housing stock, so deteriorated that any meteorological phenomenon can wreak havoc.

After Paula made landfall in the town of Artemisa, people were simply cursing the Institute of Meteorology and assessing the damage, obviously upset. The storm caught many of us off-guard — in the street, in schools, in workplaces — because the Civil Defense institutions never called for people to leave work or school and take cover. We all thought it would be enough to carry an umbrella that day, but we could barely open it in the midst of the gale. I myself was left stranded at the entrance to the tunnel on Linea Street, fearing that at any moment the waters would rise and cut the city in two. Fortunately a friend rescued me in his car but when I got home the situation was alarming. There, fourteen floors above ground, I could see things flying around, trees falling, and the dangerous dance of the palms, bent nearly double, on Independence Avenue. We hadn’t prepared ourselves for this. What was going on?

More than a cyclone, Paula was the evidence that our authorities couldn’t bear to add one more ounce of discomfort to our already tense reality. At other times, they would have announced, ad nauseum, that we should reinforce our windows, stay on top of the news, and buy candles and batteries to prepare for possible blackouts. But this time their silence revealed guidance coming from above not to create any kind of nervousness among the citizenry. But we have paid dearly for that silence and today the worry and distrust in the streets is on the rise, because for many it has become clear that a good part of the buildings that make up this city cannot withstand a stronger hurricane. The feeling of helplessness is growing.

Curiously, on the evening of that windy rainy Thursday, the television news spent almost half an hour reading the fourth part of a long reflection written by Fidel Castro. Under the title, “The Empire From Within,” the former president devoted himself to reeling off internal details of American politics, while in his own backyard we were all expecting news of the tropical storm. The announcer, in his pompous tones, read the lengthy text while hundreds of thousands of viewers lost patience on our side of the screen and got up from our chairs. It seemed that no danger was befalling us, to judge by the share of prime time occupied by the Maximum Leader’s diatribe against the United States government. We ended up knowing more about Barack Obama’s private conversations, than about the damage caused by Paula in her passage through our country. It might appear that we Cubans swallow such absurdities with patience and move on, but that’s not the case; what remains in us is the irritation. The annoyance caused by seeing how something so important and momentous in our everyday lives is whisked away by political discourse, and how empty phrases and the mania to always look for the mote in another’s eye, keeps us from feeling the enormous stick in our own that is blinding us. Disgust, yes, because even the mention of a storm coming is concealed by politicians who have determined that it is not convenient to deliver bad news.

It makes you want to urge the families who lost their homes to Paula — the phenomenon we didn’t see coming — to assemble at the same television studio where they hid the truth, or at the office where it was decided that it would be better not to alert people of the danger. Not one of those who cautiously held back the news this time has lost their roof, no one who ordered the newspapers not to contribute to the shock is sleeping under the open sky tonight. For them, it was just a tropical storm that faded away after it left Cuba; for many others it will always be the day they witnessed their home collapse, or the day on which, finally, they lost their faith in the official media.

Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

This article originally appeared in Spanish in Penultimos Dias.

October 20, 2010