14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodriguez, Havana, October 20, 2021 — “Mom, I want to go see the dolphins.” Ana Laura — mother of a seven-year-old boy fascinated with the prospect of seeing these animals at the National Aquarium of Cuba in Havana — heard this refrain thousands of times over the course of a year. After months of confinement due to the pandemic, the child’s dream was finally fulfilled, though only partly. As they went from one fish tank to another, initial expressions of joy on the boy’s face turned to pouting.
The marine nature center has entertained and educated visitors since its founding in 1960. Due to lack of investment over the years, however, it has become a place of decay, with slippery floors caused by leaks from the fish tanks, large sections closed to the public due to lack of maintenance and a dearth of food choices.
Dozens of families flocked to the facility on the morning it reopened early this month. It now operates in two shifts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with a total of only 150 people allowed inside. After the reopening was announced, many Havana residents with fond memories of the place felt compelled to return to the site at Third Avenue and 62nd Street in Miramar.
What they found, however, is far removed from the luminous aquarium of memory, which featured a diversity of species and beautiful sections painted in a refreshing aquamarine that mimicked the color of the sea. “It makes you want to run away rather than stay,” complained a frustrated father who was visiting the aquarium with his two daughters.
“Everything here is dirty, destroyed or falling apart. The water is so dirty that even the fish look sad. And they pass that sadness along to the visitors,” laments one grandmother, who had been excited to bring her grandson here for the first time. Little by little, however, she came to regret filling his head with so many stories that bore no resemblance to the reality they encountered.
“If you want a soft drink, you have to bring a plastic bottle from home. They sell soft drinks on tap but they don’t have glasses. There is a little amusement park here with some rides inside but, if you bring your kids to it, it’s better not walk past the fish tanks. They’re so broken it’s depressing,” she adds.
“You have to come with a minor so you can get a ticket to buy packet of candy pills. You also have to bring along an empty bag otherwise you won’t have awywhere to put them,” says the grandmother. “If you’re an adult who’s come alone and are looking for something to eat, don’t bother because you’re going to leave with an empty stomach.”
“The only thing enjoyable is watching them feed the the sea lions. It was the only time where we felt like we were in an aquarium. By the way, the animals looked very hungry. A sea lion named Aisha escaped and ran into the crowd, desperate for something to eat.”
A metal barrier blocks access to a corridor where, previously, visitors could view a series of fish tanks containing moray eels, crabs, a variety of anemones and colorful fish that are native to Cuban waters. On Wednesday all that could be seen from the outside was a flooded floor, moldy walls and dirty windows without any sign of life behind them.
Unpainted walls, ceilings in galleries with signs of moisture damage and poor lighting round out the sad picture. Three wooden supports prevent a piece of a cornice — it is just above a painting of three leaping dolphins outside of the dolphinarium — from falling off. A mound of unprotected building material nearby gives the impression of a construction project left unfinished for several days or weeks. Inside, the bleachers stand empty and the dolphin show is on hold because, according to an employee, “the animals have forgotten their routines.”
I told my son we were going to the aquarium. At least we’ve seen the fish,” says another mother, whose shoulders and face have been reddened by the sun in the extensive sections that do not provide protection from the solar rays. “Fortunately, we brought our own snacks and have enjoyed the sea breeze. Now we’re going home and we’ll see how that trip goes.”
A few yards outside the entrance to the National Aquarium, dozens of people are trying to hail a cab to take them home. Children sit on the roots of nearby trees, waiting in the shade. They recount the details of the swing and the canal in the amusement park. The laugh about the bread and fish croquettes in the cafe. But not a word about the fish they had so much wanted to see.
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