Cubanet, Rafael Alcides, Havana, 10 April 2015 – Havana sixty years ago was a pretty city—clean, young and with no thieves of any consequence in the neighborhood. Around 9:00 at night the garbage truck would make its rounds. It was a regular truck, not one of those modern-day versions that look like interplanetary spaceships. It carried four workmen—two standing and holding on to the rear of the truck, flanking it—the other two at the top. Upon hearing the bell signaling the truck’s approach, the neighbors would hastily place the garbage can at the door, the two men from the rear would toss it with great flair to the ones at the top of the truck, those men would fling it back with equal style, and the can would be placed once again by the door. It was painful to watch them do this work that would cause the street to be enveloped in the stench of rotten melons. However, these men, with the elegance and precision with which they went about their task, made it seem like they were playing an individual basketball game. How many of these vehicles the city possessed, I don’t know, but your neighborhood truck would show up every night, through rain, a cold snap, or the coming of a hurricane.
This was not all.
In the afternoons, a crop duster would fly overhead, fumigating against flies and mosquitoes, and at dawn, Havana smelled clean. Overnight, its streets had been washed down and whisked with the metal brush that was applied between the road and the sidewalk by a powerful machine. The sewer manholes had their covers, the sanitation system was inspected every week, power outages were unknown, and Havana gave the impression of a city inhabited by people who had never done harm to anyone and therefore could live without fear, despite this being a time when the din of sudden gunfire was commonly heard along with the eruption of firecrackers. In the residential neighborhoods open planting beds were common, and in the traditional El Vedado neighborhood, the little foot-and-a-half high wall was established by municipal ordinance.
Not even the multimillionaire Sarrá** was allowed to hide his mansion behind the sinister metal sheeting so reminiscent of the Nazi crematoria, so in-vogue today among the nascent New Man of the Havana bourgeoisie, with the addition of a pair of large dogs prowling the yard, fierce as lions—whose daily upkeep costs as much as a doctor’s retirement—plus the requisite car alarm. Even regular Joe Schmoes who once had to sell their toilets just to survive have assumed a “bunker mentality,” securing their doors and windows with iron grilles.
It is true that in that Havana prior to the advent of The New Man, the car would slumber near the front door and awaken with its four tires, battery, radio and windshields intact. The petty thief of those days didn’t venture beyond the occasional shirt or boxer shorts fished through a window with a wire coat hanger hooked to the end of a broomstick. You would open the door upon awakening in the morning, and there would be the milk bottle and bread sack that had been left on your stoop. It is also true that, day or night, a generally friendly foot cop (the mean ones were in the squad cars) would guard the block with monastic devotion, he would stop to chat with the neighbors and, where least expected, there he would be, with his whistle and club. The night patrols of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) have not been able to take their place.
Back then Havana had a slum neighborhood called, “Las Yaguas.” Today it has dozens. The lack of employment had stimulated the presence of door-to-door salesmen and street vendors, persons generally lacking much education. This army’s ranks have increased a hundredfold, and now includes the university professional who in his free time will come to sell you ham, powdered milk, and olive oil. Even the vendor of bleach and brooms, which he lugs on his shoulders, is a high school graduate or mid-grade technician. Amongst female and male prostitutes, a doctoral degree is not uncommon.
It is appalling to see so much bad taste on display in today’s Havana; to see the ruins that make some of its central areas reminiscent of the London depicted in the RKO Pathé newsreels at end of the Second World War; to feel the funereal shudder of buildings that haven’t been painted in years; to contemplate the orthopedics present in a storefront converted into jerry-built housing by a bricklayer without resources; to walk through the streets at dark with the fear of being flattened by a falling balcony. Yes, we have things now that we didn’t have before. The infant mortality rate has been reduced to insignificance, and the embargo continues. But, Ladies and Gentlemen, 56 years have passed, not two or three. Fifty-six: the age of the Republic that is gone with the wind.
About the Author
Rafael Alcides was born in Barrancas, municipal district of Bayamo (Cuba) in 1933. A poet and storyteller, he was a master baker in his teen years. He has worked as a farmhand, cane cutter, logger, wrecking crew cook, and manager of a sundries store in a cane-cutters’ outpost. In Havana in the 1950s he worked variously as a mason, broad-brush painter, exterminator, insurance agent, and door-to-door salesman. In 1959 he was the chief information officer for the Department of Latin American Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Relations, and spokesman of this agency in a daily television program in which he hosted and interviewed foreign political personalities. He was chief press officer and director of Cultural Affairs in the Revolutionary Delegation of the National Capitol.
Among his most recently-published titles are the poetry collections, GMT(2009), For an Easter Bush (2011), Travel Log (2011), Anthologies, in Collaboration with Jaime Londoño (2013), Conversations with God(2014), the journalistic Memories of the Future (2011), the multi-part novel, Ciro’s Ring (2011), and the story collection, A Fairy Tale That Ends Badly (2014).
As of 1993, he had been employed by the Cuban Institute of Radio & Television for more than 30 years as a scriptwriter, announcer, director and literary commentator when, at that time, he ceased all publishing and literary work in collaboration with regime in Cuba. As a participant in numerous international literary events, Rafael Alcides has given conferences and lectures in countries in Central and South America, Europe, and the Middle East. His texts have been translated into many languages. He was honored with two Premios de la Crítica, and a third for a novel co-written with another author. In 2011 he received theCafé Bretón & Bodegas Olarra de Prosa Española prize.
*The author is likely making a play on the title of the novel, Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell, which is translated into Spanish as, “Lo Que el Viento Se Llevó” – literally, “What the Wind Swept Away.”
**The Sarrá family was prominent in the pharmaceutical industry in pre-1959 Havana.
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison