Easterners in Havana: An Exodus Hushed Up by the Cuban Regime / Ivan Garcia

Terminal-de-Trenes-de-La-Habana-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 30 May 2015 — One hot and boring night, drinking a tear-inducing moonshine, Yosvany and a group of friends in a remote sugar-workers’ town in Yateras, Guantanamo province, more than a 600 miles east of Havana, made plans to relocate to the capital to try to change their future.

“The village where we lived isn’t even on the map. It’s in a mountainous region and there the routine for most young people is drinking alcohol, breaking horses, and going to bed early. The school dropout rate is high and many girls as young as 14 or 15 are already mothers. This hamlet is the closest thing to hell,” says Yosvany, seated on his bicycle-taxi.

Two days later, Yosvany and his partners took a train to the capital. After 22 hours of travel, including police checkpoints where they were searched for cheese, coffee or marijuana, they arrived at the supposed El Dorado.

“I had only seen Havana on television. I’d never seen so many cars or tall buildings, like the FOCSA or the Habana Libre hotel. The first pictures I sent my parents were in front of the El Capitolio, like all the peasants, and drinking beer from a can in a Havana bar. It’s true that the city is grimy and dilapidated, but compared to the eastern provinces, it’s Miami,” he says.

Like Yosvany, there are hundreds of easterners in Havana. In an unfriendly euphemism of official jargon, they are labeled a “floating population.” According to the last National Census of Population and Housing, half a million fellow citizens live in the city in true legal limbo.

Since 1997 a shameful Legislative Decree (number 217) has been in place that prohibits anyone not born in the capital from settling in it. Apartheid in its purest form.

While the campaigns of Cuban dissidents pound away against the arbitrary excesses of power, the repression of those who think differently, and the flagrant violations of political rights, this infamous legislation gets a pass.

An example. The spurious Law 88, which imposes a 20-year prison term on dissident journalists or human rights activists, remains on the books, but is not enforced. Quite the opposite occurs with Legislative Decree 217.

If you walk around in the shanty towns on the outskirts of Havana, crowded with filthy hovels made of aluminum and cardboard, without electricity or sanitation, you can find out what it means to live being hounded by a law.

These families live in no man’s land, in an undefined status. For them bureaucratic records do not exist. They are not listed in the Civil Registry or in the OFICODA, the organization that implements the rationing of housing.

14 years ago, Magda came from Mayari, in Granma province, 500 miles from the capital. Her life is comparable to that of a gypsy. “My three children are illegals at school. I’m in the paperwork to legalize a room I built in San Miguel del Padron. We don’t have a ration book to buy the official basic food basket and we can’t get work because we’re undocumented.”

Thanks to the underground economy, Magda earns money that she couldn’t even dream of in her province. “My husband collects money for the ’bolita’ (illegal lottery), and together with some friends we put on a cockfight every weekend. Every month that business earns you good money. I sell what shows up, from ground-peanut bars to bath sponges. Easterners are fighters by nature. We do jobs that Havanans avoid.”

Police harassment of the illegal Easterners is constant. In the overcrowded neighborhoods of Old Havana, police officers dressed in black with German shepherds are on the lookout.

“They look like Nazis. They’ve sent me back to Santiago three times. But I managed to return. There it’s really hard. The “empty pockets” and the people don’t have the means to thrive. In the capital opportunity abounds. There are lots of under-the-table businesses,” says Ernesto, an industrial technician who spent six years living illegally in Havana.

According to Ernesto, the police are the most dangerous. “Almost all of them are Easterners, but they won’t leave their fellow countrymen alone. But because there’s so much corruption, you can take care of it with money. The other problem is that many Havanans see us as intruders, saying we’ve come to take their jobs. They call us ’Palestinians’ and have given us a reputation as drunks and snitches.”

One afternoon in 2009, Ernesto decided to burn all his bridges. He sold his house in the Chicharrones slum in Santiago de Cuba, and put up a covered corral on the outskirts of Havana where he breeds more than 50 pigs.

“I make my living selling pigs. I fatten them with feed bought in state warehouses and scraps that are available from school cafeterias. The headache is the police, who will not let you live. To be a paperless easterner in Havana is to live in constant fear. Apparently Fidel and Raul don’t remember that they are easterners too,” he says.

In every municipality of Havana, illegal eastern refugees survive underground. However they can. Driving a bicycle taxi, raising pigs, or prostituting themselves. Always on the razor’s edge.

Iván García

Photo: Havana Train Terminal, arrival point for most Cubans arriving from the eastern provinces. Despite the existence of a decree-law prohibiting it, they are moving to the capital in search of a better future for themselves and their families. Taken from the blog La Santanilla.