Havana: City of the “Marvelous” Unreality / Jeovany Jimenez Vega

By Jeovany Jimenez Vega

Jean-Paul de la Fuente, director of New7Wonders, the Swiss foundation behind the online contest to name the seven most marvelous cities of the world, is visiting the Cuban capital. Having been received by Marta Hernández Romero, president of the Havana Provincial Assembly of Popular Power, and Eusebio Leal Spengler, city historian, already De la Fuente takes on, from the moment of his arrival, the typical profile of the tourist who, from his birds-eye view, cannot perceive to what unsuspected point it is difficult for the average Cuban to live in his beloved city.

I cannot understand how anyone who knows at least something of the functioning dynamic of the Cuban capital can propose this city as a contender for such a prize, much less the inexplicable manner in which Havana ended up on the final roster alongside such urban centers as Barcelona, Chicago, London and Mexico City.

From there we can only presume that all these persons who voted to keep La Giraldilla‘s city among the final contestants for membership in that select group of urban marvels have one thing in common: none of them live in a shanty town in El Cerro, in a tenement in Centro Habana or in Marianao on the banks of the Quibú River, subsisting on a salary of 20 dollars a month for sustaining his whole family; none has suffered seeing his child drool over the inaccessible toy; nor does he know what an “un-ration” book is, nor has he asked himself, at five in the afternoon, gazing into his empty larder, “What the fuck are we going to eat tonight?”

He has never endured standing in line for several hours to buy some semi-decomposed ground meat. He never rode at peak times on one of those dinosaur, two-humped “buses” we called “camels,” hanging from the door; nor has he (for decades!) been carrying water in buckets up to a 4th floor flat, or paying 100 pesos a pop for the indolence of the pertinent functionaries.

He has not been forced to live “temporarily” in a shelter (for 15 or 20 years!) after being left homeless by one of those all-too frequent building collapses that occur in this semi-destroyed city.

Enthusiasts could allege that this selection is based on rates of health and education that compose the standards of a deceptively high Index of Human Development — which paradoxically places us above such regional economic powers as Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, México and Brazil.

We would have to see if these enthusiasts would be so ardent after visiting a medical office (in terrible structural conditions), left empty because its doctor was dispatched by the government to a foreign mission — or because the doctor decided to leave the practice because working as a taxi driver provides a much better living.

One wonders if the enthusiasts would be less enthused upon visiting a hospital beset by similar disastrous structural problems, and where the doctors and allied professionals labor under dramatic levels of personal frustration. Such a scene can be perfectly extrapolated to the education sector — the Cuban government’s other trump card — which during the 2000s touched bottom, following Fidel Castro’s failed mega-experiment that brought it to ruin.

It turns out that Havana is (as is the rest of the reality that we Cubans live inside the island) of a complexity so grotesque at times and so subtle at others, that it becomes quite difficult to comprehend for someone who arrives, sips a daiquirí, and then returns to the comfort of his routine, as surely Mr. de la Fuente will, without managing to infer just how profoundly dysfunctional this city can be, a city that is now shown-off from the immaculate balconies of the Ministry of Tourism.

I do not speak solely of the deplorable state of our highway system, with its monumental and deep potholes and clogged storm drains; nor of the generalized absence of garbage containers which contributes to the filth in the streets; nor of the vacant tenements or the buildings in ruins.

The point, beyond all that, is a matter more grave and profound: it is about the incapacity of the Cuban government to solve our problems, and its lack of political will to open us up to the world; it is about the abusive pricing the government sets and the dual currency system it maintains; the punishing customs restrictions that effectively block the transport into the country of merchandise that would make our lives easier, and the oppressive reticence towards anything that would encourage our personal prosperity.

It is the absurd refusal to allow us to purchase an automobile at a minimally decent price, for example, thus to keep Havana still plagued by rickety cars left over from the first half of the last century; it is the systematic prohibition against our access to that same Internet that De la Fuente uses today to sponsor his contest and which is denied to the millions of us Cubans who live on the Island — and who do live on the banks of the Quibú River, eat decomposed ground soy meat, get around on primitive transportation, and cannot access the Internet — our legitimate right to post words like these on his site.

Finally, it is here that one would have to consider all of those “small things” that, all together, ultimately make this city “marvelous” — or asphyxiating — for the humans that reside in it. And up to this point, I have not mentioned at all fear, that ethereal resident of all cities in Cuba, and which is among its most hurtful complications: the fear of being annulled by an all-encompassing power that investigates and controls everything, so well-known by every opposition-member or dissident; this omnipresent fear whose intangible nature makes it impossible to include among the criteria considered in this brilliant contest from Switzerland, New7Wonders.

26 November 2014

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison