Havanans Await Obama with Anticipation or Indifference / Iván García

Waiting for Obama in Havana
Waiting for Obama in Havana

Ivan Garcia, 15 March 2016 — Sipping every now and then from a plastic bottle with murky spirits that brings tears to his eyes, Arsenio is trying to sell a collection of outdated junk and a handful of old magazines from when Fidel Castro predicted that the days of “Yankee Imperialism” were numbered.

With two down-at-the-heels partners, they’ve thrown down a raggedly red blanket where they’re showing off their inventory in a doorway on Carmen Street at the corner of Diez de Octubre, in the Vibora neighborhood, a half hour drive from downtown Havana.

A pair of worn out shoes, a cathode ray screen for a jurassic computer, and several Tricontinental magazines with phrased from Che Guevara manage to sell for 90 Cuban pesos (about 4 dollars) to an IT guy who buys used equipment to sell off the pieces.

“But I had to cart off the old shoes as well, which I will toss in the first container, and the magazines, but at least I can use them for toilet paper,” he said.

If Obama’s visit is a nuisance for some, it is the homeless who are swarming all over the city.

According to Arsenio, “Every time someone important comes to Cuba, the police collect all of us who sleep in the streets and put us in a shelter in Calabazar (to the south of the capital). When Pope Francis came in September, they picked me up. Now it’s rumored again that they are going to ’clean up.’ The good thing is you get breakfast, lunch and dinner and a bath with a pressure hose. The bad thing is that it looks like a prison.”

In tune with the upcoming visit of U.S. president Barack Obama, Havana is preening. Important streets are getting hurriedly repaved, state brigades are repairing leaks in the public sewers, and fumigating all the neighborhoods to control the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which transmits dengue fever, Chikungunya and Zika (three cases of the latter have already been diagnosed on the island).

So as “not to disfigure the ornament,” the homeless, alcoholics and mentally ill who live like Gypsies in a city that before 1959 was considered one of the most cosmopolitan in the Americas, they are “disappeared” for a few days, in the style of ethnic cleansing.

They will not be able to see Cadillac One, the presidential limousine known as The Beast, making the rounds of Havana. Barack Obama’s visit has generated unrealistic expectations among many people. Too much, perhaps.

Everyone, in one way or another, is asking for something. The olive-green autocracy wants Obama to end the embargo, return the Guantanamo Naval Base, shut down Radio and Television Marti, authorize the use of the dollar, allow tourism and approve millions in investments in state enterprises.

The dissidence is not far behind. Some want to talk with Obama to take selfies and later hang the photo on the wall. Others, who approve of the US president’s road map, remind him that the Castro regime hasn’t moved any of its pieces.

Opponents like Antonio Rodiles and Berta Soler expect a face-to-face chat with the White House chief, to tell him that negotiating with the dictatorship will strengthen the repressive mechanisms and offer him the example of the dissidents who are beaten every Sunday for peacefully protesting in a park in Miramar.

Many ordinary Cubans, if they could, would like to socialize with Obama to tell him about their hardships. Which range from frivolities to the most absolute conviction that the Yankees should pay for the disasters in Cuba caused by the “blockade.”

Roinel, with a degree in history, understands this national posture of constant requests and complaints. “The lack of institutional mechanisms to channel popular demands, living subsidized by the state, and the propaganda of almost six decades that the country doesn’t work because of the ’Yankee blockade,’ has made it easier for people to ask others to demand the government give them their rights.”

Asking is a constant in Cuba. Of everything and everyone. For your relatives abroad to send you money, recharge your phone, and send you the latest brand name jeans or Nikes of Adidas.

Nadine, a sociologist, can’t say with certainty when Cubans began to see themselves as victims. “I think it all started with the coming to power of Fidel Castro in January of 1959. Poorly paid work, collectivization, and citizen defenseless ness created people who demand more of others than they do of themselves. Literally, people without shame.”

There is also a segment of Cubans, particularly among the young, who are only interested in the part of Obama’s visit that involves observing first hand the paraphernalia of the Secret Service and the deployment of innovative technologies.

“It’s all the same to me what Obama says or doesn’t say. What I want is to see the gadgetry of his bodyguards and The Beast, that we only see in Hollywood movies or documentaries on the Discovery Channel,” says Yusnier, a high school student.

And some are indifferent. Like Josefa, a housewife. “Is he going to cut the prices of tomatoes at the market? Bring an agreement to sell low-cost beef? Demand that Raul Castro increase the pensions of the retired? If so, his visit makes sense. If not, the only ones who will benefit is the government.”

For some, Obama’s visit will be historic and a turning point in the future of the nation. For others, smoke and mirrors. And for the beggars like Arsenio, it is boarding a police bus heading to a shelter with three meals a day. But without freedom.