Illegal Cubans in Havana / Iván García

Havana is a sort of forbidden city for people from deep inside Cuba. By Decree 217, effective April 22, 1997, residing in the country’s capital is a complicated pattern of bureaucratic procedures and hours of queues at central administration. You have to meet a lot of requirements to be approved to move to the city. It’s a mess.

Unless you’re from Guantánamo, Camaguey or Santiago, and you have some responsibility in a state enterprise or within the Communist Party. Then they open the gates of Havana. And the generous resources of the State or the Party will assure you a dwelling from its vast network of housing for those situations.

If your visit to the capital is temporary, they will put you in a three-star hotel with an open bar, to eat and drink in your spare time. Without spending a cent from your own pocket.

Companies that handle foreign currency such as tourism, civil aviation and telecommunications have homes available to house specialists, engineers or administrative staff from other provinces. Or quality hotel rooms that must be paid in hard currency. It is the only legal way to settle in Havana with the permission of the authorities.

The other is to stay a few days with relatives in the capital, visit the Zoo on Avenue 26, take photos across from the Capitol and visit Chinatown or the beaches of the East. And get the ticket back to the country.

Otherwise, they will open a file on you as an illegal. In pursuit of stopping the growing exodus of Cubans from the country’s interior, desperate because of the acute economic situation and lack of a future. For fourteen years there have been controls and regulations that prevent settling in Havana to those born outside its territory.

They are foreigners in their own homeland. With Decree 217, State institutions pretend to provide a solution to overcrowding in a city that already exceeds two and a half million inhabitants, with a fourth-world infrastructure and a cruel shortage of housing, water and public transport.

There was the paradox that while they tried to stop the terrifying wave, particularly of young people in the eastern regions, who fled their villages to try to live better, they built huts with pitched roofs of asbestos cement, where they housed the builders and the police candidates.

And habaneros don’t want to be cops. Nor do they want to work hard in the construction trades, with low pay and poor working conditions. Thus the government had no choice but to hire labor in the eastern provinces for a period of two to five years.

But the provincial people find a way to leave the plow and the land behind and show up in Havana. There are several reasons. The main one is that in spite of the severe economic crisis affecting Cuba for 22 years, it’s in the capital where money flows, and products and services cost more.

It’s also a good place for girls to take the train from Bayamo or Manatí and prostitute themselves in the streets and bars of the city. There are abundant domestic customers and tourists on the hunt for fresh meat that makes sex pay a good price.

Of course, the hookers from the east of the island are frowned upon by their counterparts in Havana. The prostitutes born in the city consider that the easterners or “Palestinians” as they say, have devalued the longstanding profession, by the low prices they charge. And they hate them.

The easterners who arrive in Havana illegally do everything. From pedaling a bicycle-taxi for 12 hours, to collecting scraps of aluminum or cardboard, selling shoddy textiles, pirated discs, detergents and perfumes on Monte Street.

Those who come to work hard are worthy of admiration and respect. Others, violent scoundrels, want to make money on the fast track. And they become Creole marijuana dealers. Or pimps who get off at the railway terminal with a harem of hookers, disoriented with the lights, and put them to work in dilapidated rooms, screwing for 5 dollars a half-hour.

From El Cobre or Manzanillo, gays and lesbians are also packing their bags, coming from villages where they are frowned upon and kept in the closet. Once in the capital, they quickly adjust to the dissipated nightlife. With high heels, transvestites attend the gay or lesbian parties, without the disapproving gaze of family and friends.

It often happens that sometimes the police are from the same province, but this does not affect them. They hunt and then ride the train back in the morning. In vain. Because the illegals, marginalized by their sexual orientation, manage to evade the police cordon and controls. And they return to Havana. It’s a matter of survival.

Translated by Regina Anavy

June 14 2011