Operation Cleansing / Yoani Sanchez

Infanta and Vapor Streets, eight at night. The scaffolding creaks under the weight of its occupants. The area is dark, but there are still two painters passing their brushes over the dirty balconies, the facades, the tall columns facing the avenue. Time is short, the 2nd Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) will start in just a few hours and everything should be ready for the guests. The streets where the presidential caravans will pass will be touched up, the asphalt addressed, the potholes and poverty hidden.  The real Havana is disguised under another stage-set city, as if the dirt — accumulated for decades — was covered by a colorful and ephemeral tapestry.

Then came the “human cleansing.” The first signs of one more stage set being erected comes via our cellphones. Calls are lost into nothingness, text messages don’t reach their destinations, nervous busy signals respond to attempts to communicate with an activist. Then comes the second phase, the physical. The corners of certain streets teem with supposed couples who don’t talk, men in checked shirts nervously touching their concealed earphones, neighbors set to guard the doors of those from whom, yesterday, they asked to borrow a little salt. The whole society is full of whispers, watchful and fear-filled eyes, a huge dose of fear. The city is tense, trembling, on alert: the CELAC Summit has started.

The last phase brings detentions, threats and home arrests. Meanwhile, on TV the official announcers smile, comment on the press conferences and carry their cameras to the stairs of dozens of airplanes. There are red carpets, polished floors, tree ferns in the Palace of the Revolution, toasts, family photos, traffic diversions, police every ten yards, bodyguards, accredited press, talk of openings, people threatened, dungeons filled, friends whose whereabouts are unknown. Not even the Ñico López refinery is allowed to let its dirty smoke leave the chimney. The retouched postcard is ready… but it lacks life.

Then, then everything happens. Every president and every foreign minister returns to their country. The humidity and grime push through the fine layer of paint on the facades. The neighbors who participated in the operation return to their boredom, and the officials of #OperaciónLimpieza — Operation Cleansing — are rewarded with all-inclusive hotels. The plants installed for the openings dry up for lack of water. Everything returns to normal or to the absolute lack of normality that characterizes Cuban life.

The fake moment has ended. Goodby to the Second CELAC Summit.

28 January 2014