The Beaches Belong to the People (But the People Have an Owner) / Henry Constantín

Santa Lucia beach. From

In Cuba, contrary to what one might think, even the beaches are places where the Cubans who live here can suffer. Ask the people of Santa Lucia beach in Camaguey. Recently, people from the government told them they would all have to leave.  And still there are those who fantasize about the soft changes of our self-elected government. Some media closed the year by putting their faith in the slow pace, when the slow pace is the same test used by those who do not want fundamental change. But when Cubans are most sunk into reverie, the booming voice of the foreman reminds us that the surface moves while the depths are undisturbed, from the time of the Spaniards, it’s useless. The foreman, even as he puts on his suit and reads speeches, keeps looking at us through his foreman’s eyes.

This is what the hundreds of inhabitants of Santa Lucia beach are coming to understand. House by house, indifferent functionaries advise them that their lives there must end: a tourist development plan, talked over with everyone but the people of the place, is going to rise on the bulldozed ruins of their homes. The irony is that there are hotels in other less bright areas of the beach than the sands of Residencial, and even in the high season they’re not filled with foreign tourists.

I don’t own a single inch of that place. But an earthquake of impotence shakes me every time I hear the story of another family that they try to force — through economic pressure — to abandon their home and the land they own. They closed down the state enterprises and basic services — the pharmacy, the grocery store — and deny construction permits on private lands, and they closed almost without pretext the businesses of those who don’t work for the state, which I write — and think of — in lower case letters, because it hurts less.

So, one confirms an earlier opinion: And these people’s delegate? What of him who should defend them with the last drop of whatever it is that runs through his veins, because that is his reason for being? And the unions of the businesses and institutions that will be closed? And the neighborhood committees, effective in monitoring the isolated individual? And the elected officials of Camaguey, with the hundreds of thousands they supposedly represent, whose favorite spot for the summer is about to be a place they can no longer enjoy? And the institutions charged with protecting nature, because the plan will affect natural areas? And the provincial media of the press, vanguards in the attacks on some individual worker they charge a peso extra, but mute before the daily kicks — down and out — that both they and the people receive from the senior leadership of the state? And the youth organizations, who will lose the nearby Punta De Ganado camp, the only recreation facility on the coast within reach of the whole province’s pockets? Where are they all, to defend us? Looking on, in silence.

And what is offered in exchange, to the subtly dispossessed inhabitants of Santa Lucia? A mediocre chance for mediocre housing in mediocre conditions in the settlement of Las Ochenta, twelve miles from the beach, in an area cloudy with mosquitoes and gnats surrounded by a dense coastal forest.

The opening or closing of beaches is a tradition in Cuban social history. In 1944, Eduardo Chibas tore down the illegal walls some powerful people had raised to create private beaches. But if our country had the crab-like ability to walk backwards, we would now be looking at the same phenomenon repeated in different ways on all the white beaches of the country. These are examples from my own experience:

When Chibas’s evil disciple triumphed, he gave himself the gift of a completely virgin beach, Maria La Gorda, at the far end of Pinar del Rio. Others were forbidden access there for years. Today, since he can no longer swim, his people charge Cubans half a month’s average salary — five convertible pesos — to bathe in these waters.

A similar thing happened in Varadero. To turn it into a haven for foreigners, they put obstacles in front of every possible Cuban presence; until recently, to move into a house there you had to jump endless bureaucratic barriers. With the keys to the north of Camaguey it was worse: Cayo Coco has so many hotels with cops at the entrance, that no Cuban can pass without state permission.

On the Guardalavaca beach in Holguin, the best in the eastern region, Cubans who don’t bring hard currency or their own food from home, go hungry. I and a group of journalism students who once dared to go there found out: the inhabitants of the place are prohibited from engaging in the culinary trade. The Covarrubias beach in Las Tunas is almost inaccessible, because state transport is only for the tourist business that exploits the place. And the deserted beaches dotted around the keys, without any contact by land, require that you come with an accumulation of justifications and permits that have nothing to do with free entry.

In short, it seems as if, at the same moment that the Cuban archipelago retreated from the world in 1959, it’s best beaches were receding from the island due to some telluric cause.

Now they want to take, by bulldozer, and without asking permission from its owners and users, what they lacked of the Santa Lucia beach. It is obvious that the word “take” is an euphemism: there is a simpler and more accurate one, for trying to grant representatives of the state the properties and rights of individuals.

By the way, are there foreign investors planned in this business? What might they think? And the tourists who will be able to visit these planned hotels, would they like to know that their pleasure was built on such conditions? I, at least, will not go to these hotels.

Finally, in Santa Lucia there are Cubans who are resigned to losing what they had. And some keep their little souvenir of sand, because their impotence or sadness pushes them to look for other beaches, far away and for some few years. Never mind that the new place does not have sand as white as that of their island: it’s enough to feel respected as people. I understand them. Along with their houses, their jobs and their beach, they are going to take away their faith in Cuba.

Henry Constantin

Note: This article was included at number 13 of the independent magazine Voices.

17 February 2011