The Bad Neighborhood of the Bright Light / Tania Diaz Castro

The Housing Authority offices
The Housing Authority offices

HAVANA, Cuba, October — It is called the Bad Neighborhood of the Bright Light, a hamlet situated to the west of Santa Fe in Havana province. Its residents, almost all black and mixed (emigrants from areas to the east), say that in the beginning, more than twenty years ago, the houses on the edge of the sea were huts, lifted on a base of old posts and materials found in the trash, and that very few of its residents are registered in the Identity Card offices, nor are their houses, now in better repair, legalized by the Housing Authority.

A few days ago Claribel returned to this neighborhood; she is a Cuban who escaped on a raft to the United States five years ago. Such was my curiosity, that I asked a neighbor, a friend of her family, to take me to meet her.

We took a bicitaxi and with great fear braved the convoluted, dangerous and muddy streets to the little house where Claribel’s family lived, a few yards from the sea. The sight was depressing. She is a twenty-something girl, tousled hair, with the face of a black doll and a contagious smile. But in the hut, still made of broken boards and a cement-fiber roof, lived her parents, brother and grandparents in deep poverty, or as they themselves told me, barely surviving.

“I’m not surprised. It’s all I knew,” Claribel told me. “They can’t even drink a glass of milk a day. The monthly wages of my brother don’t last half a month, they still haven’t fixed the streets, there’s no piped drinking water, no toilets with plumbing, no bus that comes here, and what’s worse, the money they have isn’t enough for proper nutrition for the eldery, because the products in the “shopping” are very expensive. In a word: My family lives as badly as when they came to the Bad Neighborhood of the Bright Light some ten years ago. It was called that from the beginning because everyone lacked gas for cooking. Today many of them still use the old dangerous burners.”

I didn’t want to say goodbye without asking them why they’d left the eastern provinces, and the grandfather answered:

“There, in Santa Cruz del Sur, our social life regressed because everything was deteriorating little by little. The hopes that the Revolution gave us evaporated like will-o-wisps. The Haiti sugar mill shut down. The young people gave themselves over to drinking. Nothing functioned, not the bakery, the mail service, the little restaurant. The village became a ghost town, while Fidel kept giving the same speeches, talking about the crises in other countries, without saying that Cuba was more than dead. Me, I was proud of my native home, when we left, everything was destroyed, just like so many forgotten villages in Cuba.”

Before we left, we asked if there was a paved road out of there, so we could avoid the bicitaxi. There wasn’t any. Back in Santa Fe, despite its broken streets and its sidewalks overgrown with grass, we thought we’d come to Paradise.

Tania Díaz Castro

9 October 2013, From Cubanet