The Body of an Island, the Soul of a Continent / Yoani Sanchez

Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

A walk in Cuba, where the future left one day for the north, and never returned. The most famous Cuban not named Castro, Yoani Sánchez, offers her vision of its unique streets. El Pais, 14 November 2013


Contrasts, anachronisms, they are an inseparable part of Cuba. The lights and shadows that make up this reality have come stumbling into the XXI century. A poet defined the island with a phrase that can be confirmed at very step: “the damned circumstances of water everywhere.” But so it is,   sea, sea and sea, wherever you look. Not only the blue waters where the kids dive, but also the sea of nostalgia, of enclosure, of dreams, of the rafters… A country difficult to decipher, even for those who were born here.

Here, everything moves more slowly. As if the life of eleven million Cubans passes in slow motion. A jalopy effect reinforced by all the mansions that haven’t had their moment to perish before the skyscrapers. Architectural gems, their columns cracked by the years and lack of resources. Arabesque mosaic floors, chandeliers preserved by a grandmother. Splendor and necessity shaking hands.

Far from the historic heart of the city, with its hotels and opulent restaurants, extends the real Havana. At any hour it’s surprising how many people are in the streets. We are looking at a pedestrian city, in part because for decades the buying and selling of cars was prohibited. So Cubans are used to walking long distances or waiting hours for the bus. Reinforcing the impression of immobility, of statism.

The art of waiting

Waiting is just one of those components inherent to the identity of the largest of the Antilles. A popular joke says, “Yoga must have been invented in Cuba,” given the patience people show in the face of long lines and the longest-serving leaders. But when it’s time for fun and dancing, it’s as if the minute hand speeds up, jumping. Even today, Havana retains some of the nocturnal glamor that led to its nickname, “the Babylon of the Caribbean,” during the first half of the last century.

The dual currency — the Cuban peso and the Convertible peso — determines the type of fun people can access. The poorest make their own drinks at home, with cheap alcohol and a little sugar and lemon. However, in recent years good restaurants, known as paladares — palates — have also proliferated. With a blending of island and international cuisine, they have been able to prosper thanks to the economic relaxations of the last five years. Tourists make up the core group of customers, but their tables also serve Cubans from the exile and the emerging business class on the island. Approaching midnight some of the olive-green ruling class might even show up, dressed in plain clothes.

But the main magic of this country is not in its present. Curiously, its two main attractions lie in the past and in the future. What was, with the old cars still cruising the streets and that pride of having a city that shares posters with Paris, New York, Buenos Aires… But an opposing force compels us to look toward what’s ahead. Because Cuba is one of those countries with a keyed up potential.  A cradle of thinkers, philosophers, musicians and artists, a tour reveals the creativity of its people.

The same poet who so masterfully defined the island also said that “if Kafka has been born in Cuba he would have been a writer of manners.” Because the absurdity is present on all sides. From the dentist who eats pizza while attending to the patient with a toothache, to the convoluted paperwork required to un-enroll a dead person from the rationing system. Daily life that is inexplicable and unheard, but also captivating and unique.

No subtitles

The cellular structure of Cubans lies in the tenements, known as “solars.” Those old mansions that with time and economic problems have been divided and populated with multiple families. A central courtyard, a communal bath, the roof where teens raise pigeons, towels of indecipherable colors on the clotheslines. The solidarity of people overcoming material shortages, domino games, a mother who shouts her son’s name from the balcony, “Yunisleidy!”

A week is not enough, a hotel is not enough, nor is a look out the window of an air-conditioned bus. In Cuba, you have to live on the streets to understand its contradictions. For example, that a few yards from the Plaza of the Revolution an enormous illegal market in building materials flourishes; or that many of children who in school chant the slogan “pioneers for Communism, we will be like Che,” then go to the sea to look north, toward the desired shore.

Because Cuba is an island with continental yearnings, eager to be more, to go faster, to go further. A teenage country whose arms and legs are growing, trapped in a very tight dress. To visit its reality leaves no one indifferent. Like a postcard in sepia, that instead of placing it in some framework, forces us to immerse ourselves in it, to live it, to suffer it, to love it.

14 November 2013