The Many Faces of Tarara

All that’s left of Tarará’s funicular is a tangle of iron (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 19 June 2019 — Few Cuban neighborhoods have changed as much over time as Tarará, east of Havana. It went from being a glamorous condominium to a children’s pioneer camp, then it became a hospital for children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident and later in a Spanish school for Chinese students. Everyone who is asked has different memories of the site.

The popularity in Cuba of the series Chernobyl, produced by the American HBO network and spread on the island through the ’weekly packeta semi-underground compendium of non-official entertainment sold on flash drives and other media — have put a spotlight on Tarará. The official media have attacked the script of the American series, which they accuse of being biased and of not showing the medical attention that many affected children received in Tarará in the years after 1986.

Yanet, 45, spent several weeks during primary school at the José Martí Pioneers Camp in this neighborhood. For her, memory has other tints more related to teaching activities and the student organization. “From first to sixth grade I went almost every year to Tarará, where we had classes and did recreational activities in the afternoon,” she recalls.

“I liked to go because it was fun but I also missed my family. The beach is very nice and there was also one of the best amusement parks in all of Havana but it got spoiled with time and there is nothing left,” she says. The City of the Pioneers, as it was also known, was inaugurated in July 1975 by Fidel Castro.

“That was a typical Robin Hood gesture,” reproaches Yanet. “It was like saying they took the houses away from the rich people who left Cuba and gave them to the children and families that used to be poor, but over time they also took them from us.” The huge chalets, the condominiums with French windows and large terraces, still recall their bourgeois past.

In the 525 houses of this small paradise only 17 families remain of those who originally lived in Tarará in the ’50s. The rest emigrated or lost their property after the arrival of Fidel Castro to power.

In the 80s, coinciding with the boom of the Soviet subsidy, the huge complex came to have a cultural center, seven dining rooms, five teaching blocks, a hospital, an amusement park and even an attractive cable car that crossed between two hills over the Tarará river; all that remains of it today is jumble of rusted iron.

Now, the village is preparing to undergo a new reconversion, as the arrival of a group of 50 Ukrainian children, descendants of those affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, has been announced.

Another of the changes in Tarará, and one that has raised the most complaints, is the closure of the Celia Sánchez Manduley School for Asthmatics and Diabetics, a boarding school in which the teaching hours were combined with the specific training to manage these diseases. Asthma affects 92.6 Cubans of every 1,000 inhabitants of all ages, according to data from the National Asthma Commission and the Cuban Society of Allergy, Asthma and Clinical Immunology.

Although one year has passed since the closure, the center’s alumni and their families are still waiting for a response from the Education authorities.

Tarará became a hospital for children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear accident. (Enrique de la Osa)

Luis Alejandro, the fictitious name of one of the students, remembers the five years he spent there between 2008 and 2013 pleasantly. “That school had no relationship to the rest of the country, there were excellent professionals, everything was great,” he recalls. The students spent the whole school week in the boarding school, they arrived on Sunday at six in the afternoon and left on Fridays, after lunch in a bus from the school itself.

“We had a routine. Like all those in boarding schools we got up at 6:00. The first thing we did before washing was to take the medication,” he says. Despite the fact that in the rest of the country’s schools the concept of snack was eradicated years ago, Luis Alejandro and the other asthmatic patients received three daily snacks in addition to the meals.

But the most important thing was the treatment for his illness. “The time there helped me a lot and there was never a lack of medicines, we got used to doing breathing exercises and learned to live with the disease.” Diabetic students were also taught to inject insulin themselves and to measure their blood sugar.

But one day everything ended. “The closing came without anyone expecting it, the first thing that happened was that the Ministry of Public Health ordered that the hospital be converted into one to serve tourists, in the style of La Pradera (a center for healthcare for tourists). This experiment did not work and they closed it, that’s when the problem started, because without a nearby hospital to deal with all the conditions [affecting the students], the school could not stay,” he recalls.

“The first step they took was to close registration [for new students], then they waited to graduate to the last year of ninth grade and then they closed it in June of that last year,” explains Luis Alejandro. The place still belongs to the Ministry of Education but the property is suffering from lack of use and maintenance.

Since the school was created in 1985 and until 2013 (the last year for which data are available) there were more than 5,000 asthmatic children and around 500 diabetics who attended there. The installation was close to the beach and that pure air was very beneficial for asthmatics.

On June 29 of the last year, the same day of the closing of the school, Carlos Javier Acosta, one of the students, lamented the situation on Facebook. “Today really was a sad day for me, it was the last day of a school that saw part of my childhood and adolescence, the school where I learned to live with my illness, where I knew friendship, where I was trained as a good person, where I learned to be independent because I was a boarding school student.”

For others, the saddest day was when they said goodbye not only to Tarará but also to the country. “My father had bought a piece of land in the place and built a nice two-story house with an ocean view,” recalls Gerardo Ponce, a Cuban exile whose family left the island with only what they could “carry in their suitcases,” he recalls. His father had set up a small pharmacy business that was confiscated in the early 1960s.

“I don’t want to go back because it is not what it used to be and I do not want to spoil my memories,” he says.


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