Two Havanas Within a Single City / Ivan Garcia

Photo of central Havana by Juan Suárez, November 2019, for Havana Times.

Iván García, 5 December 2019 — For three days now there is no running drinkable water. If you want to purchase a pack of cigarettes or medication at the drugstore after 8pm, you must walk more than a kilometer. It is common for men to urinate in the public right-of-way and for people to dump their garbage onto any corner or barren lot.

The residents of La Lira neighborhood in the Havana municipality of Arroyo Naranjo have already forgotten the last time that the state-run roads agency repaired the sidewalks and black-topped the streets that are lit by a few incandescent bulbs. Despite the deteriorating environment, the people there are wont to sit at the street corners or on their front porches and play dominoes, drink cheap rum, or converse about any topic to keep the tedium at bay.

Those with the money to do so make their way over to Calzada de Managua and drink beer in private cafeterias and bars near the old Route 4 stop in Mantilla, where the only famous figure who lives around there is the writer Leonardo Padura, who has never wanted to move from a locality that grows ever poorer and more crime-ridden.

When one talks with young people of Mantilla, they see as models of success the owner of an illegal gambling casino, an ex-convict who sells stolen construction materials, or a female prostitute who managed to marry an Italian and bought her mother a house in El Vedado.

Due to the abysmal urban transit service and the high price of the private shared-ride taxis, which have doubled in number, it has become difficult to travel regularly to the picture-perfect city of Havana, enjoy a ball game in El Cerro stadium, or tour the glamorous Miramar district.

Arroyo Naranjo localities such as Mantilla, La Lira, El Mor, Párraga, El Calvario, Tamarindo, and Callejas, among others, look like Wild West movie sets. Snide and disdainful Habaneros who reside in the center of capital refer to the neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city as Indaya.* Those denizens of Havana who consider themselves superior to the rest of the Cuban populace were the ones who, more than 30 years ago, awarded the moniker, palestinos (Palestinians) to natives of the eastern provinces

Carlos Andrés, an automotive mechanic and father of three sons, settles into his easy chair after his meal of fried eggs with white rice, red beans, and an avocado slice, to watch sports or a TV drama, until sleep overtakes him. Ironically, he lives on Progreso street, about five or six blocks from the Calzada de Managua. His wife Melba’s routine is to listen to the radio soap operas and gossip a bit with the neighbors.

They had wanted to leave Mantilla. “Arroyo Naranjo, San Miguel del Padrón, and Guanabacoa are the three most violent municipalities. The problem is that in Cuba there is no ’red news.’ Around these parts, a knifing, a home invasion robbery, or a rip-off is an everyday occurrence. Games of chance make waves, someone who doesn’t bet on the bolita will go play cards or throw dice. Drugs — weed (marijuana) above all — are all over the place. And let’s not even mention liquor. A teetotaler cannot live in Mantilla, where the boredom drives you to drink,” says Carlos Andrés.

The couple have one son incarcerated at Combinado del Este prison, another who resides in Miami, and “the youngest likes to study and play piano, but if we stay in Mantilla he’ll end up a bum,” says his wife.

For the 500th anniversary of the founding of Havana, Carlos Andrés and Melba decided to go to La Ceiba del Templete and, on Avenida del Puerto, watch the fireworks that were donated by Canada for the occasion, and later sit for a while on the Malecón seawall and breathe the night air.

“The experience was disappointing. Between the rain and the busses, it took us two hours to get to El Templete. Then another two hours to go around La Ceiba a few times. There are many lights and renovated buildings in Habana Vieja, but all that’s for sale there is for hard currency only. We got home at almost 6am. We’re too old for that kind of thing anymore. It’s better to stay home.”

Gerardo, a retired teacher, lives with his family in an elevated section of La Víbora, and they could watch the fireworks from Parque de Los Chivos. “We could see them as if we were on the Malecón. What many of us Havana residents find annoying is that the government celebrated the 500th anniversary only in that section of Havana where the hotels and tourists are, such as Centro Habana, Habana Vieja, and El Vedado. As for the rest of the municipalities, they can go fuck themselves.”

Havana was designed for less than one million inhabitants. Its aqueduct and infrastructure cannot provide efficient service to the 2.5 million people who live in the capital of the Republic of Cuba today.

Diana, an architect, thinks that the State has not been able to put up quality bars, discotheques, cabarets, and recreational centers in the municipalities to the south of Havana province. “The hotels are concentrated in five municipalities (Habana Vieja, Centro Habana, Plaza, Playa, and the beach zone of Habana del Este). The remaining ten municipalities are bedroom communities. The same has happened with stores and businesses. From there we get the phrase, ’going to Havana,’ when we talk about going shopping. In heavily populated municipalities, such as Diez de Octubre and Arroyo Naranjo, there are no commercial centers. Any stores that exist are small, and they’re almost always out of merchandise. That gentrification has forced people to travel to the center of the city, causing urban transportation bottlenecks.”

Heriberto, manager at a so-called Hard Currency Collection Store (TRD), says that “the various chains that sell in convertible pesos (CUC) had created a network of kiosks, stores and markets in the slums on the outskirts. But, because of fuel shortages and chronic understocks, these TRD have closed, and the majority of these establishments are now concentrated in central Havana, which gives rise to crowded conditions.”

In 12 of the 15 municipalities of the capital, no stores have been opened that sell home appliances and spare parts for cars in dollars, nor are there major supermarkets.

Susana, a housewife, had to go from the Caballo Blanco section of San Miguel del Padrón to the recently re-inaugurated Cuatro Caminos market, in El Cerro, just to buy some spaghetti and tomato paste. “There was none where I live,” she explained, “and since I assumed that I could find some at Cuatro Caminos, I went over there. But the crowd was a nightmare, with cops and police cars all over the place. More than one elderly person was shoved to the floor, and they also broke a window. If the merchandise were distributed in an equitable manner among all the municipalities, these things wouldn’t happen.”

The celebrations for Havana’s 500th anniversary did not reach the suburbs.

*Translator’s Note: “Indaya” is an unofficial “city” or shantytown that sprang in the early ’90s on the banks of the Quibú River, to the west of Havana, built by would-be residents of the capital who migrated from other parts of Cuba. Source: See here.

Translated by:  Alicia Barraqué Ellison