Every time I’ve heard the stories of prolonged trips and family separations from some foreign friends, I have come, inevitably, to the same question: why does it affect us Cubans so cruelly to be separated from our friends and loved ones?
I know cases of young Europeans who study at universities abroad, or Latin Americans who are working in the United States and stay to live there permanently. I’ve never felt in their testimony the same yearning, heartrending, suffering, the same agony, that the exiles from my country share.
To analyze the causes of this fact takes us along complex routes where the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of our nation’s history played a decisive role.
However, one of the practical reasons that I constantly return to could also explain it: we Cubans have lived so long together, so close to each other, always in the same house, that the concept of family and homeland has a very narrow scope for us.
Cubans in this era, with rare exceptions, are born and live their entire adult lives in the same household. There are two, three, sometimes four generations under one roof.
Moreover, from our earliest consciousness, we take for granted the almost total inability to move within the country or to know other parts of the world. And so part of what we take as “ours” — part of what is restricted in so many cases — is the portion of the universe we see around ourselves every day.
Moving house, separating ourselves from the family we were born into and shared all the years of our lives with, has a devastating impact whose scope would be incomparably more limited if Cuban existence were different.
That is why the phenomenon of housing in this country has a connotation that goes beyond what is normal at times. To talk about a home in Cuba, carries a heavy weight of meanings that make the issue an abyss of possibilities.
It is remarkable, the efforts, submissions, blackmail and suffering that are withstood in this land by those with access to the divine privilege of four walls to sleep within; and even the extent to which there is an absence of furniture has conditioned Cuban society as we know it today.
This, however, is not the particular point that I want to discuss. That is, I will not try to describe the situation of an area that constitutes one of the cornerstones of the misery that has overwhelmed my country. Others, with notable success –filmmakers, writers, photographers, fine artists — have already taken this on.
I prefer, rather, to turn my head in another direction, looking across the ruins and asking myself where have so many resources been spent, the materials, the labor, that could have been used to solve, or at least alleviate, the Dantesque condition of Cuban homes.
In what fantasy world of the absurd, and of government mistakes, are the resources of thousands of families invested? Resources that could be used to build decent housing, or to repair their battered walls?
I wanted to make a “leaflet,” an incomplete and epidermal record of my surrounding reality. Every Cuban, from his environment, could provide their own testimonies of governmental irresponsibility in managing resources, however, those that I refer to highlight, in my city, not only the shocking callousness, but also provide a clear reference for how strong the habit is, on this island, of thinking of anything and everything except the real welfare of the population.
THIRTEEN MARTÍ HOUSES, ONE WITHIN REACH OF EVERYONE
About four years ago an event took place in Bayamo that transcended the boundaries of silence that the State imposes on such happenings: the regular and brutal eviction of “illegal” settlements in semi-rural areas of the city.
It affected hundreds of people who, without the possibility of a dignified life in the country, tried to come nearer to the provincial city in search of better working conditions and livelihoods. They had constructed shacks. They had adapted old walls of warehouses and sheds, as a starting point to began building their houses through shear hard work.
One morning, after stern warnings about the impossibility of remaining there, the authorities woke them up with bulldozers and police cars. They were firmly evicted and their third world homes were torn down.
Then, at just that time, a project had been approved in this province which I believe holds the laurel of being the most disconcerting waste of recent times.
It was to build a replica of the birthplace of our Apostle, in each municipality in Granma province. That’s right: 13 Martí cottages; one within reach of everyone.
The idea, as I heard it, came from the then First Secretary of the Communist Party in the agricultural town of Yara. This innovative manager decided to go down in local history as a contributor to an educated and sensible idea. Unfortunately, the most insane and incomprehensible projects, always arise among the party leaders and their enthusiastic followers.
Some are not even finished. Half were abandoned for various reasons. Others were inaugurated with great fanfare (read: with television cameras and partisan applause), and now nobody knows what to use them for. And others, such as the notorious case of my city, varied from the original idea for the sake of the necessary “savings”: instead of the entire house, only the facade was erected. The door opens inward to a semi-vacant space, where it rarely some cultural event is held; it also serves the neighbors for midnight mating, and for an overnight shelter for drunks.
PREPARATIONS FOR THE WAR OF ALL PEOPLE
Bayamo must have, in all of Cuba, more shelters per mile than any other area. It’s a fact about which I would like to sure, but I venture to advance and affirm it.
I greatly doubt that smaller cities can boast a greater number of underground pathways for refugees of war, as are hiding today in this city of three hundred thousand inhabitants.
According to the Chief-of-the-Works of one of the most comprehensive and extensive shelters of this provincial capital (who, of course, requested complete anonymity), investors could not even give me the exact amount of cement, iron rods, wood and aluminum used in construction of these underground passages.
“It turns out that building this whole thing started in the early ’90s – precisely when it was said that during The Special Period, the Yankees were going to attack, and so much time has been invested that the workers and supervisors have changed so we can’t measure the cost in the real sense. “
Because yes, that’s the point: according to the official talking points our Cuba is the permanent target of a U.S. invasion, ergo we must prepare for a “war of all the people.”
To this end, and under that slogan, million in resources have been devoted to testing military readiness in the famous “Days of Defense.” And millions of pesos in materials are used, in addition, to build these “tropical bunkers” which one day may be photographed or filmed, to reveal the size of the belligerent folly of those who made the decisions.
MEN OF STONE FIRST, MEN OF MEAT LATER
In 2005 a natural phenomenon known as Hurricane Dennis was merciless, among others, to the poorest inhabitants of the south eastern region of Cuba.
In Granma province, residents of coastal towns as Pilón, Niquero, Media Luna (damp villages where a simple glance reveals the thinness of men and animals) savagely lost their homes at dawn on the day Dennis chewed everything in his path.
It happened in July, a vacation month, and I preferred to spend my days to contribute what I could to the recovery of my fellow countrymen who were living in an inferno of insane proportions. I knocked on the doors of the bishop of my city and introduced myself as a young non-Catholic who, in his life, had entered the parish perhaps twice, but who wanted to join in the Church’s efforts to help the homeless.
Two days later I was in a truck surrounded by young Catholics, armed with tents and clothes collected from everyone, and donated by American churches en route to those villages that nature had destroyed without mercy.
I remember the yellow fields, tree trunks and fences pulled out of the ground. I remember the faces of the dispossessed who were on the road, and looks of sadness that exhibited even by the stray dogs. I remember the despair, the terrible feeling of madness, suicide, starvation, which weighed after each image that we contemplated from the car.
However, something caught our attention in a special way, to the point of asking the driver to stop.
Some of us got out: we wanted to prove that our eyes deceived us. Before us, on one side of the highway to Pilón, surrounded by ruined dwellings and peasants sleeping outdoors, a brigade of builders, obeying orders from above, were using large quantities of cement to re-erect hundreds of plaques with the faces of those who had assaulted the Moncada Barracks.
Before the cyclone, they had “decorated” the road with images of revolutionary heroes, and large billboards with ideological messages. Now that those affected were sinking into depression they had to rapidly erect the fervent propaganda.
I remember asking one of the buildings, containing my outrage under a dismissive tone, why couldn’t that same cement be used to manufacture homes for the homeless who watched them work in silence. His answer made me bow my head:
“I wish I could, muchacho, I would first build a house for me. My wife and my three children are sleeping under the boards that were my ceiling. I also lost my home.”
Even today, five years later, an unknown number of those affected have failed to repair the damage. Some have raised their shacks again, but never managed to get hold of another TV, another refrigerator. Many have not even been able to raise the shack of wood framing, cement and zinc where they spent the nights before the fury of Dennis in 2005.
But the highway to their devastated villages in the eastern Pilón, displays with an embarrassing pride, hundreds of immense billboards, hundreds of rectangles of cement from which the face of a martyr looks into infinity. The face of a man who probably would never have allowed his image to steal the materials from which a worker, a farmer, someone mistreated by life and by their bosses, might manage to find a bit of comfort for his bones.