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Cheap Sex

January 29, 2010 1 comment

They don’t have the charm of the “jineteras”(prostitutes seeking foreign tourists) who work for hard currency.*  They don’t wear brand-name clothes, or high-heeled shoes.  They don’t use Chanel perfumes, or wear gold jewelry.  They are the poorer type, who at most smother themselves with large quantities of Cuban-made Suchel talcum powder, and smell of cheap eau-de-cologne.  They wear short tight skirts.  And they tend to plaster on the make-up.

These are the local currency whores.  Many of them get off the train at daybreak and before the sun has fully risen they are already busy at work.  Like Yanelis, 28 years old, an Indian mulatta, born in an eastern province 800 km from the capital.

Her life is a small hell. She never knew her parents and doesn’t have fond memories of her childhood. Her maternal grandparents did what they could. But Yanelis only managed to get as far as finishing seventh grade. And yet her round and shapely backside, her firm breasts and her skin, the colour of coffee with cream, would get men aroused. Especially some of her male relatives.

One night, a cousin invited her to the fair and he plied her with an excessive quantity of a bog standard and insipid brew which is sold loose as draught beer. When she had passed out from drinking so much alcohol, he repeatedly raped her.

She was only twelve years old. Her first customers were her own family members. For 5 pesos (a quarter dollar) she let them fondle her breasts or masturbate and then ejaculate on her face.

“The most perverted of my relatives was also the one with the most money, because he worked in a hotel exclusively for tourists. He forced me to sleep with animals and on more than one occasion I got sick. I’ve tried everything. I’m bisexual and for as long as I can remember, I’ve never known what it’s like to feel in love with someone. That only happens in movies.”

Prematurely aged by a tough life and an even worse diet, Yanelis gulps down a can of Bucanero beer and goes on with her story.

“I came to Havana because business is good here. It’s my third trip. I’ve been caught by the police a couple of times and they sent me back to the province where I’m from. I even spent a year and a half in jail. But I always come back. Things are very tense in my home town. I don’t have, nor do I want, any other way of making money. Perhaps this is the most difficult way, but it’s the easiest for me. I don’t have many options unless it’s coffee picking in the mountains or wiping tables in a café,” says this girl, prematurely aged by a tough life and an even worse diet.

In the capital, Yanelis and some other prostitutes rent an extremely shabby room. They have to fetch their water in containers and live by candlelight because they don’t have electricity. Each one pays 5 convertible pesos for the room. On a good day, she makes the equivalent of 50 or 60 convertible pesos (about 1200 or 1500 regular pesos). If you do the math, to make this amount Yanelis is having to sleep with ten or twelve men. For a quick half hour ‘screw’ they make 100 regular pesos or 5 convertible.

She started working as a prostitute in the area around Fraternity Park, in the heart of Havana. Her stroll was Monte and Cienfuegos streets, the first marketplace to emerge on the island for cheap sex bought with regular pesos, back around 1996. Things didn’t go too badly for her. But every now and again there was a police raid.

When she got out of jail, she thought she needed to be more discreet. She’s a fixture now in a spot on the fringes of the National Freeway. Guys in cars and on motorbikes pass by, drunk and looking for a woman to satisfy their sexual appetite.

That is where you’ll find girls like Yanelis, ready to offer you their a la carte menu: 50 pesos for a blow job, 40 for a hand job, and 100 for the full works, in other words, for penetrative sex. Paying a bit more gets you anal sex. And if you’ve got 20 convertible pesos or 500 of the regular kind, you can head off with two sad and pale girls who’ll offer you a moonlight lesbian show in the middle of a banana field with some dirty bits of cardboard for a bed.

There are at least a dozen such places in the city. In Havana slang they are known as chupa-chupa [suck-suck].

The young women who prostitute themselves for local currency don’t come close to the beauty and silhouettes of the splendid hookers that have dazzled the Iberian and Italian men who have taken them under their wing and married them. No. These are poor lost souls who stoically endure being penetrated by more than ten men in a single day in order to make a few pesos.

Yanelis doesn’t want to think about the future, which is a bad word for her. She lives fast and for the present. Night has fallen. She looks up at the cloudy sky and comments despondently:

“Uh oh. It’s going to rain. Bad for business.”

She prefers picking up men when she’s drunk or after smoking a couple of joints. Sometimes she takes a few parkisonil tablets to get high. When she gets back to her wretched room she sometimes feels guilty.

This is when she remembers that she’d like to have children, a good husband, and to start a family. She soon abandons the idea. That stuff is only in movies. Or romantic novels by Corín Tellado. Then she comes back down to earth. To the reality which is her lot in life. And she has neither the energy nor the desire to change it.

Iván García

Translated by BW and RSP and ANB

* Translator’s note: There are two kinds of pesos in circulation in Cuba, one which can be exchanged for dollars and Euros, the Convertible Peso, and one which can’t, the regular kind. One convertible peso (officially worth $1.08) is equivalent to 24 regular pesos (referred to as moneda nacional (national money) by Cubans, and translated in this text as local currency).

Iván What’s-his-name

January 26, 2010 3 comments

In October 2009, in tandem with Max Lesnik, the Cuban journalist based in Miami,  I started writing a blog, called 90 miles, for El Mundo, one of Spain’s national dailies. Plus some notes, articles, features, and stories about what life is like for Cubans and my perceptions of the Castros’ government. Within a few days, I was approached by various people I consider friends (and others I don’t). After congratulating me, they gave me some free advice.

An experienced and foxy old reporter told me in confidence and in a hushed tone, “What you want is lots of curveball and not much fastball. Try and come up with colourful stories which won’t cause you any problems. That way you get paid and life’s good. If you go about with an AKM machine gun at the ready, the government will call you to account.”  Such was this long time journalist’s advice. Opportunistic, cynical, someone who enjoys life, like a lot of people in Cuba who just want to have a decent salary paid in hard currency and not rock the boat.

The old reporter, who knows how much I love the sports pages, made a point of using some baseball jargon. When you cover the island “curveball” means sticking  to subjects like the history of the Malecón, Havana’s Chinatown, or the Capitolio; talk about curiosities or explain how a parcel containing copies of Granma was thrown out of an airplane over the mountains in the East and knocked dead a cow when it landed. In short, his advice was that I should write about unimportant “news” and steer clear of critical articles.

If it meant writing colourful stories and throwing curveballs, I would give up writing for El mundo. I say what I think and tell it like it is. You have the chance as readers to express disagreement in the comments section. I’m very far from thinking that what I write amounts to any kind of absolute truth. Perhaps I get things wrong. But these opinions about an event, theme, or personality are mine.

I’m nearly 45 years old and at this stage in my life I’m not going to be afraid to defend my perspective. Being imprisoned for many years, which is the prospect held out by Cuba’s laws for all those voicing public dissent, does scare me. I don’t have a vocation to be a martyr. But I’m not going to change my ideas. Even if I end up bricked up in a state security cell or in a dirty Cuban prison block.

Disagreement is healthy. And so is debate about ideas and dialogue with people who think differently. But in Cuba, when someone in the media criticises you or attacks you, be afraid. The message is: “What goes around comes around”. In other words, shut up or you’re mincemeat.

We know that the beginning of a vigorous offensive on the part of the state apparatus portends further actions. Ranging from acts of repudiation and even threats and humiliations for your family. Or, in an extreme case, detaining you, penalising you, and locking you up in jail.

I would like to ask a journalist of Max Lesnik’s calibre, or José Pertierra, the lawyer, if at any time they’ve felt paralysed by the US secret services breathing down their necks, or if they’ve ever had their arms twisted by the Yankee government because of holding critical views about the system in the North or for showing admiration towards the Cuban Revolution.

I suspect the answer is no. It’s true that in Florida, in the ’70s or ’80s, a group of intolerant Cubans, terrorists more than anything else, went as far as assassinating people who supported Castro. But in this, the 21st century, things in Little Havana must have changed. And it goes without saying that no US administration has ever instructed its official media, like the Voice of America, to intimidate its political rivals.

The United States is capable of the best and the worst. If he happens to be having a bad day, any madman with a rifle slung over his shoulder and whistling along to a Bruce Springsteen song can rub out a dozen people as if he were at a shooting gallery in a fairground. I have a feeling that Lesnik and Pertierra and their compatriots on the other side of the pond have all the freedom in the world to write and to say what they think.

Not in Cuba. And that’s the point. Since I was born, in 1965, I’ve never known what is called democracy. And before I die, I would like to live in a pluralistic society where you as a person aren’t of the slightest interest to the State.  And where, if the powers that be don’t appreciate me, thanks to certain Constitutional laws, I’m not locked up in prison.

I don’t mind who’s in power. They can be communists, liberals, greens, social democrats, right wing, centrists, or left wing. Just so long as they’ve won an election. I ask myself if this is an impossible dream. I don’t think it is. That’s why I write what I think.

I remember that on a cold and gray afternoon in February 2003, Raúl Rivero, the Cuban poet and journalist, typed with two fingers on his Olivetti Lettera-25: “No decree can stop me writing in the country where I was born and where my grandparents were born. I’m a man who writes.” So am I.  Even though I could lose a lot.

Albeit with my fears and the paranoia typical of those who live under threat, I will send stories, articles, and news about the reality of my country. Written from my untidy apartment in the Víbora district, my neck of the woods. I’m not going to follow the experienced reporter’s advice.  My writing is going to be lots of fastballs, few curves.

Iván García

Translated by RSP

The Day After

January 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Donato, who usually sells newspapers in the area around Roja de la Víbora square, is an elderly man of 67 wearing threadbare clothes; he’s convinced that Fidel Castro has for quite some time been a corpse. Abelardo, 54, a civil engineer, thinks the same. He says, “The people haven’t been told of Fidel’s death to prevent disturbance” In Cuba, everyone has his or her own take on the one and only Comandante’s illness.

For want of reliable information, people invent rumours. Carlos, a 21-year-old university student, swears on his mother’s life to a group of sceptical youngsters that he read an article on the Internet where it said that Fidel Castro was in a deep coma. In every nook and cranny of the island it’s the same.

Never before has a man’s death engendered such anticipation. No sooner does a rumour start over there on the other shore, in other words, in Florida, than it quickly arrives on the Cuban coastline. Many people have family in the sunshine state or else they illegally watch cable TV, and more than a few times some rumour is heard, even in the middle of the night, as happened to Jesús, a 34 year old worker. A friend, restraining his emotion, woke Jesús up at three o’clock in the morning to tell him: “Fidel’s snuffed it, I saw it on channel 41.”

Castro’s been given up for dead so many times in Miami that new reports of his death are taken with a pinch of salt on the island. Deborah, a 29-year-old primary school teacher says: “The day when he dies for real, I won’t believe it.” It’s now been three years and five months since the 31st of July, 2006, when Carlos Valenciaga, Castro’s former private secretary, announced on national television, in a sombre tone of voice, that the Comandante was relinquishing power due to illness.

Since then Cubans have been living on a knife’s edge. And not because their former president’s state of health is of special interest to them. No. The key issue for the majority is what’s going to happen when Castro dies. Some in Cuba take it as a given that Fidel’s brother, General Raúl, is putting off reforms pending the patriarch’s disappearance.

I don’t believe that. I don’t think that Raúl Castro is going to be the Caribbean Gorbachev. The agents of change in Cuba are perhaps men in power now, wearing masks, keeping their heads down and obeying orders. They’re waiting for their moment. Or they’re walking about the country’s streets anonymously. I’m a sceptic and I don’t think a worthy leader for the future will emerge from the Cuban opposition. Almost everyone talks about democracy and makes out that they’re a democrat, but they act like little dictators.

The is what concerns the man in the street in Cuba. The day after Fidel. Cubans take it for granted that Raúl is a transitional president. As such, the health and impending death of Fidel Castro isn’t a problem of personal hatred. It’s simply about discovering what the future will be like without the former Comandante.

There are even people making bets, like Amador, 43 and unemployed. Two years back, Amador and twelve friends agreed on a lucky draw: whoever accurately predicted  the date of Castro’s death, or whoever came closest, wins 1,200 convertible Cuban pesos (about 1,200 dollars). Amador had predicted that God would take Castro I from this earth on the 31st of December, 2009.  He’s sorry that he’s off by a bit.  He says, quite seriously, that it’s nothing personal against Fidel. It’s just a bet. And he wants to win.

Iván García

Translated by RSP

Without Freedom… Even to Travel!

January 23, 2010 Leave a comment

One of the various unresolved and failed issues of the Castro brothers’ government is the Cuban citizens’ lack of freedom to travel. If a foreign friend invites you to spend some time in his country, in addition to extensive and tricky bureaucratic red tape, ultimately, with nerves of steel, you have to wait for the exit permit granted by the Department of Immigration, which is part of the Ministry of Interior.

This department determines whether or not you have the right to travel. Also, if a person has been exiled, said military body is the one which determines whether or not such a Cuban can visit his native land. It’s humiliating. It’s like begging to be allowed to leave Cuba, and, what’s worse, to be allowed to enter your own land.

For me this is the most flagrant violation of personal rights committed by the government of the island. It doesn’t matter if an individual who wants to visit a friend or a relative has an immaculate record and doesn’t have any prior convictions. If Immigration considers you unsuitable, you cannot leave the island.

It’s a form of punishment. Something like, you better behave if you want to see the world. To behave badly is, above all, to publicly dissent from the way the State administers the country. Another major arbitrary act is when a person definitively leaves the country. It doesn’t matter that he owns his house. If he lived alone, he doesn’t have the right to leave or give his house to whomever he wants.

No. The government’s laws put an end to your right to dispose of your own home. This is coupled with a number of tricks and lies to circumvent the unjust measures that the State applies. Whenever people think about leaving the country for good, they put the name of a friend or family member on the deed beforehand so they don’t lose the house.

Days before you abandon your country, an inspection from the Institute of Housing inspects your home and verifies the furniture and electrical appliances that you possess. If, at the moment of leaving, it’s proven that you have given someone these things, your permission to leave can be denied.

What people do is to give away or sell the furniture, refrigerator or television, before the housing inspectors visit. It’s arbitrary. I will tell you a personal story.

My mother, Tania Quintero, an independent journalist, together with my sister and my niece, left Cuba to go to Switzerland, on November 25, 2003, at the beginning of the Black Spring. [Translator’s note: The “Black Spring” refers to the 2003 government crackdown, when independent journalists and democracy advocates were arrested and imprisoned.]

When she left, she did not know my daughter, Melany, who was 9 months old. Because she was a political refugee and a persona non grata for those who direct my country, Melany’s maternal grandmother had to content herself with seeing her in photos and chatting by telephone when her rare retirement resources allowed her to telephone.

She will probably die in the staid city of Lucerne without ever knowing her other granddaughter. The government hasn’t given the slightest inkling of doing away with its absurd rules on emigration. It’s true that in the USA, on account of another stupid law, North American citizens aren’t allowed to travel to Cuba. Ninety miles apart, the two countries are still living in the Cold War era.

Both of our communities, so close geographically and, at the same time, on account of the policies of their respective administrations, so distant, must insist on having our rights count.

There’s no reason why my mother should have to die 9000 kilometres away without ever knowing her granddaughter. It’s unreasonable for anyone to stop her. But the Castros keep in their pockets the files for all exits and entries. And Melany’s grandmother is not to their liking.

Iván García

Translated by Regina Anavy & RSP

OLP’s Intifada

January 20, 2010 Leave a comment

The writer Orlando Luis Pardo (OLP), 34-years-old, is like a box with buttons.  You press a button and out comes a stream of ideas.  OLP is bursting with talent.  He has published several books of stories.  He has a pair of blogs, among the best being done in this 21st century Cuba.  He’s a high-flying photographer and a few weeks ago I attended an astonishing performance where OLP presented one of his formidable poems.

He’s a quiet type and excessively paranoid.  As is usually the case with any person born under an abnormal regime, where everything is suspicious and criminal.  Orlando Luis doesn’t remember the exact moment he started his personal intifada against the sinister machinery of Castro’s power.

It is likely that it happened when the “mystery” croquettes disappeared; one never knew what they were made of.  Perhaps that slimy grey mass with its tiny red-colored bits inside, at the end of the ’80s, was the point of departure for his personal rebellion.

Because Orland Luis has publicly confessed that he ate tons of the popular croquettes.  And their disappearance, along with the tasty yogurt and the Russian jams, in the hard years of the Special Period, may have sparked OLP’s serious contradictions with a regime closed lock stock and barrel to disparate opinions.

In 1993, with the daily 16 hour black outs, more mystery meat and soy hamburger, Orlando escaped the madness by reading like one possessed and pouring out his undeniable talent in poetry and prose on some old invoice forms from some business on which he could only write on one side.

In addition to real hunger, OLP was far beyond the cojones of Papa State.  He still remembers, of course, his first blue jeans, and the day he tried Coca-Cola.  Like one who brings a valuable treasure, a sailor friend of the family appeared with a bottle of the soft drink wrapped in gift paper.

The whole family sat down to celebrate the even around an old table, long and rectangular, of dark mahogany.  The father took the first shot.  Then, the bottle was passed around and everyone took a sip.  Only one.  Like something sacred, they saved the bottle of Coca-Cola in the old Philco refrigerator.  OLP remembers that it lasted nearly a week; after dinner everyone took a tiny sip.

So much spiritual and material misery turned him into a skeptic about Fidel Castro’s Real Socialism.  Today he is one of the best voices among young Cuban writers.  With his fears and doubts on his back, with the red lantern of paranoia always lit, with his overflowing imagination OLP fires his missiles from the neighborhood of his birth, Lawton.

He does not know how to change the status quo.  He only knows how to be a free man.  Getting good with himself.  Being happy in the dark and starless early mornings with his girlfriend, while waiting for the P-2 bus that will take them home.  And believe me, he is getting there.

Iván García

As Much Pain As Hope

January 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Not yet having overcome the gray and cold, with little bread and scant shelter, which we Cubans have passed through in these days of January 2010, news of the earthquake in Haiti came to us.

With the passing of the hours, we learned the magnitude of the catastrophe, a tragedy that grows daily.  The entire world mobilized, but as a consequence of the chaos and the lack of infrastructure, the airport and port facilities in Port-au-Prince that are insufficient for the number of planes and ships coming from five continents bringing every king of humanitarian aid.  The faster they can arrive, by air and by sea, the more lived can be saved.

Once more, disaster falls on Haiti.  Not because they are black or the descendents of Africans.  The evil in Haiti is not of this origin.  Given their history of struggle for emancipation from slavery and freedom, they should be one of the most prosperous nations in the Caribbean.  However, for more than two centuries, Haiti has been bleeding.

If today it is the poorest country on the American continent and one of the poorest in the world, it is because of the successions of misgovernment.  Ungovernability summarized in two words: repression and corruption.

Dictators and incompetent leaders are to blame for the backwardness and evil current endured by the Haitian people.  Illiteracy and unemployment have been a breeding ground for the emergence of gangs, machete in hand, who perpetrate violence, theft and crime, all common in the streets and neighborhoods.

A share of the guilt also belongs to its neighbors in the Americas, the closest and the furthest, like the United States, who when not intervening to support coups d’etat, preferred to look away and block their ears.

Better late than never.  Now, we’re grateful that President Barack Obama has made Haiti a White House priority.  A decision supported by the generous response of the American people, poor and rich, anonymous and famous, atheists and believers, civilian and military.

Let us leave Washington and return to Havana.  The truth is, of the few nations in the region who have always stood by Haiti, we find Cuba.  It’s logical.

We share more than 200 years of geographic, historic, cultural and ethnic background.  The veins of thousands of Cubans run with the blood of Haitians, especially the people of Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba and Camagüey, three of the provinces where there are major Haitian communities, and whose children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren keep alive the language, music, religions, food and other traditions.

Many of these Haitians or their descendants achieved fame on the Island.  It is impossible to mention them all and therefore we have chosen one name, that of Martha Jean-Claude.  With her we pay tribute to all the Haitians who have made Cuba their homeland.

When the earthquake struck, around 5:00 in the afternoon on Tuesday, January 12, more than 400 Cuban helpers, mostly doctors and nurses, were already in Haiti.  To date, only three Cubans have been reported injured, two mildly and one seriously.

The love story between Brazil and Haiti is more recent.  It began in 2004, when under UN mandate, Brazil assumed responsibility for coordinating the United Nations Mission for the Stabilization of Haiti (MINUSTAH).  Brazilian president Lula made that responsibility his own, and many Brazilians began to get involved.  And as happens in the fairy tales, for a few hours everyone was happy.  In 2005, when the Brazilian National Football (Soccer) Team went to play a friendly match in Haiti, the video shows what happened:

Despite the critical economic situation in Cuba and the deteriorating living and nutrition standards of a great part of our population, many Cubans, according to man-on-the-street opinions, would be willing to go to Haiti to help in the reconstruction.  A so urgent and necessary work that at this time, against the clock, is being done by volunteers, firefighters, rescue workers and sniffer dogs from Mexico, Spain, Japan and China among other countries with considerable experience in earthquakes and natural disasters.

So far, three pieces of good news were announced on Friday, January 14.  The Department of Homeland Security in the U.S. reported that Obama granted temporary resident status (TPS) to all undocumented Haitians in its territory, allowing them to reside and work in the United States for 18 months.

For its part, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that the Island was ready to cooperate with all countries, including the United States, to help save lives in this emergency situation.  Showing this was more than mere words, the Cuban authorities announced they had authorized U.S. planes to fly over the eastern territory of the country, to evacuate the wounded from Haiti to the Guantanamo Naval Base, where there is a hospital.  This authorization saves 90 minutes of flying time.

The third piece of good news came from Port-au-Prince.  The heroes were two Spanish firefighters who rescued a two-year-old Haitian boy whose photograph circumnavigated the globe.

Along with this good news, a rumor circulating for some days in Havana was confirmed, that some twenty mentally ill patients had died in the Psychiatric Hospital commonly knows as Mazorra, located in Rancho Boyeros, where the thermometers had fallen to 4 degrees Celsius.

The terrible event, that had been publicized by the dissident National Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, was confirmed by the Minister of Public Health.

There were 26 dead.  A true scandal. People are shocked and hope that those guilty of such negligence will face trial.  And that the response will not be limited to distributing blankets, clothes and food with more calories.  Cubans want, once and for all, to free Mazorra from the Dante-esque fame it has always had.

Returning to Haiti.  Among so many dead and such ruins, we are sure that the green grass of hope will begin to sprout.

Iván García and Laritza Diversent

Photo:  Chicago Red Cross, Flickr

Havana Boulevard

January 17, 2010 1 comment

Beginning at Prado street and ending at Galiano, there is a five-block long pedestrian mall in the heart of Havana, replete with stores that take hard-currency or national pesos. Cafes, barber shops, ice cream parlors, markets, a cinema for children and a jewelry store in decline.

Throughout the year the boulevard is very busy. December, the month of summing up and hospitality, causes city dwellers to shop compulsively. It’s possible that in some of its businesses they can get what they want or need.

At the Belinda store, a group of ladies enter, looking for a set of sheets for their home. Their mouths drop open and they remain speechless when they learn the prices in inflated currency.

Nearby, some guys who are drunk, accompanied by cheerful black girls in the same condition, look both ways and surreptitiously enter by a rusty iron gate what were once the Duplex and Rex theaters. They empty their bladders full of beer, consumed in a nightclub called Palermo, where they usually will hook up with the old, cheap whores who don’t have the option of hooking up with a foreigner.

At the National Cabaret, where the boulevard starts at Prado Street, are a line of men in their fifties and a group of young mestizo girls, with the typical body language of females seeking pleasure, trying to find some “Temba” (men in their fifties) to pay the entry fee to the nightclub. The Disco Temba, as it is known, opens at 4 pm.

A stone’s throw away at the gates of the Hotel Inglaterra, Nordic ‘Vikings’ and fat ‘Iberians’ drink daiquiris, accompanied by tapas of ham, cheese, and olives. They listen raptly to a bad version of Chan-Chan by Compay Segundo. Inside the hotel, a Japanese girl with teenage acne complains in English to a clerk about how expensive Internet service is: a card costs 6 CUC per hour. What shall we Cubans say?

Evening falls and the comings and goings of hurrying people increase. To alleviate the thirst caused by the heat from this end-of-year fire, people drink bottled soft drinks, locally produced, at 5 pesos a bottle. In a kiosk they sell unwrapped bread, exposed to the air, with the appropriate dose of microbes; bread with either pork, ham, or a cheese with a terrible smell.

Wherever you sit, to take a drink, or eat a serving of fried rice or a piece of smoked chicken, you are approached by dirty, mangy dogs, which with pitiful faces beg you to give them your leftovers. They are part of the army of hungry dogs that roam around the entire city.

Beggars also do their part in the streets of downtown Havana. Some shamelessly and even aggressively ask you for money.  Others, with the picture of a saint, usually St. Lazarus, ask you for alms, “preferably in hard currency.”

If you look like you have a foolish face, a crook will try to separate you from your money. You can find everything in the Boulevard of San Rafael. Schemes are constantly hatched and if you don’t look like a cop in civilian clothes, you can buy a gram of coke for 35 CUC or a Creole marijuana cigarette for 25 pesos.

The cobblestone streets are painted with large white squares, surrounded by pots with withered plants that the state gardeners do not look after, disgusted by their low pay.

Now at the far end, at the corner of Galiano and San Rafael, a park is a reminder that in this place once stood El Encanto, one of the most chic department stores in Havana. It was devoured by fire on April 13, 1961, as part of the sabotage before the Bay of Pigs invasion. There were 18 injuries and one fatality, Fe del Valle, the head of the El Encanto’s children’s department.

This story is not known to the children, whites, blacks and mestizos who play soccer with a deflated balloon. A black boy pulls off feints incredible for his age, barefoot and with a faded Kaká T-shirt. His fans, sitting on a wall, applaud the small Cuban Pelé.

Maybe the Boulevard San Rafael does not have the charm of Paris or Barcelona. But it is the only one in Havana: meeting point for Havanans, nostalgia for exiles, and headquarters of private guest houses for outsiders. If you pass through Havana, be sure to visit.

Ivan Garcia

Translated by: Tomás A.

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