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The Cachita of Central Havana

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment

In September, Havanans venerate three virgins: on September 7 the Regla virgin; the following day the Virgin of the Charity of  Cobre, and the Merced virgin on the 24th. Regla and Charity are mixed race, and one of them, Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, is the Patron Saint of Cuba.

Rain or shine, Havanans gather on September 8 at the church that bears her name, a construction from the 19th century, painted white and yellow. For some time, a procession passes through the streets outside on this day.

The temple is located in Los Sitios, a neighborhood of poor, black, marginal people in Central Havana. It is a few miles around and from everywhere you can see overflowing trash containers, sewage running in torrents, and a frightening odor of shit that emerges from the cracked and filthy tenements.

The area is one of the most densely populated in the city. In miserable shacks, and high houses propped up on stilts with twisted iron balconies, innumerable families live crowded together, many consisting of “Palestinians,” citizens who come fleeing the extreme calamities of the Eastern provinces.

Almost all are living in Havana illegally. On the day of Cachita, as Cubans call their patron saint, the easterners carry the devotees in their bike-taxis. And they charge double.  And they aren’t the only ones making a killing. One woman in dark glasses reads the cards for one convertible peso (less than a dollar). Other neighbors sell roasted peanuts, homemade candy, and bread with thin slices of ham and cheese.

With so many people crowded together the “choros” (pickpockets) take advantage of the least chance to grab a wallet from a pants pocket or a backpack, looking for money or anything of value. A black-haired young woman flies into a rage at an older man who for some time, according to her, had been pressing his penis into her ample buttocks. She threatens to call the police and the guy disappears.

The police, of course, flood the area around the church. The State Security agents keep their distance with their short hair, Motorola cell phones and Suzuki motorcycles.

Tourists usually show up with video cameras. A well-built black boy hugs his Spanish girlfriend. Hookers dressed in the latest styles try to make it inside the church to put a roll of coins on the altar.

The priest announces that the procession is starting. The figure of the virgin is taken out in a class case and mounted on a convertible car.

The crowd starts to move. Some are praying and some are drinking rum and beer. Others eat peanuts and chew gum. They take photos and record videos. Although perhaps only once in their lives, Cubans go to this church to pay tribute to Cachita. It doesn’t matter that her Havana temple is surrounded by poverty.

Fortunately, her real home, in the Cobre Sanctuary, in Santiago de Cuba, is located on a beautiful place surrounded by mountains.

Translated by RST

September 15, 2010

Havana Streets: Veritable Minefields

September 15, 2010 2 comments

Havana has the prices of London and the infrastructure of Zimbabwe. Life is as expensive as in Madrid or Berlin, and the streets look like those of Bosnia after its civil war.

The state of Havana’s streets is pathetic. Particularly the secondary and interior streets of the city. At the corner of Milagros and Diez de Octubre, in the La Vibora neighborhood, there’s a hole like one that might be left by a 500 pound bomb.

Rene, 45, nearly lost his life in this cavern. On rainy night he was driving distracted, when suddenly the car, a ’56 Ford, that has weathered thousands of battled and millions of kilometers, was caught in the trap in the middle of the street.

“It was terrible. I couldn’t see the pothole as it was underwater. The car fell almost six feet into the hole. The crash was very violent. I lost consciousness and got a hole in my head, they had to give me 23 stitches. The car was totaled,” he related three weeks after the accident.

Many streets and even stretches of the National Highway are a clear demonstration of the state’s neglect of road maintenance. Real landmines, for the damage they do to the cars.

Ask Luis, a Spanish tourist passing through Havana, how many tire blow outs his rental car has suffered due to the state of the roads. “Man, it’s horrendous. And then, to make it worse, there’s nowhere to put air in the tires,” he says in disgust.

The government invests millions of pesos in the repair of certain principle arterials. But the repair work is poor quality. In a few months the streets are full of potholes again.

The number one enemy is the breaks in the water pipes. When it gets dark, a great number of streets seem like real rivers, where the water is lost to the streams. Meanwhile the propaganda on TV announces that we have to save the precious liquid, every night about 60% of the drinkable water doesn’t make it to its destination, because of the deterioration in the capital’s water system.

This water that runs extravagantly though the streets of the city is a ticking time-bomb. The famous Havana potholes have caused numerous accidents. Sometimes, trying to avoid them, drivers cause fatal crashes.

Take note. Traffic accidents are the fifth leading cause of death in Cuba. Even though the density of traffic is nothing like in the great European cities, the number of deaths and injuries is skyrocketing.

The government tries to solve the problem. And since August 1 they have enacted a law demanding road safety. Not bad. But first they have to repair the streets of the city; compared to them the streets of Zimbabwe have nothing to be jealous of.