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The English Take Havana

January 8, 2011 Leave a comment

The news spread like wildfire in the old part of Havana. A black rapper drained his beer while he spoke rapidly into his cell phone. “Buddy, a big ship of foreigners just arrived. They speak English, they seem to be gringos. Let them know about the girls, I think it will work,” noted the pimp.

From the other side of the avenue, in stalls and outdoor cafes located along the coast, ordinary people watched the huge tourist vessel docked in Havana Bay with open mouths.

While the visitors wandered around town or ate a sandwich, the prostitutes, private tourist guides, illegal sellers of cigars, crafts and disks, and the musicians who sing boleros for small change immediately went on the march to see how they could gain something by offering their varied merchandise during the three-day stay in the city.

What the Thomson Dream cruise ship brought was a load of 1,500 British tourists. They disembarked with summer clothes and beer in hand, and without wasting time began to tour the historic sites of Old Havana. They went on foot, took rickety pedicabs or rode in horse-drawn carriages.

A television journalist, soberly dressed, interviewed some of the English, who were surprised by the unexpected welcome and at the same time half-frightened, when they noticed the legions of Cubans who were accosting them with all kinds of offerings. Mulattos and blondes dressed in miniscule attire, flirted shamelessly with a group of young men wearing Liverpool shirts.

Since 2004, cruise ships stopped coming to ports on the island. The drought ended on 12 November, when the Spanish ship Gemini, with more than 200 passengers from 11 countries, was in Havana. But its presence didn’t cause as much stir among the people of the capitol as this floating English hotel.

Strict control by the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets against the embargo had unleashed a witch hunt, sending notice in strong terms to the companies that own cruise ships from Spain, Germany and other countries. If they stopped in Cuba, then they could not dock in U.S. ports. Those were the days of George W. Bush.

The Tourism Ministry had already created an infrastructure in the ports of Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba, specialized in serving the unique guests. Foreign companies hired staff to work on Caribbean cruises. Everything was left hanging when the U.S. threatened the shipping companies that visited the island of the Castros.

The blow made Fidel Castro angry, and in 2005 he complained about having to receive rude tourists, who threw cans and garbage into the sea and didn’t care about the environment.

But enough water has passed under the bridge. Now, a relaxed Barack Obama is in charge of the White House. And since February 2008, Raul Castro, brother of the historic leader of the revolution, is leading the country’s destiny. And he is engaged in the implementation of a series of reforms to rescue the fragile economy of Cuba.

In addition to hard measures of cuts and layoffs of 1,300,000 workers, Castro II urgently needs dollars, euros or pounds, equally. Therefore, since 2010, he returned to a number of projects abandoned or left half-finished by his brother’s administration.

Among them, the construction of buildings for foreigners and the opening of golf courses for high-class tourist segments. The reopening to European cruise companies also is part of the package of measures whose main objective is to collect hard currency.

In a few months, the arrival in Havana of thousands of tourists by sea could become routine. To the delight of the prostitutes and hustlers.

Photo: EFE

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 8 2011

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“In the Underworld, being abakuá means being a tough guy”

January 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Benito is 85 years old. Every morning, outside a butcher shop in the Havana neighborhood of Vibora, he sits down with one of his ekobios (sect members) to chat about baseball, religion and politics.

He’s a tall black man, stern and full of infirmities. For 63 years he has been part of a abakuá sect called Enmaranñuao. He is the Plaza and Mokongo of his “game,” which means he is the person in charge of preserving and following the rituals and principles of the religion. As in any abakuá sect, only men are accepted.

“To be a worthy individual you don’t have to become abakuá, but to be abakuá, it’s essential to be an honest man. It’s the golden rule of the sect, whatever the label or ritual,” he says on a cold, gray afternoon while smoking a brand-name cigar.

The abakuá sect was born at the end of the 19th century in Havana. Its antecedents go back to secret societies in the Nigerian region of Calabar. There are 43 sects. Only in the capital and the province of Matanzas is the cult practiced.

Each sect has its seal, which is the representation or “game” of the cult. There are over 120 games. In the beginning, they were created by black African slaves or their descendants who had been freed beginning in 1886, when slavery was abolished in Cuba.

Later, things changed. At the beginning of the 20th century, the first abakuá society of white men was founded. Alberto Yarini, the famous Havana pimp from San Isidro, was white and a respected abakuá.

Yarini, a legend made into a film, was stabbed over an issue of women at the hands of a French pimp. Then, and in tune with the multicolor Cuban society, abakuá fanned out.

Although other sects sporadically accept white people, until 1959 its members were black and mestizos, simple people who worked as stevedores in the port of Havana or in other tough jobs. There were also abakuás among artists and musicians, like the percussionist Chano Pozo, who used to play abakuá and Yoruba rhythms. Chano was found dead on a street in New York in 1948.

Benito’s father was an important abakuá. He taught respect for others, family and women. “In these stormy times, part of the Secret Abakuá Society has been distorted.”

“Money is also an element of weight. Guys with a lot of money pay to enter a sect. In the underworld of Havana, to be abakuá has become synonymous with being tough. There are a legion of dangerous criminals who are abakuás. In my time this was not so.”

The old ñañigo, as a sect member is called, stretches on his oak stool and recalls the past. “Good conduct of the Society was the norm. Only if a crime was committed for reasons of honor would we accept people who had been in jail. This is a cult of values, virile, but not at war, nor does it conflict with respect for the law and for those who have any.”

Now everything is different, he says. “Even the prisons have sects. The temples seem to be public fiestas. Anyone can attend. It’s horrible. Guys who have stabbed an old lady, robbed a house or beaten women feel entitled to become abakuá.”

In the first years of revolution, the police looked at the abakuá sects with fear and respect. “It was their stumbling block. But the authorities did not try to obstruct our meetings. It’s been a distant but correct relationship,” adds this man with 63 years of belonging to an abakuá sect.

Other followers of Afro-Cuban religions agree with him. If honest, honorable men don’t try to turn things around, abakuá tradition, so deeply rooted in Cuban society, could become a racket for the worst kind of criminals. “In fact, it already is,” confesses Benito.

Photo: Chano Pozo

Translated by Regina Anavy

January 8 2011