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The Malecón – Gangway to the Open Air

March 15, 2011 2 comments

Foto: Zé Eduardo, Flickr

It’s the same place as a century ago. With the intense blue sea and calm of the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds it. A long strip of more than 8 kilometres of cement and concrete, with the lack of maintenance, falling apart in several sections.

It’s the Malecón. Meeting point of Habaneros. Of students who skip class and go swimming in dangerous and polluted waters. Of young people who can talk and listen to music freely. Territory of lovers. Rest-stop of Bohemians, drunks and nighthawks.

Wailing wall of strict syndicalists and party militants who at night, in the absence of recreational options, sit with their wives to speak of the children who fled 90 nautical miles away so as not to be like their parents.

Built in the early 20th century, the Malecón is the soul of Havana. The city has other symbols. El Morro y La Cabaña. The Giraldilla and the ceiba of the Temple. The Capitol and Paseo del Prado. The Cathedral and the cobbled streets of the colonial era. The Floridita and the Bodeguita del Medio. The stadium of Cerro and the Industriales team. El Vedado and its wide avenues and parks.

Havana, its people and its neighborhoods awake regret in millions of exiles. But the Malecón is the main thief of nostalgia for those who no longer live in the capital of all Cubans. So strong is this sentiment than an interview by Armando López with the actress Susana Pérez is entitled “The world starts on the wall of the Malecón”.

It has always been a wide walkway. With its own 24-hour life. In the morning and at night, in certain places, fishing rods and reels pretend to be able to catch a fish for dinner or to sell it at a good price.

It’s difficult. But the skilled fishermen, illegally, on rafts made from obsolete Russian truck tyres, row in the dark sea, and with hammocks and nets return with a string of edible fish. The amateurs will kill time and talk nonsense with their fishing colleagues.

There are other types of fishing. Exhausted hookers, in the early morning, sit on its wall as workers sleep, kick off their high heels and rub their feet after walking miles without ‘fishing’ a tourist with dollars or euros.

The length and width of the Malecón you can find sellers of melca, psychotropics and marijuana. Prostitutes with minuscule clothing try to stop cars rented by foreigners.

At any time you can see a troop of sellers, who evade the stringent budget instituted by the Government, dedicated to selling peanuts, pop corn and homemade candies for 5 cents. Or chicharrones of pork, hot tamales and bags of fried bonito at 25 cents.

To the disgust of those who used to take fresh air with children and families, certain areas have been occupied by transvestites, lesbians and fags. They are the “experts”, as they call themselves.

The police patrols with their new Chinese-made Gely cars usually look at them with contained repugnance, but they leave them alone. The order not to upset them comes from the very top. Mariela Castro, daughter of the number one, has said enough to the suppression of gays. And those, in Cuba, are big words.

Translated by: Araby
March 15 2011

An Inmate Tells His Story

May 27, 2010 Leave a comment

It is not known with certainty the number of Cubans that have been held in prison during all these years of a revolution that was made for “the good of all”. Many harrowing stories have yet to be told.

For Alberto Díaz (let’s call him) his incarceration was a real torment. A nightmare that he will never forget. 33 years old and despite his impeccable look, he resembles the living dead. It is due to the fourteen years he spent behind bars.

Alberto Diaz was born into a wealthy family of Catalan origin, that, with the arrival of Fidel Castro and his legion of ‘barbudos’ to power, lost the properties they owned: three buildings of apartments for rent, two pharmacies, three farms and hundreds of head of cattle.

In the wave of nationalisation they saved only a mansion in the neighbourhood of Sevillano, in the Havana municipality of 10 de Octubre, and a summer house on the beach in Guanabo, 23 kilometers from the centre of the capital. In 1963 his family left for United States via Boca Camarioca, Matanzas.

They went on hard exile to Miami, the capital of the Cuban diaspora. Alberto’s mother remained in Havana, having just married a young captain of the Rebel Army. In love, she chose to stay in Cuba. Alberto was born soon after and grew up without experiencing many difficulties. In 1975 he lost his father in the Charlotte operation, which began 15 years of Cuban intervention in Angola.

The reunion with family members who left in 1963 occurred in 1979. They stepped on home soil again thanks to the approval of the government of the island to the return of the Cuban community living abroad. His uncles and grandparents begged him to leave. He did not respond to their pleas. He still believed in the socialist, tropical revolution.

But Alberto has always liked to dress well, wearing famous brand clothing, drinking quality wine and sitting at the table with the best menu. Tastes that in “the revolution of the poor” were becoming a mortal sin.

For that reason and because he did not participate in volunteer work or political activities, he was not seen in good light at the university where he studied. He never wanted to belong to the Communist Youth. His apathetic attitude to revolutionary tasks led to more than one “anonymous” report being raised with State Security suggesting that they keep an eye on the “improper conduct” by Alberto Diaz, or manifestations of “ideological deviation.”

The life that Alberto liked to lead was in contradiction with the policy of equitable poverty practiced by the government. Moreover, he had been used to having dollars, something considered illegal in 80’s Cuba. Everything happened quickly. A search of his home by the police uncovered $680 hidden under the mattress. The discovery ruined the good fortune that had accompanied Alberto from birth.

He was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, for illegal possession of money and possession of capitalist objects of dubious origin. To no avail were the arguments of counsel, nor to have been the son of a martyr of the Angolan war. The sentence was irrevocable. According to the prosecutor, Alberto also “behaved inappropriately within a socialist workers’ society.”

The murky Combinado del Este, on the outskirts of Havana, did not receive him with open arms, but with overcrowded cells. More than 10,000 inmates were in prison at that time. One of the buildings in the north wing would be his “residence” for four years.

From the first day he intended to behave well to get out as soon as possible. His “re-education” (so called in Cuba by the guards who look after prisoners) had told him that if he was disciplined he could leave mid-sentence or be transfered to an “open front” where the terms are usually less stringent. But a prison is not a hotel, and less so in Cuba.

Sanitation, health and food were, and are, terrible. Alberto recalls that every day about a dozen inmates were maimed or died as a result of fights and showdowns. Panic seized him. He hardly talked to anyone, but the bad luck him showed him no mercy.

The boss of the gang to which he belonged proposed having sexual relations. This boss was also a prisoner but his explanations that was not homosexual were to no avail. One night that he wants to forget, but fails to erase from his mind, he was raped by the boss of the gang and four other prisoners, inside two weeks.

Alberto only got out of his bunk to eat. He thought that from then on everyone began to desire him as a sexual object.

An old prisoner serving 30 years for murder provided him with a shank and said: “They will come for you over and over again, get over your fear, you’re a man”. With eight stabs he killed the inmate who ran the gang and had violated him along with four other prisoners.

The revenge came at a price. He was landed in the “pizzería”, as the horrendous punishment cells of Combinado del Este are known by. They gave him 10 years more in prison. As soon as he could, he sent his mother a letter telling her to forget he existed.

He thought he would never leave this hell, but he left, in 1995. That year he breathed a different air after 14 years in prison, hunger, cold, heat, beatings, disease. Out in the street he realized how his life had changed.

The worst thing is he does not know what to do with his life. He constantly feels insecure. Restlessness can outweigh reason. Fear remains with him. He had to leave the country and start again. He could not find work commensurate with his training. He reached the third year of industrial engineering. “A prisoner is a negative symbol to society. Nobody wants us”.

Alberto is in good health, but he feels dead. He dream every day of his burial. His mother wants to take him to a psychiatrist, but he refuses. The mimes of his mother seem hollow to him. He has no purpose, bitterness eats his feelings. He blames many for his misfortune, but in the background knows that he has been at fault, because he did not want to leave when his family asked him.

Now what is calming is to walk, for miles and miles. “It’s that in prison one hardly walks.” At the moment, it is his inner peace. His only freedom is to walk with no fixed purpose.

Iván García

Cubafreepress, 25th February 1998.

Translated by Araby