Havanans Await Obama with Anticipation or Indifference / Iván García
Posted on March 15, 2016
Ivan Garcia, 15 March 2016 — Sipping every now and then from a plastic
bottle with murky spirits that brings tears to his eyes, Arsenio is
trying to sell a collection of outdated junk and a handful of old
magazines from when Fidel Castro predicted that the days of “Yankee
Imperialism” were numbered.
With two down-at-the-heels partners, they’ve thrown down a raggedly red
blanket where they’re showing off their inventory in a doorway on Carmen
Street at the corner of Diez de Octubre, in the Vibora neighborhood, a
half hour drive from downtown Havana.
A pair of worn out shoes, a cathode ray screen for a jurassic computer,
and several Tricontinental magazines with phrased from Che Guevara
manage to sell for 90 Cuban pesos (about 4 dollars) to an IT guy who
buys used equipment to sell off the pieces.
“But I had to cart off the old shoes as well, which I will toss in the
first container, and the magazines, but at least I can use them for
toilet paper,” he said.
If Obama’s visit is a nuisance for some, it is the homeless who are
swarming all over the city.
According to Arsenio, “Every time someone important comes to Cuba, the
police collect all of us who sleep in the streets and put us in a
shelter in Calabazar (to the south of the capital). When Pope Francis
came in September, they picked me up. Now it’s rumored again that they
are going to ’clean up.’ The good thing is you get breakfast, lunch and
dinner and a bath with a pressure hose. The bad thing is that it looks
like a prison.”
In tune with the upcoming visit of U.S. president Barack Obama, Havana
is preening. Important streets are getting hurriedly repaved, state
brigades are repairing leaks in the public sewers, and fumigating all
the neighborhoods to control the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which transmits
dengue fever, Chikungunya and Zika (three cases of the latter have
already been diagnosed on the island).
So as “not to disfigure the ornament,” the homeless, alcoholics and
mentally ill who live like Gypsies in a city that before 1959 was
considered one of the most cosmopolitan in the Americas, they are
“disappeared” for a few days, in the style of ethnic cleansing.
They will not be able to see Cadillac One, the presidential limousine
known as The Beast, making the rounds of Havana. Barack Obama’s visit
has generated unrealistic expectations among many people. Too much, perhaps.
Everyone, in one way or another, is asking for something. The
olive-green autocracy wants Obama to end the embargo, return the
Guantanamo Naval Base, shut down Radio and Television Marti, authorize
the use of the dollar, allow tourism and approve millions in investments
in state enterprises.
The dissidence is not far behind. Some want to talk with Obama to take
selfies and later hang the photo on the wall. Others, who approve of the
US president’s road map, remind him that the Castro regime hasn’t moved
any of its pieces.
Opponents like Antonio Rodiles and Berta Soler expect a face-to-face
chat with the White House chief, to tell him that negotiating with the
dictatorship will strengthen the repressive mechanisms and offer him the
example of the dissidents who are beaten every Sunday for peacefully
protesting in a park in Miramar.
Many ordinary Cubans, if they could, would like to socialize with Obama
to tell him about their hardships. Which range from frivolities to the
most absolute conviction that the Yankees should pay for the disasters
in Cuba caused by the “blockade.”
Roinel, with a degree in history, understands this national posture of
constant requests and complaints. “The lack of institutional mechanisms
to channel popular demands, living subsidized by the state, and the
propaganda of almost six decades that the country doesn’t work because
of the ’Yankee blockade,’ has made it easier for people to ask others to
demand the government give them their rights.”
Asking is a constant in Cuba. Of everything and everyone. For your
relatives abroad to send you money, recharge your phone, and send you
the latest brand name jeans or Nikes of Adidas.
Nadine, a sociologist, can’t say with certainty when Cubans began to see
themselves as victims. “I think it all started with the coming to power
of Fidel Castro in January of 1959. Poorly paid work, collectivization,
and citizen defenseless ness created people who demand more of others
than they do of themselves. Literally, people without shame.”
There is also a segment of Cubans, particularly among the young, who are
only interested in the part of Obama’s visit that involves observing
first hand the paraphernalia of the Secret Service and the deployment of
“It’s all the same to me what Obama says or doesn’t say. What I want is
to see the gadgetry of his bodyguards and The Beast, that we only see in
Hollywood movies or documentaries on the Discovery Channel,” says
Yusnier, a high school student.
And some are indifferent. Like Josefa, a housewife. “Is he going to cut
the prices of tomatoes at the market? Bring an agreement to sell
low-cost beef? Demand that Raul Castro increase the pensions of the
retired? If so, his visit makes sense. If not, the only ones who will
benefit is the government.”
For some, Obama’s visit will be historic and a turning point in the
future of the nation. For others, smoke and mirrors. And for the beggars
like Arsenio, it is boarding a police bus heading to a shelter with
three meals a day. But without freedom.
Source: Havanans Await Obama with Anticipation or Indifference / Iván
García | Translating Cuba –