The Other Mariel
The Other Mariel / Iván García
Iván García, 28 July 2016 — A woman with outlandish eye-glasses, reading
a book in the back seat, and a sinewy mulatto who is chain-smoking and
chatting up the driver on the approaching economic austerity are two of
the six passengers in an old collective taxi that the chauffeur drives,
zigzagging along the ruined road.
With the salsa music at full blast, we head to the village of Mariel,
some 55 kilometers to the west of Havana. Two passengers get off at La
Boca, a grey and ugly one-horse town where minutes are hours.
During the massive exodus of 1980, Mariel was one of the 19
municipalities of the old province of Havana. But now, with around
45,000 inhabitants, it’s one of the 11 municipalities of Artemisa, one
of the two provinces that popped up on January 1, 2011 (the other is
Among other installations in Mariel is El Morro, the old cement factory;
a thermo-electric plant with Soviet technology, inaugurated by Fidel
Castro in 1978; an export terminal for raw sugar; a shipyard, and the
Occidental Naval Base of the Naval Marina of Cuba.
In the gloomy backstreets of La Boca, the asphalt shimmers and the stray
dogs take refuge from the heat at a ramshackle bus stop. In the distance
you can make out four enormous cranes, painted olive-green, and a
container ship that’s being unloaded in the publicized Port of Mariel.
The anchorage, a stellar work of Raúl Castro’s government, cost 957
million dollars and was constructed by Odebrecht, the company implicated
in various corruption scandals in Brazil that have shaken the foundation
of President Dilma Rousseff’s Workers Party.
The residents of La Boca observe the port of Mariel as trespassers. “You
can’t get in there. There are guards at the entrance, and inside the
demarcation zone are soldiers who give orders. I have a daughter who
works there. She earns 1,000 pesos a month, but the controls and the
distrust make her take days off. The port is a prohibited zone, to be
seen from afar,” says Pastor, who sells tamales for five pesos.
No one in La Boca has seen foreigners or sailors drinking like pirates
in any local bar. “The truth is that very few ships come in. Right now
there’s only one. It’s a sign that the country is in crisis. The port is
more propaganda than anything else,” affirms Arsenio, who works at the
Two years and six months after the inauguration of the Port of Mariel,
the harbor functions at half throttle. A port operator says that in all
this time fewer than 100 ships have docked.
“Forget the huge Post Panamax freighters that were promised. At the
entrance to the Bay there’s an enormous piece of marble schist that
impedes the access of deep-draft boats. They wanted to dynamite it and
almost took that shit down. Now the port is more wrecked than the
formation. At best they’ll solve the dredging problem, but they’ve
already finished the expansion of the Panama Canal, and Mariel has been
left behind in the war of the ports in the Caribbean and those on the
north coast of the United States, which are designed to attract large
ships,” comments the port worker.
The independent journalist, Pablo Pascual Méndez Piña, has investigated
the technical problems of the Mariel port and its huge construction
cost. In the report on the Mariel surcharge, published in Diario de Cuba
on April 11, 2016, Méndez Piña points out:
“The big question is why it cost 957 million USD: a loading bay that,
according to official reports, has a surface of barely 28 hectares, a
docking bay of 700 meters, four STS super Post Panamax cranes, 12 cranes
with RTG pneumatics, 22 tractor wheel wedges, two tugboats, a
maneuvering basin of 520 meters diameter, with a mooring draft of barely
9.75 meters. Add to that the remodeling of a little more than 30
kilometers of roads, the construction of 18 kilometers of highways and
13 kilometers of railroad lines, plus the pay for a discreet group of
civil workers together with the more than 6,000 national workers who
participated in the construction. You arrive at the ludicrous sum of 20
million USD for three years of work.”
For Giordano, a construction contractor, “If we compare it with the
expansion of other ports, like those in Costa Rica, Colombia or Miami,
with more work machinery, higher prices for real estate and high
salaries, the cost of the Port of Mariel probably doesn’t reach 500
million dollars. The other money was embezzled.”
But the cost of the port doesn’t interest most of the inhabitants of the
municipality of Artemisa. Almost three kilometers from the shantytown of
La Boca is the town of Mariel.
Cubans like Marcos, a worker, thought that moving a large part of the
port operations to Mariel would bring with it an important added value
that would benefit the people of Mariel.
“But it’s all been just talk. The municipal Communist Party officials
said that in 20 years, Havana would grow up to here. And from Baracoa to
Mariel there would be tall buildings, hotels and new cities. But I don’t
believe that will happen with this government.”
The taxis that arrive from the capital end their trips in a desolate
park in the heart of Mariel, a town barely five blocks long, which ends
in a small pier. It’s a flat neighborhood of one-story, stone and wood
houses with tiled roofs.
For 10 pesos, you can visit the town in 20 minutes in a bicitaxi.
“Brother, tourists don’t come to Mariel, and I don’t know where they put
the sailors, since they don’t come here. We have only one quality
private restaurant; the rest are stands that sell hot dogs and soft
drinks. The place is dead. There’s no money, no life,” says Oriel, the
Mariel doesn’t seem like a dead, lifeless place. The same as in other
places on the Island, and considering that it’s a work day, many people
are walking up and down the streets, lingering for little private
negotiations or standing in line to buy chicken by the pound, offered in
a local market.
In front of a park that’s a stone’s throw from the bay, there’s a
roundabout. A drunk guy sleeps in the shade. Nearby, several people
drink cheap rum or beer. After going through an iron gate, facing the
sea, there’s a narrow square with a Che sign in front of a small plaza,
where there are parties with recorded music on weekends.
“There’s little in the way of entertainment here. You buy rum from the
shop, and on Saturdays you sit on the bay wall to flirt with a chick,
and then they kill the time by telling us lies. Whoever has money goes
to Havana to wander around,” says Ridel, a shop manager, while he
continues watching the large, far-away cranes of the port.
For its citizens, the Port of Mariel is foreign territory.
Translated by Regina Anavy
Source: The Other Mariel / Iván García – Translating Cuba –