Havana: Clandestine Business Deals, Poverty and Glamor
Havana: Clandestine Business Deals, Poverty and Glamor / Iván García
Ivan Garcia, 26 April 2017 — When night falls, it’s not advisable to
walk through certain neighborhoods in Havana. Like the one from El
Curita Park, on Reina and Galiano, up to the corner of Monte and Cienfuegos.
In addition to the disagreeable odor from the sewer water running
through the streets, you’ll see propped-up buildings, beggars and drunks
hanging out in the doorways, and poor cheap whores on the hunt for the
More than 10,000 compatriots of the eastern provinces who flee poverty
reside illegally in Havana. In the case of Zenaida, a woman from
Santiago, who with a bag full of cones of peanuts and chickpeas for sale
ambles along toward a rickety room in a rooming house on O’Reilly
Street, which she rents.
There, under the light of an incandescent bulb, she loads several pails
of water and waits her turn to bathe in one of the three shared
bathrooms of the tenement. After reheating her meal, she turns on the
old Chinese television and hopes for the arrival of her 22-year-old son,
who makes a living by pedaling 12 hours in a bicitaxi.
“This is what it’s like to live in poverty: eat badly and make a few
pesos to survive in the lion’s den. Yes, because in this zone of Havana
you have to be a lynx if you want to make a little money,” says Zenaida,
seated in an iron chair.
In spite of everything, she doesn’t complain. “In Santiago de Cuba we
were worse off. The water supply on the outskirts of the city comes
every 40 days, and the money just goes. At least in the capital,
although we live like animals, you can make enough money to eat and send
detergent and clothing to relatives in Oriente. If I were younger, I
would be hooking like some women in the building. But now I can’t do
that kind of thing,” confesses Zenaida.
The old part of the city is a network of narrow alleyways with broken
asphalt and deteriorated buildings where Cubans live who know their way
around the streets.
Here illegalities are not hidden. Any neighbor knows who sells imported
marijuana, cocaine delivered from a boat on the coast or who rents half
an hour in a room in his house for convertible pesos, so that a client
can have a toss in the hay with a prostitute who charges in the national
Just in front of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, formerly Manzana de
Gómez, which is close to being inaugurated, several blue buses with
large windows in Parque Central pick up more than 100 workers from India
who are putting the final touches on the first five-star plus hotel in Cuba.
Seated on a marble bench in front of the Kempinski Hotel, José Alberto
wonders, “Why are they paying an Indian, 500 dollars a month and Cuban
workers, adding up pesos and hard currency, don’t even get 60 dollars?”
And he answers himself: “These people (the Regime) don’t respect us.
Havana now is the same as during the epoch of Batista. Luxury hotels are
for the foreigners, surrounded by poverty, whores and guys who have to
clean to earn four pesos. The worst is that there’s no end to this.”
José Alberto is a perfect wildcard. He gets money from the illegal Cuban
lottery, parks cars for a home restaurant in the area and fills the
cistern with water for the “retired guys in the neighborhood.”
Under the protection of night and avoiding the black-uniformed police
with their German Shepherds who patrol the streets at this time, José
Alberto asks for money from passing tourists. “The ones from the State
(United States) are the most generous, and the Japanese, if they like
you. Europeans are the most stingy.”
Old Havana has two opposite faces, distinct levels of life and many ways
to earn money, outside the law or behind its back. In the areas restored
by the historian Eusebio Leal, with their cobbled streets, renovated
buildings, innumerable cafes, restaurants and hard currency shops, the
panorama is beautiful.
Two blocks up or down, the landscape is something else. At the entrance
to crowded quarters, shirtless men standing in the heat seem to be
waiting for a a miracle. Around them are screaming neighbors, Reggaeton
at full blast and kids playing soccer with torn tennis shoes and a
On calle Chacón, a few meters from the Museum of the Revolution, where a
garrison of young soldiers at the back of a patio guard the Granma yacht
and other relics and trophies of the delirious guerrilla saga of Fidel
Castro, there are three elegant bars where tourists calmly drink mojitos
and nibble on garlic shrimp.
Nearby, a group of boys, mainly black, sitting on the sidewalk pavement,
wait for the foreigners to leave the bars, restaurants or home
restaurants to ask them for money, chewing gum or pens.
The revolution of the humble, so promoted by the Castro brothers, today
is a slogan without meaning for the poor people of Havana.
Note from Tania Quintero: The night photo of the Gran Hotel Manzana
Kempinski, the first with five-plus stars in Cuba, was taken by Iván
García. Up to this date, the hotel installations had not been officially
inaugurated, but after putting in shops and luxury boutiques on the
ground floor, with showcase windows on the street, every day hundreds of
people go to look at and even photograph the clothing and accessories
exhibited, with prices that are not within reach for the large majority
of the population. Already the first incident happened when they removed
the bust of the student leader, Julio Antonio Mella, which had been
installed in 1965, from the central patio with access to the public.
An installation artist held a silent protest with a sign that said
“Where is Mella?” Without using violence, the police took him away, put
him in a vehicle and drove him home. The hotel, constructed by
Kempinski, a Swiss company founded in 1897, occupies the space of the
old Manzana de Gómez, the first commercial center on the Island, located
on Neptuno, San Rafael, Zuleta and Monserrate streets, in the heart of
Inaugurated in 1910, along its history the Manzana de Gómez housed law
offices, commercial businesses, restaurants and cafeterias, among other
facilities. The management of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski is
under Gaviota S.A., a Cuban tourist corporation administered by the
Translated by Regina Anavy
Source: Havana: Clandestine Business Deals, Poverty and Glamor / Iván
García – Translating Cuba –