At the Train Station We’re All Fighters
In Havana, travelers bound for the provinces don’t just say goodbye from the platform, they wage a daily battle for survival
It’s seven p.m. in Havana. The train to Guantanamo has just arrived at Central Station. “Let’s go, have your tickets ready!” the conductor shouts, while inching open the gate to the platform.
The travelers push forward, some carrying all their luggage, others squeezing through and waiting for a family member to pass their boxes and suitcases to them through the bars. “Take care, I’ll call when you get there,” says a voice. Only the passengers can get to the cars. No one complains. They’ve never lived the classic scene of saying goodbye from the platform to someone departing on a train.
The Central Railway Station in Havana is an imposing building, built in 1912. The deteriorated ceilings are propped up by wood in the platform-access areas. Despite the neglect, the building endures and impresses.
In the lounge several rows of seats are arranged without a view of anything. It seems like an immense classroom, but without a teacher or blackboard. You can’t see the platform, only the wall. It is a lifeless scene, that gives no sense of movement nor help to make the wait enjoyable.
There are only 11 weekly trains to meet the demand. For the eastern region, those to Guantanamo, Santiago de Cuba, and Bayamo-Manzanillo, depart every three days. Those are the biggest, with 10 or 12 cars of 72 seats each. For the route to the center of the island, there’s one to Sancti Spiritus and one to Cienfuegos. Another goes to Pinar del Rio and five smaller ones travel to Guines and Los Palos, in Mayabeque .
Travelers who gather at Central Station, uniformed in poverty, are forced to improvise. They dress with what they can and assemble their luggage from what’s available. Briefcases, sealed plastic buckets, cardboard boxes covered with tape. If they can carry it, they bring it.
The figures of Ministry of the Interior (MININT) officials in battle dress stand out. They are armed. It is not known if they will be traveling or if they are patrolling. One of them, sitting two benches to my right, drinks from a bottle of homemade wine. He works in Havana but lives in the east. He goes on vacation every five months and returns to see his family. In the boxes, he says, he’s carrying packages of macaroni, spaghetti, and crackers that he’ll sell at the military unit before leaving.
Shipping ground coffee from the eastern part of the country is a crime comparable to transporting beef
He’s lucky to be able to transport all of this. For other people, moving goods is a problem. Shipping ground coffee from the eastern part of the country is a crime comparable to transporting beef. You may not carry more than two kilograms of cheese because the authorities assume that that is the limit of household consumption. Although farmers are allowed to sell the milk produced by their cows, it is prohibited to sell cheese.
If they can’t sell, how would they survive? “In the East there is no money,” says a woman waiting to go to Jiguaní the next day. When she came to Havana the train broke down at 3:00 a.m. in Ciego de Avila and did not get underway until twenty-four hours later. The passengers, united by adversity, got off the train to talk and share water and food.
Despite a potential fine of 1,500 Cuban pesos, vendors selling bottles of ice water pass through the waiting room. There is no water on the train. Women carrying satchels offer sorbets, candies, and mints. The state-owned outlets offer sliced pork and rice with black beans in small cardboard boxes for 25 Cuban pesos, or hot dogs for only 10 pesos. The cheapest offering is bread and ham for 3 pesos. The ham is a slice slightly thinner than a razor blade and the bread is the color of white cement. Hunger helps one overlook the poor appearance of the food.
A wrinkled old woman is chewing hungrily. She lives in Dos Rios, where José Martí died , and she is the granddaughter of an Afro-Cuban soldier from the war of 1895. She came to Havana to spend a few days with a granddaughter and brought back a box of malangas because “you can’t get it there.” The bag that her belongings are in was once a sack for detergent. Her clothes look worn, but as clean as if they had been washed and dried in the sun.
Two women wearing the uniform of those employed by the “Safety and Security Agency” contemplate a sandwich wrapped in plastic without deciding whether to eat it. It is the snack given to them by the state, their employer. Most sell it to get 20 pesos. I ask them why the platform is barred and the gate controlled as if for barnyard animals. “They try to board the train without a ticket, that’s how to make sure people pay.”
Why don’t they want to pay? “There are those who travel with nothing but a bottle of water and 5 pesos. Ay mami, this is very hard,” one answers. She doesn’t finish the sentence and laughs out loud as she walks away.
“In Havana, the fight is better than in the East,” everyone repeated
Those who sell and those who buy have a word in common: fight. “In Havana you fight.” “Here the fight is better than in the East,” everyone repeats. They come to the capital because they believe that the wages are higher. They do masonry, or work in agriculture with private producers, who pay fifty pesos a day (more than twice the average wage).
A young mother nurses her four-month-old baby. She carries a cargo of detergent, soap, toothpaste, and candies for kids. “The east is hard. Worse than Havana,” she says. She came from Guantanamo with a box of mangoes and guavas for her family in the capital: “There the fruit is sweeter and cheaper,” she says.
A woman wanders through selling plastic sandals. She explains that it is good business to buy in “La Cuevita” (a large unofficial market in the San Miguel del Padron municipality of Havana) and resell for a little more to travelers in the station. “We are all fighters, and this is the fight for survival,” she says, indicating the station with a sweeping gesture. “We’ll sell whatever is available, even caskets. Life is hard.”
The sandal-seller says that some regulars are homeless and spend the day at the station. They search in the dump for anything they can sell. “They go to La Coubre, the reservations and waiting-list terminal near the Central Station, to sleep on cardboard boxes they put on the ground. There they take advantage of and steal the suitcases from those unfortunate ones going back to the country,” she reveals.
The last train has left for Sancti Spiritus at 9:20 p.m. In front of the television in the waiting lounge men and women huddle who do not seem like travelers. They’re not waiting for anything. When the train has gone, the employees and a policeman prepare to close the terminal. They shoo them out: “Get up, we’re closing.”
Everyone obediently withdraws until the next day, at 6:30 a.m., when everything begins again.