What follows is the first installment of a series of reports on my recent trip to Cuba.
“La Habana Vieja esta en candela!” My uncle Lazaro, sweaty, with his shirt untucked, had just returned from the city where he had witnessed what happens when one community is starved for the benefit of some good PR.
The island of Cuba, which had once ranked fourth in the region (pre-Castro) when it came to rice production, is currently in the throes of a major rice shortage. It’s hard to come by via the ration books. It’s hard to come by at the agros. It’s hard to come by at the dollar stores. Rice is a scarce commodity right now. So when the inhabitants of Old Havana caught site of a ship laden with trillions of grains, spirits rose and word spread. Crowds soon began to emerge from the neighborhood’s narrow streets near the seaside boulevard, Avenida Carlos Manuel de Céspedes. Many in the sweaty mass of humanity even carried small bags, in hopes that perhaps they might be able to somehow come away with their own morsel of much-needed starch.
But then another rumor began to spread, one that turned out to be true. The ship at which all their attention was currently directed, was outbound, not inbound. The destination? Haiti. In a bid to curry favor with the international media amid the growing furor over its political prisoners, the de-facto Cuban “government” had decided to export what little rice it had on-hand. Not that Haiti couldn’t use the help—it can. That said, robbing Peter to pay Paul, when Peter has nary a speck of food in his own pantry, isn’t exactly a wise move. The crowd began to push closer to the shoreline. And as they moved, so too did Cuban security forces. Members of the PNR (National Revolutionary Police) and special police units—not your average beat cops, soon arrived and the citizenry took note. Some began to pocket rocks and bits of rubble to use against the police in the event it became necessary.
Several truck drivers en-route to pick up containers of goods from the port reported that had even one police officer lifted his baton at any of the protesters in the crowd, all hell would have broken loose. It wasn’t just the small stones he noticed people carrying that gave him pause. Some carried small lengths of pipe, others pieces of wood. The moment an officer made a move, someone was going to pay.
For better or for worse, it seems as though the dictatorship’s security forces might be getting a little wiser. Their tonfas remained on their hips and the standoff remained just that, but it begs the question: how much longer can confrontations like this one be averted? Eventually, the lid will blow off the boiling powder keg that is Cuba, and when it does, no amount of tonfas will be able to protect the rats from the cats.
Set your traps, folks. It’s hunting season.