No Dreams, No Entertainment, No Work, This is How the Young Live in Villa Clara, Cuba
Nearly all their friends have left, but Javier and Érica, two young people from Santa Clara, are still in Cuba. Leaving will be almost inevitable. With the Island’s economic situation, having children isn’t an option. Besides, at twenty-five years of age, where are they going to find a decent job, a house, or an environment less hostile?
A few weeks ago, after having scraped together enough money, they decided to celebrate the anniversary of their engagement at the Conuco Grill restaurant. The restaurant’s barbecue and its creole atmosphere have become legendary in Santa Clara. Javier and Érica reserved a table and ordered steaks, some salad and rice, and beers. Just as they had begun to eat, there was a power cut.
The owner, in order to ease the frustration of his customers a little bit, put lighted candles on each table. “The service was brilliant, and we were really happy with the food at the restaurant, but the power cut destroyed the magic of the evening”, Javier told this newspaper. “You try not to blame the waiters or the restaurant owner, because it’s not their fault, but the fault of those above“.
Nevertheless, says Javier, the power cut didn’t affect the bill at all: the couple ended up paying 1,360 pesos in total. After the meal Conuco Grill’s owner explained to them that intermittent power cuts are already a common occurrence and their impact on his business has been brutal. He has thought about buying a portable generator but the restaurant doesn’t yet make enough profit to be able to afford such an investment.
More than one year after he started Conuco Grill, his only option for solving the problem is to try and fit in with the timetable of scheduled power cuts that Unión Eléctrica publishes for the province. But, he tells us, even this data isn’t reliable.
Forty kilometres from Santa Clara , in Taguayabón, a group of young people the same age as Javier and Érica are trying to decide which village to go to for the evening. If they do manage to get a bus to Remedios or Caibarién they could grab a snack in its colonial streets or let off steam on the waterfront. However, more probable is that they’ll have to make do with going only as far as Camajuaní, and even then they’ll probably have to walk home.
Eventually they manage to get a lift from a truck and leave Taguayabón behind – barely illuminated, the village passes the night in a graveyard-like silence, as no one can afford to organise a house party, roast a pig or even share a bottle of rum. As far as the young people are concerned, the usual thing is to meet on a bench on the squalid main street above the bridge, or hang around waiting for someone to put some music on.
The truck drops them on Independence Street, opposite a cinema converted into a warehouse and the town dump. They decide to split the cost of a couple of bottles of rum, not too expensive, and look for an empty bench near to the bandstand in the park. You can hear them singing, between swigs of liquor, until dawn.
Michel, one of the group, arrived at the village’s discoteque on Saturday night and was met with a power cut. “It’s already lasted for two hours”, they told him. Someone suggested they go to the bandstand and said they’d bring a speaker to connect to their phone to entertain themselves for the evening. Michel himself collected 300 pesos from each member of the group and bought a bottle of Havana Club and an energy drink — Tigón — as a mixer.
Between sips from plastic cups, they began to share how angry they felt. One of them said that his grandmother, called Josefa, wanted to celebrate his nineteenth birthday with him when he came home on leave from military service, as he had done that Saturday. She went to buy some whiskey and some beers”, he said, “but the only shops that were open, on the main street, didn’t have any power. She waited a bit, it came back on and she bought the stuff… but when she got home she found there was another power cut”.
Another of the young men, David, told them that his dad had taken his little brother to the Rainbow park in Santa Clara, and when they arrived there was no electricity. The boy waited for the rides to come back to life, but in vain. “All they could do was walk around”, David complained.
It’s better to go back to Taguayabón before midnight. Otherwise, you have to walk via the road between Camajuaní and Remedios, in complete darkness.
Camajuaní ’s situation – which is replicated in all of Villa Clara’s municipalities – is deplorable. Years ago there were at least six restaurants, a discoteque, several bars and cafeterias, all state owned. These days they’ve become ramshackle buildings, practically abandoned and with little to offer, or they’re on the point of being remodelled to cater for the little tourism there is.
Once they’re refurbished they will be out of reach of the ordinary citizen, let alone the younger people, whose costs are doubled if they want to spend time with their partner and whose parents aren’t able to permit themselves any additional luxuries.
“The worst thing is that we’ve stopped thinking about our dreams, just in order to dedicate ourselves to survival”, Jaime explains — he’s a young waiter from Santa Clara. He feels stuck, bored with everything, ruled by routine and poorly paid, and he feels he’s going nowhere in life. “Nothing in sight, no destination”, he says, ironically.
One frustrating thing, claims Jaime, is that the older folks think that the current generation is “badly adjusted” because they criticise the government but then want to leave the country instead of “resisting” like they’ve been taught to do. It’s quite common to be “tormented” with stories about the Special Period and to hear the old worn-out saying: “What have you got to complain about? – you have it better than we did in those times”.
The lack of decent employment opportunities is obvious. “You can do anything to earn your living”, Jaime accepts, “but that’s not the same as fighting to achieve your dreams”. Many young people say that not only are they unable to plan to have children, but as things stand, nor do they want to. “If we bring children into the world with all this going on, their lives will certainly be worse than ours”.
What’s the solution?: “Leave Cuba”, Ariel replies without any doubt. He had been decided to leave since he was very young. “I thought the situation would carry on the same and that I would be able to put up with it for a few more years, but I couldn’t”, he tells us. Like thousands of other Cubans he crossed the Darién jungle in Panama towards the United States and today he lives there with his wife and her father. “It seems impossible that anything could get any worse but it still takes us by surprise”, he says in an exchange with his friends who stayed in Villa Clara.
“If you’re against the government it only brings you problems to remain here”, says Jorge, 23, resident of Camajuaní. His parents live in the USA and he remained with his grandmother and his uncle, but they also are now on the point of leaving. “Continuity is now no longer an option for the young”, he says, alluding to the regime’s slogan of keeping firm to their ideological position and of not changing anything.
“Well, I don’t get into politics”, explains David, who started to study medicine a few years ago. “I could lose a career which has cost me a lot of sacrifice. I haven’t gone hungry and gone without only to lose it all in the end”. And he adds, half jokingly: “When I graduate I’m off to Haiti. They live better there than in Cuba”.
Translated by Ricardo Recluso