Sad Waltz between Collapsing Buildings and Poverty in Havana
I passed by the corner of the Saratoga Hotel today, for the first time ever since the explosion in May 2022. I was distracted, I’d just taken a photo where you can see part of a destroyed building, and the bright gold of the Capitolio’s dome in the background. I was looking at anything and everything, thinking about what I had to do that day, about the rain that might catch me by surprise without an umbrella, about my feet in sandals, ready to get soaked.
Another building collapsed in Old Havana last night. It’s something that happens regularly when it begins to rain, something that gives us all the shivers just thinking about it, as well as the terrible moment the sun comes out and walls crack because of rising temperatures.
I was thinking about how the day was going to be cloudy and rainy all the time, I looked at the police officers standing on the corners of Capitolio with distrust, as they tried to stop people from crossing the gardens that surround it. I was listening to work-related voice messages and also a bit of music, when I suddenly found myself on the corner diagonal to the Saratoga, without even realizing.
I couldn’t help but be overcome by hatred as I looked at it. I had tried never to walk by there again, and I’d managed up until today. I couldn’t help but be paralyzed, I imagined the horror of that tragic day and cried.
As I’m writing this article, firefighters are searching amongst the rubble of the building that collapsed on Lamparilla Street. Up until now, there have been several casualties and two fatalities; Yoandra Suarez Lopez, a 40-year-old fightfighter who entered the building that collapsed again with rescue workers inside, and Luis Alejandro Llerena Martinez, who was 23 years old. In the meantime, the Government laments such a painful incident, just like they lamented the explosion at the Saratoga Hotel and the fire at the Super Tanker Depot in Matanzas. But that’s as far as they go.
Walking through Old Havana is an adventure bordering on a nightmare. Streets are full of garbage and rubble, buildings are falling more and more into ruin, people are dirty and poorly dressed, hungry, and anxious. Other places are like this, it’s true. I’m sure that on the outskirts you can see more extreme situations of poverty, but this is the Havana that they sell in tourism packages, the one that borders the place where more and more hotels are being built, and God knows who will stay there and occupy them one day.
I worked as a seller at a Crafts Fair in the Historic Center for ten years. I learned a lot there and saw many things that I never should have experienced, but I carry them like footprints of the path I walked.
I’ve seen children ask for money since then, so seeing them multiply on the street now frightens me and riles me up. I’ve seen disabled people asking tourists for money; young girls from secondary school looking for a foreigner to pay for at least their lunch; women with their babies in arms begging; a man who pretends to be lame and then walks off like Keyser Söze, Kevin Spacey’s character in The Usual Suspects; a woman who shows off her big belly swollen with a huge fibroma as she asks for money: “for my baby”. I’ve seen a lot of hardship, but I still haven’t got used to it or to overlook it.
That’s why I don’t understand our leaders, although I’ve been thinking for a long time that they don’t care about this hurt and hungry people at all. Please, they should have a little bit of decency, empathy, they need to react to so much pain.
Even during the worst years of the nineties, the Casa del Agua was never shut. At that small oasis, at the end of Obispo Street, a smiling seller would charge a ridiculously low price for a glass of chilled water to quench your thirst. When you gave him the empty glass back, he’d fill it back up again and almost forced you to drink it. He had quick hands, and the conversation was pleasant. Today, I also passed by this place and it was shut. Havana is a place with more and more thirsty people. Cuba is a country with more and more thirst, hunger, and sadness.
As I turned my back to the Saratoga this morning and walked to the place where the Payret movie theater used to be, I couldn’t help but wonder: How many more collapses will there be until the much-needed and urgent GREAT COLLAPSE finally happens?