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The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski at night.

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 incautious.

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 money.

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 deflated balloon.

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.

Iván García

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 Havana.

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 in charge of Gavota S.A., a Cuban tourist corporation administered by the military.

Translated by Regina Anavy


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