Havana has become a giant outhouse. What at first glance may seem an exaggeration is just another reflection of the total decline: the image of the filthy and stinking general laziness. It is certainly true that throughout the city there are almost no public sanitary services, but I can’t remember that they abounded at any time, at least in the last forty years, and never before now did I perceive so much filth all around. Don’t come and tell me about the lack of hygiene in the slums of many capitals, or of the strong smells that characterize certain third-world cities: evil of many is the consolation of fools. I’m talking about my birth city that once had the beauty and dignity that its characteristic architecture bestowed upon it, its environmental hygiene, its enviable sewer system, and the love of its inhabitants.
Beyond the insufficient (and inefficient) system of solid waste collection –that the permanent landscape of garbage cans filled to the brim and even overflowing imposes on us- the defective plumbing networks, whose frequent ruptures have been responsible for populating our streets with unhealthy and permanent streams, or the lack of sufficient communal labor personnel –in this case, sweepers- to adequately maintain the streets and avenues clean; among a wide sector of the population, mainly of the masculine gender, the practice of improper habits has also become lord. Now it is common to be walking on a public thoroughfare in broad day light and to see a subject next to a lamp post or a wall, urinating with such comfort and familiarity as if he were at home in his own bathroom, with the added “benefit” of not having to flush or lift and lower the toilet’s lid. I have witnessed that scene in many occasions, the most recent about a week ago, around noon, in a block of Árbol Seco, between Carlos III and Estrella, just next to the Carlos III Market, much traveled by pedestrians, where an overwhelming number of cars and people circulate. This time, the subject in question, after leisurely zipping up, got into his car, which was parked nearby, and left! The public bathroom was only a few steps away at the Market, but he chose to exhibit his own shameless brazenness and his contempt towards others by urinating right out there in the street.
The lower floor of my building, for example, has also become a public toilet, especially on weekends, when there are “cultural” activities at Centro Habana’s “House of Unculture” (formerly Casa Hornedo, at Carlos III, corner of Castillejo), when many of the attendees leave drunk and find the spillway for their bladders here. But the same takes place at other different points of the city: the porches at Carlos III and Oquendo; those on Reina, Monte and Galiano streets, the ones at the majestic Aldama Palace (currently the History Institute), those at the Payret movie house, the ones at the former Diario de la Marina (today Editorial Abril) those of the Centro Asturiano (today the universal art galleries center of the Palace of Fine Arts); all of Manzana de Gómez (Gómez Square), the Capitol building gardens, the Fraternity Park, and even the dirt where the Central Park trees grow. These are only some places where I usually travel. The flowing irritant ammonia smells fill almost every place where we travel in our daily hustle.
And this is just one aspect of the barbarism that has invaded us, there are other, perhaps more egregious manifestations: now we not only have vandals who busy themselves breaking public telephones or looting their coin boxes, there are also acts of spitting into the return coin reservoir, so that the unaware person who picks up his coin after a failed call suddenly finds himself with someone’s sputum caught in his fingers. It is as if people are unleashing their malice and their powerlessness against the city, ultimately just as suffering as its inhabitants.
There are some who feel that this is a form of rebellion. It may be, but, in any case, they are faulty actions that only manage to harm ourselves: it is known that the inhabitants of the Palace of the Revolution, of the El Laguito or of other exclusive areas of the powerful, the most responsible for the material and spiritual poverty that is eroding us, do not walk these streets. I don’t think those who go around soiling the city bear any high ideal or feel any responsibility for their acts. Nor is reveling in filth a solution to our many ills. The capital has filled with delinquent manifestations and other examples of social lack of discipline that do not really speak of the so much cackled about defiance or dignity of a people, but of the appalling state of the moral retrogression we are experiencing, perhaps a simple but visible display of the abyss into which half a century of systematic destruction has plunged us.
Image 1. Central Park grove across the street from hotels “Parque Central” on Neptuno Street and “Inglaterra” and “Telegraph” on Prado Street is one of the open-air, giant urinals in the Cuban capital.
Image 2. The corner of Oquendo and Pocito Streets in Centro Habana, offers this almost permanent, habitual image, of the hygiene that characterizes the city. On the opposite corner is the cafe “El Frisquito”, a food-processing center for secondary school lunchrooms and dining facility for public health workers responsible for the “antivector campaign ” for the prevention of Dengue Fever epidemics