I had a disagreeable surprise today. Although, to be fair, something like this shouldn’t surprise me. Leaving Old Havana after a short walk, I stopped to rest on one of the benches lining the open parking area to the left of the Capitolio* stairs. I picked that particular area because at that time in the afternoon (about 4:30) it’s nicely shaded and also because—and this is the detail I didn’t take into account—that row of benches was, curiously, completely empty.
Well, as soon as I sat down on the cool bench a custodian appeared, the kind that wears that ugly brown and beige uniform, a puny guy who looked like he arrived in the capital by train just last week. He emphatically and urgently ordered me to get up: “Compañera, sitting is forbidden in this area!” Still incredulous, trying to assimilate such information from a seated position (if he had told me that while I was still standing, I surely would have fallen over), I asked him the cause (and not the reason) for such a prohibition. Evidently desperate for me to go because some curious passersby started to stop and listen, that little man spit at me rapidly and nervously: “It’s a question of security. Orders of the capitolio administration.” (He doesn’t know that Capitolio is even pronounced with a capital letter.)
Slowly I got up from the bench and looked behind me at the imposing mass of the building. Across a grass lawn, the windows lining the south wing’s ground floor are at a respectable height. I didn’t understand then, and don’t now, how a citizen sitting to rest in the shadow of the Capitolio, pride of almost all Habaneros, can in any way threaten the celebrated building. What are they afraid of? Isn’t a bench’s highest destiny to be sat upon? I am a native of Old Havana. All my life I have seen people sitting there, chatting, taking the air or just watching the incessantly moving city go past. I breathed deeply, and answered the pathetic apprentice gendarme: “Not even during the Republic* were people forbidden to sit on any bench at the Capitolio.” But I realized right away that trying to make that little man think about the absurdity of his superiors’ orders was a waste of time: too many Cubans understand prohibitions but very few manage to understand what a Republic is.
Capitolio: The Capitol building, completed in 1929, was the seat of government in Cuba until after the Cuban revolution. It is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences and is open for public tours.
Cuban Republic, 1901-1959