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Story Publication logo January 7, 2009

Cuba: Sweeping the Streets in Havana


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Six months after Fidel Castro's exit, Lygia Navarro explores the hidden epidemic of depression in...

Lygia Navarro, for the Pulitzer Center

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One evening early in our reporting, Virginia Quarterly Review photographer Jason Florio and I are invited to an outdoor art opening on a dock in Old Havana. A muggy afternoon has given way to rain, and by the time we arrive at the show, which is officially sanctioned by the government, the party has started. The police have also already shown up.

We slip past through the corrugated tin door shutting the dock off from the street before the cops block anyone else from entering, and hurry to see as much off the show as possible before everyone is kicked out—which is clearly how the night will end. Seeing anything, however, is difficult, as the police have shut off the lights. Around us dozens of mostly 20 and 30-something Cubans are also shuttling from sculpture to sculpture , trying to decipher some kind of message through the dark and drizzle.

Most of the pieces are veiled conceptual critiques of Cuban society: a river of blue and turquoise flip-flops on the ground, a Cuban flag made of transparent plastic flying above us. People whisper to each other about a film at the back of the dock, but by now the cops have blocked that area off completely. We ask around, trying to figure out what the film was about, while realizing that there may be government security agents in the crowd gathering information on all of us. After several minutes, a man whispers the details to me: The film, he says, was of a large cockroach being carted off the screen by a swarm of ants.

The cops try ever more forcefully to disperse the show, but no one budges. All of a sudden, everyone's attention is on a performance artist who climbs up onto the scaffolding. Costumed all in white as a mix between ghost and fortune-teller, the artist pulls out a large book and, in the cartoonish voice of a very old person, reads us a fairy tale about astronomy. About black holes. And the formation of celestial bodies from masses of stars.

There is a ripple of electricity in the audience, and I can tell why the police are eager to shut the show down. Looking towards the entrance, I see that a mass of scowling habaneros, some wearing pro-government t-shirts, has come in from off the street to block the exit. I've read news story after news story about Cuban dissidents being beaten by mobs of politically agitated neighbors, and decide that it makes sense to leave while we still can. As we walk away, party-goers trickle off the dock. Most, like us, end up sitting on the seawall a few yards away to watch as the standoff over free speech drags on. In the end, we hear the next day, the show's organizers, who had already gotten permission from several government entities to put on the show, were detained and then released.

The next night, walking through the bohemian neighborhood of El Vedado, Jason and I end up on G Street, a long, grassy promenade where high-school and college students flock. Kids sit on benches and in the grass in loose clusters, joking and flirting. They wear their newest clothes—many clearly expensive and sent from abroad—but no one has enough money to buy even a bottle of soda to share between them. Everyone walks, in couples and bands of friends. They zigzag up and down the avenue, and then back again, in some primordial mating ritual. Just around 11:00 pm, the police come, blowing their whistles and telling everyone to leave.

Across the street, we watch from the shadows as the police, and a handful of green-uniformed military men in Mao hats, sweep down blocks and blocks of the avenue. They walk stiffly, blowing their whistles, until all of the kids have gone home.


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