A National Pandemic

In any journey you make in our cities and towns, if you’re approaching the so-called “third age,” you will be impressed by the large number of gates and fences around houses, factories and shops. Whether you like it or not, you will remember the old days, when all the spaces were open and were cared for and respected. Then, you could walk through any neighborhood and, except for some of the mansions of Vedado and Miramar, all had easy access, if there were low perimeter fences they were fully integrated into the architectural design, and in the fifties, not even that: simple spaces of grass called “Japanese lawns,” adjoined the sidewalks.

Industries were the same, with gardens and well-kept green areas all around (outstanding examples: La Tropical, La Polar and the La Cotorra with its magnificent gardens). Businesses with many doors, all working, with access from different streets (the Ten Cents, Sears, El Encanto, Fin de Siglo, Ultra, La Época, La Filosofía, La Casa de lo Tres Centavos, etc.). Also cinemas and theaters, cafes and restaurants and even hotels, with the Havana Hilton accessible through the L, 23rd, M, and 25th streets, to name a single case. The principle, assumed by all, was to facilitate free movement and access (the old Manzana de Gomez is a precursor example), and to make people feel the same freedom as when they went for a walk or to a park. Nor did the stores have guards checking bags, and improperly digging through things you already paid for in the box which were, therefore, your absolute property.

Those were the days when the gallons of milk, bread and the newspaper were left by the respective dealers, in the doors and windows overlooking sidewalks and streets, and no one touched them or drank them, and at the doors of the houses chairs could be left out day and night, unchained.

The change has been brutal: Most homes have fencing, including the doors, windows, porches, terraces, gardens and patios, and even air conditioners and gas tanks. The same has happened with the buildings, industries and businesses. In buildings, in addition to the lattice of the main gates, there are apartment gratings and even collective garages turned into multiple cells, one for each car.

In stores, no matter your destination, it has reached extremes of madness. Walking a few days ago in deteriorated and propped up Central Havana, particularly on Neptune between Prado and Galiano, I noticed that doors and windows of shops still standing in this once-important shopping street, have bars. The same punishment has been suffered by the so-called Rapidos — the State cafes that are supposed to be open and accessible. A negative example is at Zapata and 26th Street in Nuevo Vedado: not satisfied to put a grate on the little space selling food and hygiene products, they’ve also put a grate over the entire cafe, closing the access from 26th, and leaving just a tiny entrance on Zapata. To drink a soft drink or a beer there, in convertible money of course, is like going into a sad cell in the famous Combinado del Este prison.

Deserving of special mention are doors in general: the profusion of them in movie theaters, stores, hotels, restaurants, cafes, etc. (sometimes four and even six), have been cut to only one, sometimes two, that actually function, closing all others, forcing citizens to come and go in single file like cattle to the slaughter, under the watchful eye of the guard on duty.

What went wrong? How is it possible that before, as the official propaganda never tires of driving the point home, we were poorly educated, illiterate, rude and dying of hunger, but we didn’t need bars or fences or closed-off access or guards (about 10% of the labor force is made up of them)? Why now, when also according to official propaganda, we are well-educated, literate, and the most cultured and educated people living in the best place in the world, are we trapped in individual and collective prisons, and we have to submit to humiliating searches when we leave a store? It seems that gold is not all that shines in the vineyard of the Lord.

November 25 2011

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