Crime in Havana

vivaI heard a sudden noise from the street, rather an increase in noise – there is always noise in central Havana, always. This was high pitched shouting and screaming. At first I thought it was kids in the corridor, not unknown, boisterous, echoing, but it was far too loud for that, so I moved to the balcony. Yuri had returned; she’d been out and gone straight to the other balcony. The disturbance must have begun right after she entered the building. I looked down, four floors; it was hard to figure out what was gong on; there seemed to be maybe a dozen people involved, nearly all women. There were two or three separate swirls of action, involving much shouting, angry, high-pitched and out of control, mostly female. I saw a few punches and kicks being aimed, but each swirl of action had another dozen people trying to break it up, and the whole thing was being watched by an almost instant crowd of about one hundred. Every balcony was full, traffic came to a standstill.

 

The police quickly arrived on foot and began to separate the warring parties. It was difficult though, because there were about ten women attacking two men; the men tried to take refuge in the flats or get into their white car. Every time the police moved one or two of the women, another one or two would come in from another side. And the women began screaming at the police, so more separate arguments began. The street was blocked with people by now. One of the men managed to get into the white car; a policeman stood guard at the door. A woman began screaming at him and while his attention was on her another woman opened the door and aimed a kick at the man inside. The police managed to separate the crowd from the fighting parties; one of the men was in the doorway to the flats, the other in the car. The man in the car was short and white; the one in the doorway was big, tall, probably mulatto.

 

The crowd watching swelled; it left just a small circle for the action, like a cock fight. The women were now screaming; at the police mostly, but also the men beyond. They were very, very loud, very angry, gesticulating wildly with their arms, jerky violent movements, explaining themselves to the police, but, I suspected, explaining nothing. I had seen this happen before in Bayamo one night. A friend and I had smashed up a hire car; we were in the police station to report the accident. It was quite a serious accident; my friend (he had no licence) had turned the car over, but we were more or less unscathed. A policewoman commented on this: why aren’t you more seriously hurt? José, my friend, indicated that we were wearing seat belts. She shook her head and wondered at the novelty. Anyway, suddenly about twenty women, mostly quite young, burst into the station. The noise was absolutely tremendous. Everything else had to stop. They were all shouting at once, waving their arms; it was hard to tell whom was arguing with whom, or what the problem was. Nothing else could be done while this was going on: the police woman excused herself. For about an hour they listened to various stories and (I think) pretended to take notes. The women talked (shouted) at the same time. Various officers listened to them. Slowly, very slowly, they calmed down a bit, perhaps talked among each other; it was hard to tell. Gradually everything went quiet and they were sent on their way. I don’t believe the police did anything. They just sighed with relief and went back to work.

 

This altercation reminded me of that, although three or four of the women didn’t calm down at all. The police though, calmly separated everybody and the watching crowd slipped away. Traffic started to move again. Two, then three police cars arrived. The white man stayed in the car, but the mulatto explained himself to the police. Some of the women tried to get at him, but couldn’t, so argued with the police. Eventually, the women departed. People left their balconies. The white man got out of the car. The two men left. The police stayed for about an hour, not doing anything, just talking.

 

Two hours later, three separate police on bicycles arrived; then a policeman on foot, then a motorcycle cop, then three police cars. The women then arrived; they came from another street, so I think did the men. The women had bought a bigger woman with them. She carried a can of beer and was built like a heavyweight boxer. She was shouting when she arrived and the whole time she was there. Two or three of the other women, the ones who’d been there before were also shouting. It was quite a performance but lacked the energy of the previous row. The police sort of listened, but really just ignored them. The men were nowhere to be seen. The car was still there. After fifteen minutes the women left. The heavyweight boxer kept stopping and shouting all the way up the street. She still held the can of beer, was probably drunk and perhaps trying to make up for not having been there. She had obviously been brought along as a reinforcement and was trying to make up for having nothing to do. The police ignored her.

 

The three bicycle police and the man on foot left after about thirty minutes. The three police cars, each with two police, and the motorcycle cop stayed for about another ninety minutes. They talked. One of them cleaned his car. They all had a look at the motorcycle; it was new. A trailer arrived, backed up to the white car and took it away. The police chatted briefly and left. I have no idea what it was all about. Neither did Yuri, but she lost interest after about five minutes.

 

I wondered about crime in Havana…

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A Cuban memory trick

 

Some of the older people do have memories, for big events. Those old enough remember the revolution or, much later,  the Russians leaving, but everyday life, everyday people, they are past or gone, unless they stick around or return. Tony remembers, he clearly remembers me, but he could not remember Yamilia, José or Paul. He says I am family, that I can stay in his house anytime, but I don’t think he remembers why; I don’t think he remembers any of the stuff we got up to all those years before, he just knows there was something, that I keep coming back, that there is something there.

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Lucia (my nurse) didn’t remember when I went to see her. She remembered me, the face, but when I mentioned Yamilia, to whom she was close, there was a complete blank. No memory of her. No memory of the flat, of the eighteen or so months we were intermittently together, of José or anybody else. I wish I spoke Spanish. I have tried. I have a good memory; I remember loads of words and their meaning, I can make myself understood, but I can never get the hang of putting all the words together. I don’t understand how they link. I’m hopeless; being able to learn a language is a gift – I don’t have it.

 

If I could speak Spanish (I will continue to try), I could talk to people, learn more about what happens here. I’ve learned a lot because I am curious; I know a great deal about Cuba, but I want to know more, before it disappears. I think it will disappear, not as quickly as many people think, but it will go, and here will be the same as everywhere else.

 

Yuri remembers our meeting and many of the events since. But we have stayed in constant touch; I have been part of her life for seven years. If I had disappeared after meeting her in 2006, I don’t think she would remember me. At the Ambos Mundos, where I used to stay before I met Yuri, the staff there remember me from 1998, my first visit, but in between I’m sure they don’t remember me at all. Perhaps that is typical, to a certain extent I think it is; my memory is very good, perhaps I assume that everybody has the same faculty.

 

There is something unique about Cuban memory. Joel James Figarola believes that Cubans live in ‘a spiritual environment where life is lived as if one would die the following day – which is to say as if one would never die’. I think this explains Cuban life quite well; they live very much in the moment – what has just passed has gone, the future does not matter, all that matters is now – this moment.

 

It is a good way to live. It requires that everyone else lives that way too, but it is a good way to be. Stuff still gets done, in a way that is sometimes mystifying. For ages nothing seems to happen, then suddenly there is a new building or a new cafe or restaurant. The pace of life is slow, but that is partly the weather – who wants to hurry in 30˚ of heat? Bureaucracy can be painfully slow, but that can happen anywhere. It is a hangover from the Soviet influence. I think it will change, slowly, but things will always take longer here.

 

Whatever the answers are, life in Cuba is unique. It has its faults (as does everywhere), but there is nothing like here, the way it is now. I love it. I leave the final words with Andrei Codrescu (not a fan of modern Cuba):

‘The best quality of an observer is empathy, which has to come with your worldview. No amount of immersion or adventure can take the place of empathy. If you look with love, you get back love. Ditto anger, indignation, or indifference. The Cubans are full of warmth, a vast reservoir of affection.’

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