HAVANA TIMES – A dear professor of mine once told me, years ago, what it was he did when he wasn’t sure what to do, without a foot to step on and think about our national reality.
He would open up a book by Jorge Manach (1898-1961) – Pasado vigente, Glosario, Estampas de San Cristobal or any one of his other of his unforgettable essays and articles – to any random page, read three or four paragraphs, like a musician trying to catch the right tone, and then start to write his own thoughts about the current situation.
Let’s try it, he said to me back then, to show me how it works. He took an old book off the shelf, opened it with the agility of a magician when separating a deck of cards; read from it and… what Manach was saying about the Cuban situation back in the 1930s and 1949s, could open our eyes to the island’s issues in the middle of the 21st century. Either the writer had a foolproof vision about the future, or the national future/present had an inexplicable vocation of the past, I thought at the time.
This story popped into my mind a few days ago when I verified that the repetitive, energetic and patriotic calls for productivity and efficiency of the country’s government , on the one hand, and the “normality” that this “temporary situation” is leading us to in terms of services at public establishments, form a delightful “dialectic”, the effects of which can be felt and are spreading.
National Bus Station. Late October. 2:30 AM. I had just arrived from Pinar del Rio and I had a long stop-over because my bus heading towards Holguin didn’t leave until 9:15 AM. So I didn’t have to walk about with my baggage on my back, I went to look for the “baggage check” as you do, because that’s what they are there for. It was closed. I went looking for the person responsible. Nobody knew anything. I carried on searching throughout the entire station until I found him. I told him I was interested in checking in my things. And nearly not letting me finish, he replied:
“No, papi, the baggage check only opens at 8 AM, until then we’re just handing over things that have already been checked in.”
“But, isn’t this normally supposed to be a 24-hour service?”
“Yes, but these aren’t “normal” times. And I’m covering it. There aren’t even people here to work.”
Giving up, I grabbed my bundle and tried to look after it as best I could, without getting any shut-eye, for fear of being robbed, waiting until dawn.
Some days later. Holguin.
“Is your laptop already charged?” the receptionist at the Alex Urquiola Provincial Library asks me in her usual friendly tone.
“Why?” I reply intrigued.
“It’s just that we aren’t allowed to let users charge their laptops. The energy consumption plan we’ve been given is really, really low.”
“Forgive me, but you are stopping every professional from doing their work if they come with their laptop. These devices only last an hour and a bit or two at most.”
“I know… We’re really very sorry, but that’s what we’ve been told.”
Giving in, again, I leave to try and find another library in the city where the “guideline” is different. But, as usual, things are the same and even worse. At the Art Center, which is also next to the Calixto Garcia park in Holguin city, I’ve been told that they can even be fined hundreds of pesos if inspectors see that they have let any electronic device unassociated with the institution, connect to its electricity supply.
I asked around some friends, to find out whether they have archives, documentation rooms etc. where you can work with a computer. Nothing. Electricity cuts at offices between 11 AM and 1 PM, reduced working hours. And staff, as you would expect, have to do whatever they can, following guidelines from above. As we Cubans say: “escaping”.
And it isn’t a bad strategy, at a national level, to try and protect electricity consumption in the residential sector, so we don’t have to return to the sad reality of constant blackouts in the 1990s. And it isn’t a bad thing that people (you, me, us, our families) “escape” however we can from our professional responsibilities when, to tell you the truth, our wages and transport aren’t enough for us to get home well every day, and we have to “invent” our survival our best we can.
However, the most alarming thing is that if we have been suffering the inefficiency of many of these services for decades now, public offices which began to see the public half an hour after opening and closing half an hour before closing, the “we can’t today, come back tomorrow’s”; errors in documents which you had pay an eye for to get fixed; indolence and apathy… what can we expect now, when they have the magic excuse of “we’re in the middle of a temporary situation”, which seems to stretch on and on like a piece of gum?
Jorge Manach might have the answer: “Choteo, that is to say, confusion, subversion, disorder; – in summary “chaos”. Because what is the meaning of this word but this, the relaxing of all links and connections which give things an integral aspect, a dignified integrity?”.