News and Facts about Cuba

At the Train Station We’re All Fighters

At the Station We’re All Fighters / 14ymedio, Lilianne Ruiz
Posted on June 4, 2014

In Havana, travelers bound for the provinces don’t just say goodbye from
the platform, they wage a daily battle for survival

Lilanne Ruiz, Havana / June 4, 2014 – It’s seven p.m. in Havana. The
train to Guantanamo has just arrived at Central Station. “Let’s go, have
your tickets ready!” the conductor shouts, while inching open the gate
to the platform.

The travelers push forward, some carrying all their luggage, others
squeezing through and waiting for a family member to pass their boxes
and suitcases to them through the bars. “Take care, I’ll call when you
get there,” says a voice. Only the passengers can get to the cars. No
one complains. They’ve never lived the classic scene of saying goodbye
from the platform to someone departing on a train.

The Central Railway Station in Havana is an imposing building, built in
1912. The deteriorated ceilings are propped up by wood in the
platform-access areas. Despite the neglect, the building endures and

In the lounge several rows of seats are arranged without a view of
anything. It seems like an immense classroom, but without a teacher or
blackboard. You can’t see the platform, only the wall. It is a lifeless
scene, that gives no sense of movement nor help to make the wait enjoyable.

There are only 11 weekly trains to meet the demand. For the eastern
region, those to Guantanamo, Santiago de Cuba, and Bayamo-Manzanillo,
depart every three days. Those are the biggest, with 10 or 12 cars of 72
seats each. For the route to the center of the island, there’s one to
Sancti Spiritus and one to Cienfuegos. Another goes to Pinar del Rio and
five smaller ones to Guines and Los Palos, in Mayabeque .

Travelers who gather at Central Station, uniformed in poverty, are
forced to improvise. They dress with what they can and assemble their
luggage from what’s available. Briefcases, sealed plastic buckets,
cardboard boxes covered with tape. If they can carry it, they bring it.

The figures of Ministry of the Interior (MININT) officials in battle
dress stand out. They are armed. It is not known if they will be
traveling or if they are patrolling. One of them, sitting two benches to
my right, drinks from a bottle of homemade wine. He works in Havana but
lives in the east. He goes on vacation every five months and returns to
see his family. In the boxes, he says, he’s carrying packages of
macaroni, spaghetti, and crackers that he’ll sell at the military unit
before leaving.

Shipping ground coffee from the eastern part of the country is a crime
comparable to transporting beef

He’s lucky to be able to all of this. For other people, moving
goods is a problem. Shipping ground coffee from the eastern part of the
country is a crime comparable to transporting beef. You may not carry
more than two kilograms of cheese because the authorities assume that
that is the limit of household consumption. Although farmers are allowed
to sell the milk produced by their cows, it is prohibited to sell cheese.

If they can’t sell, how would they survive? “In the East there is no
money,” says a woman waiting to go to Jiguaní the next day. When she
came to Havana the train broke down at 3:00 a.m. in Ciego de Avila and
did not get underway until twenty-four hours later. The passengers,
united by adversity, got off the train to talk and share water and .

Despite a potential fine of 1,500 Cuban pesos, vendors selling bottles
of ice water pass through the waiting room. There is no water on the
train. Women carrying satchels offer sorbets, candies, and mints. The
state-owned outlets offer sliced pork and with black in small
cardboard boxes for 25 Cuban pesos, or hot dogs for only 10 pesos. The
cheapest offering is bread and ham for 3 pesos. The ham is a slice
slightly thinner than a razor blade and the bread is the color of white
cement. Hunger helps one overlook the poor appearance of the food.

A wrinkled old woman is chewing hungrily. She lives in Dos Rios, where
José Martí died , and she is the granddaughter of an Afro-Cuban soldier
from the war of 1895. She came to Havana to spend a few days with a
granddaughter and brought back a box of malangas because “you can’t get
it there.” The bag that her belongings are in was once a sack for
detergent. Her clothes look worn, but as clean as if they had been
washed and dried in the sun.

Two women wearing the uniform of those employed by the “Safety and
Security Agency” contemplate a sandwich wrapped in plastic without
deciding whether to eat it. It is the snack given to them by the state,
their employer. Most sell it to get 20 pesos. I ask them why the
platform is barred and the gate controlled as if for barnyard animals.
“They try to board the train without a ticket, that’s how to make sure
people pay.”

Why don’t they want to pay? “There are those who travel with nothing but
a bottle of water and 5 pesos. Ay mami, this is very hard,” one answers.
She doesn’t finish the sentence and laughs out loud as she walks away.

“In Havana, the fight is better than in the East,” everyone repeated

Those who sell and those who buy have a word in common: fight. “In
Havana you fight.” “Here the fight is better than in the East,” everyone
repeats. They come to the capital because they believe that the wages
are higher. They do masonry, or work in with private
producers, who pay fifty pesos a day (more than twice the average wage).

A young mother nurses her four-month-old baby. She carries a cargo of
detergent, soap, toothpaste, and candies for kids. “The east is hard.
Worse than Havana,” she says. She came from Guantanamo with a box of
mangoes and guavas for her family in the capital: “There the fruit is
sweeter and cheaper,” she says.

A woman wanders through selling plastic sandals. She explains that it is
good business to buy in “La Cuevita” (a large unofficial market in the
San Miguel del Padron municipality of Havana) and resell for a little
more to travelers in the station. “We are all fighters, and this is the
fight for survival,” she says, indicating the station with a sweeping
gesture. “We’ll sell whatever is available, even caskets. Life is hard.”

The sandal-seller says that some regulars are homeless and spend the day
at the station. They search in the dump for anything they can sell.
“They go to La Coubre, the reservations and waiting-list terminal near
the Central Station, to sleep on cardboard boxes they put on the ground.
There they take advantage of and steal the suitcases from those
unfortunate ones going back to the country,” she reveals.

The last train has left for Sancti Spiritus at 9:20 p.m. In front of the
television in the waiting lounge men and women huddle who do not seem
like travelers. They’re not waiting for anything. When the train has
gone, the employees and a policeman prepare to close the terminal. They
shoo them out: “Get up, we’re closing.”

Everyone obediently withdraws until the next day, at 6:30 a.m., when
everything begins again.

Source: At the Train Station We’re All Fighters / 14ymedio, Lilianne
Ruiz | Translating Cuba –

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