Sunday, July 08, 2007

Film casts harsh light on problems in Havana

Miami Herald
Posted on Sun, Jul. 08, 2007
Film casts harsh light on problems in Havana
A new documentary by a young Cuban filmmaker has cast a harsh spotlight on the housing and other serious problems faced by the thousands of Cubans who move illegally from the provinces to Havana in search of better lives.

The migrants, mostly from eastern Cuba and known as ''Palestinians'' because they lack legal residency in Havana, often are forced to live in shanty towns on the edges of the capital and expelled by police back to their hometowns.

''The phenomenon of forcible return continues to exist, although the police proceed silently and with some secrecy,'' said Elizardo Sánchez, president of the illegal but tolerated Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Sánchez estimated that dozens of people are expelled from Havana every week by bus or train after being detained for failure to produce documents confirming their legal residence in Havana. Repeat violators are taken to court, although the sanctions consist only of fines and official ''banishment'' from the capital for several years.

Cubans' jobs and ration cards are linked to their legal residences. But the economic crisis of the 1990s brought a rise in migration to Havana. A government statement at the time said 92,000 people had tried to legalize their residency in Havana in the first half of 1997.

That same year a law made it extremely difficult to shift legal residency to the capital, a city of 2.1 million people.

Havana residents estimate that about 20 shanty towns rose in the city's suburbs in the past decade, with shacks usually built out of metal sheets, scrap lumber and cardboard without government permission.


Most of the migrants come from eastern Cuba, where people tend to be poorer and darker-skinned. Adding to the dislike for the orientales, many of Havana's police were brought in from the east, apparently to avert any sense of regional loyalty in case of disturbances.

''It's as if we were lepers just because we're easterners,'' says María, a woman from Guantánamo province who appears in the documentary Buscándote Habana -- Looking for Havana -- made in 2006 by Cuban filmmaker Alina Rodríguez Abreu, 22.

The 21-minute film, which will be shown at 6 p.m. today on AmericaTeVe-Channel 41, explores the deplorable living conditions and discrimination faced by the illegal migrants who live in the shantytowns.

The documentary was Rodríguez' graduation thesis at the School of Audiovisual Media in Havana's Higher Institute of Art. El Nuevo Herald was unable to contact her in Havana.

Filmmaker Jean Michel Jomolka, who was in her graduating class and moved to Miami this January, said some authorities seized several of her cassettes containing interviews with people expelled from Havana, and others barred her from filming in several poor parts of the capital. She was detained and her camera was confiscated in Guantánamo.

Most of the scenes shown in the film were taped in the Havana shantytowns of Casablanca, Planta Asfalto and Santa Fe. The documentary also shows María, a native of Camagüey who lives with her husband in a shack in the swimming pool of the former Bristol Hotel in central Havana, now an apartment building.


Miami Dade College film critic Alejandro Ríos, host of La Mirada Indiscreta -- The Indiscreet Glance -- the TV program that will broadcast the documentary, said Rodríguez' film shows one of the island's politically sensitive problems.

''This is positive proof of the rebirth of the documentary in Cuba and the commitment of its new creators to depict reality without restrictions, with honesty, blowing away the smoke curtains of official history,'' Ríos said.

Havana residents' prejudices against those from eastern Cuba are current issues on the island. The recent national baseball championship series between teams from Havana and the eastern city of Santiago saw billboards posted around Havana streets that criticized the provincial team. One handmade sign hung across one street branded easterners as criminals and urged them to ``Go Home.''

''These people are like the roya,'' Oneida, a Havana resident, is seen saying on the documentary. Roya is a fungus that attacks vegetables.

A significant housing shortage is one of the key social problems affecting the country, particularly Havana. In 2005, the government announced a plan to build 100,000 new homes every year, but the goals were never met.

In the documentary, sociologist Pablo Rodríguez says that unless urgent steps are taken to control the proliferation of shantytowns, ``the future will resemble Las Yaguas.''

After the triumph of Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959, the Las Yaguas slum on the Havana outskirts was held up as a symbol of poverty and social neglect under previous regimes.

It was razed and replaced by a housing complex in the early 1960s.

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