I woke this morning to the sound of a persistent beep beep beep in my little room. Where was it coming from? What was it? Ah, it was a soft alarm from Aurora’s desk, the surge protector beeping to signal a loss of power. Se fue la corriente, Maria del Carmen announced to no one in particular as she prepared the morning café. The electricity is out. Not uncommon. A minor annoyance that will pass…well, whenever it passes. No electricity means no water because an electric pump moves the water from the tanks on the roof to the faucets below. Oh well, I didn’t want a bath this morning anyway—too cold.
It is the frente frio that has brought the rain of yesterday, the coolness of today and most probably the power outage. During the Special Period, in the 90’s, apagones or blackouts were planned and announced by a car with a loudspeaker traversing the neighborhood. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, which heavily subsidized the Cuban economy, had brought hardship and shortages of everything, especially fuel. So the Cuban government rationed the use of electricity by these planned outages. Everyone adjusted, more or less. Even the kids understood the realities of life in Cuba during this difficult period. On my way to visit Natalia one day, I came upon Aurora and her little amiguita Diana playing “house” in the outside hallway of the building. Tenemos que limpiar, cocinar and hacer el café hasta que se va la luz,Aurora was declaiming like an efficient Cuban housewife. We have to clean the house, cook and make the coffee before the electricity is turned off. But now, in 2018, it is random and doesn’t last long—probably more related to weather and aging infrastructure than any particular government plan.
Se fue…I hear the last melancholy lines of Mi Unicornio Azul, a famous song by Silvio Rodriguez, a troubadour who is an icon of the Cuban Revolution (though he spent months, maybe more, in a re-education camp right after the revolution where many artists were confined in an excess of revolutionary zeal). The singer’s Unicornio Azul, Blue Unicorn—a fanciful creature that could be a symbol of hopes, dreams, ideals, who knows—has disappeared yesterday, and he is missed, needed, yearned for.
Se fue…an expression that carries so much sadness here, absence, longing. Muchos se han ido…many have gone—to Miami, to Spain, to Mexico. Young people are leaving in droves, creating a population that is aging disproportionately, exacerbated by the very low birth rate (all birth control methods are freely available…and free…including abortion…so many women are choosing to delay or forego having children in these hard times). Ask about someone’s son, niece, granddaughter, co-worker that you may have met once or twice and the answer, all too often, is that they have left the country.
In the picture that I have selected for the front cover of my book “Waking in Havana: a memoir of AIDS and healing on a long-forbidden island” eight people are holding aloft the first panel of Proyecto Memorias, the Cuban AIDS Quilt project that I helped to start in 1996. Of those eight people, only one remains in Cuba today. Three have died, four are living in the U.S. and one I’m not sure about. Maria Antonia, Joel, Armando, Chavela, Manolo…se fueron. They have left for other countries. Maria Julia, Myriam, Emilio, Ricardo, Oscar, Xiomara…and many more are gone forever, except in our hearts. Maybe they live in a land where blue Unicorns romp and there is no need for electricity.