It is Sunday, 3rd February 2019, a week after a rare and deadly tornado devastated Havana’s boroughs of Regla, Guanabacoa and 10 de Octubre. The government has been trying to organise subsidies and cheap funding for victims to rebuild their homes, and citizens are helping their neighbours. However, what has been the largest-scale and most organised relief focusing on catering to the daily nights of the affected families has been offered not by the government, local community or not-for-profit organisations, but by Fábrica de Árte Cubano (FAC), arguably the capital’s most modern arts and music venue run by the Afro-Rock and fusion musician X Alfonso and his family. Following the tornado, the venue set itself up as a relief centre, organising and distributing food, water and clothes to the victims across the different boroughs.
We gather from 10am onwards in the yard of FAC. Volunteers, primarily young but also some more senior habaneros, from various ethnic and social backgrounds are managing the classification of donations, including clothes, food, water, bed linens, and toiletries. The yard is packed with bags of clothes, possibly more than the whole of Cuba’s capital requires. Volunteers are separating them by gender, bottoms, tops, babies, children, and teenagers.
The atmosphere catches me off-guard. There is mostly silence besides brief conversations related to the tasks we are doing. All volunteers are working calmly and with great efficiency, focused only on what needs to be done. There are no cameras, no Facebook, no selfies, no phones, besides rare calls to manage the shipments. We are all focused on our tasks, strictly following the instructions of the few organisers, without much ado or drama. Another group of volunteers are organising the articles in packages according to the needs of each family whose details were collected in advance. A chain of volunteers are passing the bags organised by numbers, loading them on the track. We are heading to Regla, one of Havana’s most underprivileged boroughs, devastated by the tornado. We mount in old Russian trucks which are lent by the government. They previously shipped staff and merchandise to the January international festival Havana Jazz Plaza. Few taxies are also offering free services to take people and goods to the locations where we are distributing supplies.
We arrive in a typical one-floor house in a central point in Regla with a huge yard where all packages are offloaded. The owners of the house are hassling around, partly content that there is help coming to their borough, and partly surprised by the high efficiency with which the work is managed and goods are swiftly reaching the target families. The husband keeps exclaiming about the strict management under which the articles are distributed. The wife moves around the volunteers, nodding her head, repeating “se hace como se hace” (“it is done the way it is done”). The shipments are sent to the families carried by musicians, actors, photographers, writers, IT programmers, masseurs, volunteers from various occupations and backgrounds. They are passed from the hands of rubio (blonde guy), trigueño ( a guy with dark/ olive skin and straw-like hair), and mulata (mixed heritage girl) to families of various ages and ethnicities. An elderly lady cries silently and blesses the young man passing her the bags of supplies. A mother rushes to pour the water for her young children. We are leaving back to FAC, another truck arrives full of supplies and followed by a number of cars with volunteers. I look around from the top of the truck, houses are missing roofs and stairs; yet there are no homeless people and the residents of Regla are celebrating. They took the Virgin of Regla to the streets of the borough today, asking for its blessings and strength to rebuild. My co-volunteers are looking around at the destruction; we are still speaking about the work and how to assist the residents of these devastated areas. No phones, no selfies, no videos, no pictures have appeared yet. We dismount back at FAC, finalising few chores, and wrapping up at 5pm. There is no trace left from the work done at the venue as the club opens for its evening audiences.
I am left speechless, thinking about the day. Maybe it is because of the efficient silence and organisation of the work, maybe I am tired from the sun, journey and the physical labour. My mind goes back to the victims of the Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the US government and civil society to respond adequately to the humanitarian crisis in New Orleans. Many argue it is because the city is a home of primarily Afro-American population. Regla is largely inhabited by poor Afro-Cubans. This made no difference to the distribution or provision of supplies. Social or ethnic differences did not affect the work of organisers and volunteers working at FAC, nor the government employees repairing electricity and helping with reconstruction. On the contrary, defiant of a US economic embargo which has been crippling the country for almost sixty years, the Cuban people proved they can take care of their own without international intervention. The response has been quick, swift and efficient, most likely not in the way that the international community thinks it should be done, but in the manner of Cuba, its people and its government.
This response signifies the emergence of a civil society in Cuba; one independent from state-sponsored youth and civil organisations, and instigated by musicians and artists, through the cultural space of FAC. It marks a paradigm shift from the traditional government sponsored social initiatives to the building of the country’s civil society through a privately run music and arts venue, its activities and the community associated with it. Cuba’s civil society is also developing independently of any intervention from international charities and other non-governmental organisations, in a manner particular to the island. There have been no cameras, nor lights to match the voyeurism of other governments and charities, propagating their agenda when engaging in relief situations. Havana lived up to the maxima that ultimately actions speak louder than words. Random pictures appeared on social media of various famous musicians such as Cesar “Pupy” Pedroso and the Maestra Zenaida Romeu visiting the affected areas to assist the population. At the same time there has been no concerted marketing campaign by the government, FAC, the other non-state social initiative around Havana, or the fund-raising concert Habana De Pie, organised by hip-hop artist Telmary Diaz and Habana Sana, which took place at Estudio 50 the night before. The world of music and art and the introduction of private ownership of music venues has inadvertently laid a foundation for the emergence of a civil society in Cuba, one driven by the music and arts community, responding to the needs of the population in times of serious humanitarian crisis.