New Internationalist

Waiting in line

November 2008

View from Havana
by Leonardo Padura Fuentes

The most nettlesome and persistent institution established in Cuba over the last five decades is the queue. From the first years of the triumph of the Revolution, when scarcity started to be a daily presence, the queue began to generate its own philosophy. No Cuban who has experienced the reality of island life over these past decades is unfamiliar with questions like ‘Who’s last?’ when joining a queue for bread, the bus, or the doctor, and none can suppress a shudder at the sound of the most feared pronouncement for Cubans: ‘That’s the end’, referring to whatever was being sold or offered.

Queues have their own logic, perverse though rigorous. For example, the first in line have a better chance of actually getting the product or service they are waiting for; those at the tail end are almost certain not to.

But there is a queue in Cuba that escapes any form of logic whatsoever, from the tricks of the most practised ‘line jockeys’ to the supernatural interventions by spiritualists and santero folk priests. It is the most dramatic and frustrating – or gratifying – queue anywhere on the island, and offers a commodity that is both concrete and volatile: a visa.

At the end of the 1970s, the Carter Administration took important steps towards bringing about an understanding between Washington and Havana, which had been estranged since the US broke off relations in 1961. One of the results of the conversations held at that time was the establishment of the US Interests Section in Havana and a corresponding office for Cuba in the US. Since that time the US Interests Section has been charged with dealing with procedural requirements for Cubans wishing to visit or move permanently to the US.

It would take too long to sketch out the stages through which the issue of Cuban migration to the US has passed in the last 50 years. But one thing has not changed: the regulation of the separation of families, of travel abroad, and of legal or illegal migration for political ends. Better than any document or announced policy, the queue into the US Interests Office in Havana reflects the temperature of relations between these two countries with such complex historical, cultural, and familial relations. The queue is a literal dramatization of the progression of policies adopted by consecutive US administrations to Cuba and of the motivations of Cubans who have dreamed of crossing to the other side of the Strait of Florida.

When someone joins this queue, he knows that he has instantaneously fallen beyond the scope of reason and statistical predictability and into an area of twisted logic. In this queue, it is impossible to know what law prevails, what one’s chances are, or even whether the magic ‘powders’ from the most renowned Cuban santeros would have any effect. Dreams of travel and meeting up with family members are dashed for reasons that change from one day to the next, or from one person to the next, and even for the same person, merely because there is a change in the thinking of a functionary in charge of granting, or denying, visas.

The most dramatic and frustrating – or gratifying – queue anywhere on the island offers a commodity that is both concrete and volatile: a visa

The daily absurdity experienced in this line is essentially the absurdity of the policies implemented by Washington over the course of recent decades. The fact that the toppling of Cuba’s socialist Government has been transformed into an important lever in US electoral politics has infected the realism that would be necessary for healthy bilateral relations. Over the decades, the embargo established by President John F Kennedy in 1962 has been tightened – as under Bush – and relaxed repeatedly without ever achieving its primary objective.

Meanwhile, the embargo and various acts of aggression against Cuba by the US have provided the Cuban Government with an excuse for political and ideological entrenchment and for crackdowns on possible dissidents.

A year ago, when then-provisional President Raul Castro made an overture to the US, the response was fundamentalist and hostile, and Havana’s counter response was the usual: that after 50 years, Washington’s hostility (the major effect of which has been the suffering of individual Cubans) has not budged the Cuban Government.

Today, with this month’s US presidential elections, Cubans are asking themselves what might change in these stagnated relations that affect them so powerfully. McCain promises more of the same, and we know that Havana will respond in kind, with unity, intransigence, and the rejection of change, whatever the cost. Obama promises certain shifts – in travel policy and remittances to family in Cuba from the US – that would not address the central problem.

And even though more and more people, politicians included, recognize that the tactic employed by Washington has not and will not induce Havana to make changes – the contrary is true – the Cuban question, always prominent in electoral season, does not seem likely to produce the fundamental changes that might have a domino effect.

Or is it a deadlock that politicians need, and want? Cubans are asking. Meanwhile, those who anxiously wait in the queue at the US Interests office eye the cold, grey building, more enigmatic and stubborn than the oracle at Delphi, and think: the key to my destiny may lie there.


Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist. His most recent work, La nieblina de ayer, won the Hammett Prize for the best crime novel written in Spanish for 2005.

This column was published in the November 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 417

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