Tarará’s Thousand And One Stories / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar
14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 17 September 2016 – “This was my house,”
says Elena, a Cuban-American who returned to the island this week and
visited the place where she spent her childhood. In Tarará she took her
fist steps, but the place barely resembles the residential neighborhood
of her memories. In five decades it has passed from being an enclave of
rich people to hosting a teacher’s training school, a Pioneers camp for
schoolchildren, a sanatorium for children affected by radioactivity, and
a tourist’s villa.
In the town, located east of Havana in a beautiful coastal area, the
city’s crème de la crème settled in the middle of the last century. None
of the residents of the 525 houses of this little paradise could imagine
that soon after the titles of their homes were released, only 17
families would remain there and the rest would emigrate or lose their
property after Fidel Castro’s coming to power.
“My father bought the parcel with great enthusiasm, he always said that
he would live his last years here,” recalls Elena now. She walks around
the house that has lost all the wood of its doors and windows. Weeds
have taken over the terrace area and on the floor of the main hall there
is evidence of the many bats that sleep in the room every night.
A man sweeping the street asks the newcomer if she passed through “the
entry gate” control where visitors must pay for access to Tarará. For
five convertible pesos Elena has returned to the place of her nostalgia,
with “lunch included” in a solitary cafe by the sea.
She heads in that direction, but not before crossing herself before the
lonely church dedicated to Santa Elena, which had gotten its cross back
a few years earlier, after its having been removed during the decades
when the most rabid atheism ruled the place. “They baptized my littlest
sister here,” recalls the woman in front of the chapel.
In the bar of the local restaurant the waiter tells her that during
elementary school he spent several weeks in Tarará. Although they swap
stories about the same piece of Cuban earth, they seem to be talking
about opposite poles. “I liked coming because they gave us yogurt at
breakfast and lunch, and in one of the houses I saw a bathtub for the
first time,” explained the man who is now over 40.
His memories correspond to the days when the once glamorous villa had
been converted into the José Martí Pioneers City. The camp hosted
thousands of school age children every year, “they were like vacations
except we had to go to school,” explained the man.
The Soviet subsidy supported the enormous complex which included a
cultural center, seven dining rooms, five teaching wings, a hospital, an
amusement park and even an attractive cable car crossing between the two
hills over the Tarará River, which is now a mass of rusted iron.
Elena, meanwhile, recalls the backyard fruit trees, the squash court,
and the softball field that filled with families on the weekends.
However, her fondest memories relate to the drive-in theater located at
the entrance to the village, which is now converted into a parking lot.
Between her memories and the waiter’s are 30 years, and a social revolution.
“Now the only people who can enter are those with reservations in the
few houses rented to tourists in this neighborhood,” explains the
employee. They belong to the families who resisted leaving despite all
the pressure they received. “Overnight the village filled with young
people who came to the countryside to study dressmaking,” he explains.
The few residents who didn’t leave “went through hell” the sweeper says.
“They had to travel miles to find a store and all around the houses were
places for dancing and checkpoints,” he recalls.
A few years ago the state-owned tourist corporation Cubanacan
rehabilitated 274 houses and another state-owned entity, Cubalse, did
another 223. However, the projected tourist center hasn’t taken off.
“This place lost its soul,” commented the sweeper while gathering up
leaves from a yagruma tree that have fallen on the sidewalk. The plaque
marking the pier where Ernst Hemingway docked his yacht can barely be
discerned in the midst of the undergrowth.
In the nineties, Tarará was the epicenter of a program sponsored by the
Ministry of Public Health for children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear
accident. They came from Moldovia, Belaruss and Ukraine, shortly after
the economic crisis – sparked by the loss of the Soviet subsidy after
the breakup of the Soviet Union – had put an end to the Pioneers camp.
The official press explained, at the time, that Cuba’s children had
donated their “palace” to those affected by the tragedy, but no one
remembers a single meeting at the school announcing the transformation
the villa would undergo.
Early in this century 32,048 patients from Central and South America and
the Caribbean passed through Tarará in the noted Operation Miracle,
funded by Venezuelan oil. They came with different eye diseases such as
cataracts and retinitis pigmentosa. They found a haven of peace in the
place where only Cuban personnel working with patients and the few
remaining residents were allowed to enter.
A decade ago 3,000 Chinese students came in turn to study Spanish and a
police school was established in the neighborhood; its classrooms are
often used to hold members of the Ladies in White when they are arrested
on Sunday after leaving Mass at Santa Rita Church, on the other side of
“This looks like a ghost town,” says Elena loudly as she walks the
streets. Successive “programs of the Revolution” that filled the
neighborhood have ended and now all that’s left is a development of
numerous abandoned houses and others were a few tourists take the sun on
the terraces. The beach where the visiting Cuban-American found her
first snails is still there “as pretty as ever,” she says.
Source: Tarará’s Thousand And One Stories / 14ymedio, Luz Escobar –
Translating Cuba –