Havana Nostalgia: Why Cuba Is Banking On A Brand New Harbor

The capital's unique harbor has driven Cuba's economy for centuries. But with Brazil's help, the building of a new commerical port of Mariel marks a turning point in the island's history.

A Brazilian flag can be seen on the day the new Mariel port was inaugurated last year
A Brazilian flag can be seen on the day the new Mariel port was inaugurated last year
Leonardo Padura Fuentes*

HAVANA — Ever since the Spanish Conquistadors discovered the unique qualities of Havana Bay half-a-millennium ago, it has been considered the singular geographical fortune of the island of Cuba.

Both the bay’s natural structure and its location, at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, prompted the Spanish Empire to make Havana the place where it would regroup its fleet before sending it back to Spain, loaded up with the gold and silver and other goods pulled out of the New World.

With its purse shape, the bay was the best possible refuge against hurricanes, but also pirates and buccaneers who, upon reaching its entry would be faced with a current that squeezes closed the narrow access to the placid interior on both sides. It didn’t take long for the harbor to become a shipyard where some of the biggest vessels of the era were built. Inevitably some of the most pretentious colonial fortresses would sprout up on the coast around it.

It has already been said that the city of Havana is the daughter of its bay, and that the historical importance, along with the cultural particularity and economic prosperity that the island once enjoyed, were directly linked to this harbor.

The unique shape of Havana harbor (NASA)

As this new year begins, however, it seems that a new story is beginning for the old cove of the Cuban capital. The opening of a modern container terminal in the bay of Mariel (25 miles west of Havana) will eventually transfer to that harbor most of the Cuban maritime commercial activity.

At the same time, Havana’s port will focus ever more on tourism, to be converted over the next few years into a marina that will be able to welcome far more visitors than today.

This transfer of responsibilities from Havana to Mariel could mark a turning point in the history of Cuba.

A big bet

The aim of the new harbor is to become the epicenter of the Cuban economy, not only by virtue of its capacity (at 18 meters deep, it can host the world’s biggest ships), but also because in its immediate vicinity there will be a special development zone, governed by the rules of a free-trade zone, with looser regulations than those in force in the rest of the country for foreign merchants and investors.

Raul Castro and Dilma Rousseff (Planalto)

Mariel is the Cuban government’s biggest economic bet, which is hoping to transform it into a modern commercial player in a country that has become prisoner of its own policies and infrastructures (which still exist).

The participation of the Brazilian government and of Brazilian companies makes it possible to make a reality of what is perhaps the biggest project in Cuba in the last 50 years.

The initial loan of $802 million, together with the upcoming extra $290 million from Brasilia were decisive for the project to move forward. In return for this gesture, everything seems to indicate that Brazil will have a major footprint in the new Cuban economy, thanks to the expected simultaneous arrival of Brazilian companies that can also take advantage of prolonging the maritime route that leads to the renovated Panama Canal.

When they cut the ribbon to inaugurate the harbor, Raúl Castro and Dilma Rousseff signaled a watershed in Cuba’s history. Mariel is opening itself to the world while the historical Havana bay, for centuries the heart of the island, is relegated to a secondary role.

Havana harbor by night (Gabriel Rodriguez)

From now on, though we Habaneros will have a cleaner bay with more tourists, we will also lose the central position that made our city an indispensable reference point in both Cuban history and the history of a good part of the American continent.

Yes, Havana bay today must pay the price of years of economic degradation. But may this historical transfer lead us Cubans to the better life that we desire as much, I believe, as we deserve.

*Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a writer and journalist from Havana, winner of the 2012 National Literature Prize in Cuba.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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