In the Small Hours, Havana Fights and Bleeds

Havana, bleeding and wounded and dilapidated, shuffles through the emergency room in the early hours of a recent morning in this account from Cuba’s 14YMedio. The violence depicted here seems out of an earlier and innocent age compared to the bloody convulsions of many a hospital in Central America or Colombia or Mexico. But this is the first feature story from Cuba’s new opposition electronic newspaper; the country has lacked anything resembling a real press or actual news reporting for decades.

Cuba’s very low internet penetration, as well as a government block on the 14YMedio’s means that for now, it will probably attract few readers in Cuba. But for editor Yoani Sanchez and her team of dissident reporters, the site appears to be a significant accomplishment.

It is a night like any other in Calixto Garcia hospital; a number of vagabonds are lounging on the benches in the waiting room of the emergency department. They take refuge here from the cold of the morning, far from the dramas that are enacted in the corridors of the hospital. While the city sleeps, Calixto Garcia is the scene of some of the most sordid tales to stain the night life of Havana.

At the main entrance to the emergency room, open to the public, a nurse and a police officer rest their heads on their desks, awaiting any new patients. This place is so overrun with policemen that it resembles a commissariat. This is where the victims of the extreme violence of the streets come, to be treated for their terrible injuries. Patients come in on foot and in ambulances and in the backs of the police cars that accumulate in front of the building.

Here as well come the victims of accidents and other emergencies. Only if they arrive with a companion can they hope to shorten the nightmare of their stay in this place. Everything here is deteriorating or broken, except for the conspicuous signs prohibiting photographs. A closed-circuit camera surveys the waiting room.

At 1:26 AM, two policemen come in escorting a wounded man. He is no older than 20, handcuffed and with recent slashes on his left forearm. His clothing is bloody, and he walks with an unbending air. Throughout the night, scenes like this are repeated, with so many young men coming in that it resembles a field hospital, as if there were a war going on out in the streets. There is no embarrassment, no fear of the consequences of whatever crimes they may have been involved in: their injuries are battle wounds.

“And Havana is just killing itself out there!” exclaims the driver of a patrol car, complaining because he has had to bring another victim in, and now must wait. “He’s no relative of mine,” the officer says, impatiently.

Screams split the night as they attend to an adolescent who has dislocated his shoulder and appears high on drugs. A custodian with a ferocious aspect orders him to shut up, cursing out loud when he realizes he is going to have to clean up the mess left by the youth. People standing in the doorway of the examining room crane to watch what is happening; privacy is an impossible luxury in this place, as well, it appears, as politeness.

Meanwhile, a very old woman is lying half naked on a stretcher. Her relatives have barely succeeded in covering her nightgown with a jacket, and they run here and there with x-rays in hand. Their faces are resigned. To get anything done, they have been forced to leaved the old woman laying here in the middle of the waiting room, in full view of everyone. Around the grandmother the hospital continues in its rhythm, paying no attention to her moans: the nurses sleep, joke with one another or sing one of the tasteless chants which are so popular these days [Pinocchio, Pinocchio/they’re coming after you/ to make a mess out of you…] Experienced doctors are barely around. Instead, there is a train of students, most from around Latin America, paying more attention to their conversations about their last outings or an upcoming seminar. The personnel are all very young.

At 3:45 AM the chaos reaches its peak. A group of men arriving after a street fight gather in the corridor. They all appear to fight for the same gang. Their women brag about their husbands’ gifts as fighters, constructing a kind of ghetto heroism for them, as if they were urban gladiators. Given what they are saying about vendettas against various gangs, it seems likely that in the coming nights there will be further visits to the emergency department. Perhaps there will be gunshot wounds, or perhaps, like tonight, half a dozen cases of knife wounds. The obvious question arises: if these are the cases who show up here, who is staying away? How many who are in worse shape, wounded or even dead?

As more and more patients of this type come through, certain common characteristics become apparent. All of them are men, all are young, and all are black. A government that has declared racism dead and buried has not in reality been able to change the fact that the most marginalized and disadvantaged population is fundamentally black. The emergency room starkly reflects this ongoing social injustice.

But there are not only victims of street fights here; there are also victims sexual assaults and domestic violence. Women of all ages come into the hospital, beaten and sometimes unconscious. The result of the lack of security, the macho society, and the widespread prostitution that all shroud the city. Some of them are not even safe in their own homes. In the face of these issues, women are poorly safeguarded, although the authorities hide and minimize this fact.

Is this really a night like any other? “It is almost always like this, like tonight,” says one paramedic, apparently well accustomed to working with both nurses and police, seeing up close a reality that the official media never reflects, attending to injuries that sometimes are life-or-death.

The darkest hours have passed, and with them the crisis point in Calixto Garcia hospital. A lot of suturing thread has been used to sew up the deepest wounds. The old lady in the stretcher has been taken away. There is silence. At a certain moment, dawn begins to break and there have been no new cases, although it is hard to say for sure if the worst has passed.

Translated from Spanish by International Boulevard.

Victor Ariel Gonzalez