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In search of two destitute districts’ shadowy delegate

'He doesn't stop. He's always walking around the area, encouraging people. It's the only thing that he can give,' say residents.

La Habana

District 71 of Popular Council 1 Santa Fe contains two of Havana's poorest neighborhoods: El Bajo de Santa Ana and Luz Brillante.

El Bajo is a coastal settlement dotted with shacks and prone to flooding from the sea. Luz Brillante, meanwhile, is a chaotic collection of dwellings slapped together and made of cardboard, wood and zinc, erected on old wetlands filled in by Asian immigrants who once came to the capital in search of a brighter future.

There I spoke with Ernesta, 65, retired from the Light Industry sector. The sweeps her patio, still caked with mud from the most recent rains. She tells me that the water seeps in up to 20 cm in the two rooms that make up her dwelling.

"Even when there is no cyclone, even a little rain means chaos. My husband is bed-ridden due to a cerebral ischemia, he was so affected by some rains back in May. The water also ruined the neighbor's TV and his mattress. He suffered a similar collapse and is still recuperating."

Another resident of Luz Brillante is Carlos, age 35 and jobless. "Before the demolition brigade from the Housing Administration used to come with a bulldozer and knock the houses down, but when they left we just built them again. They got tired and wrote us off as a lost cause. Many refuse to give us our rationing books, or to register our addresses. I only got electricity after making a big effort."

In Bajo de Santa Ana I get shots of the very worst shanties. As the zinc and guano boil under the searing sun, suddenly two women besiege me. They want to know why I am taking photos. After showing them my journalist's ID, they are eager to show me the sites with the biggest problems in the area: Elpidio's house, Verónica's house, Aldanas' house, and that of "Los Muchos," where twentysomething live on a kind of ranch, under dreadful conditions.

I ask them for their opinions on their delegate: “Does he visit you? Does he listen to you?”

They respond that their delegate's name is Chacho, but they do not know his full name. "We have never worried about that. He is just Chacho. Nothing else. Does he listen to us? Yeah, he's always going around and talking to people. But the poor man cannot do much.

"How does he live?" I ask.

"In a bad house, one of the worst."

They take me to his place, which seems uninhabited, in ruins. I walk the neighborhood to see if I can find him to interview him, but to no avail. One resident says that he is at the market, keeping an eye on "the Sunday fair." When I arrive, he has just left.

"At the paint factory, which is under repair," says an elderly man dressed in an old military uniform, and describes him: short, mulatto, with a round face ... "because he may shoot right by you by like an arrow. Chacho doesn't stop. He's always walking around the neighborhood, encouraging people. It's the only thing that he can give. "

At the paint factory, a custodian informs me that Chacho was off to a garbage pick-up on 310th St. I go there and find several Communal Service workers with a full truck, but there is still a lot of trash left. The head of the brigade says that another truck was needed, so the delegate went to place a call to "Wilson, the babalawo."

Wilson, shirtless and wearing a white cap, plucks a rooster while uttering a prayer to Changó. "I don't know how you didn't run into him on the way over." He makes a cross on the ground with the rooster and leaves it there. "He hung up a minute ago and left."

I wander through the dirt roads of the neighborhood looking for a short mulatto man with a round face. The sky turns black and it starts to rain, and the wind begins to blow. The mishmash of rundown houses at Luz Brillante would be blown away by a strong storm. I quicken my step. A group coming from the beach says that Chacho had been there in the morning, but they just saw him with some men on 320th Street, chopping down a tree.

When I get to 320th the tree is already on the ground. Several men rest on the sidewalk, the rain falling upon them.

"Yes, he was here until just a moment ago," one tells me. "He helped us cut it down, and then went off to the quarry."

Suddenly it seems to me that District 71 is a mirage with an imaginary delegate living in a house symbolic of the neighborhood. I return to take a picture of the house as proof that it actually does exist, that a resident of the People's Power resides there.

Along the way a woman approaches with a parasol and a little girl in her arms. To confirm once more, I ask her who lives in the shack.

"The delegate," she says.

"Do you consider him a good representative?"

"Good? The best! He’s been elected twice, and in the next election we’ll vote for him again. He knows his trade by now."

After this statement, I decide to call it a day. I walk away from the shantytown, drenched. As I sidestep the puddles, I look back and see the people on their porches, praying for it not to rain any harder. Every fretful face I see under that rain could have been the delegate’s … but by that point all my questions had been answered.

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