Havana-based journalist Mónica Rivero talks about the new lockdown measures to contain the rise of COVID-19 cases in the city.
havana lockdown Mónica Rivero
Photo: Mónica Rivero

When I completed the first draft of this article, Havana had announced September 15th, 2020, as the date for a gradual reopening. As the day approached, we learned that this phase of the COVID01-19 Havana lockdown that we’ve been in since the beginning of the month would extend through the 30th, although there is about as much of a guarantee that it won’t be delayed again as there was that we’d return to “normality” mid-month. And we already know how that went.

These weeks have been similar to the year 2020 itself: a fluid calendar where April blended into May, then into June and suddenly, we’re in September and December doesn’t seem so far off. The virus and its upsurges have prevented us from forecasting recovery with a modicum of accuracy, even though here in the Cuban capital we had gotten down to fewer than ten new COVID-19 cases per day. Suddenly, the numbers reached the double digits.*

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Cuban journalist Mónica Rivero talks about being in Cuba during the latest lockdown.

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, a curfew was instituted — though authorities were careful not to use the term “curfew,” preferring instead to “prohibit circulation.”

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On September 1st, a set of measures came into force to contain the rise. For the first time since the start of the pandemic, a curfew was instituted — though authorities were careful not to use the term “curfew,” preferring instead to “prohibit circulation.” Between 7 pm and 5 am, no one is allowed to go out, neither on foot nor by car, although the streets seem more crowded than months ago.

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The Council of Ministers approved Decree 14 of 2020 to grant powers to the Governor of Havana to impose fines of 2,000 and 3,000 pesos (roughly USD$80-120, or more than twice the average monthly salary in Cuba) to anyone in violation of the measures. In the first week alone, more than 1,700 fines had been handed out. 

Public transportation within the city was halted, and travel was suspended between provinces throughout the country because coronavirus cases have also increased outside of Havana.

These days people share a joke alluding to anyone who might be taken by surprise, finding themselves outside too close to the forbidden hour: “Hurry up, the carriage is about to become a pumpkin!” Citizen-Cinderellas with a daily deadline. When the clock strikes seven, the ball/street ends. In the evenings when I take my dog ​​out to pee, I feel like a rebel. 

havana lockdown Mónica Rivero
Photo: Mónica Rivero

For three weeks, the stores have closed at 4 pm, although you can arrive at 3:30 pm and not get in because it’s near closing time and this is reason enough for some doorman or manager to decide that 3:30 is the same as 4. It’s also possible that the queue doesn’t move quickly enough to reach the store entrance on time, no matter how many hours you’ve waited, and we all know it can be many. The popular recommendation is to secure an early morning shift, although it’s no longer permitted to get up as early as before, now that we’re under lockdown. People who used to spend the night near a store entrance in order to get in early to purchase whatever was on offer are now prohibited from being out before 5 am.

The fact that the not-so-called curfew lasts until 5 am was another blow against the “coleros” (people who are paid by others to wait in the colas, or lines), who used to camp at a safe distance from the markets, strategically positioned to pounce at their turn. These coleros are grouped with “resellers” who purchase goods and sell them to others, “hoarders” who stock up on available goods in case they become scarce, and others deemed “irresponsible” — together they constitute the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Government officials attack them in their daily meetings, snippets of which are broadcast on national television where their fury can be viewed by all.

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Covid in Havana has halted all public transportation within the city was halted, and travel was suspended between provinces throughout the country because coronavirus cases have also increased outside of Havana. Anyone who had reservations to go on vacation in other provinces received refunds. Some hope to take their holidays in October.

In the first days of September, provisions of fruits, grains and vegetables disappeared in the capital, which usually are sourced in Artemisa, Matanzas, Mayabeque and other provinces. The government of Havana has insisted that this was due to “a misunderstanding with the suppliers” and that the producers could continue to bring their goods. More than clarifying, the officials seemed to be imploring. And not without reason — not even the markets in the city that are known for higher prices and better selection have escaped the phantasmagorical cast of empty shelves. Peanuts and condiments were all I could find in one of them earlier in the month.

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That the food delivery trucks were not allowed to supply the city’s markets was not the only “misunderstanding.” A week after the measures were announced, the authorities had to clarify that there was also “no prohibition for people with physical disabilities, those over 65, and pregnant women to access the stores and circulate on the streets from 5 am to 7 pm,” as was erroneously suggested by the Governor.

On September 1st, while children all over Cuba put on their school uniforms for the first time after six months, those in Havana remained at home. There were memes where we habaneros consoled ourselves with being able to sleep in late. It would be comforting if mornings were still mornings; but the days also seem like the 2020 calendar, and it hardly matters anymore if it’s morning, noon, or night, Monday, Saturday or November. In more than one school or municipality outside the capital, unfortunately face-to-face activities had to be suspended due to an outbreak of the virus.

Thousands of children now take their classes through television, and communicate with their teachers by phone or through social networks and other digital platforms if they have access to the internet, which the majority don’t.

As a result of Covid in Havana, thousands of children now take their classes through television, and communicate with their teachers by phone or through social networks and other digital platforms if they have access to the internet, which the majority don’t. The government is also advising the “strengthening of teleworking and remote work,” although with the limited Internet penetration in Cuba, it’s unclear what the real capacity for efficient telework is. Parents must work while attending to their children’s education and taking care of them seven days a week. One friend of mine doesn’t know how to teach his son to read.

havana lockdown Mónica Rivero
Photo: Mónica Rivero

In areas where cases are detected, neighborhoods have been isolating, and recently this struck me close to home. When they closed a block around the corner from me, neighborhood speculation ran rampant: The legend went that a foreigner who was renting and was supposedly the original carrier of the virus had fled the scene; that there were three confirmed cases, one of them a minor; that the lady who sells bleach had died. The urban lore spilled out under the yellow tape closing off the block and crossed the street to continue its journey. In the end, the bleach lady is still alive and in stable condition. Hopefully she can continue to sell, especially now that she must have more demand than ever.

* As of Tuesday, April 9th, 2021, Cuba has reported 83,515 cases of COVID-19, and 443 deaths from the disease.

Translated by Erin Goodman.

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Mónica Rivero Cabrera is a Cuban journalist with eight years of experience in digital journalism. For three years she worked as editor in chief of OnCuba News, where she also has worked as a reporter, content editor, and chief of staff. She is a founder of Revista Late, a multinational journalism network. Though she’s back in Havana due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Mónica is currently a Humphrey Fellow at Arizona State University. Fun fact: growing up, she wanted to be an actress.

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