Cuba: The Heroes of the Saratoga

By Rosa Miriam Elizalde on May 12, 2022

photo: Bill Hackwell

First, the explosion. The six-story building vibrated, then some cables jumped, with the force of a whiplash. Then, more than half of the façade collapsed without giving time, without announcing anything, each piece of floor swallowing the one above, crushed ceiling against floor and floor against ceiling, amidst a roar and a cloud of dust that hid everything but the desperate screams. It seemed as if the earth had just opened and closed, when two other buildings collapsed.

The cause of the incident at the Saratoga Hotel in Old Havana was immediately known, although the investigation is still open: it was a gas leak, while a tanker truck was preparing the building to reopen this week. With no guests, the rooms remained tightly closed, and maybe a simple click of the light switch was enough for the accumulated mass of gas to cause the shock wave that shattered the windows, the marquetry and the light façade with green and white stucco decorations, original from the 19th century.

This is not the first time that Cuba is in mourning.

Such an accident might even seem minor in a country that in half a century has suffered more than 30 hurricanes of great magnitude, dozens of deaths during the CIA sabotage of the steamship La Coubre in the port of Havana in 1960, the blowing up of a civilian plane with 73 passengers in 1976, a string of bombs in hotels and restaurants in the 1990s, the everlasting blockade by the U.S. government which has naturalized the scarcity of almost everything and made the pandemic more desperate, to cite a few dramatic examples.

But no. The explosion at the Saratoga Hotel, with almost a hundred injured -of them 44 deaths as of Wednesday-, is something else. What made this particular story the Big Story was not the explosion that was felt in Havana, nor the dense smoke that could be seen from the upper areas, nor the feeling of vulnerability it left us all with, but the solidarity of the citizens who crowded around demanding a place to rescue the victims from the rubble, donate their blood for the injured or alleviate the anguish of the victims. Two hours after the accident, the line of volunteers in front of the blood banks, polyclinics and hospitals numbered in the thousands, and most of them were young people, the same ones that the Miami propaganda says are leaving Cuba in droves.

While the government acts and the public press gives lessons of immediacy and sensitivity, people in the street, with all kinds of professions, continue to help their compatriots. We do not know the names of all the rescuers -many of them volunteer firemen-, of the teachers of the “Concepción Arenal” school that adjoined the hotel and protected their students, of the children who saved other children, of the passers-by who helped the Saratoga workers and the families of the two buildings that imploded in the neighborhood, nor of the sniffer dogs that are still looking for the footprints of a missing person in the rubble.

When they broke, the buildings showed their viscera, their arteries, their nerves and their fragility, which is ours. But they also exposed that species of decent sentimentalists who are not in danger of extinction and who are the best of us all, the heroes who threw themselves into saving others, without realizing that another explosion and another collapse could have turned them into victims. And, at the same time, there is an anonymous army of health care workers who have not rested in more than 100 hours since the accident.

In Los soldados de Salamina, the Spanish novelist Javier Cercas reminds us that “in the behavior of a hero there is almost always something blind, irrational, instinctive, something in his nature that he cannot escape.  He is the one who looks the absurdity and cruelty of life in the face to make us more human, the one who warns us that from despair comes the struggle.

Death does not prevail. Once again.

Source: Cubadebate, translation Resumen Latinoamericano – English