HAVANA – Wandering the rundown but colorful streets of the Cuban capital, one is suddenly struck by a desire to be a dog. The expression “a dog’s life” morphs into new meanings here.
The idea of photographing dogs in Havana came to me the first time I went out into the city’s streets and encountered a beggar pushing a cart on which stood a life-size representation of Saint Lazarus, a great favorite in Cuba. Jesus came across him on the doorstep of a rich man; the man was covered with sores, which dogs were licking (Luke 16:19-31). Since then, when Lazarus is depicted artistically, he has been accompanied by dogs and aided by crutches, and his wounds bleed still. So, too, the statue that I saw, with two dogs at its feet. Many Cubans ascribe divine attributes to canines, a tradition that remains from the culture of the Africans from the Yoruba tribe who were brought here as slaves after the native Indians were wiped out by the Spanish occupiers.
Saints nor not, there’s no doubt that the dogs of Havana live better than most of their peers in other countries. The communist state ensures them rights equal to those of humans. In recent years, organizations have been established to ensure the wellbeing of street dogs. The strays are picked up and given shelter and appropriate treatment, and also an ID card, just like that carried by humans, that’s attached to their collar.
Last December, the Mail Online ran an article about lucky Cuban dogs that were adopted by about a dozen government institutions. One of the dogs, whose task was to guard Havana’s Museum of Metalwork, was awarded an ID card in a special ceremony in the presence of the museum’s employees, for foiling the attempted theft of an air-conditioning unit.
Tens of thousands of dogs roam the streets of Havana. You usually see them sprawled in shaded corners of this tropical city, enjoying leftovers that the city folk have thrown them. When the temperature falls and a cold wave (20 degrees Celsius; 68 Fahrenheit) strikes this hot city, the dogs appear with tattered sweaters to protect them from the “bitter cold.”
For a full week I roved the streets of Old Havana, and the dogs told the city’s story. It’s plain to see that the harsh conditions of poverty and squalor make it difficult for the Cubans to look after their dogs as they might wish. But communism Cuba-style hasn’t passed by the four-legged friends. Among them, too, in contrast to the ideology, some are equal and some are more equal. Rumor has it that in the city’s upscale quarters (such as Miramar), home to government figures and ranking army officers, dogs have a better life. Some of them reside, like their owners, in luxurious villas, surrounded by walls and guards.
When Fidel Castro consolidated his rule, a law was enacted allowing servants whose rich masters had abandoned their homes to continue living in them. Thus did I come across a magnificent building in the Art Deco style that is now a pet clinic. It’s impossible to keep up the building on 15 euros a month (the average salary in Cuba), its proprietor, Vlademiro de Sousa, explained to me, “so I leased part of the castle to veterinarians.”
At the other pole of a dog’s life, the most violent type of dogfights continue to take place here, despite the strict ban on the practice, and even though policemen and soldiers are everywhere in the city, particularly in the areas frequented by tourists. To photograph any of the security people is absolutely forbidden. The crime rate here is very low, and as a tourist I felt completely safe even in the darkest alleys.
Next to a boxing club for young people I met an elderly couple carrying a dog in their arms. “I am 102,” the man said. “My young wife is only 99. Our dog is only 3. This is our 20th dog.”
I don’t know where fairy tales end and reality begins. Obviously, to be a dog in Havana is a different story. Maybe it’s a story of hope.