Havanah – As Hurricane Irma flooded the working-class neighborhoods behind Havana’s seaside Malecon, a photographer for the Cuban Communist Party newspaper watched two men pulling broken furniture out of the calf-high water.
Nearby four others sat on plastic chairs playing dominoes in the filthy water, which reached halfway up their legs to a makeshift wooden table balanced on their knees. Juvenal Balan snapped a photo and posted it online with a comment declaring it “incredible” that the four were playing while “others work together to mitigate the damage.”
Then, something unexpected happened. The photo went viral and ignited a furious and complicated debate about the state of Cuban society.
Many on the island and in Cuba’s sprawling international diaspora saw Sunday’s scene as a textbook example of “social indiscipline,” a commonly heard phrase in the country that’s used to bemoan the flouting of prized civic values like cleanliness, politeness and helping one’s neighbors. But for others the photo symbolized another, equally Cuban quality: good-humored resilience in the face of difficulty, even disaster.
“What savages!” one woman wrote on Balan’s Facebook page. “Throw them in jail,” another said.
A day later the platinum-selling Cuban reggaeton band Gente de Zona had an entirely different spin.
The band posted Balan’s photo on its official Facebook page, cropped to focus on the domino scene and not the men collecting trash, and declared: “Putting a good face on bad times.”
“The essence of the Cuban spirit is reflected in this photo!” the band or its social media manager wrote. The cropped image got more than 8,000 likes and drew a similar reception on dozens of other pages aimed at Cubans.
In Italy, expatriate Cubans spent days arguing about the meaning of the image on an Italian-language chatroom.
“Cubans on the island and in the diaspora are taking this image and reading all sorts of things into it about contemporary Cuban society,” said Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University who tweeted about the photo this week. “Some are seeing a sign of social irresponsibility or a symptom of a crisis of morals. (Other) people are seeing the triumph of the Cuban spirit over incredible odds.”
There were similarly polarized reactions to other images this week of Cubans having fun amid the crisis: women laughing and apparently dancing in knee-high floodwaters, teenage boys diving from an overpass into a flooded tunnel converted into an ad-hoc pool.
Writer Oscar Sanchez Serra addressed the sociopolitical implications in an essay in the Communist Party newspaper, Granma.
“Our rich and infinite jokiness is one thing. Indiscipline and irresponsibility is another,” he wrote. “We must reject the image that craziness and thoughtlessness are part of our nature. … It is not a joke but rather fuel for mocking us that in the middle of a situation created by Irma’s gigantic, devastating impact, in the middle of the Havana streets, submerged to their waists, four men were playing dominoes.”
Balan told The Associated Press that he was taken by the contrast of people working to clear floodwaters on Aguila Street, four blocks from the Malecon, and the domino players.
“I’m seeing women with brooms, families trying to get trash out of the water. I see these men on the right trying to collect trash and unblock drains, I imagine,” Balan said. “And there I see the people playing dominoes, an unusual case not because of the dominoes but because of the moment.”
If Balan had shown up a little earlier, he would have seen those same men working to unblock drains and clear trash, according to six neighbors interviewed by AP.
“This was not any kind of indiscipline,” said Angel Caballero, a 54-year-old construction worker who was playing dominoes but did not appear in the photo. “While some of us were working to try to get the water to go away so it would not rise more and run into our houses, others were taking turns playing.”
Irma’s floodwaters have now receded and the debris has been collected, leaving water-stained walls as practically the only visual reminder of the storm’s havoc in Havana. That, and pictures like Balan’s.
Eddy Dennis, a gray-haired 51-year-old parking attendant seen pulling furniture from the water, said what the image showed was neighborly cooperation and mutual effort in the face of Havana’s worst flooding in years, if not decades.
“It was something communal that all the neighbors were doing in the spirit of unity,” Dennis said. “Those who got tired would sit down and play dominoes. We had spent the whole night on our feet, and it was a way to de-stress in the face of disaster.”