They call them the “Kholy cottages” and they look out of place with their humble architecture in a neighborhood of mansions and well cared for buildings. In some areas, the roof tiles have fallen off and residents do a juggling act so as not to get wet when it rains. Their short-term hopes of renovations are centered right now on US President Barack Obama.
“The American soldiers slept here during their first intervention,” comments Rita, age 66 and a local resident. According to popular legend – gaining strength lately – the “cottages of 26,” as they are known, may have been camps for the US Army at the beginning of the 20 th century. But that all appears to be the fruit of their inhabitants’ imagination. A fable that grows as Obama’s arrival approaches.
“I sleep every night looking at the same ceiling that a Marine looked at more than a century ago,” imagines Ramon, who lives in one of the cottages at the intersection of 26 th Street and Colón. The man hopes that “now that everything has been fixed with the yumas, surely they will declare this to be a Heritage property and fix them. A woman next to him can’t contain her laughter and denies it, pointing out that the cottages “were just workers’ dormitories for the Kohly family farm and have no ‘historical value’.”
The four long and narrow buildings, with their hundred cottages, are like a biopsy of Cuba. Some entrepreneurs have opened up small businesses. There is a bakery, a car repair and a little shop selling religious articles. The doors of several homes display For Sale signs and most of those who live within their walls are over 50.
Waiting to buy some candy is Tatiana, born in the place and with a three-year-old son. “We believed that Obama was going to come by here, but now we know he won’t,” she declares. Near the Chinese cemetery and the guarded building where Raul Castro’s family lived for a long time, the cottages are “a fly in a glass of milk,” says the woman. “This neighborhood belongs to the pinchos” – a Cuban slang term equivalent to Nomenklatura – “but nobody worries about us,” she complains.
Some years ago, a bus coming full speed down the avenue crashed into the façade of one of the buildings. The roof is still fallen in and many avoid standing in the doorways where the risk of a collision is highest. The complex has the atmosphere of an encampment, but several generations of Cubans have taken root there.
“I’ve lived here since I was a kid and my two daughters were born here,” says Eduardo. For this retiree, the American encampment is a fable. “In reality, this was a horse stable, but there were never blue-eyed blonds here,” he says. In his opinion the myth of the Marines barracks is bandied about because “people want the Americans to take charge and repair it,” he says. “They’re looking to be adopted by the rich uncle,” he sneers.
Every Havana neighborhood seems to be competing for the favor of the visiting tenant of the White House. Popular humor has expanded in recent weeks from the friendly “Bienvenido Mister Obama,” an allusion to the Spanish film “ Bienvenido Mister Marshall,” to the incisive, “ Obama, seguro, a los yanquis dale duro,” – a substitution of Obama for Fidel Castro in the old slogan: “Fidel, for sure, hit the Yankees hard!” This latter phrase expresses all the contradictions of the official discourse with regards to diplomatic normalization with the neighbor from the North.
In the Kohly cottages the anticipation grows. “Who knows if the caravan will be diverted and pass by here,” dreams Tatiana, excitedly. Military encampment, simple horse stable, or workers’ dormitory, the residents of this small neighborhood abandoned to its fate today remade their past, consistent with the times we are now living. They are like orphaned children, desperately seeking a father.