May 20, 2020 / 7:17 PM / 15 days ago

Hush descends on Havana as street performers vanish in wake of tourists

HAVANA (Reuters) - With her buoyant colonial-style dresses and witty songs about the roasted peanuts she sells, street vendor Lyssett Perez had become something of a living landmark in Havana alongside its old fortresses, squares and churches.

Street vendor Lyssett Perez leaves a state store after buying yoghurt amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in downtown Havana, Cuba, May 15, 2020. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

But now, with all tourists gone amid the coronavirus pandemic, she either stays at home or dons a face mask to go hawk her wares to locals queuing outside shops.

“I miss it so much. The other day, I arrived at the square, looked all around, with a kind of mischief and I could swear I could see it full of people in my mind,” Perez said.

Perez is one of a multitude of hawkers or performers who usually bring Havana’s historic centre alive in exchange for tourist dollars but who have now had to put away their costumes for better days and are struggling financially.

“I have had to sell some of my things to get by, musical equipment, good shoes,” said Carlos Sanchez, who used to make a living playing Cuban classics on the trumpet in the streets while dressed up dapper.

For a brief while, he played for the locals lining up outside shops but stopped after police charged him a fine for contravening the partial lockdown, which allows people to go out only on essential business.

Another fixture, Roberto Gonzalez, usually dresses his daschnunds up for photo opportunities and mini shows- like one in which they gnash their teeth every time he mentions U.S. President Donald Trump.

Now, he says, they are very stressed due to the lack of interaction and confinement at home, where he has but a small patio for them to run around outside.

“I’ve had to take them to the veterinary,” said Gonzalez. “I just hope all this will improve, and that we will soon come out the other side”.

Cuba appears to have contained the virus, according to official data, with new cases declining to less than 20 per day from a peak of around 50 in April, bringing its total tally to 1,900 cases and 79 deaths.

But many of its tourism markets have not recovered and the government has not yet outlined any plan for reopening borders which it closed in March.

Anaibis Montero, who usually dons colorful dresses and turbans to greet and guide tourists in the old town, said she was living off scant savings but preferred that to opening too quickly.

“How am I going to approach a tourist now if I don’t know who has (the virus) and who doesn’t?” she said. “The main thing now is to end the pandemic, because if not, we will continue exposing our lives.”

Reporting by Reuters TV and Sarah Marsh; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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