Ivan Garcia, 2 June 2015 — When he is lucid, Dubiel has a photographic memory. Nearly 30 years later, he still remembers the names of remote villages in the Angolan jungle and tells anecdotes of the civil war which involved more than 300 thousand Cuban soldiers and reservists between 1975 and 1991.
Dubiel came back traumatised. It was very hard for him to see the bodies of his friends flying through the air in a minefield, and the deaths of his comrades after making friends with them in the trenches.
For a while he received psychiatric treatment and tried to adapt himself to civil life. Didn’t do any good. Alcohol and psychotropic drugs did him in. Disorientated, he fell an easy prey to dementia.
Changed into a human wreck, his family abandoned him. He survives collecting empty beer and drink cans which he then sells as raw material. He sleeps wherever the night catches him.
Smelly and starving, he wanders the streets of the La Vibora neighbourhood, with a jute bag of cut up cans over his shoulder. The last time he saw himself in a mirror he was shocked.
“I was a good-looking guy. I finished my college prep year and had some girl friends. The Angola war made me crazy. If I could, I would sue the government, which is responsible for my situation. There are others like me all over the country. Forgotten, and dropped like shit. Right now I couldn’t care less. I would prefer to die. The quicker the better” he says, as he knocks back a cheap, argumentative drink.
Dubiel is one of the 436,000 old men and women who need social help in Cuba (18.3% of the Cuban population, over 2 million people, are over 60). The authorities haven’t been able to plan a coherent strategy to bring to a halt the upsurge in begging in the country.
In the case of Havana, the government’s answer is to round them up on certain dates (the visit of the Pope or a foreign leader) and stick them in a camp in the south of the city, where they wash them with high-pressure hosepipes and give them two meals a day.
After a few days they go back to live on the streets. It wasn’t always like that. In the 1980’s, you didn’t tend to see beggars and madmen sleeping in doorways. The castros’ subsequent actions later contributed to the spreading of poverty.
Social security collapsed when the state suddenly lost the generous Soviet subsidies. In the spring of 2015, there has been an increase in the numbers of beggars and invalid senior citizens who live by begging for money in the streets or selling newspapers and old clothes.
They are the people who have lost big time from General Raúl Castro’s timid reforms. While the world’s press is praising the cosmetic changes and the glamour of a handful of private businesses, the old people and the street tramps remain forgotten.
After 40 years working as a builder’s mate, Lázaro, with the skin hanging off his bones, receives a pension of 193 pesos (about $8). His family threw him out of the house. One afternoon in 2014 he turned up at a ruinous state asylum for old people in need of shelter.
“They told me it wasn’t a serious case. It wasn’t one for the police, a family complaint. And they clarified that if I wanted to enter an old age home, starting in January 2015 I would have to pay 400 pesos a month. And my retirement is less than half that. To go into one of the church homes, you have to give them your home. And I don’t have one. For half a century, whether we wanted it or not, we were all property of the State. Now for Raul Castro we’re vermin,” commented Larazo.
Very close to Prado and Neptuno, the corner that inspired the first cha-cha-cha, between the collective taxis and the clueless tourists taking selfies in the ruins, a bearded and dirty old man sleeps barefoot on a marble bench.
“The man came from an eastern province. He usually sleeps here or around the Malecon. Eating from overflowing garbage cans. Barely speaking. The call him “The Galician.” It’s said he was in the war in Angola. I don’t think he gets anything from social security,” says a neighbor in the Colón neighborhood.
Fleeing the poverty and lack of a future in the old sugar workers’ towns, thousands of people come to Havana looking for better luck. A segregation law, Law 217, effective as of 22 April 1997, marks the easterners as pariahs. And in the face of the police harassment they spend the night in makeshift shelters of cardboard and tin on the outskirts of the city.
They are pockets of extreme poverty, squalid slums with sewage-polluted water and without electric light. Many of the old people and people who live on the street, begging or drunk, came from the east of the Island. They are illegals, they have no rights. The worst things happen to them,” a social worker explains.
The regime butchered social assistance. The policy is to bring only those citizens who demonstrate they really need it to the institutions.
The problem is that outside of this definition are thousands of elderly and needy who aren’t classified as such by official decree. Like Dubiel, a former “dog of war” in Angola.
Translated by GH