Surviving in Socialist Cuba

Life for Juan Domeq, who is 79-years-old, is a vicious cycle. Every day, he gets up at 5:30 a.m. and with his gait slow and hesitant, he arrives at his newspaper corner. He buys 50 copies of the Granma newspaper and the same number of the Juventud Rebelde. Domeq invests 20 pesos (less than one dollar) in the 100 copies. If he manages to sell them, at one peso for each one, he gets 80 pesos in profit. But he cannot sell that quantity of newspapers every day.

“People in the streets are not interested in what the Cuban press says. Besides, the employee at the street corner cannot always sell me 100 newspapers, usually, he sells me 40 to 50 of them. Afterward, if I have a good day, I buy food, milk or yogurt for my wife who has been bedridden for the past four years with paralysis. The small amount of money that I get selling newspapers is spent on meals. In addition, I have to keep my eyes open all the time, because the police has already given me a fine of 40 pesos because I have sold the newspapers without a licence,” Juan Domeq says, a sad old man overburdened with problems who lives in a filthy bunkhouse in the Havana neighbourhood of Lawton.

At the same time that Domeq gets up to buy the newspapers, Antonio Villa 68-years-old, with a physical impediment, wakes up. Then, after a cup of hot coffee, in his wheelchair, he goes towards the bakery of his area, where he sells bags of nylon for one peso each (.05 cents).

According to Antonio, someone he knew sold him a hundred bags of nylon for 35 pesos. ” Selling bags takes between 10 and 12 hours daily. Sometimes, I have a good day and I manage to sell 200 baskets, but most of the time, I only sell 80 or 90. With what I get, 65-120 pesos, (3-5 dollars) I buy a meal and I keep some change to pay a lady who washes my clothes. Several times the police have taken me down to the station. Besides fining me, they confiscated my bags. But as much as I want to be free, I return to doing what I know how to do so I can earn an honest living”, relates Antonio, a black man who lost a leg during the war with Angola and lives in a wooden hut with a roof of aluminum.

Also, without much luck, Clara Rivas tries looking for a handful of pesos. She is 71-years-old and is a resident of a decrepit old people’s home in the La Vibora neighbourhood. Clara, dirty and in old clothes, sells cigarettes as a retailer. “In the home, we are given lunch and a meal, but it is so bad that many old people who live there prefer to look for our own money and to eat in the street.”

After spending 14 hours selling cigarettes, money earned can buy a portion of rice, stewed peas and a tasteless bony fish, in a hovel belonging to the state where prices are low. With a full stomach, she returns to the home to sleep.

Juan, Antonio and Clara are three old people full of complaints, already with signs of senile dementia, and without a family who cares for them. They must perform miracles so as to survive under the hard conditions of Cuban socialism. And they are not the only ones.

Iván García

Photo: Martin Baran, Flickr

Translated by : George L