On April 16, 1961, just before the end of a fiery speech at the speech delivered during the funeral for the victims of the bombardments that marked the prelude of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Fidel Castro exclaimed:
“Comrades, workers and peasants, this is the Socialist and democratic Revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble. And for this Revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble, we are willing to give our lives. Workers and peasants, humble men and women of the country do you swear to defend to the last drop of blood this revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble?”
Those words were spoken on the corner of 12th and 23rd, in the Havana neighborhood of Vedado. Fifty-two years later, less than five miles from that place, every night, at the break of dawn a trio of beggars begin their task in a rickety abandoned school in the neighborhood of La Vibora.
Armed with a chisel and a small sledgehammer, they take almost a hundred bricks manufactured before 1959. “Given their quality, we sell them for two pesos each. People buy these recovered bricks and use them in the construction of their houses or to make a closet. We work for hire,” explains one of the beggars.
Later, with their profits, they sit in a wide, airy doorway to drink domestic alcohol filtered with industrial carbon, the drink of the forgotten. The indigent trio cries for a good bath and medical attention. They are alcoholics cubed. Emaciated and dirty, they drink the infamous homemade rum.
“I shower once or twice a week. When some important guy visits Havana — like when Pope Benedict XVI came in 2012 — they collect us and put us in a camp where we have two meals a day. We can also wash up more often. Once the personage has left, they throw us out in the street again. We sleep in the courtyard of the House of Culture in the 10 de Octubre municipality, or in a building in danger of collapse facing Red Square in Vibora. We did fine when we were healthy. We never got sick,” confessed another of the beggars.
The beggars have transformed the busy corner of Carmen and 10 de Octubre into a hardware store of old things.
René, 32, lived with eight people crammed into a room without a bathroom in a tenement in Central Havana. “I decided to live as a nomad. I earn some money cleaning up flowerbeds and gardens. For lunch I eat leftovers that people throw in the trash. Pick up empty cans of beer and soda. When I accumulate several bags, I go to an office where I paid raw materials according to how many pounds I collect. I live day to day. If I have money I stay in a motel. If I’m broke I forage for dinner in the trash cans. I used to be ashamed, people shouted names at me, but every day there are more of us beggars in the capital. The social service? They don’t even remember that we exist.”
When the sun gets hot, several beggars put down a filthy blanket with old objects and used books. For a few pesos, you can get a 206 VEF radio from the Soviet era. Some raggedy sandals from the now disappeared East Germany. Or Socialist Realism novels like “Here we Forge Iron,” “Nobody is a Soldier at Birth,” or “August 1944” from Russian writers. They also have faded copies about Marxism-Leninism and collections of speeches by Fidel Castro.
Arnaldo, a habitual in the doorways of Calzada de Octubre, says the things go for very little. “People buy from us to help us. But these Soviet books sell less than Fidel’s speeches.”
Next to Vento street is Casino Deportivo, belonging to Cerro municipality. Before the bearded ones came to power, it was an upper middle class neighborhood. It remains an attractive development, despite the five-story buildings badly designed and shoddily built after the Revolution next to some buildings of quality architecture.
In Casino Deportivo, in the full light of day, three vagrants searched the trash. “In places where people with resources and “favored” by the government live, they find pleasant surprises in the trash cans. Remains of shrimp or beef, almost new clothes, pieces of computers and foreign magazines. These tennis shoes that I’m wearing I found in one of the bins,” said one of them.
According to Havana beggars, the best neighborhoods to ’fight a buck’ (make money) or get good food from the trash are Miramar, Nuevo Vedado, Vedado and Casino Deportivo.
“What happens is that in those neighborhoods the police pick us up. Before, they took us to the station and gave us a bath with a pressure hose. They gave us food and we spent the night in the cells, which to me, seemed like a palace. But for some time here, they’re detained us for a few hours and then sent us on our way with nothing to eat,” said a homeless man.
Others prefer begging for change and with the proceeds to buy food. Around the Capitol, elderly people with physical limitations beg for coins from tourists. Some Japanese shooting photos turn their backs when a lady comes over and asks them to buy a quart of oil.
“It makes money. There are tourists stingy, but most give you ’chavitos’ (convertible pesos). Sometimes even a five or ten convertible peso note. Thanks to panhandling, I can buy soaps and canned food in hard currency stores,” says an old woman with trembling hands by Alzheimer’s.
Forced by their parents, children are also asking for money from tourists and passersby. But it is on the busy Obispo Street, in the old part of the city, where begging has become a business. Women beggars proliferate.
Police and political authorities seem to have no effective response to this scourge plaguing Havana. Those years of the Revolution, where beggars could be counted on the fingers of one hand, are over.
As tens of Habaneros walk around carrying smart phones, oblivious to reality, hundreds of countrymen dig through the trash to survive, without social help from the State. In a revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble, announced by Fidel Castro in 1961, today we have a bad copy of the worst capitalism: every man for himself.
Photo: Taken from The Beggars of Fidel Castro.
28 July 2013