Surviving Under Cuban Socialism

Life is a vicious circle for 79-year-old Juan Domeq.  Everyday he gets up at 5:30 in the morning, and with his slow and hesitant walk he arrives at a newspaper kiosk and purchases 50 copies of Granma (the official state paper) and also 50 copies of Juventud Rebelde (‘Rebel Youth’- another state paper).  Domeq invests 20 pesos (less  than a dollar) on the 100 copies.  If he manages to sell them at a peso each he will profit by making 80 pesos.  But he can’t sell that amount of copies every day.

“People on the street care very little for what the Cuban press has to say.  Besides, the guy who works at the kiosk can’t always sell me 100 newspapers, usually he sells me 40 or 50.  Later, if I have a good day, I buy food, milk, or yogurt for my wife, who for 4 years now is in bed due a paralysis.  The little money that I make selling papers I spend on food.  And I have to constantly keep my eyes open, for the police have already fined me  40 pesos multiple times for selling newspapers without a license”, points out Juan Domeq, a sad old man, heaped with problems, who lives in an unclean bunkhouse in the Havana neighborhood of Lawton.

At the same time Domeq gets up to buy his papers, Antonio Villa, 68 years old and physically disabled, also wakes up.  After drinking a cup of hot coffee for breakfast, he gets in his wheelchair to travel all the way to the neighborhood bakery where he sells nylon bags at the door for a peso (.05 cents of a dollar) each.

According to Antonio, an acquaintance sells him one-hundred nylon bags for 35 pesos.  “I sell bags for about 10 to 12 hours daily.  Sometimes I have a good day and I manage to sell 200 bags, but most of the time I can only sell 80 or 90.  With what I make, from about 65 to 120 pesos (3 to 5 dollars), I buy food and I put change aside to pay a lady who cleans my clothes.  On multiple occasions the police have taken me to the station.  Besides fining me, they confiscate my bags.  But as soon as they let me go, I go back to the only thing I know how to do to make money in a decent way,”  says Antonio, a black man who lost his leg during the war in Angola and lives in a wooden hut with an aluminum roof.

Also without much luck, Clara Rivas, 71-years-old and residing in a decadent asylum for the elderly in the neighborhood of La Vibora, tries to make some money.  Clara, dirty and badly dressed, sells cigarettes at retail.  “In the home (asylum) they give us lunch and dinner, but it is not appetizing, so much so that most of us old people prefer to make some money by our own accounts to eat out in the streets.”

After selling cigarettes for 14 hours, the money she has earned is sufficient to buy one ration of rice, stew, and an unidentified fish, full of spines, from a state store where the prices are low.  With her stomach full, she returns to her nursing home to sleep.

Juan, Antonio, and Clara are three elderly people burdened with problems, already showing signs of being mentally senile, and without families to take care of them.  They have to make miracles in order to survive under the rough conditions of Cuban socialism.  And they are not the only ones.

Ivan Garcia

Photo: Martin Baran, Flickr

Translated by Raul G.