The Hard Fate of Those Who Grow Old / Alberto Mendez Castello

Cuba, old age, selling little cones of peanuts on the street.

PUERTO PADRE, Cuba — Old Raul was a worker for Communal Services, but an unyielding cervical disease at age 54 made the Medical Commission discharge him. Now he is 74 years old and has a pension of 242 pesos, “but I go over 40 just on my wife’s drugs,” he says.  Most of the time he stays seated on the sidewalk in front of a market that sells unrationed products, and sells spices and homemade bags to take on errands.

Raul gets around on a bicycle, but old Gilberto has to fight on foot, with short steps, in order to sell the occasional homemade cumin packet.  He was a truck driver.  He spent 41 years behind the steering wheel:  “I was driving throwing rods since I was 11 or 12 years old,” he says.

Skeletal illnesses took Gilbert from work.  Now a septuagenarian, he and his wife “live” with a pension of 242 pesos, and of those some seventy go for medicine. Those retired because of illness cannot get a license to work for themselves:  “The other day an inspector wanted to give me a fine of 700 pesos.  Take me to the police, to say there everything I have to say.  In the end he left me alone.”

Mariano had a better position than Raul and Gilberto, and unlike them, did not retire because of illness but because he finished his years of work.  At the time he retired, he held an administrative post in the municipal hospital.  After retirement, other institutions took advantage of him until his health took a bad turn.  Now Mariano is a paraplegic. Pedalling a tricycle with his hands, he tries to earn a living selling prú, a soft drink made of herbs and fermented roots.

Blanco also pedals a tricycle with his hands.  He is an ex-operator and driver of tow trucks, who was transformed into a babbling paraplegic by two thromboses.  Now he has to get by with a pension of 242 pesos for him and his aged mother:  “More than 40 pesos go for nothing more than medicines; if I don’t sell knives we die of hunger,” he told me at the same time he was lamenting the difficulty of finding knives to sell because Customs has limited their entry into the country.

In Puerto Padre there exists a Grandfather House where, for 25 pesos a month, old people receive breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks.  “Sometimes here we even have beef, today we have chicken,” said Jimenez, a retired bricklayer.  But this Grandfather House only has capacity for 40 old people, who have to go sleep in their homes.  So it is no more than a small remedy for this great wound that is old age, not only in Puerto Padre but in all of Cuba.

Hundreds of old people, almost all of them sick, almost always in precarious conditions and not a few on the edge of the law, have to pursue working in order to earn a living in this city.  False reasoning does not produce a good soup.  According to Law No. 117 of the State Budget for 2014, incomes for contribution to Social Security are 3,034.5 million pesos, but the expenses exceed 5,122.7 million pesos, therefore there is a deficit of 2,088.2 million pesos, to be covered by the central budget account.  That is okay if the numbers are real.  But they are not.

Cubanet, March 3, 2014,

Translated by mlk.