Aging with Cuba and the Misery Markets

Daisy Valera

A retiree survives on selling candy. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES — I’m terrified of old age. It’s not exactly because of the portending future of sagging breasts, back pains or wrinkles resulting from overly repeated gestures.

I’m afraid of aging, especially, because I’m afraid of Cuba.

Havana is a city for young people, those capable of chasing down a bus, enduring endless waits in lines, and eating lots of carbohydrates and few vitamins.

While Cuba needs youth doped up on caffeine, the main actors in this city and across the country are the elderly.

Emigration and the low birth rate make my walks constant encounters with grandparents, and even great-grandparents.

They’re everywhere, and I can’t stop looking at them and almost feeling chills.

There aren’t too many with faces evidencing the marks of repeated smiles in the corners of their mouths.

What are constantly repeated are the faces of bitterness and fatigue.

The elderly are faced with having to struggle at the same pace as the young since retirement here is in no way synonymous with an extended vacation or playing in the yard with the grandkids.

Instead, it’s the pronouncement that one’s future labor will be even that much more precarious.

Seniors are the principal sellers of products that only cost a peso (about 4 cents USD). These items include paper cones of peanuts, a shot of coffee and long pieces of candy whose taste reminds you so much of toothpaste.

They are become hawkers, newspaper vendors and sellers of plastic bags at the entrances of vegetable markets.

They were also the ones who died of cold at the psychiatric hospital and are the ones who continue to beg to tourists in the streets of Old Havana.

Finally, to my horror, they’ve become clerks at the only inexpensive markets of the capital. These are places — which while lacking state-given names (though the government requires them to pay taxes) — have wound up being dubbed “misery markets.”

The main markets of this type located at the corners of Belascoain and Monte, Infanta and  Carlos III, and Zulueta and Apodaca.

At those sites, the elderly, the mentally ill and alcoholics offer us what they’ve salvaged from the trash.

These might be things like a blouse that can be used ten times more, a beat-up alarm clock, a comb with missing teeth, or shoes still having soles but also a few holes.

All of these items are sold in regular pesos.

I look at these individuals and feel sad. Their pensions aren’t enough to live on.

In the end, they benefited little from so many long hours of volunteer labor, doing night-time block watch duty, or for punctually attending all of the neighborhood meetings of their CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution).

For them, the bright future they were promised will never come.

They don’t have any options, and they (like me) know how difficult it is to protest.

Where are the social workers when they’re needed?

What’s happening with those nursing homes vitally needed by our seniors?

Where is adequate food going to be found for the many diabetic and hypertensive elderly patients here?

In any case, I’m scared to death.


Daisy Valera

Daisy Valera:Soil scientist and blogger. I write from Mexico City, where Havana sometimes becomes so small that it disappears. However in others, the Cuban capital is a city so past and present that it steals your breath.

5 thoughts on “Aging with Cuba and the Misery Markets

  • Daysi, let me just said congratulations! you have so many responses to your article as it was expected. Now with respect to Mr Lawrence response: He does not have a clue about real live situations in Cuba. We most take in consideration few things about his response to your article. First, he has never lived in cuba. Second, neither he leaves in the U.S. With that said, I would like to ask this person; Did you ask those children with well pressed uniforms what are they were having for dinner? of course you did not. And how is it that you manage to travel to cuba within those personal precaurious conditions that you live in?…Well, Simple Non sense. Now, Cuban children are not the exception from other south american countries in which well pressed school uniforms are a most, not because it can be afforded but because its traditional within the latino communities, not to mention a visit to the doctor. In response to the suggestion that the elderly are living below the average in the U.S, Well Sir, you are either paranoic or hallucinating…if that will be the case then most of the elder here in the U.S would be begging in the streets and I can assure you they are NOT; These can only be perceived as straight communist propaganda! Shame on you buddy! We are not interested in how you have copied in live, ovbiously you have done very well since you have the income to
    travel as well as a well known democratic country which allows you to travel to Cuba, perhaps you forgot between Mojitos that most Cubans are not allowed to travel on top of the real problems
    that they have to face everyday ( example: finding food) . In conclussion, the real problem about fears of growing older persists, and yes, we all should be worry. Daisy consider this…Any person that has the meanings to travel overseas is not doing that bad in their own country or simply put the person is lying. Also, to
    comment about a subject in which you have not personally experienced from childhood, as it is when living in a communist country is plain ignorance.

  • No change in sight, get old an drop in the box! Daisy you do not want to now how may elderly former Cubaneros wish to go to Cuba and end peacefully, do not belive the press!!

  • Is anyone not terrified of old age? – except the young who live in a state of denial about growing old. Daisy, at 22, is an exception. Maybe doing science makes you more aware of the facts of life. Putting aside the terror caused by watching your body fall apart – something Daisy imagines but is too young to experience – there is the terror of realising your job options are diminishing. When I was young, I worked my way through school in a produce market. Recently I watched a young man in a supermarket effortlessly carrying a box of bananas like I used to and the realisation that I could no longer do this caused me a poignant moment and a sense of loss.

    Later in life I used the strength in my head rather than my arms to earn a living. I worked in a trade that is dominated by younger people – computer software -and as I aged, it became a scramble to keep up with their energy, memory and stamina. I relied more on the strength my experience and perspective gave me but it was obvious that inevitably working in my trade would come to an end. That’s when I found myself starting to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat – terrorised by thoughts of growing old.

    The fright comes from worrying about being able to provide for yourself as your employment opportunities diminish and whether your society will provide for you when you need help. Capitalist countries are increasingly making it difficult for their elderly populations by increasing the age of retirement, cutting back on retirement benefits, promoting short term and part time employment with no worker benefits, and doing everything possible to destroy unions, the only reliable protector of worker rights here, through outsourcing and sending manufacturing overseas.

    Capitalist consumerist societies addict their citizens to technological gizmos that require working harder to pay for the latest models. The technology, driven by greed, not need, invariably promotes a lifestyle that isolates one from the other. It’s no longer necessary to rub shoulders with your fellow countrypersons for purposes of entertainment or for common cause meetings.

    Both of these factors add to old age woes. Not able to afford the latest and greatest, and more resistant to their attractions as you grow older, generations divide along technological lines, with the young relating more to Internet ‘friends’, who they may never have met in person than with family in the same house!

    As wages fall and unemployment rises, it is difficult for workers to save for their old age. The Canadian government recently legislated retirement savings accounts, allowing tax-free deposits. With a tight economy, however, only those with surplus income can afford to save so these accounts essentially become yet another way for the well off to avoid paying taxes.

    When I was in Cuba I was struck by how few people there were begging in the streets, less than one encounters in both poor and wealthy countries like Canada. Most of the beggars I encountered were elderly but all of them exhibited signs of alcohol abuse or mental difficulties. Many times in Canada young people are begging, claiming they need money for food, shelter and transportation. It is assumed most are supporting a drug habit, a malaise of capitalist countries that Fidel recently wrote about in Granma.

    In Mexico, many of the beggars are children from the native population, a marginalised people, persecuted by racism and exploitation. In Cuba the children I saw in the streets were in crisp uniforms on their way to school!

    I mused that if begging and low pay employment – i.e., working for peanuts by selling peanuts – is unavoidable, it is preferable if it is done by the old rather than the young. Of course any society that has a stated goal to look after the well being of all its citizens should be dedicated to making begging unnecessary and a living wage a prerequisite. The goal and the policy, however, are anathema to capitalism as currently practiced.

    As for the previous two comments, you will notice neither regaled us with how wonderful life is for the elderly in the country they are in, presumably the US. They were two busy dumping on the country they abandoned. I have elderly relatives in the US. Canada looks like paradise compared to what takes place there unless you are a millionaire. I could tell you stories that would make your toes curl. Don’t get me started!

    So Daisy, growing old has its problems in both our countries. Hopefully, by the time you reach that age Cuba will have more social supports for its elderly. At least there is hope. In Canada and the US, the race to the bottom continues unabated. There is some hope generated by the Occupy Movement. We will have to wait and see if it is able to change anything.

  • Well said Freud, I just hope for the poor souls left behind that this precaurious system would not stand much longer. No hay mal que dure cien años ni cuerpo que lo resista.

  • That’s the main reason that pushed me to leave Cuba, to leave my home, to leave my duties as opponent to regime…… I felt same terror for my mom future, my dotters, my wife, for me……… and I left.

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