Promenades of the Impoverished

Francisco Castro

HAVANA TIMES — There are parallels between literature and life. As Paul Auster wrote: “Today, as never before: the tramps, the down-and-outs, the shopping-bag ladies, the drifters and drunks. They range from the merely destitute to the wretchedly broken. Wherever you turn, they are there, in good neighborhoods and bad.”

Yet unlike Auster’s character — who makes a long journey through the streets of New York — I walk through the main artery of Havana’s Vedado district. Here, I don’t need to go any further than 23th Street: The promenade of the impoverished.

These people are concentrated in two key sections: between G and L streets, and in the area of 23rd and 12th. The most popular cinemas and cafes in the area are also concentrated in these areas. Both types of establishments are the preferred destinations of these “homeless” people, whose numbers seem to have grown in recent times.

It’s terrible that such people are in the streets. Dirty, smelly and uncontrolled. It’s terrible and disturbing.

In a couple of minutes we can come up with reasons why these people are in these situations, why they stay stuck like this, immovable, from all appearances without any prospects for change.

We can also see the consequences of their increasing numbers. I’ve had two direct experiences. You might think they’re insignificant, isolated and don’t represent anything, but I don’t think so. It all starts with little things…

The first one was at the “Literary Café” right there at 23rd and 12th. My friend was reading my latest script and I was looking forward to her opinion, drinking down one coffee after another.

There then appeared this man with all the features of a bum – his clothes, his bag of belongings, his stench. He sat down at a table next to ours and began to mumble obscene little phrases at us, mentioning intercourse and making other off-colored remarks.

The logical thing would have been to ignore him, but his proximity and his presumptuousness threatened us with unwanted contact and spitting. I finally said to him — in a courteous tone — “Please, we’re working.”

That’s when everything erupted.

Between another gentleman who seemed to have known him and one of the waitresses, they managed to placate him and get him out of the coffee shop. But for a few seconds my friend and I were afraid of what seemed about to happen. The man had had us on the edge with his ravings and threats.

The second incident was at the Charlie Chaplin Theater. A man, whose smell also permeated the air-conditioned room, also began shouting profane comments, but this time about the film. Someone told him to shut up and that was what triggered a tremendous scene.

No one was able to calm him down. He simply left, before the movie was over, but not without first upsetting several people in the audience. This also didn’t count the long minutes he interrupted the movie or the stench that accompanied him the whole time.

As Auster also wrote: “Hulks of despair, clothed in rags, their faces bruised and bleeding, they shuffle through the streets as though in chains. Asleep in doorways, staggering insanely through traffic, collapsing on sidewalks – they seem to be everywhere the moment you look for them. Some will starve to death, others will die of exposure, still others will be beaten or burned or tortured.”

For me these people are the reflection in a giant mirror in which Cuba can be seen.


Francisco Castro

Francisco Castro:Everything becomes simpler when one crosses the line of thirty. That does not make it easier, but rather the opposite. There I am on the other side of the line, trying to figure out, what little I know about art, politics, economy ... life, how to move without breaking oaths that seemed essential, how not to give up, how to make the years spent into a beacon to the future.

4 thoughts on “Promenades of the Impoverished

  • Being upset at such examples of misery, whether they inconvience you or touch your compassion is good. Just complaining or using the anecdotes as evidence for pre-existing political bias is worse than just calling the cops.

    I am not an expert on the social conditions in Cuba and so far none of the commentators seem to deserve that title. It matters is these examples are evidence of neglect or worsening of social conditions and services. It also matters to have a sense of comparison with many other societies. But opinions and facts matter most when they are put to the test of serious social investigation and then to the more important tests of attempts to improve and even prevent these conditions.

    Cuba and the other countries mentions, all need people to focus attention and energy on both purposeful research and implementation.

    But then such work takes much time and labor and even in sympathetic bureaucracies often meets opposition.

  • Like never before, scenes such as described here are taking place all over Cuba. Not just the mentally ill, now there are people living in the streets because they are unemployed and wilthout family support. Full employment in Cuba is no longer guaranteed by the Castros self-described failed socialist practices. Worse yet, during my last trip to Cuba I saw something I had NEVER seen before in Cuba. I saw children who were homeless and begging. Calm down, Fidelistas. I know that the problems in Cuba with regards to poverty and homelessness don´t compare to what goes on here in the US. My question is that if Cuba will simply end up like, say, the Dominican Republic, was all the sacrifice imposed by the dictatorship to create the ¨New Man¨ worth it after all?

  • In Amsterdam in The Netherlands we have also hundreds of people, men and woman, who live on the street. Forced or at their free will. However, we provide shelter, food and showers for some of them, if they wish. Many of them are drug-addicts or illegal immigrants. Europe is no paradise for everybody, Unfortunately, but true. Many of them refuse any help, although they should be taken to a mental hospital or back to ther homeland. Our government leaves them in ther misery, besides as i mentioned basic help.

  • The person who disrupted the coffee with your friend likely has an untreated mental illness perhaps combined with an addiction to alcohol, drugs or other substances. This is a sad situation all too common in most large cities throughout the world. It does lead me to wonder though about the facilities and services Cuba has for treating mental illness and addictions?

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