Irina Echarry

HAVANA TIMES — My friend Ines is going through a life crisis. She feels there’s no sense in carrying on. Nothing works out for her, she’s not happy at work or home and a recent breakup has shown her she has no real friends. She says she only has me.

As I listen to her, I see a woman who looks around sixty rummaging through a nearby garbage bin. That could be my mother, I tell my friend, or either one of us in 30 years.

My friend once attempted suicide. More than ten years ago, another romantic let-down led her to take a cocktail of sleeping pills and alcohol. I took her to get her stomach pumped and was next to her at the psychiatry department of the Calixto Garcia hospital. We’ve known each other since we were kids.

If they made me choose between the fear of death and the fear of old age, I wouldn’t hesitate to say the second frightens me more. Old age has a very ugly face, Bernard Shaw once said, and, of course, he wasn’t merely referring to the wrinkles and the conditions that the years bring.

Ines doesn’t know who Shaw is and isn’t interested in finding out. She goes on telling me about her amorous torments. I ask her to look at this old lady, who does have real problems.

Growing old is terrible, even if people embellish this with pretty phrases. It’s true one can devote one’s time to rewarding, useful and beneficial things. Focusing just on that is far too naïve, one has to look at the other side of the coin, people’s day-to-day. Not everyone ages the same way. I wonder what’s in store for me.

You are no longer of interest to many younger people and your opinions aren’t even considered. You have to swallow all your bitterness, because people want joy around them. Who cares if you wasted your youth planting coffee trees or teaching people to read and write up in the Escambray mountains, going to rallies on Sundays, training for war or doing voluntary work?

An old man offers us some roasted peanuts. He wears a dirty cap and a sad smile. I buy some peanuts from him, even though I’m actually thirsty. I buy these from him because I believe he relies on this to survive. Another lady approaches us with a small dog. She unleashes him when she gets to the park so the animal can run around and pee. She cannot conceal a look I’ve seen on my mother when she’s tired or feeling pain.

My friend continues to feel unhappy. She wants to take something that will make her sleep for five days. She believes that, when she wakes up, her sadness will have vanished into thin air. She says that, if she went into a clinic, the doctor on duty would see how stressed she was and prescribe her what she needs.

I tell her that’s not a good idea, that it is better to face up to one’s problems, and that hers aren’t that serious – that old people are doing worse. Many spend their days standing in lines, eating poorly, being mistreated by the young and rejected by doctors, forgotten by their families and barely helped by a government they helped come to power.

The future will be worse. We are the most aged country in Latin America and the measures being taken aren’t enough. In 15 years, 30% of our population will be over 60 and less people will be here to hold the country up. Retirement age has gone up, one has to pay for rest homes, many medicines have become scarce and public transportation is still awful. And then, there’s loneliness. I am terrified about growing old and being consumed by loneliness. I’m not talking about being alone but knowing one cannot rely on anyone.

I look around me. Time flies and Ines continues to yap insufferably. I know it’s not the right time and I hold back the impulse to yell at her and tell her I don’t want to grow old next to such a frivolous, suicidal person.

“I’m so glad I have you,” she says and gets up from the bench. She invites me to go for a walk and we leave. We leave the old and their pangs behind us. My friend won’t try to cross over to the other side today. Today, she prefers to face up to old age.


Irina Echarry

Irina Echarry: I enjoy reading, going to the movies and spending time with my friends. Many of the people I love are dead, or are no longer in Cuba. I will do my best to transmit my thoughts, ideas or worries via these pages so you can get to know me. I will give an idea of my age, since it helps explain certain things. I’m over thirty-five, and I think that’s enough information. I don’t have any children yet, or nieces or nephews. There are days when I transform myself into a child with no age at all in order to see life from another angle. It helps me break the monotony and survive in this strange world.

5 thoughts on “Cuba: A Pact with Loneliness

  • Where does Irina mention the “free capitalist world”?
    When people write of the “free world”, they do not mean that purchases are free, but that people have freedom of choice, freedom of expression and freedom of movement.
    In Cuba you can’t choose to go and live in Havana, you cannot demonstrate and with average pay of $20.68 per month, how could you pay 50% in rent.
    Few in the “free” world comprehend the daily life of the average Cuban. We live in comparative luxury.
    The US is not the free world, its population has a marked tendency to be inward looking and only 17% of Americans have ever had a passport. There is a big wide world out there. For those with choice, it is not a question of Cuba or the US. The US two-party political system is not representative of the free democratic system. The US Constitution which has led to the daily slaughter of citizens with it’s lunatic gun laws does not represent the rest of the free world. The rampant racism does not represent the rest of the free world. I for one, do not doubt that there are thousands of homeless in every large US city. Were I an American, my political energies would be directed to revision of the US Constitution – its long out-dated!

  • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Irina. I always read your columns because you are a very good writer. If it is any comfort, please know that you are not alone and are appreciated by many people all over the world.

  • The “free capitalist world” is not free. Rents have gone sky high in the USA. Often half our salaries
    (like myself) goes to pay the rent. There a thousands of homeless in every large U.S. city.

  • This typifies many of the Cubans I know. No hope for the future, despondency as it becomes ever clearer that nothing is going to change. All the plans, five years and otherwise which promised improvements have come to naught. Instead survival is still dependent upon the rations and la familia – the latter an asset which not all possess and in consequence eventually have to exist on a pension of $8 per month.
    Whereas in the free capitalist world we can seek, work for and achieve improvement in our lives, no such opportunity occurs for Cubans. We live and average Cubans away from the tourist resorts exist. Doing so is a daily struggle as they try to feed and clothe their children.
    This is the cumulative achievement of Castro family regime Socialismo. Yet there are those living in the comfort of the capitalist world, who support the regime from afar, who denigrate those who seek and support freedom for the Cuban people. Academic pontification is easy for such supporters some of whom have never been to Cuba. Tonight they will go to bed well fed, comfortable and secure in the knowledge that tomorrow they will be financially secure and able to afford to eat, drink and offer more inane support for a dictatorial family regime in a far away island country.

  • Irina writes,”barely helped by a government they helped come to power.” My wife’s 80+ year-old grandfather would likely die if he depended only upon the Castros for his food and medicine. He receives about $10 per month in his pension. He is a retired lawyer and worked for Castros for 40 years. Fidel promised him a better Cuba. Clearly he lied.

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