Pennyless in Havana: The Story of Gregorio

Jorge Milanes Despaigne

Many elderly Cubans worked for 3, 4 or 5 decades but today find themselves reduced to extreme poverty. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Gregorio has no money, not even enough to put food on his table. This is reflected in his mood. That’s why he never goes out; so that people won’t notice the dire financial straits he is in.

We haven’t heard from him in days, and I’m worried, because his wife visits us often. Our friendship dates back to 1970, when “Greggo” (that’s what we call him at home) and my father went off to cut sugar cane in the “10 Million Ton Harvest” campaign to earn a bit of money, try to win car, a trip to the former Soviet Union or another country of Europe’s socialist bloc, or even a house (which you got if you managed to cut over eleven million kilos of sugarcane).

During several harvests, Gregorio cut down enough sugarcane to earn the right to buy a fridge, an appliance he had to pay for with money from his salary (when Cuban salaries actual had value). He also received a number of work incentives: fifteen days at a beach in Varadero, a radio, invitations to big parties…what dream-filled times those! He never once imagined how difficult his life would be today. It’s a good thing he had some fun back then.

To find out what’s going on, I went over to Gregorio’s and asked him about his family. He tried to avoid the question and the answer. His wife finally answered, teary-eyed:

You know that “Greggo”, old as he is, has always worked to support the three of us. But he can’t do that as he used to anymore, his health doesn’t allow it. The doctor diagnosed him with a number of conditions and he really can’t keep doing the jobs he’d been doing till now. And those he can still do he must do very carefully.”

“The thing is that we haven’t had anything to eat for several days and I feel sorry for him. My health is also a real mess. Carlitos got paid only half his salary this month. You can imagine the situation we’re in, what with all of the medicine we have to buy, the electricity, phone and water bills, how expensive things are at the market – it’s impossible, we simply can’t go on like this. That’s why I haven’t being going over to your place these days.”

“Things are very difficult indeed,” I said. “We know about what you’re telling me at home. Yesterday, I bought some soy yogurt, I can give you two bags. Come over and get them when you have a chance. It’s not a lot, but it’s better than nothing.”

This is one of the many sad situations we see today: the lives of those who worked for the revolution and their families their whole lives and now not even their children are able to help them.

Jorge Milanes

Jorge Milanes: My name is Jorge Milanes Despaigne, and I’m a tourism promoter and public relations specialist. Forty-five years ago I was born in Cojimar, a small coastal town to the east of Havana. I very much enjoy trips and adventure; and now that I know a good bit about my own country, I’d like to learn more about other nations. I enjoy reading, singing, dancing, haute cuisine and talking with interesting people who offer wisdom and happiness.

19 thoughts on “Pennyless in Havana: The Story of Gregorio

  • I am not just pointing out facts. Not “having it both ways”.

    As long as Cuba receives subsidies the sanctions are less important to the regime. The main effect of the trade sanctions is that the Cuban regime has no access to US markets. As long as 30 to 35% of the GDP was financed by Soviet subsidies and as long as lots of loans and cheap imports were available the sanctions didn’t matter. The subsidies more than compensated the lack of access.

    Venezuela stepped in to partially replace these.

    As long as subsidies and loans the regime never has to repay are available to them sanctions don’t matter to the elite.

    When they are no longer available the regime is forced to fall back on the real economy that at this moment can not support the people. Then it will be more inclined to negotiate to end them. Cuba desperately will need access to US markets.

    Note: even after the reforms of Raul food production in Cuba has continued to decline. Get your facts right.

    Thursday, 05.16.13
    Cuban food production drops despite reforms
    By Juan O. Tamayo
    [email protected]

  • Ha. You are still trying to have it both ways. Either the sanctions have a significant effect or they don’t. If they’re insignificant then there is no point for the Cuban government (in a new period of austerity) to negotiate an end to them. The propaganda value would be worth more.
    I agree with you that the sanctions are not to blame for all Cuba’s problems. The government is also to blame as are ordinary Cubans who pilfer or freeload. There have been factors outside their control like the fall of the Soviet block and the decrease in Sugar prices. Everyone agrees that agriculture has been particularly weak (even Raul), but reforms are being implemented that should turn this around. These are similar to the reforms that China carried out successfully in their agriculture. If the sanctions are so insignificant as you say then Cuba will soon be able to laugh them off.

  • No, I am not contradicting myself.
    The less subsidies Cuba gets from abroad and the more it has to rely on its “national economy” the more it will need to reform and the more it will need access to US markets.
    If Cuba falls back to its real economy with no more subsidies it will have to start negotiating with the USA and others which will require economic and political changes. If Cuba had a sound internal economy the sanctions would be no issue.
    The “normal period” in Cuba – what the regime calls the “special” period – is a Cuba without large subsidies from abroad to keep the regime afloat. Then the regime will have to own up to the disaster it created or condemn the Cuban people to extreme suffering with all the risks that carries.
    Don’t blame trade sanctions for Cuba’s food problems. Raul Castro himself has admitted the sanctions aren’t the reason for the lack of food. Just one recent figure: 1 million hectares of arable land is lying foul in Cuba. That has nothing to do with the external sanctions. It has all to do with the internal embargo.
    Normality should be a Cuba where people are free to develop both economical and political alternatives to the Stalinist system. Before Castro Cuba fed its people and exported food. It was the third developed nation in the Americas. It has the potential under good leadership.

  • You are contradicting yourself (as do most pro-embargoes). If the “special period” is the “normal period” then what does “the sanctions will bite” and “the impact of the sanctions has been compensated” mean. In other words how can you say a country under sanctions (ones that bite) is in a “normal period”.

  • Who cares about Batista? He was just another dictator.
    Maduro has faced over 8500 popular protests since taking office.
    He just hasn’t the repressive power of Castro.
    The “special period” you refer to is the “normal period” in economic terms. That is when Cuba falls back to its real economy without subsidies. Before Castro Cuba was the third developed nation of the Americas. Now it is a “food deficient” (WFP) third world country because the Castro regime destroyed agriculture and economy.
    Cubans indeed have suffered enough: no more dictatorship.
    Freedom and respect of human rights for all.

  • Batista is quoted as saying of Fidel “He’ll last for two years, no more”. You have posed one scenario, but it isn’t the only one. Madura has a long term in office and could well be elected for another. Cuba may find support from other quarters. Cuba may get another special period and the government asks them to again tighten their belts and sit it out. And what if you are right and the government falls, there is no guarantee that things will get better. Things could well descend into violence, civil war etc. Do you really want the Cuban people to sacrifice in this way. Haven’t they suffered enough?

  • Translated: Venezuela subsidizes the Castro regime by selling more than Cuba needs at low prices allowing the regime to function and even to make a profit on the resale of oil.
    Politically motivated subsidies.
    In addition Venezuela pays $ 130,000 per Cuban doctor. far above any reasonable price.
    When Maduro falls the subsidies will end.
    Then the sanctions will bite.

  • Dear Mr. Goodrich, waken up, go and stay in Cuba. My education may even be equal to your own, but is not so bigotted. In every contribution you rant on about the US and imperialism. Obviously time for you to sort out your problems at home before trying to resolve those created by the Castro regime. You appear to have little knowledge about Cuba but a thirst for criticism of your own country. All of those who really know Cuba understand what are the consequences of the incompetent socialist regime and what are the effects of the second US embargo. Are you aware that the Government of Cuba purchases large volumes of goods from the US to retail in its own shops? Do you approve of such purchases? I spend more than half my time in Cuba, how much time have you spet there? Before commenting get to know your subject!
    Ignorance is bliss!

  • Venezuela sells oil on preferential rates to all the alba countries. It also does the same with the poor of the United States and at one point was going to do the same with London. This has nothing to do with the American embargo. If it was lifted tomorrow the deals with Venezuela would still be in place.

  • The impact of the trade sanctions has been compensated – and frustrated from the US point of view – by the Soviet and Venezuelan subsidies. Now that the Soviet subsidies are gone and Maduro is on the brink of collapse they will deny the elite the cash it needs to oppress the people.
    Now is not the time to end sanctions.

  • Read the book. 300 or so pages of anti-US blather. Blum calls everything an invasion including when the elected government in power invited the US to provide military assistance. It says a lot about a book and its author when the book’s most famous book reviewer is Osama Bin Laden. American foreign policy is a mixed bag. Not all bad and not all good. Americans who love their country don’t expect perfection in outcomes only perfection in ideals.

  • Nice try, but no cigar.
    The U.S. government has intervened in attempts to overthrow more than 60 countries’ governments and 30 nationalist/populist movements SINCE THE END OF WWII ( source: William Blum’s “Rogue State: A Guide To The World’s Only Superpower” .
    So save your minimizing of the effects of what is almost always a successful foreign policy for the USG .
    Of course the embargo is effective .
    Of course the embargo is the main cause of the condition of Cuba’s economy.
    Of course YOUR position makes it impossible for you to openly state that fact.
    Read the book mentioned above and stop your idiotic denials of reality.
    If you can deny that the U.S. is following the same foreign policy in Cuba that it has followed in over 90 ( that’s N-I-N-E-T-Y Moses) other interventions around the world, then it is beyond obvious that historic reality is not your forte.

  • SFB,
    Please do some reading.
    The U.S. imposed an economic war on all the people of Cuba some 54 years ago.
    That embargo has the intent and the desired effect of creating very hard conditions across the Cuban population.
    Since you are unaware of this, it indicates that you are either incredibly under-educated in modern history or you have the normal imperialist reasons for not wanting to acknowledge the effects of the U.S. embargo.: so you can finger Castro and the non-existent Cuban socialism as the cause.
    You’re your own worst enemy in this debate.

  • Were the embargo NOT effective and were it not part of a USG foreign policy mandate that has existed for about 100 years, your post might be persuasive .
    Given that you choose to deny the effectiveness of the embargo whose results you and other counter-revolutionaries constantly remind us of , your one-sided position cannot be considered objective in any way .
    Yes, the government of Cuba does some things wrong that make the economy worse at times but the U.S. embargo is the main problem as it always was intended to be.

  • This is where you should have stopped, John.
    “It’s all the fault of the Cuban leadership .”

    On food Raul Castro admitted that the embargo was not to blame for the failure of Cuban agriculture.
    While people are suffering the regime spends 1.3 billion on the military, nearly as much as on imported food.
    Cuba is a clear case of “animal farm” where some are more equal than others and where the cruel and shameless thrive.
    It is the inherent inefficiency of the Cuban economical system that has destroyed living standards in Cuba. not the sanctions. After consuming the internally expropriated wealth Cuba lived of “subsidies” by the Soviet Union and Venezuela. That is reality. The elite may try to blame – with your help – its incompetence on the sanctions but that lie has been totally exposed.

  • Congratulations Mr. Goodrich upon your perception. You got it right in your first sentence except you ought perhaps to have written ‘dictatorship’ rather than ‘leadership’.
    Gregorio’s penury is not unusual in Cuba. Yes, it is a consequence of the Castro form of “Socialismo”. Today Cuba produces only 15% of the sugar crop produced when Gregorio was working in the fields. Socialismo has resulted in the good agricultural land which formerly produced sugar, reverting to bush, whilst the regime purchases ever increasing volumes of food from non-socialist countries. It is crystal clear that the regime is responsible for the miserable unhappy plight of Gregorio and tens of thousands like him.

  • Accusing Jorge of being complicit with US State Dept. policy only makes you seem equally complicit with Castro regime propaganda. Does it occur to you that there are opinions other than yours that have merit? To acknowledge the failings of the Castros does not imply that the US embargo has not had some marginal effect as well. Cubans and those of us with real knowledge of what life is like in Cuba fully understand that the ‘internal’ embargo that the Castros impose on the people of Cuba is at least as culpable, if not more so, in limiting the advancement of society and the quality of life in Cuba. In your zeal to attack the US, you pretend to defend Cuba but you are fooling no one. You seem to care more about throwing pebbles at the US than you do at defending the boulders falling on Cuba.

  • It’s all the fault of the Cuban leadership .
    The 54 year old U.S. War To Immiserate All The People Of Cuba has nothing to do with the economic situation in Cuba.
    You do remember that the U.S,. has been waging a fairly successful war on the living standards of the Cuban people- all of them- in order to make them overthrow their revolution DON’T you ?
    You somehow forgot to mention this reality in your post.
    You should apply for a job at the U.S. State Department giving that sort of reality twisting .

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