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”.

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