What a Character!

By Lorenzo Martin Martinez

HAVANA TIMES – Nearly twenty days after Hurricane Ian passed over the westernmost territory of Cuba, everything has returned to normal – at least according to the regime. Let me clarify that “normal” here means blackouts a few times a week, depending on the zone, plus scarcities, high prices and never-ending lines.

I took advantage of Sunday morning to do some shopping with the money my daughter sent, and later share the purchases with my mother. I was able to obtain a little chicken and some sausages for the week. It was also enough to buy some vegetables in the agro-market – very expensive, to be sure.

Enroute to my mother’s house, I ran into Chacho taking a rest in a doorway. He’s one of those neighborhood characters who’s always been there, although you don’t know exactly where he came from. Chacho – I don’t even know his real name, and I doubt that many others do either – has been president of the neighborhood CDR [“Committee for the Defense of the Revolution”], a delegate to the People’s Power assembly and is one of my Mom’s friends.

He’s a very picturesque guy, 73 years old at his own admission, with more stories than he has years. He’s always been our neighbor, but he began to have a closer relationship when my Dad died in that fatal accident. He always treated my mother very kindly, although his intentions were clearly carnal. I don’t know if my mother was only capable of loving my old man, or if she had some other reason, but she always made him keep his distance. In the end, his advances were fruitless. Today, they’re just two friends who keep each other company and talk about every detail of life.

Chacho has been retired for a long time. Now he only dedicates himself to telling tales and talking about his life as a “revolutionary”.  According to him, he belonged to the guerrilla band in the Sierra Maestra headed by Che Guevara, although if you do the math, he was only ten years old when the revolution triumphed. He also claims to have participated in the literacy crusade; cut sugar cane during the battle for the ten-million-ton harvest; and any number of other things. According to Chacho, he participated in over five international missions and hundreds of epic battles.

One day, maybe Chacho tells you he manned artillery. Another day, he’s a pilot in the air corps during the war. He also swears he was Fidel Castro’s bodyguard and will tell you how he defended him from a cunning assassination attempt.

In reality, I get some good laughs out of his inventions. The final straw for me was one day when he told me how in far-off Ethiopia, in a commando troop dug into the jungle, they were dying of hunger. He says they saw a wild boar that weighed nearly 400 pounds, so he pointed his rifle at it and let go with a hail of bullets. Infuriated, the boar was headed directly towards them at full speed, but his burst of gunfire cut the animal completely in half. Both halves of the boar’s body then continued running separately for nearly 20 meters. When I want to make him furious, I ask him to tell that story, then at the end I ask him to at least take a few pounds off the animal. That all but gets him foaming at the mouth.

Today, Chacho spends his life between Havana and Miami, where his children and grandchildren live, and where he has residency. In 2013, he applied for citizenship in Spain as a direct descendent. His parents came to Cuba in the 40’s, fleeing the Franco dictatorship. Those stories are other tales that he relates with true enthusiasm. Of course, when Chacho speaks, he pronounces the z with a lisp, like the purest of the Spanish.

After receiving his Spanish passport, Chacho traveled to the United States and lived there for a time with his children, staying long enough to acquire residency there. With the residency, came a stipend or retirement pension from the federal government. Chacho goes to the United States at least once a year, stays a few months there, cashes his checks and comes back talking about how rotten United States  society is, and how anticommunist they are in Miami.

I help him with his shopping bags, and we resume the walk home while we converse.

“How’d the shopping go, Chachito?” I ask him, in order to break the ice.

“Don’t call me “Chachito”! You know I don’t like it. I’m Chacho. Not even the Comandante dared to give me a nickname. Here, I went to buy the cigarettes that came into the store and will be gone tomorrow. While I was out, I passed through the agro market to buy some little things for the old lady and myself. By the way, I hope you brought coffee, because I’m carrying your cigarettes too.”

“You know I always bring a little pack, even if it’s just the ration store brand, for the woman,” I remind him. And what do your grandchildren say, old guy?”

“Those are some ungrateful kids! I have to go see them there, because they say they’re not coming here until the revolution falls. What they don’t know is that it will never die. This revolution came to stay. While there’s still a guy like me with strength to fight, we’re going to be here, even if that pains the Yumas [Cuban term for people in the U.S.].”

 “What revolution, old man? What strength? Quit talking crap,” I tell him, without mincing my words.

“Fidel’s revolution. You’re another ingrate who should have gone to hell a while ago. You need to learn from your sister and be thankful for everything that’s been done for you,” he expounds, already getting aggressive.

“The revolution died in childbirth, Chachito. And if you talk about being thankful for the hunger I’ve gone through and the misery this island is sunk in – No, Chacho, I have nothing to be thankful for.”

In the middle of this interchange, we reach my mother’s house. She regards us inquisitively from the doorway, then greets me with a kiss. She picks up some of the bags to bring them inside, while she counsels Chacho. “Don’t pay any attention to Lorencito. He likes to bug you,” she tells him, noting the visible flush of indignation across his face.

I sit down in the doorway to wait for the coffee they’re preparing. Meanwhile, I let my thoughts fly off. A pair of older women go by, busy with their shopping, and I imagine how different life should and could be.

I think about so, so many grandchildren separated from their grandparents because of ideology. I think about how many families are broken, how many old people will die without seeing their loved ones again, only because they chose to direct their lives towards better economic perspectives and a little bit of freedom.

I sit thinking, and I can’t help but feel sad at seeing so many Chachos who gave up their lives to defend a project that today has forgotten them and makes them live in misery and desolation, languishing amid broken dreams and, even so, refusing to accept it.

The coffee comes. I sip it sparingly while I watch them chat, not listening to how they’re trying to fix things that can’t be fixed. I close my eyes and dream about how different it could be.  

Read more from the diary of Lorenzo Martin here.