HAVANA TIMES, Jan 31 — I discovered him sitting next to a garbage can on a street in the Vedado district. He was chewing something that he seemed to have pulled out of that grimy overflowing container, with the filth was almost surrounding him.
Another man started taking pictures of him insistently. I therefore pulled out my cellphone out of pure mimicry and snapped a couple shots myself, though not without feeling kind of strange for stealing this man’s right to his own image and for my taking advantage of his situation to use it in a post.
He remained there for a while absorbed in his mission of feeding himself. Then he stood up and asked us each for a dollar.
I replied that we weren’t tourists, but Cubans like him. I then thought to myself, “This guy knows what’s going on; he’s the one trying to take advantage of us, dealing with us in such a way that he even seems comfortable with it.”
Ceasing to photograph him, I then offered him a few pesos in national currency, in this way trying to clear my conscience.
He accepted, but the photographer who had accompanied me flatly refused to give him any money, saying that maybe he would when he got paid for the photos.
“The problem is that I have some Mexicans who will pay me for everything that I can come up with on these characters. I own a huge collection and I’d like to make a presentation at some point in time. Sometimes people ask me why I take pictures of them if there are nicer things to immortalize, but it’s that these people are rejected by everybody,” he said, as if the man couldn’t hear him.
Then he left, but I stayed there a little while longer alone with this guy who we had just photographed. Nevertheless I didn’t pry into the chain of events that had brought him to that point of where he was.
I think a large number of the beggars in the streets of Havana have at some point had the opportunity to choose a positive path to follow.
I grant it that the plights of a small percentage of them might be the fault of poor families that kicked them out for being elderly, and I’ll concede that another handful of them could merely be victims of plain bad luck.
Yet many have fallen into alcoholism, drugs and crime out of their own sheer choice and will, though I’ll admit that they probably come from neighborhoods where “social actors” (heads of the community, social workers, Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the Communist Party, etc.) simply don’t actively work.
A fact that catches my attention is that there are many fewer women than men in this situation. Why’s that? What also captures my attention is that the majority of them are between the ages of 40 and 70.
In Cuba there are rest homes for the elderly; paid retirement, dining rooms for “old people”; and social clubs for the elderly, so they can keep in shape in their elderly years.
And though in recent years these services — free in some cases and very inexpensive in others — have decreased in quality, these remain important in the assistance they represent.
With the arrival of the Special Period crisis, the standard of living for the overwhelming majority of Cubans declined – as did the control exercised by the authorities up until now to keep the streets “clean.”
With all of this we began seeing new phenomena – and vagabondage was one of these. It even became a fairly lucrative business for some of them.
I’m not God or the president or a social worker, but just another man close to 40 who has his own problems. So at that moment, I thought it best to exchange a few simple words with him. “What’s up man? How’s it going? Hard? – really?”