Madness in Cuba

Regina Cano

The philosopher. Foto:Caridad

HAVANA TIMES — Crazy people, those who have lost all touch with reality or their “marbles” (as it is said colloquially), the “mentally insane”, as they are also called, abound in all countries around the world.

Well, folks, Cuba has had no shortage of crazies either. Our history and the changes the country has experienced, has made their numbers increase or decrease at different points in time.

For example, in the 70s, there was a 30-something-year-old fellow in my neighborhood who’d stand by a bus stop and, gesturing towards an imaginary interlocutor, hold entire conversations about Marxism and communism. People said the Party had “fried his brains”.

Around the same time, in Santiago de Cuba, two well-known and slovenly lunatics walked the streets of my grandma’s neighborhood: Stale-bread (a woman) and Firefighter (a man).

Both were over 40. When Firefighter walked by, children (who can be cruel in their innocence) would yell: “Firefighter, put out the fire!” and run after him, throwing stones at him. Stale-bread would get a similar welcome, replying to every stone-blow in anger. According to my grandma, he had once been a fireman and the woman been left by the man she loved.

Other examples come to mind. During Cuba’s Special Period, one would see people walking down the streets of Vedado or Old Havana in dirty, ragged clothes. Some looked like vagabonds (people who, for family-related or economic reasons, were out in the street all day) and mingled with those who were allegedly deranged.

Many got by with the things they found in the garbage and by salvaging plastic cups or bottles, which they later tried to sell to ice-cream parlors or shabby soft-drink kiosks.

You’d see them wielding a stick like a sword, talking to themselves, or yelling at passersby.

How hard it was for me to see Carlos Embale, a renowned Cuban singer, peddling around the Cathedral crafts fair in Old Havana, offering to sing in exchange for a few coins. People said he had suffered a mental breakdown and run away from home.

One would also see an elderly gentleman drumming on tin cans, a man who lived out on the street until recently, who eked out a living with the coins people dropped in his cans. And a fellow who would roll metallic tanks at the entrance of Galiano boulevard. Both created a pleasant atmosphere in the public space about them.

For the longest time, I would also come across a father and his son – well-groomed and proud-looking – who would very respectfully ask people at the Palacio de Armas Park for cigarettes. It was well known that they were homeless.

Today, you see less of these kinds of people marauding the streets, running into them only occasionally. Their hair and clothes hardened by filth, they usually smell like they haven’t seen a bath, or roof, in a very long time.

Truth is, we are separated from so-called nut-jobs by a very thin line, a line we are always afraid to cross. This may be the reason we mistreat them so much, because they are a kind of mirror showing us a reflection we do not want to see.

Every one of us has a different way of reacting to sudden changes or pressures in our lives and, just like living cells, some people respond by assuming a new interpretation of the reality that surrounds them.

The point, folks, is that being rejected by society is never a pleasant situation, no matter where in the world this happens, and we should be mindful of this. In the social upheavals that await us, I am sure these individuals will again make an appearance, to speak to us about where we can end up or who we can ultimately become.

Regina Cano

Regina Cano: I have lived my entire life in Havana, Cuba – the island from which I’ve still never left, and which I love. I was born on September 9, and my parents chose my name out of superstition, but my mother raised me outside the religion professed by her family. I studied accounting and finance at the University of Havana, a profession that I’m not engaged in for the time being, and that I substituted for doing crafts, some ceramics, and studying a little English and about painting. Ah! – concerning my picture: I identify with Rastafarian principles, but I am not one of them. I wear this cap from time to time, but I assure you I just didn't have a better picture.

7 thoughts on “Madness in Cuba

  • Thanks for your compassionate observations and insights, Regina. Even in my small town there are many such “street persons:” the fellow who parades in front of the post office/federal building every day holding rambling, incomprehensible, protest signs; the small, babushka-wearing woman who spends her days walking up-and-down the same five-mile stretch, from one end of town to the other (what is her destination?); the faded “Gibson Girl,” now into her 50’s, but, like some phantom, affecting the hair-style and clothing of the famous pre-WWI icon, like a latter-day Miss Havisham (from Dickens’s Great Expectations), to name a few. I would venture to say they are happier–or at least less miserable–doing their thing on the outside, rather than locked away in an institution. Even the “Caballero de Paris,” when he became too frail and enfeebled, found safe haven during his final years. Such is not the case here, where many folks are on their own, or incarcerated in overcrowded, third-rate nursing homes (which seem to have the effect of “speeding the plow” towards their quick demise).You are right in reminding us that “there but for the grace of the gods go I.”

  • I’ve been reading more about mental illness in Cuba. For some reason, a surprisingly large number of Cuban politicians committed suicide:

    A short list includes:

    Eduardo Chibas, founder of the Ortodoxos Party, who famously shot himself while on his radio show. The story is that he did this to protest corruption in government, but it is an odd way to go about it.

    Eddy Sunol, (deputy interior minister) committed suicide in 1971. The official notice said this was a consequence of “diminishing mental capacities as a result of the many wounds he suffered during the revolutionary war”. One must wonder how he managed to serve as a deputy minister for 12 years while having these same wounds. Wouldn’t he have gotten better, not worse?

    Haydee Santamaria, heroin Moncada attack and president of the Casa de las Americas. She committed suicide in 1980 after a deterioration in her health. Some who knew her suggested her suicide was the result of the after-effects of the brutal torture she experienced at the hands of Batista’s thugs. In modern psychiatry, this would be diagnosed as PTSD.

    Osvaldo Torrado Dorticós, President of Cuba from July 1959 to 1976. His suicide followed a deterioration of his health and a subsequent depression.

    In the book, “To Die In Cuba: Suicide And Society” author Louis A. Perez presents a history of suicide in Cuba. In the 1940’s and 50’s suicide rates were around 15 per 100,000. Rated dropped during the 1960s, the years of mass rallies and national optimism. The suicide rate edged upward in the 1970’s and 1980’s, peaking at 22.7 per 100,000 in 1989. Rates have remained in the upper teens since then. Provincially, the highest rates ever were recorded in Matanzas (24 per 100,000) while the lowest was in Guantanamo at 9 per 100,000.ée+Santamar%C3%ADa+suicide&source=bl&ots=MlnCzs70lc&sig=i70TDnCbTaWDCrKEVAoWG5Ljfho&hl=en&sa=X&ei=hHGnUZO8EOmoyAH374GIDw&ved=0CEUQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=Haydée%20Santamar%C3%ADa%20suicide&f=false

    There is no single or simple explanation for the suicide trends in Cuba. The rates today are still high (yes, higher than in the US), but they have declined from the worst days of the 1990’s. It may be tempting to explain suicide in terms of political developments or economic conditions, but the details don’t often align with such simplistic explanations. Most of the time, people kill themselves for very personal reasons: mental or physical illness, grief, loneliness and shame.

    Suicide is of course, only one aspect of mental illness. Not everybody who commits suicide is mentally ill, and not all who are ill commit suicide. But there is a high co-morbidity. Depression, PTSD and schizophrenia are leading indicators of potential suicide.

  • Their are mental challenges in the US deem”normal” now. Like white supremacy, homosexuality, transgender, CRACK and heroin addition, alcoholism all of these are mental issues so to see someone walking about talking to themselves and not offending others like the before mention groups is a relief. At less they keep it to themselves.

  • It is not my obligation to offer a “transitional perspective”. Anybody who wishes to inform herself of the suffering the mentally ill experience can easily do so. Anybody who wishes to educate themselves about causes, diagnosis and treatment can do so as well. None of this is not hidden knowledge! (Grady: the old Freudian categories of neurotic and psychotic are long outmoded.)

    That Leal put up a statue may seem compassionate to some, but it strikes me as the same sort of amused indifference which treats the mentally ill person as a freak and tourist attraction.

    You are correct in your observation that the (presumably) mentally normal fear the mentally ill. Their presence is a reminder that madness might strike anybody. There is also a tendency to romanticize mental illness, to think of them as “happy eccentrics” living blessed lives of childlike simplicity. That presumption ignores the genuine and profound suffering the mentally is experience, and the tragic losses they endure. These people are not tourist attractions. They are somebody’s son or daughter, mother or father, sister or brother.

    Also ignored, are those with dangerous personality disorders; the narcissists, the sadists and the paranoid, who torment their families, co-workers and neighbours. A few of these truly twisted individuals have succeeded in obtaining supreme political power over governments where they subjected millions of people to their bizarre delusions in service of their grotesque egos.

    I am speaking of course of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Gadaffi, Saddam, the Kims, and a host of other despots and dictators, convinced they alone possess the secret right to rule over all. Many of these men have statues, too. Even in Havana.

  • Griffin, why do you attack Regina Cano for being “amateurish”? She doesn’t say or write as a professional or expert, she writes her views and experience. Yes, most people are amateurish about mental illness. In fact a great many mental health care workers, professional and line workers are more “amateurish” than objective, scientific and clinical informed. The horror stories of years past occurred in all countries, including especially those with lots of professionals and treatment programs. Read the first chapter of Shock Doctrine for a shocking example.

    Better than attacking, is to suggest or offer a transitional perspective that improves the understanding of Regina or even the professionals who made terrible mistakes. Remember the obvious, we are all less than completely rational. One could argue that we label and shun those relatively “mad” or out of sync with our reality because we seek the reassurance of our own temporary sanity by marginalizing those who we can feel superior to.

    Without better education as to the what and why of mental illnesses, of course there will be fear and reaction. A common dynamic is the feeling that “there but for an accident go I.”

    The eminently sane and creative Havana architect Eusebio Leal endorsed the placing of the bronze statue of the somewhat “mad” El Caballero de París in front of the convent of San Francisco
    de Asis in Habana. That was a compassionate educational act.

  • Our Psych 1 professor, long ago, illustrated the difference between the two major stages of mental illness by saying: “A neurotic builds castles in the air; a psychotic moves in.” It caused a chuckle, but he had gotten his pedagogical point across.

    There is a great movie from 1966 called King of Hearts. During WWI, the Germans and the townsfolk had evacuated from a French village. A British soldier was sent in to reconnoiter, and he found that the inmates of the local insane asylum had taken over the town.

    By the end of the film, as the British army approached, the soldier, deciding that he preferred the world of the insane to the insanity of the war, took off his clothes and entered the asylum with the retreating inmates.

    A more general point was made by the film regarding the questionable societies in which we live.

    Thanks, Regina, for an interesting piece. You have documented a tiny part of the Cuban experience. I feel certain that you do not have any disrespect for the mentally ill. Best wishes.

  • That was an inexcusably amateurish, ignorant, offensive and thoughtless piece of writing. Mental illness is a far more complicated issue than a collection of anecdotes about “nut jobs” one has seen in the neighbourhood.

    Unintentionally, Regina has conveyed a sense of the callous insensitivity prevalent in Cuba which led to the horrific abuse of mentally ill patients at Mazorra Psychiatric Hospital.

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