Yenisel Rodriguez Perez
A few years ago I was staying with people who lived in a state of extreme poverty in an area around Galiano Avenue, one of those most busy thoroughfares in the city of Havana.
Such people are generally immigrants from other provinces who, due to the country’s exclusionary internal immigration policy, do not achieve the status of citizens from the capital.
As a response to that exclusion, illegal immigrants occupy public places in the capital both as a form of resistance and perseverance.
They develop various survival strategies. Among the most utilized is that of rummaging through the garbage, which is popularly known as buceo (“diving”), which among themselves is called tanqueo (“tanking”).
While going through the garbage, these people look for salvageable objects, especially for the market of basic needs, ones that people of limited resources or an occasional passerby might purchase. The kind of vending done is called a sidewalk sale.
Others with a few tools are able to fix shoes found in the garbage – another exhibit of the self-managerial creativity of the poor. The shoes are sewn with an artisan’s needle and waxed thread. The prices of the shoes are suggestive: they go for no more than a couple dollars.
These people threaten the sugar-coated image of the attention given to poverty in Cuba, where supposedly the poor can rely on a minimum level of assured subsistence.
The official institutions for assisting (controlling?) such situations of extreme poverty are the Havana Psychiatric Hospital and the police. In this way, those who live in the streets are labeled either crazy or criminal; therefore they constantly live at risk of immediate sanctions.
When I visited the “Colony” (a kind of a psychiatric asylum), I was able to see two men locked in a small cell with atrocious hygienic conditions. They were being held only for having “repeated” as car windshield cleaners at traffic lights at intersections in the capital.
These indigents are recognized by the names of their provinces of origin. One —nicknamed “Ciego de Avila”— admitted to me that many of them intentionally destroy their ID cards to prevent the authorities from “classifying” them.
The classifications range from mentally ill to being considered a bum, with each one implying certain sanctions that can go all the way to forced admission into a psychiatric facility or unjustified detention in a police station. In most cases, a rigorous assessment is not made.
(To be continued)