Yenisel Rodriguez Perez

Havana Street

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)


Yenisel Rodriguez

Yenisel Rodriguez Perez: I have lived in Cuba my entire life, except for several months in 2013 when I was in Miami with my father. Despite the 90 miles that separate Havana and Miami, I find profound reasons in both for political and community activism. My encounter with socio-cultural anthropology eight years ago prepared me for a commitment of love for cultural diversity.

4 thoughts on “Living in the Street

  • I was homeless in New York City for many years, after making the decision not to work because my health was too compromised and I was attempting to prevent a quickened demise. As I have always been aware of the neglect of the poor in the US, I was not surprised by the lack of services for the homeless. As in Havana, it is a crime to sleep on the streets or in building hallways in NYC. The homeless in New York are: the physically ill, the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, the chemically addicted, the recently released from prison, the victim of domestic violence and/or prostitution, the poor persons who has had a run of bad luck and so lost his/her housing. There are privately owned homeless shelters that are completely subsidized by government money and they are not very nice places, but they are relatively clean, and although the abusive behavior of those running the shelters and those living in the shelter can be hard to take, your basic needs for a bed and shower are provided for. A government department, known as the Department of Homeless Services, sets the stringent rules for all shelters, and these rules are often used to unduly manipulate its inhabitants. Not a pretty picture. The doctors and psychiatrists hired to work in the shelters are ofttimes incompetent, misdiagnosing and mistreating or neglecting to treat. The wise know it is best to protect themselves from these doctors. Fortunately, New York City provides government medical insurance to the very poor. Many states in the US don’t and so the poor are often treated by inferior doctors. Where do doctors who have committed malpractice too many times find jobs? In homeless shelters and in clinics and hospitals for the poor. Nevertheless, in New York City, the poor can get excellent treatment from some of the best doctors in the world, if they know how to access them and how to fight for the correct medical payment programs (the government workers will misinform the poor of their…

  • It seems to me that one of the prime objective of the Cuban revolution was to create poor. It also seems like they were successful at it if one judges from what we see now in Cuba that is the staggering level of poverty that is generalize to almost everyone except for those in the Elite.
    Now thinking again on those statements by Fidel Castro
    Why would they imprison this poor people? Was not that the objective of the revolution? To create poor people?
    Maybe he did not have in mind to create this kind of poor when he was giving his speech but unfortunately you do not always get what you want.

    In a more serious note
    How can one fix this problem?
    The people that are better of instead of trashing things that are still usable should donate them to this very poor thru the church or to form charitable organizations to help this people. I think that will be a more reasonable approach to the issue. I understand that about a 25 percent or more of the current labor force in Cuba will be unemployed shortly and Cuba does not have any social safety nets like social security so those that are without work are without any form of income so the level of poverty in Cuba is really going to take a huge dive.

    This will happen as a result of the state resources mismanagement by the Elite.

    So you can still see the regime spending money in first of may parades (Worker’s day) How much does that cost the state?
    You see them spending money on the International school of medicine. How much does that cost?
    and so on and so on…

    While Cubans are force into poverty.
    So terribly sad.

  • Here is a video from youTube about this very poor people

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jx-8WU0fEwY

    Now I was reminded of this phrase by Fidel Castro who was actually paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln

    “Esta es la revolución socialista de los humildes, por los humildes y para los humildes”

    See last fragment of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address

    But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

    Now looking again at those statements by Fidel Castro.
    How much truth was in them?

    Apparently not very truthful in the light of what we know now.

  • The whole point of trying to keep people from internally “migrating” is to stop the creation of slums and mass deprivation in the capital city, for one thing. Because the idea is to PLAN society, for the benefit of all, everywhere. And so obviously the idea, too, is to convince people that their lot will be just as good in the place they were born. However this doesn’t work, when there are few resources available for the provinces to actually *keep* the people there satisfied. And so they come to the capital anyway — and then it becomes a ‘legal’ matter, because it all goes against the ‘Plan’.

    Obviously this happens in every poor country preyed-upon by Western imperialism — but of course, there is little excuse for it in a supposedly socialist country. Only the stalinist “tradition” of police-state brutality makes the present practice in Cuba still ‘acceptable’. This situation simply has to change; but how can it, soon, when Cuba is still materially deprived — and the ruling circles fear real, democratic — i.e. uncontrollable — change..?

    But change, Cuba must — or even the dream of socialism is finished there, under this particular revolution.

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