By Rachel D. Rojas (Progreso Weekly)
HAVANA TIMES – Old Man Sideburns is what we call him for obvious reasons. Still today, when he’s going from grey to white, he maintains that 1970s look. Every morning he opens early. Through the window you can see him working in his mini patio making threads, changing screws, assembling and disassembling piping and other pieces of tubing. It’s as if he were playing with Legos. Except, they’re not Legos, and he’s not playing.
The old guy is 76 and still works more than six hours on his feet, every day. He does so because his retirement is not enough to live on. He barely survives, alone. Two million Cubans over 60, are responsible for their homes (65.8 percent), and live alone (24 percent). Many of the homes are in poor repair, 44.1% have structural problems. Most of the retirees have a pension from the Cuban Social Security system (68.5 percent). However, with no family help they must continue working (28.2 percent) to make ends meet. Each and every month.
The 2017 National Survey on Aging of the Population revealed that in addition to the increasing number of people over 60, whose life expectancy has increased in the last decade, there has been a reduction of persons in the age groups which encompass children and young people. It also revealed the high percentage of young people who are emigrating. People live longer and that’s wonderful. The question, though, is whether a longer life is a dignified one.
The old plumber, who has no television or radio, only reads the newspaper — daily. The official Granma newspaper, to be exact. “How many cases [coronavirus] were there yesterday?” he asks about half past nine, when Dr. Durán offers his daily report.
When truth is nowhere, rumors are everywhere
He does not know details of the next monetary reform. But he hears the rumors standing in line at the grocery store, the butcher shop or in the outdoor state-run neighborhood fruit and vegetable stand, the only place where he can purchase these products, as long as it is not empty. He has no money in the bank; he lives with just enough…
He’s finally heard the rumors. He heard that the Minister of the Food Industry spoke of “decrepit chickens” and of raising fish wherever they could. That’s what they told him, although that did not appear in Granma.
The old plumber also knows that, according to what people say, “all the subsidies will be eliminated. Electricity, telephone, gas, water, transportation, the price of everything is going to shoot up. Even the price of movies, theaters and museums will be triple or six times what they used to be.” He’s also heard that “the products from the ration book will be worth 1,500 pesos.” “What we don’t know is how much we will be charged for it.” He points out, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire, you know.”
There are documents circulating since 2019 in WhatsApp groups with the prices of 23 basic products of the standardized rationed supplies starting on ‘Day Zero.’ According to this leaked information the price of everything is going up. The price of some the items will be multiplied by 28 times (rice), 30 (oil and liquefied gas), and even 54 (fish). It is scary to think of it.
Life without Google or chatting
Old Man Sideburns has never searched anything on Google, nor does he know what a ‘chat’ is. But he does know that from day one of some future month, they’re telling him his monthly pound of chicken will cost 20 pesos. instead of the 70 cents he now pays. The milk he has for breakfast will cost him 25 pesos, not the 1.50 he now pays. Likewise, a kilogram of salt will go from 35 cents to seven pesos.
Representatives of the government have explained, on more than one occasion, that it is about subsidizing people, not products. In truth, universal public policies end up reproducing inequalities often because not everyone needs the same things. There are, in fact, those who do not need any state subsidy. But who are those people? What is considered “sufficient” income? What are the criteria by which it is decided? And at what level of deprivation should the state intervene to guarantee a basic well-being? What are the ‘basics’?
Old Man Sideburns dines regularly with his sister, who is also elderly. Sometimes he walks the more than six kilometers to her house. The 80 cents in national currency for the round trip in a bus represents 24 pesos a month. That’s about six percent of his 385 pesos pension (as a retiree and widower).
Sometimes he prefers to save this money. Because he pays 100 pesos for the medicines for the treatment of his chronic conditions. He also spends another 60 pesos to purchase the basics distributed through the ration book. So, he has about 200 pesos left over for food and personal hygiene needs, which represents about 7 US dollars.
Confronting the crisis with social justice
In the socio-economic strategy for “boosting the economy” and “confronting” the crisis generated by the Coronavirus pandemic, the word equity appears twice. Once, referring to the tax system that will be designed for the private sector. The second in the point, “direction and management of the economy.” There it states that a pillar of the economic development of the country should be “to maintain social justice, equity, opportunities for those with lower incomes and a diversified and supportive economy, participatory and with social responsibility.”
The words ‘old age,’ or ‘elderly,’ or even ‘older adult’ do not appear in the 32-page document. But it does mention “improving social services aimed at vulnerable people and groups. Likewise, expanding their scope and coverage and implementing new services.” This will be one of the measures to be implemented in terms of assistance and social work.
But the truth is, the thousands of rumors about the necessary monetary reforms are just rumors. And there are few things as ugly as a rumor. It is like calling it an uncertainty. You hear it whispered everywhere. Each time it’s getting closer, intoxicating everything in its path, until it becomes a sharp, universal slap to the face.
And it touches us; it distresses us. Because people’s well-being also has to do with the ability to manage uncertainty. A good part of the services and rights pertaining to Cuban citizen status must be guaranteed by the state. It is its reason for existing, not a favor it does to those it truly serves. Nobody wants to be half there, or there in a bad way. Dealing with uncertainty in large doses, every day, what does that make us?
Sometimes Old Man Sideburns explains it like this: “I’m here, living like a mushroom.”
How Cuba’s institutions could earn trust and respect
American linguist Noam Chomsky says that if you want to corrupt a system withdraw its financing. Something the United States government insistently tries to do against Cuba. Restricting the sending of remittances to the island, sanctioning Cuban trade and exports. The Blockade. But if you want to erase that system from the map, you also remove its solidarity; it breaks its empathy.
Without this elemental bond between human beings we are weak, furious but weak, fearful of ourselves. Solidarity allowed many Cuban families to survive the hard 1990s. Thirty years later, its absence can lead us to a vicious circle of quarrels and divisions in which few benefit.
Meanwhile, the institutions could earn the trust and respect by focusing their efforts on the path already agreed upon. This without further delay or the application of band-aid repairs. Rather than “measuring the temperature” of the state of opinion, those who originate rumors instead of clear and timely information, attack the already precarious stability of life, day after day.
The idea of sovereignty does not win while keeping busy managing uncertainty. Old Man Sideburns, does not appear to win anything. Neither rest, nor security, nor comfort. Neither him, nor most of us.