By Glenda Boza Ibarra (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES — In order to not seem crazy, Victor had to be quiet. “The crazy man says what he’s thinking; the sane man, doesn’t.” He learned this before turning 30 years old, when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Back then in the mid-1990s, he “had a dream which involved everyone.” Doctors believed that it was just a delirium caused by his mental illness, but they were wrong. Victor kept his ideas to himself and they discharged him.
He hid his condition as a psychiatric patient as best he could, he came out of his bad rut, he graduated as a nurse and then, when he retired, he focused all of his time to his dream.
Villa Clara is the province with the most psychiatric hospitals (3) after the capital and ranks third (after Havana and Santiago de Cuba) with the number of beds destined for psychiatic patients (502), according to figures from the 2016 Public Health Annual Statistical Report. But, it seems that these numbers aren’t enough.
Two years after beginning to renovate the house at No. 412 Maceo Street in Santa Clara, he transformed its ruins into a kind of outpatient hospital for mental patients. A hospital that isn’t directly managed by the government’s Public Health institutions, but instead by the retired nurse himself and the Catholic Church.
They opened the hospital’s doors when there were still things to do, despite the financial support of the Santa Clara Dioceses, the owner of the property, but Victor Cuevas Cardenas didn’t want to delay launching his “Corazon Solidario” (Supportive Heart) project.
He, a patient like any other, acts as a one-man band. He is the manager, a nurse and spokesperson all at the same time. A member of the siervas de San Jose order (the Catholic religious community in Salamanca, Spain) helps with everything she can. Patients, from different backgrounds and trades, who are already in the rehabilitation phase of their illnesses, do the rest.
“We do what we can, we ensure there is a snack and lunch for everyone, and dinner for those who live alone. The church gives us money for food, but we have to buy it out on the street just like the rest of the population. We don’t receive any state subsidies. With a quota of grains, salt and rice, we can dedicate the bulk of the money to buying meat, vegetables and root vegetables. Luckily, people regularly turn up with aid. Sometimes, it’s the patients’ relatives, sometimes it’s strangers who really value how much we do,” the founder claims.
Victor further explains that even though Caritas covers some food expenses and expenses for washing clothes, and Manos Unidas (a Catholic NGO) and Spanish volunteers, also contribute, their budget is still very limited.
In order to reduce costs and use work as therapy, they build growing beds and cultivate and vegetables, herbs and root vegetables. They hope to have more, but nobody wants to sell them the land they need.
After a welcoming coffee in the morning, they each do something. In the middle of their tasks, two enormous sweet potatos appear inside a mound of earth that Jose Elier Gomez unturns, a young sociologist and patient.
“When I arrived here, I was going through a crisis,” Elier says. “I’ve had a normal life since then. Sometimes, society has mistaken ideas about psychiatric patients, they label us “aggressive”, unable to be good at anything in life, and that’s not true.”
On his right, Edelberto plunges his hands into the moist soil. He likes the feeling of planting a seed, of helping something to grow and to bury any idea of hopelessness deep down.
“Mental illness sufferers don’t have everything they need to overcome their illness here in Cuba. However, we don’t only have a use here, but they also help us by giving us food and washing clothes for those of us who live alone, and we are even given a small stipend for our personal expenses,” he points out.
Without raking in significant sums, an arts and crafts workshop generates revenue with some of the patients’ work. At the entrance, Gilberto Rojas displays the goods to curious passers-by who come to have a look. “We sell our products for a modest price and this is how we contribute to the project too,” he says.
Sometimes, people buy them just to contribute, others, are really interested in the metal earrings, wood rosaries, decorations for the house, fridge magnets or coffee.
They don’t have a license to sell but inspectors ignore them: “Leave these people alone, this is a madhouse belonging to the Catholic Church,” they heard once.
Inside, the reason isn’t madness, but usefulness. “I felt like I could do things again, and I owe this feeling of being useful again to the project,” Rene Gonzalez admits, a History graduate and veteran of the Angolan war.
Outside, there are very few job opportunities for them.
In times of economic reforms, Cuevas Cardenas is dreaming of tax exemption policies for private businesses and cooperatives who hire people with mental health illnesses or any other kind of disability.
Mid-morning, while everyone is having a snack, Victor organizes chairs for activities with art teachers or psychologists. In his mind, “Corazon Solidario” continues to grow and expand. One of his greatest wishes is to officially have expert psychiatric help.
He says he has a friendly relationship with many professionals affiliated to the Health Ministry and the psychiatric hospital where he worked, but, until now, he doesn’t have these specialists’ collaboration.
“Sometimes, one of the patients needs to spend a few days at home and receive more intensive treatment because it wasn’t picked up on in time. I long for this situation to change, because it would benefit the patient, their family and the community,” he says.
After lunch, the five workers at Corazon Solidarity say goodbye to their patients. It’s in those minutes of solitude and silence that Victor dreams up new ideas: an area for pickling, ornamental plants, extending the washing service, a new kitchen, more patients benefitting…