HAVANA TIMES — The economic crisis of the 90s pushed much of the Cuban population into poverty, however subsequent reforms have allowed various sectors of the population to improve their living standard through the most varied pathways and mechanisms.
Nevertheless, one group that has failed to recover from the crisis is the retirees, whose pensions of $15 (USD) a month doesn’t allow them to make ends meet. As a result, the streets of Cuban cities have become filled with seniors trying to make a living.
Early every morning, grandparents line up at newspaper kiosks to buy stacks of dailies that they in turn resale. At the same time, other elderly individuals begin roasting peanuts, which they’ll hawk at stop lights, while other seniors are preparing to spend their days watching parked cars.
The reduction of subsidies and steady increases in prices are forcing them to continue searching for sources of income even after retirement. Anything goes – from selling cigarette lighters in the street to collecting empty beer cans and cartons.
Alcides Perez, 76, can be found every day between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. outside a printing facility collecting newspapers and magazines for resale in the city. “I’m retired but I have to sell newspapers because my pension is next to nothing,” he said smiling.
Before retiring, he worked as a security supervisor with the Ministry of Construction. He explained to us that “the government gives me a regular quota of newspapers, and that helps me to earn a little something, but it’s not much,” adding that he’s out in the streets until they’re all sold. “You get tired, but you gotta work,” he said.
Just after leaving Alcides at the door of Hotel Inglaterra, we ran into a woman who was going through trash bins on San Rafael Boulevard. “I collect material for recycling centers” explained Dagmaris Gonzalez, 70.
She collects pop and beer cans so she can sell them to the government. “With a sack full of crushed cans, I can earn 60 or 80 pesos (about $3 USD) in a day. I don’t feel very good about it, but my 242-peso-a-month retirement check ($10) isn’t enough.”
The Help that doesn’t come
A few yards from Dagmaris, a couple steps away from the side door of the Grand Theater of Havana, Luisa Bolaño was seated there selling cigarette lighters. “My retirement is 200 pesos a month, but I’m only left with 141 pesos ($7), because they deduct 59 pesos for my refrigerator payment.”
“I’m 68 but I have to take care of my 98-year-old mother,” explained Luisa. She added, “I’m asking for help for Social Services, but I applied a year ago and I still haven’t heard back. They say you have to wait for an investigation.”
Back in the car, we pulled up to a stoplight a few blocks away, and another senior citizen, Joseph Romero, came up to my window selling peanuts. “I sell these out of necessity,” he said. “I have to because my retirement isn’t enough.”
Formerly the manager of a bodega (a small grocery store), he said: “Now my day starts at 5:00 in the morning. I roast peanuts until about 8:00, then I come out here.”
“I work three or four hours a day to earn about 50 pesos ($2),” he explained.
Getting back home, I stopped by the supermarket and spoke with Felix Batista, a 76-year-old man who watches the parked cars – a job held many by retirees. During his working life he was the chief investment officer of Cuba’s sports industry.
“I started here because I’m retired and my retirement doesn’t stretch. People give what they want, a peso or so (three or four cents USD). I pick up around 400 pesos a month ($20) like this, so I have a pretty regular standard of living,” he said, adding, “I’m grateful to the government because now I hold a job and collect retirement.”
In this situation, the elderly continue to be very supportive of the government, even though many of them live in poverty. Most of them know how life was prior to 1959, when they suffered because they belonged to the most disadvantaged.
They were the poorest when the revolution occurred. Subsequently they were the ones who benefited from land reform, received ownership of the houses they previously rented, and were able to send their children to college. Yet they probably never imagined that at the end of the day they’d have no chance to rest.
*An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.