Poverty and Old Age in Cuba: an Earth-Shaking Reality

Maria Santiesteban Portuondo. Photos: Maria Lucia Expósito

By Teresa Diaz (Joven Cuba)

Photos: María Lucía Expósito

HAVANA TIMES – A few days ago, I set out to visit a person that lives near my home in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. I walked along 26th to 15th Street in search of an older woman named Maria. She wasn’t there. I returned another day, in the morning. That day her battered door was half-open; looking in, I saw the person I was seeking, sitting on her bed talking to a friend. The correct thing to do would have been to step away, since she was busy, but I didn’t. She invited me to come in, and I sat down on something that wasn’t exactly a chair.

After introducing myself, I began to explain the reason for my visit. She barely let me finish: “Don’t worry about it, ask me anything you want.” I felt like I had known her all my life.

A long-time widow, Maria now articulated her great challenge: to die with dignity, since she hasn’t been able to live with it. The 74-year-old woman showed me some of the letters she had written, as someone officially receiving “assistance” from Social Security. Among these letters was one directed to the president of Cuba himself. Some relevant extracts:

“The conditions of my current life are miserably indescribable.”

“Since I can’t afford the new prices at the Family Attention’s cafeteria, and I opted to eat in my own place, that means I need, in addition, a stove and refrigerator to maintain my food.”

“I live in a ruin, practically outside under bad weather, since I don’t even have a door to close when I decide to lie down. I lack privacy, potable water, and sanitation (I have an excess of rats and cockroaches).”

The dwelling Maria lives in chills the soul. As this elderly lady described, she doesn’t have running water in her house, or a stick of furniture to hold anything. In this encounter, she told me that a non-governmental organization had recently learned about her grave living conditions and gotten her a small refrigerator. She admits she couldn’t sleep all night on the day it arrived, because it seemed a dream to be hearing the low buzz of the fridge in the night silence.

What should be a common, everyday occurrence – owning an electric appliance – was a huge event for this broadly smiling individual, since she had yearned for one for a long time.

Maria Santiesteban Portuondo had grown tired of asking for assistance from the different government agencies that should be helping her. She never received a satisfactory reply. The Office of the Presidency passed the problem along to the Attorney General’s  office to resolve – or rather, to analyze. They attempted to solve the issue by proposing that she go live in an old-age home, something Maria roundly refused to do, with every right to her reasons.

The Municipal Housing Agency in Plaza municipality then assumed this “social case”. They reached out to her asking for patience, meaning she should wait for a Greek miracle – in other words, forever.

When you converse with this very lucid woman, it’s clear she expresses herself very well. She studied medicine, but for some reason didn’t finish the career. She regularly attends a church located near the between 41st and 42nd Streets in Playa. She’s currently studying German. Above all, she’s full of that quality they call faith, which gives her a wisdom that goes beyond scientific reason.

Maria regrets not having been valiant. She was afraid to protest energetically since she couldn’t bear the idea of being treated with physical violence. Nonetheless, her resilience, her stoicism, in the face of adversity, negligence and abandonment from a system that calls itself socialist have made her an inheritor of the untamed cimarrons, that tremendous legacy left us by the human beings who were once enslaved on this island.

The same NGO that got her a refrigerator has just sent her a stove. I wish someone with authority could petition the Havana Water Co. on her behalf, so that this senior citizen could have the precious liquid installed in her home, so essential for cleaning up her space.

In addition, Maria needs special health care, since a fall affected her hip. She was unable to walk for a while, and during her convalescence she was unable to get to the cafeteria where they sold her some food. She commented that during this period she was, in essence, on an involuntary hunger strike.

Maria asked me what’s happening to us, to that quality that’s always seemed inherent in the Cuban identity: our solidarity. For decades, Cuba boasted of its defense of the poorest countries in the world; of the unconditional aid Cubans offered to any nation experiencing a tragic event. Yet, they can’t spare a group of workers to come install water inside the tiny home of a sick old woman.

This constitutes a terrible national disgrace, and no one seems to care. Making materials available to improve a tiny dwelling in deplorable conditions – while before our eyes huge hotel buildings are rising up – would be granting a tiny bit of justice in the face of so much shame and inequality.

I was a witness to the repairs done on a modest home where the daughter of an important functionary in the National Assembly lives. That gentleman had separated from his wife, and the latter returned to her place of origin with the daughter they’d had. The same concern that revolutionary individual extended to his daughter’s welfare should be granted this old woman. He should have the decency to send some trucks with materials, and to monitor the project, to improve the lives of the most desperate people within his radius of action.

Right this minute, I’m listening to a well-known performer say that there’s great solidarity in our country. It’s sad how distanced that person is from the extreme poverty we suffer today.  She also called herself a bit of a “chauvinist”, for considering Cuba the best country in the world.

I’d recommend that she spend a little time walking through the deeper areas of Cuba, and that she recall the works of US socialist Erving Goffman (1922–1982), who represented the Chicago School and created a theory of dramaturgy. Goffman considered that the theater made up a brilliant metaphor to throw light on the small-scale social processes.

A newly emerging sensibility would mark a different and hopeful road, so that Maria and many more like her could sleep peacefully.


This article is part of a project: “Inequality, poverty and vulnerable sectors in Cuba”. You’re invited to participate by sending your recommendations, testimonies and comments to [email protected], with the issue, “Project – inequality”.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

6 thoughts on “Poverty and Old Age in Cuba: an Earth-Shaking Reality

  • Caqn someone send me the address of this woman as Im a regular canadian tourist to cuba and am willing to help her out when i travel to cuba next and would like to gert in contact with her to give her much needed assistance. thanks

  • I spent 10 days in Cuba, 2/7-2/17, and spent a lot of time in Cerro and experienced all that was said here.

  • Great story there are so many seniors living on a few dollars a month with no help the Cuban government should do more for them

  • Por una vejez tranquila ( for a quiet old age) was one of the many slogans that the regime used for its propaganda. Maria probably believed in her prime years in the future of her glorious revolution with devotion. Today Maria has not use for the dictatorship so Maria in the working class paradise is forgotten.

  • There are people who “fall through the cracks” in all countries. The richest countries in the world are often hobbled by the Marias they leave behind. But what makes this Maria and her situation so much more an assault on our sense of humanity is that Cuba, of all countries, should not have this problem. Given all the central planning, all the block captains, all the boasting about concern for the poor, Cuba should never allow someone to live as Maria is forced to live. If this can happen in Cuba, what’s the point?

  • Maria Has been forced to Sacrifice for the Canadian Tourist that will enjoy the Wonders of Cuba, most Cubans will Never see or even Know of. Disgusting as So many of us, the Tourist have seen & understand what has been hiding for so many ageing yrs, The Cuban seniors in a unlivable society that never did care.

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