Vicente Morin Aguado (photos: Juan Suarez)
HAVANA TIMES — At 80, Manuel is still a strong and clear-headed man. He wears humble (but clean) attire and speaks without gesticulating, though a certain degree of haughtiness still comes across. He proudly recalls that, “in 1958, I had as many as ten tailor-made suits in my closet. High class women of color used to call me “stuck-up black man,” because I was always proud of my demeanor and appearance.”
HT: Did you have a good salary? I’ve always heard say that printers were well paid, compared to other workers, I mean.
Manuel: It was hard. I started out as a binding trainee and I would earn seven pesos a week. It wasn’t bad to start out with – don’t forget a Coca Cola cost 5 cents at the time. I had to have a lot of patience learning, because the experienced printers didn’t want to teach me the tricks of the trade. I became an operator when the revolution triumphed.
HT: You were going to tell us your wages over time.
Manuel: Of course. I went from being a trainee to a master binder. There were weeks I was making 60 pesos and more, because there was no dead time at the printers. I had two or three jobs there, plus the tips and last minute jobs. When the revolution triumphed, they started paying us a fixed salary of 230 pesos a month. It was fair, you could live well with that money. Then time, and this endless “Special Period,” ended up emptying my closet.
HT: Now you’re retired. Tell us what you make.
Manuel: I retired in 2000, with a 270-peso pension. It wasn’t even enough to buy food with, which is why I took a job as a watchman near my place. It’s the national headquarters of an important organization. They pay me 300 pesos a month, and it’s got other perks.
HT: I start to think. Between the wage and his pension Manuel receives some 570 pesos a month. He lives alone (he’s been a widower for 10 years) and, what’s worse, has no support from his sons. Can he actually make ends meet?
Manuel: Not at all, reporter. I manage to make it thanks to the perks I just mentioned. The apartment seems huge and lonely to me. I don’t have a color TV or a fridge at home. They broke and there they are, waiting to be fixed. These days, any repairman will charge you 5 fulas – Cuban Convertible Pesos or dollars – just to come over. Then you get the real story, when they tell you what’s wrong with the thing and how much it’ll cost to fix it.
HT: You haven’t told us about the perks yet.
Manuel: True. They come with my current job. I’m in an office with air conditioning. I have a great sofa to sleep on. They leave me fairly good food and a snack and coffee. The best part is that I have a fridge and a modern, color TV. I have the office all to myself and I can watch baseball, the soaps or a good movie, with cold water and sometimes a bit of pop. Oh, and there’s a phone, just in case I need it.
HT: Do you have to be there every night? Do you not sleep?
Manuel: Officially, I’m supposed to work every other day. I alternate with a lady who doesn’t come in some times because of family issues, with illnesses. They send a replacement when that happens, another custodian. Sometimes, I do the shift. It doesn’t bother me and I can add a few bucks to my account this way.
HT: I’m surprised you haven’t thought of setting up a small business. No offense, I see many people your age looking for alternatives – selling newspapers, running errands, selling peanuts, even. The important thing is to make some extra money honestly.
Manuel: It’s not my case, and it’s embarrassing to admit. I wouldn’t know how to sell a newspaper. I was always a binder at a printer, from age 18 to the day I turned 65, when they asked me to retire to make room for the young.
It’s clear my interlocutor preserves some of his former pride, when he changed suits every afternoon and headed out to dances in the “high colored society” in Old Havana.
HT: Are you still a “stuck-up black man”?
Manuel smiles. The label doesn’t seem to bother him. With some healthy flamboyance, he says to me:
Manuel: What’s done is done! I was young, I lived my life as best I could and I have no regrets. I had my share of adventures, because I knew how to conduct myself in society. I dressed well and had no shortage of women. Then I got married and settled down.
HT: And what happened with your suits?
Nothing too interesting. No one wears them in Cuba anymore, unless you go to the theater or something, or if you’re an artist or a Mason. I sold a number of them and about 20 ties. The bad part is that I haven’t been able to keep abreast of fashion; it’s too much for a lonely old man living off a Cuban salary and pension. My closet is empty.
Vicente Morín Aguado: [email protected]