How Cuba Cares for Its People (Part 3)

Yusimí Rodríguez

Yusi-2_IMG_0011HAVANA TIMES – After taking pictures of the protagonist of my last article, “This Government Cares for its people (2)I walked on down Obispo St. in the direction of the Plaza de Armas.  I turned right onto Mercaderes Street by force of habit, and there I saw another man in a wheelchair.

I had already gone a few steps past him, but I decided to go back. I wasn’t sure if I should offer him money. I didn’t want to offend him, but at the same time I felt the need to give him something.

He refused it: “Don’t worry, keep it for yourself.” I insisted in vain. He then said that he had seen me a few weeks ago. “You stopped to converse with a woman in a wheelchair and you took her picture.  Why?” He was referring to Rosa Esther whom I interviewed in the first part of “This Government Cares for its People“.

HT: I write for the Havana Times website, I told him.

Jorge Luís Moreira, my unexpected interlocutor that afternoon then did two things that none of my interview subjects had ever done up until that moment. The first was to ask me if I wrote the truth for that site.

HT: I try to.  When I interview someone, I respectfully express their point of view without distortion, even if I disagree with their opinions. Rosa Ester declared that this government cares for the people and I reflected what she said using her exact words.

Jorge Luís: Her form of making a living – the fact that she comes to Old Havana so that tourists will give her something – demonstrates that her statement isn’t true.

HT: But that’s what she thinks and I respect it.

Jorge Luís then did the second thing that none of my interviewees had ever done before: he offered himself as an interview subject.

Jorge Luís: As you can see, I was born with a congenital malformation.  I’m 46 years old and this wheelchair was given to me by Celia Sánchez Manduley. I wrote to the Council of State explaining my situation, and she gave this to me. Later, I had to buy special wheels on the street, because the tires on this one got ruined as time went on, they cost me 600 pesos (around US $30).

HT: Do you receive a pension for having a physical disability?

Jorge Luís: They give me 135 pesos a month. As you know, that’s nothing. Before, they used to give us twelve bars of soap a year and a package of diapers. I have a problem with incontinence – I can’t retain my urine.  If they don’t give me the diapers or the soap I have to go around with the stench of urine.  For two years now they haven’t given us any of that. My only recourse is to come here. Luckily I have a street vendor’s license and I bring newspapers to sell, so I can be here more or less legally.

HT: So you haven’t had the problems of a man I saw on Sunday.  He’s missing a leg and a policeman took him away for begging.

Jorge Luís: They’ve hauled me off to Dragones (a police station located on a street with that name) several times accused of “stalking the tourists”, which is what they call it.  Once, the chief of the Vásquez detachment hauled me in. A little while later he was removed from that station.

Yusi-1_IMG_0008In ninety-four I was making a raft for myself with a partner and that’s when I lost the opportunity to get out of here. By the time we finally decided to put to sea, that agreement between Fidel and Clinton made it so you couldn’t just head on out to sea anymore. I preferred to be eaten by sharks than to go on living here. When I was on the beachhead some trucks from a foreign television station came by and I told them that I wanted to leave. An aunt that lives in the US saw me on the news.

HT: Does that aunt help you out economically?

Jorge Luís: No.

HT: Who do you live with?

Jorge Luís: With my seventy-six year old mother and a sister.

All the time he is telling me his story, Jorge Luís remains on the alert. He allows himself to be photographed, but the moment comes when he asks me to put away my camera, because there’s another camera close by that watches everything. I’ve heard about those cameras that people say are distributed around Old Havana, but I considered them an urban legend. For the first time, I felt that they are real. I take notes very quickly while Jorge Luís talks and keeps watch from side to side.

Jorge Luís: I discovered a warehouse full of wheelchairs and even cushions in a place on Kilometer 22. I asked why they were being stored there when there were so many people who needed the chairs and cushions. They told me that they were being kept for wartime use.

Another day I learned of some foreigners who were bringing some donations to Cacahual, and I got some friends to take me there in a car. I hid in the bushes until the bus appeared with the foreigners.  When they got out, they began to assemble the wheelchairs right there. They distributed a great number of them, but the fact is that four hundred chairs don’t solve the problem when you need a hundred thousand.

I made my appearance and managed to have fixed another chair which I have at home. Not only that, I got to eat there because they even gave us lunch. The Cuban who was in charge of the distribution asked me how I had found out about the plan to bring the donations there, but I wasn’t about to let on and cause trouble for the person who gave me the tip.

Another friend of Jorge Luís appears at this moment, also in a wheelchair. It’s a man who lost both legs in an accident when he was just over twenty. That hasn’t stopped him from finding a woman and from working.

Friend: “You can’t just stay home, because then you become bitter and you embitter the life of the whole family.”

But his pension isn’t enough and now he has to come to Old Havana to “do battle.”  He tells me that he’s known Jorge Luís for many years. “He’s a good worker, a fighter and a brave man.” Jorge Luís asks him to tell me about the tourist guides.

Jorge Luís: Who are more corrupt, us or them?

Friend: They are, because they often take the tourists to certain private restaurants in return for a commission from the owners. But then they make things difficult for us when we want to have contact with the tourists.

Jorge Luís: I understand that they have to look out for themselves like everybody else. What bothers me is that they tell the tourists that in Cuba those with physical disabilities have all their needs covered and no one has to beg.

The Revolution did a lot for people at first. With two hundred pesos you used to live better in the eighties than you can live now with five hundred. But someone told me once that communism is a machine that begins well, but along the way runs out of gasoline.

They point us out and talk about us, and they think that we don’t know what they’re saying because they’re speaking in English or some other language. I finished the ninth grade, I’m not stupid. I know when they’re talking about me and the things that they say. That’s damaging to us, because then the tourists believe that we really are begging for money because we want to and they don’t give us anything. I tell you, if they just gave me even 250 pesos instead of 135 I wouldn’t come here to look for anything.

Friend: The problem is that 250 pesos isn’t near enough to cover things here either.

Jorge Luís: Yes, but it’s more than 135, I could starve to death on that.

Jorge’s friend didn’t like the idea of being photographed or of using his name.  He goes off in his wheelchair and I’m alone again with Jorge Luís.

HT: Don’t you think that it might get worse if the system changed?

Jorge Luís: It might get worse momentarily, but in any case things have to change. We can’t go on like this. This government has been in power for fifty years and hasn’t solved the problems.

HT: Haven’t there been any achievements over these fifty years, the Revolution didn’t better the life of the Cuban people?

Jorge Luís: Yes, the Revolution did a lot for people at first. With two hundred pesos you used to live better in the eighties than you can live now with five hundred. But someone told me once that communism is a machine that begins well, but along the way runs out of gasoline.

During our conversation two girls came up to him and gave him some money. I don’t know how much.  I’m also not sure if they were foreigners. Jorge Luís wouldn’t accept anything from me. Not even my apologies for being unable to treat him to a cold drink, an ice cream or a chocolate.

He is happy for the opportunity to have told his story. Before we take our leave, he tells me that he is a member of the ACLIFIM (Cuban Association for People with Limited Physical and Motor Abilities) and pays his dues punctually. There is so much hope in his face that it confuses me, or rather, in reality, makes me sad. 

I don’t know what he expects will come out of the interview. I wish I could believe that publishing it would change something, that it won’t be just a source of entertainment, that the readers wouldn’t forget it after using it as proof of the poor functioning of the so called Cuban socialist system.

But I know that that’s a lot to ask. The world moves too quickly, and every day sad, tragic stories appear, too many to think that one more would move us.

 


12 thoughts on “How Cuba Cares for Its People (Part 3)

  • March 7, 2013 at 1:27 pm
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    Sorry , you’re living in unreality.

    Te French and the Cubans have single payer government run healthcare that takes care of all their people.

    Were the U.S to have that same civilized policy, the very real problems you enumerated would not exist.

    Secondly,

    People are not lazy.

    There is currently ONE job available for every FOUR people out of work in the United Staes and the majority of jobs lost were living wage jobs and the jobs that are now being created are poverty level work at minimum wage or slightly higher.

    To put it bluntly, you’re quite ignorant of the problems of the world and why they exist and you need to shoot your fucking radio .

  • March 7, 2013 at 12:47 pm
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    I am in the medical field in America, and for some people I see the
    opposite of what you are saying. I see people who could be working but
    dont want to, its easier to say you cant find work and collect benefits
    of unemployment. That is costing the US system a lot. Another thing that
    is, is immigration and those without insurance (they choose not to pay
    for it to save money because if they dont have it, they too can use the
    system). They go to ER for a sore throat or flu which costs more than an
    office visit, but get it paid for by medicaid or the hospital has to
    absorb the costs. Thus requiring all people to have insurance is needed,
    because the tax payers pay for those who wont get it. Those who use the
    ER for such minor things, back up Emergency Rooms for those who truly
    have emergencies. There are SO many social programs for the poor. There
    are many who dont want to work or who have mental conditions who are
    often times the homeless. US had a shift in policy for the mentally ill,
    trying not to institutionalize so many, but to help them live
    independently and many of their families preferred this. They have many
    such “homes” for them which are paid for in houses that make them feel
    more at home, yet with some supervision. They are allowed to work in
    places which hire the disabled to help them feel productive. Some of the
    homeless live on the streets to hide their drug or alcohol use. When
    they are given help, sometimes they return, sometimes they conquer it.
    Its an individual thing. Government has housing for the poor elderly,
    many people get a lot of assistance to purchase wheelchairs and such
    things via medicare or their pre existing insurance. Help is available
    if people seek it out. What US needs to do is get some of those with
    mental issues off the streets again, that prefer not to choose the
    “help”.They go off of their meds because they are not supervised, as
    there have been violent episodes in recent years from people with such
    problems. US needs to improve as things change. I know of several people
    taking advantage of the system, who could actually be working, so in
    some ways, US gives “too much” to some people, who just hurt those who
    really need it, if they decide to change the benefits because of those
    who abuse the system. I know of so many immigrants who come and find
    ways to make life work for them and as hard workers with a little
    creativity, are making an excellent income. It is those who come and
    mooch off the system(as well as its own citizens) that are hurting the
    once, excellent system of the past. You have to learn to change as
    things change. We have a system where people can stay in their homes
    and receive assistance, because not everyone has children to help.
    Another part of the problem is the fact that US allowed so much
    outsourcing of jobs to other countries. Those companies paid insurance
    for people. Capitalism works well if monitored, if prices are kept low,
    wages kept fair and Corporations think more about contributing to the
    people than profit, of which there are many who do so. You always just
    want to hear about the bad things. Its a big country, people help each
    other A LOT. I am not from US originally, and I find that most of the
    people are so kind and giving, not just to their own but in charities
    outside of their country, monetarily and with their free time. US has a
    few big cities but in comparison to its size,most of it is rural, and
    people are helpful. We all have our good and bad people and problems.
    But at least Americans have a voice for change. It may take them time,
    but they will fix their problems one by one. You can have your issues
    with the government, the same as many of them do, but as a whole, it is a
    good country to live in, especially when you make comparisons to most
    countries of the world. Those who dislike America, dont like its
    policies, policies many of its people try to change. But its a big
    country which has to listen to a multitude of voices and come to one
    conclusion, based on whats best for the country and its people. Sometime
    you have to experiment with whats best, sometimes you have to work out
    quirks, which is what they are doing on several levels, because they
    have that voice. Things will get better, they always do. Cuban people
    are not the US enemy, many are a part of the US now, as are many
    Iraqi,Iranian, Palestinian and Afghans etc. Every government argues over
    each others policies, but the people of each country, need to keep
    government separate from our own feelings for each other. Blessings to
    all good people of the world, we ALL have them.

  • February 21, 2013 at 11:44 pm
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    Newsflash: NO country in the world today is self-sufficient. Not even China or the US, the biggest economies on Earth.

    Obviously you missed – on purpose I suppose – my whole second paragraph.

    Apparently you are one who sees everything in black on white.

  • February 20, 2013 at 9:04 pm
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    Thanks Steve for pointing out what so many enemies of the revolution are always so careful to note about how the poor live in the poorer capitalist countries compared to those in Cuba .

    Of course the effects on Cuban society of 50+year war on the people of Cuba is also carefully omitted by these same people.

  • February 20, 2013 at 7:20 pm
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    Well, Steve, Marxian state monopoly socialism in one country certainly is not viable in one country.

    I believe however that such socialism would not be viable in a world network of nations based on a core principle of 100% state monopoly ownership of the land and enterprise, per the Communist Manifesto.

    The issue is not whether socialism can, or cannot exist in one country. That question is a component of Trotskyist argument.

    The issue is the nature of authentic, workable socialism in any country, or network of countries: whether socialist property can only be that which is owned by the state, or that which contributes to the strategic plan of transformation, under socialist state power.

    Under the second concept, a farm, restaurant, shop, factory, hotel or other enterprise, especially a working-associate-owned cooperative, would also be socialist in character.

  • February 20, 2013 at 2:24 pm
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    A country can not live at the expense of another. Cuba has to be self sufficient and can be self sufficient. The reason why is inflation. The Cuban currency lost value against all the others and that happen because Cuba did not produced or produced very little.

    While it is true that Celia help many people and the same also with Eusebio Leal this has nothing or little to do with the revolution. If it had to do with it then how come they have problems with wheel chairs that is so acute?

    It does not take a lot of money to build a facility that can build wheel chairs for this people. The social security payment of 135 Cuban pesos is totally insufficient to be able to live in Cuba or any other place it amounts at about 5.4 US dollars for a month. These people do have added expenses like he talks about of his health problems about urination and those add additional expense to his live. Notice he still tries to make a living.
    I used to live in Cuba in the 80s and we suffer lots of scarcities too. Naturally compare to the problems they have now the 80s look like a golden age.

  • February 20, 2013 at 1:54 pm
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    A ‘US Socialist’ should know better. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky all said quite clearly that Socialism in one Country is not viable. When you face an embargo by the US and the constant threat of Military action against you, it’s even less viable. Cuba does an incredible job in spite of all that of trying to have an equitable society. The writer might like to visit any other country in the Caribbean or Latin America and see how the poor live, or rather die, in those Capitalist Countries – just as they once did in Cuba. The day there is Capitalist Restoration in Cuba this man will be sure of only one thing – a rapid death. What good he thinks someone like him would get in the USA is beyond me, in the US he’d likely be living in a tent and reliant on food stamps and medicaid, if he weren’t already dead.

  • February 20, 2013 at 10:54 am
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    “The Revolution did a lot for people at first. With two hundred pesos you used to live better in the eighties than you can live now with five hundred.”

    This phrase cries out loud the fall of the USSR and its implications on Cuban commerce, the lack of inversions on local industries from the Cuban Government when it was the best period to do it, thus creating more opportunities for the creation and distribution of wealth, the tightening of the embargo and the Special Period.

    I suppose that the fact that he’s seen better and worse days, his strong connection with ACLIFIM, the fact that a person like Célia Sanchéz cared for him and the chief that harassed him was removed from his post and his pride in not accepting nothing from you may contribute to the fact that you saw such hope on his face and help us realize that reality isn’t black on white as some stupid people like to portray.

  • February 20, 2013 at 4:58 am
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    Every Cuban tells you taht the 80s were the golden age of the revolution. Now money comes from tourism and nickel. The prosperity of socialist Cuba depends on capitalist countries doing well. (The day global capitalism fails Cuba will go the way of the North Korean peoples monarchy.) Otherwise their citizens would not have the spare cash to spend in Cuba, Mercaderes is one of the glitzy places in Old Havana serving a tourist market. It has beautiful places, the chocolate museum, the Casa Simón Bolivar to name a few. I remember buying a pizza in moneda nacional five minutes walk away from Mercaderes. The vendor had no idea where Mercaderes was. It is a world apart from the life of ordinary people.kept sanitary for paying foreigners.

  • February 19, 2013 at 9:30 pm
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    As a US socialist who supports the Cuban Revolution, and believes that meaningful reform is possible, I have to admit that the quote–“communism is a machine that begins well, but along the way runs out of gasoline”–has proved to be true of the Marxian deviation from authentic socialism.

    Historical experience indicates that state monopoly ownership socialism limps along bureaucratically for a number of decades, impoverishes and corrupts society, then brings about the collapse of socialist state power.

    I don’t know why the PCC comrades can’t awaken and understand that Marxian theory and program is the problem, but they apparently cannot. But surely there is hope.

  • February 19, 2013 at 1:38 pm
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    I walked by this gentleman when I was in Old Havana on an educational trip I took to Cuba in January. I recognized him from the picture I took (I cant post the facebook link) It is great to hear his perspective, thank you for this great story.

  • February 19, 2013 at 12:13 pm
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    Wonderful report Yusimi! Keep at it!

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