HAVANA 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.
In 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.