Fleeing the Cuban Hell

Irina Pino

Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — He doesn’t look like a former sailor. He is too big, he seems to have lost his gracefulness at sea, along with all of the hopes he had in his youth.

Jose Manuel is now forty-two. He lives on Campanario (“Bellfry”) street, in Havana’s neighborhood of Centro Habana. Those bells, however, no longer toll for him. The only thing he thinks about is how to leave the city of his birth, how to escape his country, which he calls “hell”.

For him, it is not the hell of Dante’s Inferno, it is a far more horrible hell. This is why he now sells fried junk food door to door. He gets up at five in the morning to prepare and fry the snacks. At eight, he goes out to sell these to the people who ordered them.

In the afternoon, he goes to an exchange locale and stands in line to turn his Cuban pesos into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) and then to deposit the money in an account he has at the bank. I met him while waiting in this line.

He began to chat with me, telling me he had a friend in Peru who was going to help him, that they needed people for construction work down there, that it’s a growing industry there right now. He told me that if he didn’t get the job there he would do anything, even go work in the Brazilian jungle, if he found no other option.

When I asked him how he was planning on leaving Cuba, he told me he was saving as much as he could, that he was going to sell his house after doing some repair work. What made the deepest impression in me was the phrase he repeated: “I want to get out of this hell”. He would repeat it again and again.

He also told he graduated as a mariner in the 80s from the Osvaldo Sanchez School. He’s been unable to work on a ship for years and has done other jobs.

“I can’t take it anymore, I want communism behind me, I have to leave however I can. If I have to sleep at a bus station or at parks and bathe in public bathrooms, I’ll do it, if that’s what it takes to get ahead and have a decent life…”, he said, hurling the words at me as though trying to find the strength he needs.

His only solace now is religion. He recently converted to Christianity and goes to the church on Amargura street twice a week. There, he finds peace and comfort. At least, while he is there, immersed in the religious ceremonies, he manages to forget his unhappiness.

I encourage him to find other ways of making a living, to rent a room, anything that will make him re-think the drastic decision he’s made. All I get back from him is the same, insistent phrase.

When we said goodbye, he invited me to pray with him at his church. He then blessed me with a prayer.

I don’t know what will become of this sailor turned Christian and fried-food vendor and whether he will one day manage to flee his personal hell.

Irina Pino

Irina Pino: I was born in the middle of shortages in those sixties that marked so many patterns in the world. Although I currently live in Miramar, I miss the city center with its cinemas and theaters, and the bohemian atmosphere of Old Havana, where I often go. Writing is the essential thing in my life, be it poetry, fiction or articles, a communion of ideas that identifies me. With my family and my friends, I get my share of happiness.


23 thoughts on “Fleeing the Cuban Hell

  • December 26, 2013 at 1:07 pm
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    what cuba needs is to concentrate on free enterprise as has been done in china to great success. it was a big mistake to outlaw it in 1968. since then the most accurate phrase is “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”.

  • December 2, 2013 at 3:41 pm
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    That’s just it. I don’t have a definition of communism (small c) and the world’s version of Communism (big C) such as exists in Cuba
    has been an abject failure. I know lefties such as yourself envision a utopic and moneyless system where everyone works according to their particular skills and receives in accordance to their needs. I saw an old Star Trek episode once that depicted this system. In reality, the “actual definition” of communism would likely describe a society that is incompatible with the greed, avarice, envy, passion and jealously that limits human potential. While capitalism is far from perfect and certainly has caused calculable harm, it remains the best system we have come up with so far.

  • December 2, 2013 at 3:38 pm
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    George Carlin became a millionaire making jokes like that and died a rich man. Ironic, don’t you think?

  • December 2, 2013 at 11:39 am
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    Jeez can you drag out a more tired and outdated and certainly ineffective example than that anyone in the U.S can become a millionaire shtick ?
    There are how many thousand millionaires and billionaires in the U.S. and how many hundreds of millions of poor that will be born in poverty and remain in poverty all their lives ?
    Poverty in the U.S. is increasing dramatically and will continue to increase as automation and globalization take an ever increasing number of jobs away and in a permanent fashion.
    Under globalization and rapid automation in which all competitive capitalists MUST participate to survive ,
    the rich will get richer and the ranks of the unemployed and poor will grow exponentially in the coming 10-15 years .
    Freedom ‘s just another word for the next thing the poor and working class will lose.
    We’ll all be free to be jobless, homeless and poor and that freedom will be strictly enforced as it has been.
    Dealing with poverty and joblessness are not priorities of those who own the country and the government. and will not be until the nationwide rioting that will take place in the coming 10-15 years.
    As George Carlin put it: “To believe in the American Dream, you’d have to be asleep.

  • December 2, 2013 at 11:25 am
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    Check out Cuba’s standing on the OBJECTIVE Human Development standards as set out by the WHO ( World Health Organization) of the United Nations.
    You will see that even with their economy under attack for some 50 years by the U.S. , the people of Cuba life far better than any comparable country with a capitalist economy not under attack by the United States.

  • December 2, 2013 at 11:20 am
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    Spain has something like a 25% unemployment rate that goes to something like 50% with the younger workers.
    It is not that the ex-Cubans expect handouts.
    They left Cuba knowing that life in a capitalist country is vastly different and with few of the social safety nets found in Cuba.
    If there are no jobs for the native Spanish, how in the world do these Cubans expect to find work when they are recent immigrants who know nothing about life under capitalism ?
    These were some of the “political prisoners ” released from Cuban jails and who CERTAINLY should not be surprised at conditions in a capitalist economy .
    Of course, when the most powerful country in the world is waging war on an entire population of a small poor country for 50 years, things are going to be rough for all.
    Oh, there’s a war being waged on the people of Cuba
    by the U.S.?
    You’d never know it if you limited yourself to the posts of those working in behalf of the U.S. State Department .

  • December 2, 2013 at 11:09 am
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    Anyone who complains about the harsh living conditions in Cuba without simultaneously mentioning, at length , the effects of the over 50 year U.S. War On The People Of Cuba is being intellectually dishonest.
    For the umpteenth time let me remind Moses and others who work on behalf of the U.S. State Department that the STATED purpose of the WOTPOC was at the outset and still today is to make life for ALL Cubans so miserable that they would overthrow their revolution.
    It is why the WOTPOC continues even though many people and even deadly foes of Cuba think it is useless.
    If you think the WOTPOC is all about establishing democracy , you’d best read the introduction to “Killing Hope” ( available free on-line ) to understand that from 1918 and the joint U.S. -European invasion of the nascent Soviet Union, the purpose of the oligarchic U.S. foreign policy has been the suppression and prevention of economic democracy in the world.
    The preponderance of the over 50 U.S. interventions since 1945 have been to either prevent democratic economies and/or to install or support an existing dictatorship.
    U.S foreign policy vis a vis Cuba is to reinstall a capitalist dictatorship whether with or without a totalitarian government ( oligarchy) such as exists in the United States .

  • December 2, 2013 at 10:55 am
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    Please define communism for me as you understand it just so I know your definition of the philosophy.
    IYO, how does the actual definition of communism ( small “c” ) differ from your description of Cuban “communism” as used in your post ?

  • November 29, 2013 at 2:28 pm
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    So if you have feelings or intuitions unsupported by factual evidence, and even directly contradicted by the evidence, what does that say about your opinions?

  • November 28, 2013 at 9:56 pm
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    Sometimes, Moses, those 40-year-old (now 55 year old) songs are the best, like “Violeta del Rio’s” cover of Lino Borges’s bolero, “Be Gone From Me,” and “You’ll Remember Me.” Again you set up a straw man, as not then, nor now, did I ever believe that Cuba was or is a socialist utop. Still, I feel–or intuit–that Cuba is further along, and has further potential, in creating a more humane society than our dying empire.

  • November 27, 2013 at 3:24 pm
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    Okay, you painted a pretty clear picture… quoting Buffalo Springfield, dropping a hint you were one of the gullible leftists who flocked to Cuba be part of Castro’s insane Ten Million Ton Harvest.

    Roll another one, dude. The 60’s are so over.

    Nice to hear there’s a chapter of the Tea Party in Cuba. So there is hope.

  • November 27, 2013 at 10:01 am
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    What a cad! ‘Principiante’ pours his heart out and you respond with a 40 year-old song! That is so typical of foreigners from the left. You choose to ignore Cuban reality and replace it with some goofy utopia that only exists in your head. My 6 foot, 220 lb. father-in-law engineer is afraid to write anything critical of the Castro government in his emails to his daughter because he knows his email is monitored. Worse yet, because my wife is a reporter for CNN, her friends in Cuba always say to her “please don’t use my name” out of fear of reprisal. This is reality dude. Whatever repression you think exists or will exists in the US is not even close to what Cubans deal with on a day-to-day basis.

  • November 27, 2013 at 8:48 am
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    Thank you for your impassioned, articulate and honest comment. It’s refreshing to read something directly from a Cuban about the reality lived by those on the island.

    Keep safe.

  • November 26, 2013 at 8:41 pm
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    I don’t know, Principiante. Although this is just an anecdotal incidence, I have a friend in Cuba who quite openly criticizes the government…in fact, like the Tea Partiers up here, he thinks the government there can do no right; his wife, on the other hand, is a little more forgiving and sees the benefits of the Revolution (“Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater!”) Probably the dividing line betwixt real hassles with the government would be in trying to organize–or join–an opposition. Here in the States the ruling class has a bit more leeway, and sophistication, in dealing with and oppressing those who it views as threats. Give them time and opportunity, however, and the multi-national corporations, and the U.S. Government, who is its servant, will become even more efficient in oppression. In the meantime, as the Buffalo Springfield used to sing:
    There’s something happening here
    What it is ain’t exactly clear
    There’s a man with a gun over there
    Telling me I got to beware
    It’s time we stop, hey
    What’s that sound
    Everybody look what’s going down
    Paranoia strikes deep
    Into your life it will creep
    It starts when you’re always afraid
    You step out of line
    TLhe man come and take you away.” Et Cetera
    re: the mocha I was much more a machete man myself. The mocha looked indimidating; besides, for a greenhorn machetero like myself the machete seems to have had a longer blade, capable of cutting a wider swath of cane, but I guess it all depends on which instrument you use habitually. “!Los Diez Millones de Toneladas, para nuestro futuro mejorar! Cada dia, cada hora…” Et Cetera

  • November 26, 2013 at 2:10 pm
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    Being critical where, standing in line in a bank? The author must have used a different name for his character. Though you have a point. Twenty years ago you would not tell these things to someone you did not know not even in casual line conversation, especially not in a public space where other people could be listening.

  • November 26, 2013 at 2:06 pm
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    Or perhaps he has (heard about Spain’s Cubans). I bet that if you tell him so, he will still be ready to go to the Brazilian jungle. And he does not need our admiration, he needs to have a life. Most of those who remain in Cuba have no other choice, whether because they don’t have the money or the support to leave the country and settle down somewhere else or because they are tied by duties to their children or their elderly or just because emigrating is a hell of a difficult, messy, painful and risky business.
    Finding a niche in the market? Yes, a two-inches niche in a twenty inches market. Lovely. And maybe the State decides tomorrow that that particular service is not legal or should not be anymore (who cares if you have not yet recovered your initial investment), or should be charged twice as much taxes, or should buy supplies in CUC stores only. You have to be an oil digger to find a niche in an almost nonexistent market where I sell you fried junk food and you sell me a trip in a bicitaxi, and that is pretty much it.

  • November 26, 2013 at 1:55 pm
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    Jesus people! All of you, every time I read your discussions I end up more and more frustrated with your argumentative logic! Having had a mocha in your hand, meaning you have REALLY been in Cuba, Dan, does not make you immune to misconception or to the lullabies that officials sing to good-hearted idealists like you and certainly does not make your argument necessarily better than Moises’. And the fact that millions of Americans, for which ever reason, are not really taking part in the making of US politics either -out of sheer disappointment, powerlessness, media-induced stupidity,etc., is not, again, a valid argument against Moises’ statements. Both situations exist independently, the truth in one does not contradict the truth in the other.
    So would you please, approach situation A (say, Jose Manuel’s story), without for once, resorting to situation B? You, the guy with the mocha in his hand knows nothing of stories like this one, of their causes? Is it all the fault of the world order, of the embargo, is this Jose Manuel is just a spoiled, naive, whinny guy who thinks he will get rich in the Brazilian jungle?
    Dear Dan, if I bother to reply to you is because in principle I like a priori, people who from within the US are critical with the American system and even bother to come to Cuba and take a mocha in their hands. And it is you leftists of the world, among whom I count myself, who should be made aware of the terrible consequences of your unconditional support of the Cuban regime.The Jose Manuel of my islands are not spoiled whiners, they are just common people, like 90% of the world population, who have every right to feel they have at least the opportunity to hope for a better future, even if they have not read Das Capital and do not watch the evening news everyday. And in a country that has been marked by prohibition, penalization, limitation, constraints, unbearable patronizing, hatred to all forms of market and accumulation of capital, however regulated this might be, and a complete lack of political freedom (how difficult is it to understand that the single-party scheme is classic totalitarianism… regardless of how quasi totalitarian the american bi-partisan scheme may be), most of this generation, now in their 40 is frustrated, desperate, and embittered, with no money, very little property, surviving as peddlers or reluctantly working for the sate, no ideals and trapped in an island where a plane ticket to Mexico amounts to two or three years of a Cuban pesos salary, provided you put all of it away just for this and stop eating, taking buses, taxis and paying your bills. By the way I have never had a mocha in my hands, but I have spent half my life standing in line, literally chasing food (you can even picture me running after a truck), nodding just to keep safe, keeping my thoughts to my self or airing them exclusively in private circles. As I write this, I am afraid that I may have my arm twisted by the Cuban political police cause I have been saying things in this forum. And I am not delusional.
    I do not sign with my name and not because I am particularly fond of forum alias, I sometimes change my gender or try to avoid certain details. Yet I know this digital magazine is closely watched by security agents. They wont spare any resources in surveillance, and surely there are linguists, IT specialists and professional readers monitoring this publication every day and whatever they want to find out, they will. Don’t tell me about the FBI or the NSA, I don’t like them anymore than you do. Tell me your thoughts about this other situation I am depicting to you, preferably as you put your lovely mocha down and use something shared by all human beings, whether born in the sugar-cane fields of the Caribbean or in Iowa: reason and critical thinking.
    All best,
    Oops, I can’t write my name!

  • November 26, 2013 at 1:26 pm
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    Times are tough in Spain for sure. Especially for those Cubans accustomed to a Cuban system of handouts. My Cuban friends in Spain have done well but even for them there was an adjustment to a system that requires that you work hard for what you receive. The advice you have for those Cubans who wish to live better in Cuba reflects your naiveté regarding the Cuban reality. Ojala if entrepreneurship as you describe it would work in Cuba. There are only just over 200 ‘approved’ private sector business categories authorized. Most of these are pennyanny stuff like dog walkers and popsicle-makers. When Cubans have shown themselves “creative”, the government has shut them down. Case in point: 3D movie theaters and gaming centers. It is easy for you to suggest that Cubans ‘stick it out’ and stay in Cuba. You don’t live there.

  • November 26, 2013 at 1:13 pm
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    Hahaha. I actually have cut cane ONCE in my life. Cuba is not the only place sugar cane was grown. There are poor and disillusioned people everywhere, including here in the US. The ‘American Dream’ is getting harder and harder to realize. That said, a disillusioned American knows that if he works hard and gets lucky, there is a chance that he founds the next Facebook or maybe even becomes President. Here is the problem with Cuba: the Castros have created a system where it is not only impossible, it is illegal, to be wildly successful, to amass personal wealth, to achieve personal fame based solely on talent, to express ideas shared by none. These markers of a free society do not exist in Cuba.

  • November 26, 2013 at 10:37 am
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    Perhaps Jose Manuel hasn’t heard that many Cubans who’ve emigrated to Spain in recent years have not exactly been leading the good life; in fact, some have lost their welfare benefits and even been thrown out on the street when they couldn’t pay their rent.
    OTOH, he might just make it in Peru, Ecuador, or Brazil, in which case he can send hard currency back to his family! Then again, he might not, or find himself horribly exploited. He should have the opportunity to find out for himself. Still, as Dorothy said in “The Wizard of Oz,” “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!” I have more admiration for those who remain behind in Cuba and try to make a a better life for themselves, whether by learning new skills, setting up a new businesses, providing new and needed services, etc. To be successful in the latter, however, requires a bit of imagination, especially in finding a niche market and creating a demand for your services, skills and products. Whether here in the States, or in Cuba, such creativity is the exception, rather than the norm. In both cases this is a reflection of the faults of both educational systems, but then again, the “school of life” is the best teacher.

  • November 26, 2013 at 8:56 am
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    So you think that that is the depth of us “Castro-crazy” sycophants experiences in Cuba – looking out a tour bus window? Moses, I’ll compare arobas of cane cut, with you anytime. I would bet you’ve never even had a mocha in your hand. But anyway, life is life . Everywhere. Are you trying to say that there are not tens of millions of Americans, who have never protested, who are under or unemployed, saddled with debt, unhealthy, can’t get a good education for their kids, fearful of what might happen to them in school, can’t keep up with the rent, know government is unresponsive and despise every single politician, yet drive around with an American flag on their cars ?

  • November 25, 2013 at 5:07 pm
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    I would bet dollars for donuts that Jose Manuel has never publically protested, votes for the slate of candidates presented in every election, marches every year in the May Day parade chanting all the slogans and, at least on paper, looks like a good revolutionary. That’s the problem with the Castro-crazy few posters and commenters here on HT. They count this guy in their stats as a regime supporter. Just because he smiles at the big Chinese tour buses as they drive past, these guys leave Cuba thinking most Cubans are so happy and content to live out their days as communists. What sycophants refuse or choose not to see is that just under the surface, a majority of Cubans are fed up with low wages, failing infrastructure, indolent customer service, high prices for basic goods and no political freedom. This post reflects a majority of the Cubans I know. It is the sad reality for most Cubans.

  • November 25, 2013 at 1:28 pm
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    cant he get in trouble for being critical of the regime?

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