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 .

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