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.