HAVANA TIMES, May 5 — A friend of mine, an official of the Cuban government, would hardly speak to me after reading my post “Cuba’s Clock Is Ticking Away.” I thought this was because of references I had made to dirty dealings by the bureaucracy, but I was mistaken.
What had really bothered him, the same as some other mid-level political cadre, was my story about a grandmother forced to collect tin cans to survive. It was as if they believed it’s enough to kill the messenger for bad news to go away.
A similar reaction was produced in the 1990s with prostitution. As thousands of jineteras walked the streets chasing behind tourists, formal discourse was directed to the other side and the press converted the issue into one of its many taboos.
“Officialdom” disregarded these women with arrogance and scorn, making them responsible for their own misery. The trova musician Pedro Luis Ferrer was much fairer when he said the greatest blame “rested with those of us who sought to deny them.”
It was also in the 1990s when no official was “aware” of santeria, and when the editor of the newspaper La Habana demanded that gays not leave their houses. This was a time when there were no drugs, racism or inequalities. Socialism was a paradise under the stars.
These days we can again look away when an old person shuffles by us dragging their sack loaded with cans while we write articles on how well the elderly live. Notwithstanding, the ostrich strategy won’t change the reality.
“The first thing we need to do to correct an error is to recognize it, consciously, in all its dimensions,” Raul Castro explained at the opening of the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) in mid-April, and it’s necessary to accept the fact that he’s absolutely correct.
It’s very unfair not to recognize the situation of those who worked their whole lives and deposited their money in the coffers of the government with the aim of spending their golden years tranquilly, only to discover that their money is worth next to nothing.
It turns out be have meant little to be recognized for job merits or to have participated in exhausting sugar cane harvests, or to have spent years teaching school, treating people in hospitals, constructing houses or planting fields. Administrators merely explain to those former workers that resources can’t be distributed if these don’t exist.
Grandparents therefore continue working, many retired teachers return to the classrooms and those who own their own car became taxi drivers. However there are others who don’t have such material and educational resources.
The streets of Cuba are now full of elderly vendors of newspapers, popcorn and peanuts. Others go around picking up empty cans, cardboard and anything that salvage firms might be willing to buy from them.
Out of this they pocket barely a few pennies to survive, but to do so they have to get in long lines at dawn in front of the newspaper kiosks or wander around until midnight to bars and restaurants pushing shopping carts loaded with reusable scrap.
Even so, they’re treated with an iron fist. In the province of Las Tunas, a retiree working as a street juice-vendor was fined US$10 (the average two week wage) for “wearing clothes and other objects that constituted a risk to the contamination of the food.” The other object was his watch!
The bureaucrats possess the sensitivity of a rock. In addition to the fines, they try to take a part of their meager earnings by forcing them to pay licensing fees and taxes since these workers are obligated to contribute like all other citizens.
Someone on this blog said in a comment that it was completely fair to charge them because their incomes are similar to those of doctors and military officers here. Anyone who lives in Cuba knows that this is a false truth. Physicians receive dozens of “gifts” from their patients, while military officers receive a whole slew of other perks.
So why are they trying to make these old people pay if doctors and soldiers aren’t charged for their full incomes? And lastly — the most important reason of all — retirees have already worked and contributed sufficiently to society.
What is certain is that society has proven itself unable to guarantee them the rest they deserve. The least that could be done would be to leave them alone and not upset their lives even more as they seek to eke out a bare minimum subsistence.
While cutting hair right out on the street, “Sagua,” assured me that he wouldn’t pay his licensing fee or taxes because he’s already paid enough throughout the course of his life. His reasoning seems just, especially when this comes to the elderly who are now formally retired and working in such low paying jobs.
Another mid-level official informed me that they don’t like “foreigners” raising these issues. That idea seems strange in a country where the first thing a visitor reads when getting off the airplane is “Patria es humanidad” (Homeland is humanity).
Yet, beyond any nationalist prejudice, that official had a point. It’s the national press that should be the first to make these issues visible, assisting authorities in making the spirit of Article 48 of the Cuban Constitution a reality.
The way things are going, I’m about to find myself without any government friends. I’m sorry if I offended anybody, but my job is to write about Cuba, and that includes the poor and the excluded because they too are the children of this nation.
An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.