A Life of Blistered Hands in Rural Santa Clara, Cuba

By Sadiel Mederos Bermudez  (El Toque)


HAVANA TIMES – An old black cat slinks over between the warm stones that cover the road to Vista Hermosa, Hato Viejo and El Hueco, shapeless and precarious little hamlets on the outskirts of Santa Clara. It reaches the place it calls home and looks, with indifference, at the other cats who are meowing at Rosa, his host, every time she moves a cooking pot in her narrow kitchen.

She is keeping an eye on the dark clouds above. She lays down plastic, puts out pots and vessels on the furniture and smooth cement floor, in case it begins to rain. It is only mid-morning, but they will stay for the rest of the day. She drinks the last sip of coffee that was made at dawn. Her breakfast was a bread roll, which is sold every day via the rations booklet, with some scrambled eggs and water with brown sugar. Luckily, she has five Creole hens that lay really colorful eggs. “Maybe because they eat so much bitter melon,” she weighs in.

Pretty much always a housewife, Rosa spent a few years baking desserts to sell on the street, when she used to live in the center of Santa Clara, close to the Belico river, one of the most polluted rivers that runs through the city. She leans over a box, digs between mangoes and some bananas, she reaches three medium-size sweet potatoes right at the bottom and smiles while she caresses the sprouts that have grown. “If I leave them a little longer, I could grow them here myself.”

She lives with her son, Papelito, a fan of fishing. He normally goes down to the dam in front of the house. It’s a small dam that was built by a neighbor in the ‘90s, when local farming plans were given a boost. He carries a hook, earthworms and a trammel net he’s borrowed. “It’s better to eat fresh fish. Even if it takes you longer and you fish less,” Papelito says.

Rosa and her son’s life has been getting increasingly harder, just like their blistered hands.

View from Rosa’s neighborhood, at the end of El Hueco, at 6.2 km away from the center of Santa Clara, Villa Clara.
Front of the house where Rosa and her son Papelito live.
Rosa regularly receives a visit from four cats. Even though she doesn’t consider herself their owner, she is pained by the attacks they receive.
She sweetens sweet potato with brown sugar honey. She would add cinnamon, anis seed or a touch of clove, but she hasn’t had these spices for years now.
She sweetens sweet potato with brown sugar honey. She would add cinnamon, anis seed or a touch of clove, but she hasn’t had these spices for years now.
Rosa shares this sweet potato dessert with some children from the neighborhood.
It’s time to sit down. She is calm at last, as she listens to Radio Enciclopedia.
Even since Papelito discovered that three or four earthworms come out of a crack in a neighbor’s backyard, he has started his fishing trip backwards.
Right next to the dam, there used to be dumping ground for the National Industry of Domestic Utensils (INPUD), for a long time.
Some tilapias found refuge in the dam’s deepest areas.
Only two tilapias bite his line in an hour, which he cleans right there and then on a rock.
“A couple of months need to pass before you can fish here,” Papelito says.
Three years ago, Papelito got sick and had to sell his horse and hand in his horse drawn wagon driver’s license.
At 6:30 PM, the fan does little to dissipate the heat that beats down on the tiles of the roof.
After dinner, Rosa and Papelito go outside to get a breath of fresh air in the backyard. Behind them, there is the table with the radio, their Soviet blender and a half-empty plastic bottle of rum.

(Click on an image to display the gallery.)

14 thoughts on “A Life of Blistered Hands in Rural Santa Clara, Cuba

  • I don’t know about Guatemala, however Bosnia, Siberia and Canada are twenty times better off.

  • We will pass on your message to the author of the photo feature to see if he has a way to contact the person.

  • How can I get Rosas Adresse? I would like to send here the spices she needs for her sweet potato dish….something she has not been able to get for several years…thanks

  • As an Englishman Nick, you ought to be aware that the word propaganda is information of a biased or misleading nature. Propagandize (NB) is to express a view in a biased or misleading way.

    I consistently promote the values of freedom and individuality. That is not misleading, although it is somewhat obvious that you consider such values as biased.

    I have never disputed that there are people in the world who are even more oppressed and poverty stricken than Cubans. You obviously consider that until the people of Cuba are even more oppressed than those others, criticism ought not to be made.

    The difference between you and I, is that I deplore the repression and dictatorship practiced in Cuba, whereas you constantly seek to mitigate it.

    You may recall my writing about fellow-travellers, those who by definition although not members of a group or political party, sympathize with its aims and policies.

    By naming their Propaganda Department as such, the Castro regime is in fact admitting that it is promoting biased and misleading information.

  • There are poor people in the world. And there are places in the world where people at the lower end of the ladder are worse off than they are in Cuba.
    These are facts.
    Anyone who knows Cuba knows about the propaganda there but in this instance, when I use the word ‘propagandise’ I’m referring to your comments Mr MacD.
    The Cuban Government does it.
    And so does Mr MacD.

  • Yet again, Nick offers up the same old weary worn-out argument used by sycophants of the Castro regime – things are even worse elsewhere……!!! So relax!

    The expression “third world” was introduced by the French to describe developing countries which were neither capitalist or communist. As Cuba is communist, it does not qualify for that description, and rather than developing, is as policy, remaining in a sixty year long time-warp pursuing 19th century Marx/Engels thinking.

    Nick’s use of the word “propagandise” is particularly applicable in Cuba, where the ruling Communist Party of Cuba, actually has a named “Propaganda Department”. It is that department which is responsible for all the posters, hoardings, slogans and political graffiti which litters Cuba, from public buildings, schoolrooms to the rural countryside. The cult of the personalities – Fidel, Raul, ‘Che’. slogans adorn everything from ice cream parlours to the houses of the Presidents of the CDR, but it should be noted, are not visible at the home of Rosa and Papelito!

    Nick is correct about the quality of the black and white photographs. They do “depict and faithfully represent rural folks in Cuba who are not rich:” The reality displayed is poverty!

  • Excellent photographic work. The black and white furthers the effect.
    I’m very familiar with rural Cuba and the depiction is valid. Cuba is not a ‘first world’ country. It is what was once called a ‘third world’ country. The Revolution has not changed that.
    It should be mentioned that unlike in other parts of the world, there is a social safety net in Cuba which ensures basic levels of food, healthcare and free education.
    This type of social safety net would not apply to Rosa and Papelito if they were in many other parts of the ‘third world’.
    Ken, you mention Siberia. There was once a similar social safety net in Siberia.
    Sadly this has slipped away and poverty has returned. Child malnutrition has reared its ugly head again. By contrast there are billionaires in Moscow these days…….
    These pictures are stunning. They depict and faithfully represent rural folks in Cuba who are not wealthy.
    But do they also represent yet another opportunity to propagandise……?

  • I have similar thoughts – often. How many bright, creative and intelligent kids in countries all over the world don’t get the same opportunities as most kids in my home country? It is more than just having enough to eat. It’s about having adults who care for them and protect them, a social network that promotes good health and and education system that provides equal opportunity for both boys and girls. You’re right. Life is not fair for far too many kids around the world – Cuba included.

  • Ken, I recall with pain, when my first wife suffering a terminal condition, only once observed: “Life isn’t very fair.” She died twenty two years ago, but those few words continue to live with me.

    They apply to too much of the world. I recall visiting a school maintained by charity, in Namibia some fifteen years ago, and in looking through the books of eight year olds, finding that one girl had not a single mistake in all her subjects. I subsequently visited her home in the village. It was a mud hut.

    We will never know how many children of similar high ability will be denied the those opportunities that enabled Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Szilard, Gandhi, Mandela and Hawking to make their massive contributions. Education (not indoctrination) sadly remains a privilege in this world.

    I have referred in these pages, several times, to my 9 year old Cuban God-daughter. She at least will not be denied some education. The question in Cuba, is whether she will be permitted to utilize it fully? As my wife has a fairly significant role in education, I have become fully aware of the ways in which the full development of individual talents in Cuba are inhibited by a system that demands conformity.

    There was a tiny chink of light a year ago, when Diaz-Canel sought ideas for development of the economy. But that following the introduction of the Raul Castro Constitution, was contradictory. Conformity is the rule of the ruler and progress comes from individual minds and initiatives. “Life isn’t very fair.”

  • I agree, Carlyle. My point is that poverty can be found everywhere in our world. And I know politics always plays some role. People at the top don’t always get it right – sometimes they get it all wrong!

  • The difference Ken Jamieson is that in Cuba such conditions are the norm. Yes, the conditions on some of Canada’s native reserves are bad, but they are the exception, not Canada’s norm.

    Cuba too had native people – the Taino – but the Spanish practiced genocide. Even prior to the Taino, there were people on the Guanahacabibes peninsula.

    It is commonplace here on HT, for the Cuban regime’s incompetence to be excused because things are as bad or even worse elsewhere.

  • Your photographs are stunning!

  • The sad reality that you reveal here, Sadiel, is the reality in too many places around the world. This could be Bosnia, Guatemala, Siberia or even Canada – yes, Canada. Poverty is everwhere and thank you for sharing your Cuba. It saddens me to see people struggling so hard to live in a world that has so much but is hoarded by so few.

  • Those actually interested in the reality of Cuba, should look at these photographs of Rosa and Papelito, their home and living conditions – which are not exceptional.

    Then take a look at the waistlines of Diaz-Canel, Marrero, Bruno Rodriguez, Raul Castro and those gathered at meetings of the Communist Party of Cuba. Look at their silk ties and neck scarfs tailored suits and ponder upon communism as it is in reality!

    “Don’t challenge the system, accept it, stay mute and exist.”

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