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Castro’s Forgotten / Ivan Garcia

September 26, 2015 Leave a comment

Mendigos-habaneros-foto-de-Juan-A-2-_ab-620x330When he is lucid, Dubiel has a photographic memory. Almost thirty years after the fact, he still remembers the names of remote villages in the Angolan jungle and can tell stories about a civil war there in which more than 300,000 Cuban soldiers and reservists were involved between 1975 and 1991.

Dubiel came back traumatized. It had been very hard seeing the bodies of comrades flying through the air from land mines and dealing with the deaths fellow soldiers whom he had befriended in the trenches.

For awhile, he received psychiatric treatment and tried to adapt to civilian life. It did little to help. Alcohol and psychotropic drugs got the better of him. He became disoriented and was soon overcome by mental illness.

A human wreck, he was abandoned his family. He survives by collecting empty beer and soda cans, which are later sold as scrap. At night he sleeps wherever he can.

Smelly and hungry, he wanders the streets of La Vibora with a jute sack over his shoulders full of empty cans. When he last saw himself in a mirror, it frightened him.

“I was a good looking guy. I was headed to university and had girlfriends. The war in Angola made me crazy. If I could, I would sue the government, which I blame for my situation. There are men like me all over the country. Thrown away and forgotten. At this point I don’t care. All I want to  do is die, the sooner the better,” he says while taking a swig of harsh, cheap alcohol.

Dubiel is one of 436,000 elderly men and women in Cuba — 18.3% of the population in Cuba is over the age of sixty — in need of social services. The authorities have been unable to come up with a coherent strategy for stemming the increase in begging in the country.

In the case of Havana, the regime’s response has been to round them up before big events (such as a visit by the pope or a foreign head-of-state) and take them to an internment camp south of the city, where they are bathed with high-pressure hoses and given two meals a day

After a few days they return to once again resume their lives on the street. It was not always this way. In the 1980s it was rare to see beggars and the mentally ill sleeping under covered walkways, but actions by the Castro brothers before that led to the socialization of poverty.

Social security suddenly dried up when the state lost the generous subsidies it had been receiving from the Soviet Union. By the spring of 2015 the number of beggars and destitute retirees supporting themselves by panhandling, or selling newspapers and old clothes had greatly increased.

They are the big losers from General Raul Castro’s tepid reforms. While the world’s press was praising cosmetic changes and focusing its attention on a glamorous handful of private businesses, the elderly and homeless were being forgotten.

After forty years working as an assistant bricklayer, Lazaro — a man all skin and bones — receives a pension of 193 pesos (about eight dollars) a month. After his family kicked him out of the house, he showed up one afternoon in 2014 at a dilapidated state-run nursing home, looking for shelter.

“They told me it was not an emergency, that I should go to the police and file a complaint against my family. They said that, if I tried move into a nursing home, I would have to pay 200 pesos a month starting January 2015. My pension is less than half that. If you want to move to a church-run nursing home, you have to turn over your house, and I don’t have one. For half a century everything was the property of the state, whether we liked it or not. Now with Raul Castro we are pariahs,” says Lazaro.

Near the corner of Prado and Neptune streets — where the cha-cha-cha was born — collective taxi drivers hawk their services and clueless tourists take selfies amid the ruins. Meanwhile, a bearded old man — barefoot and dirty — sleeps on a marble bench.

“He’s from a province in the east,” says a resident of Colon, as the neighborhood is known. “He often sleeps here or near the Malecon. He eats leftovers from garbage bins and barely speaks. They call him ’the Galician.’ It’s said he was in the Angolan war. I don’t think he gets anything from Social Security.”

Fleeing poverty and a bleak future in old sugar plantations and impoverished villages of the east, thousands of people move to Havana in hopes of improving their luck.

On April 22, 1997 a segregationist law, #217, went into effect which turned people from eastern Cuba into pariahs. Faced police harassment, they erected cardboard and aluminum shacks on the outskirts of the city.

They are pockets of extreme poverty, filthy slums with no sewage or electricity. “Many of the elderly and people living on the street — those who beg or get drunk — come from the eastern part of the island. Since they are here illegally, they have no rights. They are the people who have it worst,” says a social worker.

The regime has slashed spending on social assistance. The policy now is to help only those citizens whom institutions can prove are truly in need.

The problem with this approach is that thousands of elderly and needy end up not being classified by official decree. People like Dubiel, a former “dog of war” in Angola.

Photo from Juan Antonio Madrazo Luna taken from Los mendigos negros de La Habana.

Many Cubans Were Indifferent to the Pope’s Visit / Ivan Garcia

September 26, 2015 1 comment

El-Papa-con-el-Che-de-fondo-_ab-620x330Ivan Garcia, 24 September 2015 — The best news for Celestino Cabrera, retiree, who lives in a neighborhood of low-rise houses and steep streets, was the arrival of half a kilogram of chicken per person at his area butcher shop.

“For a week now we’ve been waiting for the ration-book chicken. Lots of Pope, but zero grub,” he says with a smile while waiting in line at a ramshackle meatmarket on Font Street, in Lawton, 35 minutes from the center of Havana.

Throughout 40 years, Cabrera worked at stowing bags of sugar and wheat flour at the Havana port. His meager pension of 243 Cuban pesos (around 9 dollars) per month is just enough to purchase seven pounds of rice, five pounds of surgar, and the 20 ounces of beans that the State provides monthly via the ration book, a few vegetables, and with the rest of the money, he pays his electric bill.

To earn a few more dollars, Celestino watches cars at a farmers market adjacent to the Virgen del Camino, at a central crossroads in the San Miguel del Padrón municipality.

For Cabrera, Pope Bergoglio is a distant guy. “The Catholic Church in Cuba is a white thing. My grandparents were kids of Haitians. The religions I knew were Ñañiguism, Palo, and Santería. I respect the Pope, but his sermons are not my sermons.”

Very nearby Celestino’s apartment lives Berta Soler, leader of a faction of the Ladies in White. Every Sunday for the last five months and a half, after Mass at Santa Rita of Cascia church in the elegant Miramar neighborhood west of the capital, Soler, a woman of warm character and voice, along with three dozen other women, hoist placards demanding democracy and an amnesty law for more than 60 political prisoneres.

One wing of the Cuban opposition disagrees with the path taken by the national Church. The new scenario after 17-D*, negotiations with the US, and the goodwill between the regime and the Vatican, have not produced a democratic opening in Cuba, not even the recognition of and tolerance for differences.

Antonio Rodiles, director of Estado de SATS and member of the Forum for Rights and Freedoms, says that “at times one has the impression that a sector of the dissidence is conservative or extremist. But what it’s really about is the future of a nation which, from the way events are unfolding, is heading towards a neo-Castroism, pure and simple.”

For Rodiles, the Pope’s homilies on the Island “have been rather gray in comparison to John Paul II’s Masses during his visit in January, 1998–and in particular to those words from the then-Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Msgr. Pedro Meurice.”

When speaking with the people who breakfast on coffee without milk and have only one meal per day, reactions to the visit by the Bishop of Rome fluctuate between indifference and curiosity. Few have any hopes and nobody expects that after his trip there will be a miracle.

If Francis’s Masses in Havana, Holguín and Santiago de Cuba were, for Catholics, messages that have invigorated and reaffirmed their faith, among other religious denominations the Pope was seen as a colonizer and intruder.

Right on the corner of Calzada de 10 de Octubre and Acosta streets stands a evangelical temple. When you ask the faithful their evaluation of the presence of His Holiness in Cuba, you will hear countless reproaches of the Vatican and the Supreme Pontiff.

“The Vatican and the Popes have corrupted religion. It is a marketing technique that counts on the endorsement of the world centers of power. History records the atrocities committed by Catholics in the name of God,” declares Luis Omar, evangelical pastor.

Oneida, a Jehovah’s Witness, traverses dozens of kilometers every morning, preaching her faith from door to door. “The government and the Vatican are on a honeymoon. The regime opens the door only to those religions that do not criticize the state of things,” she said.

Masons, paleros, santeros and abakuás, among other sects with many followers on the Island (about 70 per cent of the population profess syncretic or Afro-Cuban worship) also feel like they are not heard by the Holy Father.

“Up to now, the Vatican and the national Catholic Church have not demonstrated the slightest interest in meeting with the Afro-Cuban denominations. More than a slight, it exemplifies the typical racist supremacy of Catholicsm,” Nivaldo, a palero, pointed out.

Pablo Ordaz, special envoy of El País newspaper, observed that Francis did not transmit any message that was critical of the Castros, and avoided making pronouncements that would irritate the brothers from Birán [hometown of Fidel and Raúl Castro]. Ordaz recalled that John Paul II in 1998, and Benedict XVI in 2012, issued calls for political change in Cuba.

The official media did not publish even one line that veered from the Pope’s preachings. As flattering as they were, the articles by the state journalists were cloying and hardly believable. Even followers of the olive-green autocracy, such as Aleida Guevara–daughter of the Argentine Ernesto Guevara–who showed her differences with the government, for calling members of the Communist Party to the Holy Father’s masses.

And on Sunday, 20 September, while His Holiness preached his homily on the Plaza of the Revolution, to his left the image of Che on the facade of the Ministry of the Interior turned into a mute spectator of the weird scene.

The guerrilla fighter, countryman of Bergoglio, devoted Communist and one allergic to religion, must have been turning in his grave.

Photo taken from BBC World: The Pope arriving at a Mass on the Plaza of the Revolution, Sunday, 20 September. On one side, the image of Che that since 8 October 1993 has adorned the exterior wall of the Ministry of the Interior, the agency that runs the National Revolutionary Police and the Department of State Security, among other forces dedicated to vigilance and repression. The work, made of black cast steel, was created by the painter and sculptor Enrique Ávila González (Havana, 1952).

*Translator’s note: “17-D” is Cuban shorthand for 17 December 2014, the day Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced plans to restore relations between their two countries.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison