Desde Dentro de Cuba

Distribuído por Cuba Free Press, Inc. -

La Habana, July 2, 1998, Cuba Free Press.

The begging boarders or "the fellows of Paris" By Raul Rivero, Cuba Free Press

HAVANA - Cuba is entering the Twenty First Century with outstretched hand facing north toward The Morro Castle of Havana. But this is not a genteel welcome sign. This metaphoric hand holds its palm to heaven.

The hand is to receive the almost painful donations which continue to arrive, and which could range from an aspirin to a used bus. That custom of expecting someone to send something, which is about 10 years old here in our homeland, does allow the dramatic image of the previous paragraph.

So that is how, in the State of the Gardener (in reference to a Spanish saying, "The gardener's dog does not eat or let others eat"), which does not produce and does not allow others to produce, the ugly practice of begging came about, as a safety net. That is why large groups of Cubans have sought relief in the uncertain shelter of donations.

I always knew that help, as an act of solidarity, had a transient and urgent character, as needed in a disaster, an unexpected happening that surprises and devastates a family, a regime, a country.

For example,I do not believe that anyone would assume forever the maintenance of a family, the clothing of a community, the supplying of medications for a hospital or providing equipment for the transit system of a city. We would be living, if this were so, in a "do-nation" and not a nation.

The gratification of helping someone in need becomes an inconvenient and agonizing burden if it is perpetuated, becomes extended and mandatory. What once was a clear human value activity becomes, at least in Cuba's case, a humiliating process, which reaches out to the receiver as well as the provider.

A physician friend told me, "At times I feel a strange restlessness when I go home to Guanabacoa in a bus which haslarge letters on its side saying, `Donation of such and such municipality of Andalucia to the people of Havana.' It may be because I am proud."

I do not know if this doctor is proud. I do know nevertheless, that the state's line of waiting for donation miracles has reached unbelievable levels, and has taken roots and also now lives in the population.

The majority of Cubans only ask for medicines. Almost any Cuban will ask a traveling friend, a foreigner, even an unknown foreigner for a remedy needed for a family member. To ask for anything else is harder, although I believe that some sectors of our society are now accustomed to expect that their family members abroad or some institution in Holland or Sweden will send them something to survive.

For some groups, especially in the areas where there is no dollar--which is most of Cuba--to survive without the money from Miami, or from donated clothes and medicines is impossible. There also is a smaller and more localized human group, the beggars. These have been growing in numbers and are now part of Cuban folklore. It can be said of those places in La Habana where sales are made in foreign currency that they each now have their assigned beggar.

Cuba is one of the few countries that brags of a beggar: "El Caballero de Paris" (The Gentleman from Paris), forever branded in our popular memory and culture. That deranged gentleman never asked for anything during his long pilgrimage through the "gateways of Havana" but everyone knew he had to be given food and clothing and shelter in order to survive. And he survived for years.

The heirs of the Caballero, expelled from the workers' paradise with the big boom of the collapse of the socialist world, have become more demanding. Some, when they fail to receive the gift (donation), will insult the customer, the employee or the passer-by. A sort of "alms-by-force" attitude caused by an egalitarian speech, heard over the past 40 years, and that now--in the strange social universe in which it lives and dies--provokes in the individual a formidable wasting of spirit.

In Old Havana, in the community known as Vedado or in Miramar or in other parts of the capital, those men and women who search garbage cans are now familiar. They also approach the tables, they make up sad stories of sick family members or long trips to the provinces to pay their respect to the dead. Some are demented and some have all their senses; all dress in shreds. They are locked in their world of hunger and delirium. Without understanding what is happening, they ask something from someone, though this someone does not know much either.

These are the heirs of the gentleman of Paris who spent his life in Havana and now rests in the Santiago de las Vegas cemetery. It is the saga of El Caballero. The people simply call them the Fellows of Paris.

Raúl Rivero, Cuba Free Press.

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