Desde Dentro de Cuba.

Distribuido por Cuba Free Press, Inc. -

November 17, 1998, Cuba Free Press. >


HAVANA - Here in Cuba the "special period" of austerity is a variant of war but without the thunder of the canons. In its eight years of existence an entire generation of children of the street, violent and audacious. For them, thievery, prostitution and drugs have been a substitute for the toys they never get.

Almost typical is José Antonio Fernández, age 12, known throughout his neighborhood as Joey or "The Mister," who survives in the worst and most feared area of Old Havana known as Columbus (Colon). He's in the vanguard of criminality, attacks on tourists, consumption of drugs and child prostitution.

He was born there and barely knew his mother, who escaped to the United States on a raft in 1994. He never knew who his father was; his mother really could not have told him which one was his father with any certainty. His mother, of mixed races, was voluptuous and beautiful.

"She was one of the best street women in Columbus," her son says with irony. "They called her Martiza Battalion because of the quantity of men she slept with! They liked her just as much as their beer," he added with a crooked maybe bitter smile.


Joey has never heard from his mother, only rumors about her. Some say she was killed in New York City in a crime of passion. Others are sure she died of AIDs. Joey doesn't really care. He doesn't know what it is to love someone.

"I hate my family," he says. "They've always used and mistreated me." His head hangs soberly. "If I had my way, I'd kill them all," he says, while his adolescent hands simulate the flutter of a machinegun.

At age 5, Joey moved about on his own throughout the neighborhood. He concentrated on playing baseball in the alleys or back lots. In August 1994, when the uprising happened along the Malecon - the seawall avenue - he was eight and threw stones to break windows of the stores that sold things for U.S. dollars. He did it "to steal a little clothing," he explains.

At that time, he lived either with his uncles or maternal grandparents. But usually he didn't go to their places; he slept in the street. He felt bad because being watchful kept him from sleeping well.

At nine, this child-man tried marijuana. At 10, with an 18-year-old cousin who had been a prostitute since she was 15, he took part in a child pornography film and was paid $100 by some foreigners who were sexual perverts.

"That was the first time I had a 'big head bill' in my hands," he says, referring to the hundred-dollar bill. I thought I'd spend it little by little. But when I went into one of those dollar stordes, I came out without a penny. But I had a plastic sack full of clothes, shoes and chocolates!"

Joey didn't value money much then. "Those were just pieces of paper with pictures of men on them."

At age 11, he stopped going to school completely. Until then he had gone sporadically.

Now it's different. He becomes a real person when he has dollars. He's "Mister Joe," so now his only ambition is to get dollars so he can eat, live and dress decently. To obtain 'silver' he has done everything. He has sold cigars, washed cars, begged, accosted men and women and assaulted foreign tourists.


Nobody who talks with him could imagine that every assault he carries out earns him at least $200 to $300. "I work alone just to be able to stuff my billfold." Often he uses a bicycle so as to speed up his operation. His modus operandus is simple. He hangs around the seawall street or the palace plaza or the Cathedral until he selects a victim. He approaches to tell the victims that he knows where to buy some special bargains and when they are shopping with him confidently, he suddenly grabs their purse or camera and begins running.

"I've done that many times," he says. "I had a fence that paid me $50 for every Nikon or Canon."

Despite his age, Joey allied himself with an older drug vendor and the two of them rented a room. "We brought girls to our room to clean up and wash our clothes," he says. "We ate in private restaurants; we lived well."

Until one day: Joey acquired the habit of consuming crack, a variant of cocaine, yet he didn't realize that his room companion kept drugs in the house. One night Joey found himself in circumstances like those in the class B movies he liked to watch. A couple policemen pounced on the place, uncovered the drugs and took Joey and his buddy, age 19, off to jail. His companion was a part of the Havana underworld known as "the cartel."

Being a minor, Joey was sent off to a reformatory for minors. He quickly adapted to living with the other kids of the street, like himself, who had never finished school and didn't know who their parents were. But Joey misses his old neighborhood. He would like to change, he says, but believes he can't.

"How can I make a living?" he asks. "I can't get used to not having money and I don't like to study."

Joey knows he will be released when the authorities believe he has changed his conduct. "For that reason," he confides, "I pretend to be sorry and repentant, to see how soon I can get back on the street."

Iván García, Cuba Free Press.

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