Desde Dentro de Cuba.

Distribuido por Cuba Free Press, Inc. -

April 9, 1999.

ONE OF THE FACES OF POVERTY IN CUBA By Ariel Tapia, Cuba Free Press (as translated by a volunteer).

HAVANA - In a pathetic bedroom, minimal in dimensions and maximal in shortages, the dweller gets up from bed to wet her lips with a sip of coffee. She sits up on the improvised bed, holding her chin with her hand. Her glance wanders over the jugs, the frying pan and the three saucepans, the equipment that she uses to tackle the most distressing moments of her life: The time to cook.

Fidelina Sánchez, 74,is a widow, beneficiary of 52 Cuban pesos a month as a social security allowance and suffering from a nervous illness. She is a woman with long limbs, a wide build and a hairdo she has used for years. Everybody knows her in Montejo, a very humble suburb in the municipality of Arroyo Naranjo in the City of Havana province.

In the five-decades-old cabinet, she saves the evidence of her fame: A voluminous medical record from her time at the Mazorra Psychiatric Hospital.

Fidelina is a woman given to practical matters but she also is a stoic record keeper. And she may be one of the few human beings on the island who is able to survive the month on the quota of supplies that the Cuban state distributes: Six pounds of rice, six pounds of sugar, a few ounces of split peas and coffee (when available), a kilogram of Cerelac (a weird milk substitute available for people over 65 years of age), and, very sporadically, microscopic rations of imitation ground beef made of soybeans or meat or meat-related products of abominable taste and nearly unpronounceable names. That is what the Cuban communist government provides.

"In the mornings," says Fidelina, "I prepare half a glass of Cerelac, a little watered down, so that it can last me the entire month. Then I go out to see what has come to the market. I do favors and I run chores for the neighbors, who are the ones who save me by giving me a little bit of rice and beans or some other stuff. Of course, that does not happen every day."

When the old woman does not get lucky she skips one of the daily meals.

"The face of hunger is uglier than mine. I know that face. And that is why I get stirred up when I see the image of those people in Kosovo. I almost feel like crying," she says.

Fidelina has no family in Miami that can help her. "Correction, I do. The problem is that I became estranged from them a long time ago because I was a 'come-candela' (a 'fire-eater,' a contemporary Cuban slang term meaning 'militant believer, activist, supporter and follower of Castro's revolution and doctrines'). I broke up the relationship. Therefore it is now as if I did not have any family."

Three or four years ago she used to sell the package of cigarettes and the bottle of rum assigned to her by the ration booklet. But the authorities eventually issued an order to stop the selling of those products from rationing, which caused hardships to many old people like her. That cut out one of their main alternative means for subsistence. If the numbers of old people who are indigent, hungry and on the verge of despair were to be totaled and published, they would show a terrifying landscape. There are legions of them left outside the government's geriatric care projects. They go on with their lives by walking from home to the street corners and back, selling anything they find, generally moving along with empty stomachs.

On certain occasions when her guts sing that intolerable stomach tune, the poor woman can no longer resist and buys a couple of fritters and a soft drink. But to spend three pesos in just one day is madness. Her average daily spending cannot exceed two pesos. Most every month, when she runs out of money, she resells part of the kerosene ration sold to her at the store, or exchanges it for eggs - the only protein that she eats with certain frequency. In this way and before the month is out, she runs out of cooking fuel and has to resort to public charity.

Although Cubans are prone to solidarity, Fidelina has made herself some enemies in the neighborhood. It happens that, in spite of her depressing poverty, she is, according to her own statements, "communist, 'Fidelista' (pro-Fidel), revolutionary, and as many titles as might exist to call myself a follower of the Cuban regime."

Any curious bystander, once recovered from the shock of overhearing this, will be able to discover after the most minimal investigation that all the "revolutionary devotion" of the old woman is limited to an exaggerated fondness for some specific members of the ruling communist elite.

A neighbor, blinking one eye and drawing an imaginary circle with the tip of his index finger around his ear explains that Fidelina's problem is an emotional imbalance. "I think it comes from all the hunger she endures," the neighbor says.

In her moments of greatest distress as during one of those evenings when it has been impossible to find a single morsel of food, Fidelina utters uninvited to the first person she encounters a crazy inconceivably long discussion that does not make any sense. There is a recurring sexual theme in these utterances, the motive of which is not known to anyone.

But the truth is that in those instances she is squabbling with, for example, the country's chancellor, Roberto Robaina, whom she considers to be a "savory macho man." But, more amazing still, she also quarrels by herself with the first secretary of the Communist Party in Havana, Esteban Lazo, whom her fantasy has transformed into a seductive and appetizing "dark Caribbean heartthrob."

There is no room for doubts, of course, that Fidelina is raving mad, the poor thing. Yet her poverty is nobody's concern. She has sent letters to the Central committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, asking for an interview. But they never respond. The same lack of concern about her is shown by the Russians, to whom she also sends some of her letters, in which she asks for at least a donation of a coloring for clothing. A little donation, she would say, to give a little color to the faded pieces of clothing that she owns.

Too much reality is something that Señora Fidelina cannot stand even though she tells herself, in her scarce moments of lucidity, that she ought to be practical. That is why she borrows, when she can, a romantic tabloid she has leafed through hundreds of time without ever tiring of it. The full color pictures stretching across the centerfold draw out of her soul and her toothless mouth a prolonged sigh: "God, who wouldn't be Monica Lewinsky!"

Ariel Tapia, Cuba Free Press.

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