Living (if you can call it that lately) as the elderly in Cuba is getting harder and harder – hell, living as a young Cuban isn’t much better at times. We saw that especially with our recent visit to the Lung Kong Society in Havana last month. It’s been getting noticeably harder and harder for people in Cuba’s economy over the past few years, and it’s getting more and more noticeable every time I / we go down. And so, I have a video to share here.
One of the people I enjoy meeting up with is Nino, who invited us in with the Lung Kong visits (previously and this past trip). Nino put up his own report on our recent Lung Kong group visit, with some great pics from fellow Canadian traveller John Reiner. This support to Lung Kong is close to Nino’s heart as a fellow elderly person (sorry Nino – had to get that one in there! LOL.) While I may joke with that, his passion has rubbed off on many of us, and re-kindled our own desires to help. For example – the effort is close to Tom’s and Edward’s hearts; I began missionary work and volunteering in high school in the mid-90’s, and I have lost so many of my elders lately (only 1 grandparent remaining); so many others just have an urge to help.
Sometimes, turning around a new-to-us street corner in Cuba gives you a proverbial bitch-slap-in-the-face. Here we are, a bunch of privileged foreigners, on a trip to indulge in cigars, rum, and food at restaurants that most Cubans can’t even dream of eating at, and then we run into the sometimes-hard-to-comprehend realities of modern life in Cuba. You see it everywhere, that the disparities in modern Cuba illustrate the gross realities of the “haves” and “have-nots”. Those that have access to tourist dollars – be it through the cigar industry, hotels and tourism, nightclubs, prostitution, etc. – have a good standard of living, supplementing their monthly “allotments” from the State, and hopefully are sourcing enough additional revenue to help support the rest of their family. Sometimes, families that don’t have access to this are left on the sidelines, living in near- or abject-poverty, while the State is becoming more and more powerless to assist (for various political and economic factors that I’m not going to delve into here). Unfortunately, sometimes these elderly people are left on the sidelines.
And yet, all of them, the Cuban people as a whole, have this bittersweet zest for life that infects us all, and continues to pull us back. They have this heartwarming openness that makes us all feel like long-lost members of a larger family, gladly welcomed home.
A while ago, Nino shared with me a documentary made in 2011 about life for the elderly and pensioners in Cuba. The reality they face is living off of about 200 Cuban pesos a month (not CUC’s, but CUP’s) – that’s only about $8 US currently! From grocery store staff, to former commanders in Castro’s revolution, they get pennies a day to survive. Not enough money to pay the bills at least. The video, called “At The End of The Road” can be found here, in Spanish but subtitled in English:
Not much has changed since the making of that video. In fact, it’s my understanding and observations that things have progressively got worse. Prices get higher. In-demand items are harder to obtain. Salaries/pensions stay the same. Tourism (a huge source of generalized income across the nation) continues to wax and wane in the post-2008-recession world.
Hopefully this video will help illustrate some abject realities of modern Cuban life to those new to Cuba, either thinking about travelling there for a first time, or going back and staying away from all the resort and cigar festival hub-bub. That’s why many of us, when we can, overload our luggage with gifts and donations for whomever we can (careful – donations is a dirty word to Cuban customs!)
If you go down, don’t bring the pencil crayons and toiletries and such for your maids. While that’s a nice gesture, it’s not what’s most needed – everyone brings that stuff. Do something different. Bring a nice bottle of wine or two, step out of the resorts, and give it to someone who you know likely hasn’t had a drop of a nice libation in a year or more. Bring some cooking or baking goods, and give it to someone in need (I love to bring maple syrup, cliche I know, and Aunt Jemima’s just-add-water pancake mix). Bring a horde of chocolates or candies, little everyday-to-us delicacies, and donate it to an overlooked school to use as treats / rewards for the students (mini Mars bars or Cadbury Creme Eggs, Canadian-centric goodies that are certified nut-free are good ideas). Bring some everyday items, and give it to a social club or a church group. Bring car parts, bicycle tires, OTC medicines, home reno items. Since we’re all linked through cigars, visit a finca, visit the countryside (something I admit I don’t do enough), get out of the resorts and such – tip well when out in these outlying areas, as sometimes the financial support doesn’t flow too well outside of Varadero and Havana.
It’s a flawed system, no doubt about that. The Cuban government has to figure out a solution. And no one says that what myself or others are doing is the right measure anyways. But in the meantime, we can do what we can.