Havana, Cuba – It’s one of the most beautiful places on the planet – but it also has a sobering dark side.
While Presidents Rahul Castro and Barack Obama met on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama after decades of hostilities, the Cuban people continue to bear the brunt of the long-gone Cold War battle.
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Incredible stories about Cuba’s renowned health care system – free to all – abound here. People whose lives were saved by makeshift medical devices and ad hoc drug prescriptions, the only way to go for Cuban physicians long waylaid by an economic embargo that robs them of vital equipment and medicine to save lives.
But it was a story told by a young couple in Old Havana that clarified the depth of poverty and hopelessness that pervades this idyllic Caribbean island – one that should in no way be desperately impoverished.
Walking through crumbling buildings and neglected walkways, we met a couple working the streets. A tall and thin dark-skinned man approached after seeing us with cameras and notepads. His partner, a woman several years older, strolled up at his side.
“Where are your from amigo?” he asked, soon after approaching another stranger who brushed him off.
“I’m from Canada,” I replied, shaking his outstretched hand, knowing the play I’d fallen into but deciding to see where it led.
“Come with me to a bar down the street, I’m happy to answer any questions you may have,” he said.
After a short walk, we climbed a tight stairway with apprehension, eager to see what awaited at the top. Despite concerns, it turned out to be a comfortable, air-conditioned bar completely empty except for a patron at the wood on a stool and a plump young waitress with a lively round face.
What unfolded was a shocking talk about desperate poverty, the horrors of which most people reading this could never fathom.
Four of us sitting at a round table, the taut – Miguel Lopez Barrera – described himself as a construction worker who made about $10 a month. It was obvious, if true, that his side job was luring gringos like me into bars like this – likely doubling his regular monthly salary.
We ordered up some mojitos and got to talking.
Barrera, 29, wasn’t holding any punches against those he blames for putting him in this sad economic state.
“You don’t know how many people have killed themselves because they don’t know what else to do,” he said, his partner with sad eyes nodding in agreement.
The couple has 3-year-old girl at home to support. But with his meagre salary and her $5 per month wage from teaching salsa lessons, the means fail miserably to meet the ends.
Milk for their daughter is $12 a month, leaving them $3 from their combined salaries to pay all other expenses. Their desperation was apparent on both their faces.
“After all these decades of the US and Cuba fighting in each other and the suffering we’ve endured because of it – why now for normalising ties?” Barrera said bitterly.
“Please tell me how we are supposed to survive on this income.”
Amid handshakes and photo-ops in Panama City, perhaps Castro and Obama should provide an answer to Barrera, and the many other Cubans in similar dire situations.