HAVANA, Cuba. – When I was a kid, I often ran into this bearded mulatto man, in his forties. He was well-built –he looked like a boxer- and pulled a wooden wagon filled with debris every day, at any hour of the day, up and down Calzada de Diez de Octubre, in both direction. He always wore clothes made of burlap, smoked the cigarette butts he picked up from the floor in a huge pipe, and seldom spoke a word.
People used to say that he was from Párraga; that he had been a cop during Batista’s government; that he had killed several people, and that from hiding so much and pretending to be deranged in order to escape prison or the firing squad, he had gone mad.
The last time I saw him, he no longer pulled the wooden wagon. I ran into him more than 25 years ago. He was very old and much thinner, and the other passengers kept far away from him, not out of fear but because he smelled awful.
Growing up in the neighborhood of La Víbora, I was surrounded by nuts: Violeta, Guayaba, Pela-muertos, Juana Macho, La Marquesa and La China, who claimed to be engaged in “honest work”.
Each neighborhood in Havana had its own deranged people, they were part of the landscape. The most important of them all, Caballero de París –the Gentleman from Paris- was a symbol of the city. Always dignified, dressed in black, his skin like wax, newspapers lining his chest under his three-quarter coat if it was cold; with his beard that preceded the revolutionaries’ beard, and his long, curly hair that preceded Robert Plant’s.
Caballero de París died in an asylum some years after the authorities picked him up and put him away. They cut his hair and shaved him, gave him a bath and assigned him clean clothes, prescription medication, and gave him breakfast, lunch and dinner, all at the State’s expense. There was no room for a lunatic, no matter how emblematic he was, to roam the streets in the revolutionary paradise that the rulers wanted to show off to friendly visitors.
After the Special Period debacle, no one cared any more about hiding the nuts. In fact, in Old Havana, certain crazies are conveniently dressed up as folkloric characters –they give them self-employment licenses- and make them into tourist attractions. If young prostitutes already are, why not the loonies?
A decade ago, Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco proclaimed to the rhythm of timba music that “there are a bunch of lunatics in Havana.” The thing is that, traditionally, there were always crazy people who walked the streets of the city, but not as many as one sees today.
One does not have to be a sociologist to explain the reasons for the proliferation of demented folks walking the streets: the overwhelming daily stress with which people must live, poor nutrition, shortage of medications and a long etcetera.
In the psychiatric hospitals, unless it’s a serious case or someone without relatives to take care of them, one cannot get a patient admitted. And what difference does it make, anyway, if there are no medications to prescribe the patients.
I know people who have had to purchase in the black market the pills that their hospitalized relatives need while in the Mazorra Psychiatric Hospital, because hospital authorities have told them that they do not have the medications nor do they know when they’ll get a supply.
The nuts from my childhood were pleasant, and sometime even likeable. It wouldn’t have occurred to them to be impertinent or aggressive like the ones you see today walking the sidewalks of Havana, harassing tourists or screaming on the buses already very crowded with sweaty people who are worried about their daily problems. When they aren’t screaming, they screech out old boleros –Benny Moré seems to be their favorite- or Mexican rancheras or Nelson Ned ballads.
Many of them went from being alcoholics to being demented. What’s worst: they still smell of liquor. Drinking, on top of going hungry, complicates things for deranged folks, more so if they’ve served jail time.
In recent years, there are more and more demented people asking for food handouts around restaurants. Some of them have hatred in their eyes, as if we were all guilty of what’s happening.
On Route P6, I often see an octogenarian who lives in Reparto Eléctrico. He will insist that he fought in the Sierra Maestra and is willing to die for the Revolution, and at the same time he will tell you: “I am the real American”.
It’s shocking the number of crazy people who claim that they earned military rank in the Sierra Maestra, on the Girón battle during the Bay of Pigs invasion, or in the war in Angola. Some of them claim to be close to the bosses and to have familial access to them. When people hear them, they usually say “they went crazy because of this regime.”
Also, there are many –more every day- who burst out with expletives against the regime. Sometimes I hear lunatics speak the truths loud and clear that sane people dare not speak. I don’t understand why what they say would seem funny to anyone, or annoy anyone, as if the delirious and worn-out discourse of our rulers weren’t more absurd and annoying. As if all of us weren’t, in one way or another, patients in this great insane asylum that Cuba was turned into by a bunch of lunatics with a Communist Party ID.
ARTÍCULO DE OPINIÓN
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