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Looking Into the Eyes of Cuba’s Elderly, on the Verge of Change

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“Captain,” as he is known to the community, lives alone in a tiny hut in Cienfuegos. He was once a soldier. “Although he is a loner, people in the community appreciate him,” Wagenstein says. “They provide him with food or soap and in return, he shares stories about Lenin's life or the teachings of Marx.”

Sometimes all it takes to get something started is a knock on a door—and necessity. Oded Wagenstein was walking in the rain down a side street in the Cuban town of Cienfuegos when he was seized with the urge to use the restroom. Seeing no other options, he knocked on the nearest door, using body language and the sound of water to relay his request to the elderly gentleman who answered.

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Juan Alfonso, 59, works as street sweeper. He told Wagenstein that he refuses to be excited about the changes ahead. “We all have jobs, houses, and clothing,” says Alfonso. “We even have our own version of Coca-Cola. I do not need anything.”

In what would become familiar in Wagenstein’s experience in this neighborhood, the man not only warmly invited him inside but made him a cup of coffee. During this impromptu visit, Wagenstein learned a bit about the man—“his wife had died, and he is lonely but he finds comfort in the fact that young people seek his expert help in repairing radios and turntables,” Wagenstein says.

“Because of the rain I decided to spend the rest of the day on that same street,” he continues. He learned more stories from the elderly residents who lived there, about being lonely but also about the role of their community in giving their lives purpose.

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With most homes lacking lights, front doors stay open to let in the sunshine. Onelia, 93, believes turning strangers into friends is a Cuban custom, and thus anyone passing by Onelia’s door is her potential friend. “As I was the first foreigner to enter her house,” Wagenstein says, “she mentioned that it would be so nice if others would come to visit her too.”

A week after Wagenstein returned home to Israel, President Obama announced the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, opening the door to increased tourism and economic growth. Wagenstein thought immediately of the people he met in that neighborhood and how their lives were on a course for enormous change. “There is the possibility of increased financial comfort, but a risk of losing the sense of community and common destiny that they know so well,” Wagenstein says. The combination of impending uncertainty and nascent hope for a better future—particularly among this elderly population for whom change would typically be the hardest—resonated with Wagenstein.

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A book about Lenin’s life, in the hands of “Captain,” who is also pictured at the top of this page.

Over the next year, he returned to this neighborhood several times, beefing up his rudimentary Spanish and carrying a small, illustrated dictionary that allowed him to communicate in a more meaningful way. He put down his camera and helped residents carry groceries; he listened to their stories over coffee and showed respect for their heritage. He learned how well respected the elderly are among the young people in the community, as sources of knowledge. “Almost as if they know everything,” Wagenstein notes with humor, “like a local Google.”

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Not long ago, Matido Kanzo’s wife passed away and he now lives alone in their small apartment. He rarely leaves the house except to buy food and coffee. In his building, he is known as a very talented technician. Often his neighbors come to visit him to have him fix a broken radio or a turntable.

Asked how his subjects felt about being photographed, Wagenstein says, “Most of them were very excited that they were going to ‘be on the Internet,’ which is something they only know of through stories. They want tourists to come and experience their country but not just for salsa dancing, cigars, and to see those amazing old cars—but also to share stories about their countries, family, and lives with them.”

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Hihiiano, 65 (in blue), and Michael, 68 (in yellow), were friends since childhood. When Hihiiano became sick, Michael did everything to take care of him, even giving him valuable food stamps. “Hihiiano was thrilled when his English-speaking friend told him of Obama’s declaration,” says Wagenstein, “But when I returned a few months later, Hihiiano had passed away. The government quickly gave his old apartment to someone else. The new resident never even knew who Hihiiano was.”

Wagenstein will be making his fifth trip to Cienfuegos this winter and plans to return throughout 2016. “I want to be there to witness this change,” he says. “It is already something you can sense in the street.”

Oded Wagenstein is a contributing photographer for the Israeli editions of National Geographic magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He is also a member of our Your Shot photography community. See more of his work on his website and follow his photography page on Facebook.

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