BENITO Martínez Abogán, apparently the oldest man in the world, lives in Cuba. He was born in Haiti on June 19, 1880, and has lived through the end and beginning of two millennia.
He lived his childhood and adolescence during the19th century; part of his youth and old age in the 20th century, and now he’s ready to “give it all he’s got” for the 21st century. He loves his nickname, Avión (Airplane), because he was always so speedy working in the fields, and because, as he says: “There’s no other man who’s come as far as I have.” He enjoys conversation, although he was brief with us on this occasion, given that he was rushing to get ready for a cockfight. “That’s not permitted,” I told him, and he fiercely defended himself.
What else do you enjoy doing?
“That’s not something you ask a man: women, girls…women! I had a woman here and another in my bohío, but I never got married… That’s something I have to think about.”
I comment, “They tell me you spend time at the retirement home with a girlfriend you found there, and that sometimes you go out into the country, but I know what you do out there is witchcraft, Avión…”
He laughs, his eyes sparkling, and replies, “It’s not witchcraft, you’re wrong, that’s my religion; I throw little stones and know about things, and predict the future.”
It’s probably voodoo that he practices, and I’m thinking that when he surprises me by speaking in Creole, his native language, which he has never forgotten. “I already told you,” he said. “If you don’t understand what I’m saying, too bad… I speak Cuban, Spanish and my people’s language.” Ah, he’s trilingual.
Avión is definitely laughing at me; meanwhile he is defying Methuselah – the Biblical character who died at the age of 979 – and the 120 Years Club, and asks for Dr. Selman, who leads the club, to change its name: “Put mine instead. I’m already 125 years old, and nothing hurts, not even a callous…well, my ankle hurts, but the doctor gives me a little medicine and Avión is all better… I keep fighting cocks, and I always win…and I celebrate everything with two shots of rum and smoke a cigar, and that’s it… I don’t smoke any more, or drink any more until the next fight.”
Just as so many Haitians have done through the centuries, Benito Martínez Abogán left his native land for Cuba in 1925, carrying a bundle of clothes, misery and illiteracy. He was born on a Monday, at 4 a.m. in the mountains of Caballón, the same day that one of his sisters died of hunger. The year, month and day of his birth are recorded on his ID showing him to be a permanent resident of Cuba, and he adds, “I am the son of Negrita and Somín. My last name is Abogán, but here people gave me the surname Martínez and called me Avión, because I work fast, like a plane flies.”
Ever since his arrival in eastern Cuba, with hoe and machete in hand, he worked from sunup to sundown in the sugarcane fields. For a brief time he worked on the farm of Angel Castro, in Birán, when Fidel had not yet been born. “I left because Angel was stingy.” He then began a long journey, barefoot, until he settled down definitively in Ciego de Avila, a central Cuban province. The first job he had there was digging a ditch one meter deep, with pick and shovel, as the beginning of construction on the Central Highway for a miserable wage. “That was under Machado, a very bad president; I don’t want to remember anything about him. I had to live all alone in the mountains; I didn’t known how to read or write and had to cure myself with herbs because I couldn’t pay for a doctor. I love Fidel, who sends doctors for free to Haiti to care for the poor, and that’s why I light a candle to Santa Barbara and pray every night for Fidel’s health, and for her to protect him.”
Outside the city, right on La Gloria farm in the rural community of Vila, close to the town of Vicente and a cooperative, Avión has his two homes. One is his old, humble hut, in which I suppose he has his bundle of mysteries hidden away; nearby is his new one, built of cement and plaster, where he has the basic comforts of modern life, which the provincial government gave to him in usufruct. Both houses may be reached by a winding road that goes through a forest of mango, avocado, orange, lemon, coconut and cherry trees that he himself planted years ago. He also planted for his own consumption sweet potato, plantain, arrowroot, malanga, coffee (he is an avid coffee drinker), rice, and various vegetables, along with medicinal herbs, “for curing myself with holy herbs, liana, honey and lemon, and it gets rid of my cough and everything else.”
He raises pigs in one yard and chickens in another. In his garden, the mariposa flowers and night jasmine perfume my friend’s paradisiacal home: “I don’t cook anymore, because I only know how to do it with charcoal and firewood… I don’t know how to cook the modern way.” His home is now cared for by an employee of the municipal government.
All of his life, until very recently, he went barefoot, “but now I put shoes on to visit the retirement home, to go out and take them off in the hut, to talk to people who come here from Havana.” He never married, and has no children or other family members in Cuba.
He no longer has the rows of white, healthy teeth that he had 10 years ago. But his strength and lucidity are still amazing. Once in a while, he uses a cane for walking, but if it’s a matter of escaping from the retirement home to go dance during carnival time, “I leave the cane hidden under my bed,” he says. He doesn’t need eyeglasses, either, and is not hard of hearing like many 100-year-olds are; he displays an enigmatic longevity that has left almost no traces on his skin – his face is barely wrinkled. He is an extraordinarily nice and joyful man.
Except for this Haitian-Cuban, I have never known anybody else to wear such a perennial smile, and such a mischievous and noble expression. When I asked him the secret of his longevity and the source of his health, he described the poverty that surrounded his long life, for more than a century, which forced him to live as a vegetarian in the mountains, far from the noise and stress of the city. And regarding his pleasant personality: “I get along well with everybody,” which has made it possible for him “not to have any enemies and to be happy here.” He eats just a little bit of white and dark meat: “pork is what I eat the most, and I plant arrowroot, which is good for young and old, ñame (a type of malanga), malanga, squash; all kinds of salad and lots of fruit, that’s what I eat.” However, he attributes his strong physical and mental health to the joy of living that has always accompanied him. I recall having read the Chinese sages of ancient times aspired to longevity by leading tranquil, healthy and happy lives with the holy recipe of laughing 100 times a day, something that Avión knows how to do very well: “I’m happy, and I don’t get angry.”
The Ciego de Avila resident, who is older than Schigechigo Izumi of Japan – who lived to be 120 years and 237 days and was registered in the Guinness Book of Records – has three wishes: “They’re more or less fulfilled, but I still have not gone to my homeland Haiti. I would like to go and come back to Cuba; the mattress Fidel sent is small, too small for me and a woman; and I still haven’t seen Fidel, my friend, in person.” I ask him why he says Fidel is his friend if he never met him. “You don’t understand. He sends a doctor for me, a mattress; he had them build a new house for me, with a television, refrigerator and a lady who takes care of the house, who cleans, cooks and takes care of me…Fidel is Avión’s friend, he knows about me and has Avión looked after, but I would like to thank him in person.”
Three doctors at the Camilo Cienfuegos Geriatrics Complex in Ciego de Avila look after Benito Martínez Abogán’s health, and believe that one day that human treasure should be entered in the Guinness Book of Records, a matter that depends on a scientific test to give precise evidence of his age, and a resource they don’t have in that province. They are Doctors Noel López Viamontes, first-grade specialist in general comprehensive medicine, with a degree in geriatrics; Héctor Reboredo Rodríguez, first-grade specialist in geriatrics and gerontology and head of the provincial health authority’s Older Adult and Social Assistance Department; and Armando Falcón, geriatrist and specialist in alternative medicines like acupuncture, and a scholar of traditional Chinese medicine.
How much of this centarian’s story is true?
Dr. Reboredo Rodríguez responds: “There is no doubt about his good genetic heredity, and the isolated conditions under which he has lived a good part of his life – bucolic, far from stress and pollution, where he himself harvested produce and lived as a vegetarian – has an influence on his current good health. Sometimes he eats pork and pork fat. He drinks alcohol, but just a little bit, during festive or ritual events; he drinks coffee and he doesn’t smoke. I have never seen him depressed. He always works very hard, a lot, and under the sun.
How is his health?
“Right now his health is good. He suffers from heart failure, which is under strict medical treatment, and has never shown symptoms of pneumonia. When I discovered him, during a census to find out how many centenarians lived in Ciego, we found that he had curvature of the spine, an inguinal left hernia and malformation of the feet after having gone barefoot for more than 100 years. But Noel is the one who can tell you more about Benito’s current state of health, given he is the one who directly attends to him.”
“To sum up, I would say that we are in the presence of a centenarian with biological wellbeing. We provide for him a program of medical and painstaking attention, which means it is very possible that he will continue to live with the same quality as the present. Avión is an example for other elderly people in the country and in the world, given that he himself created a healthy lifestyle and correct habits: that’s where his satisfactory longevity comes from. And, of course, he has simple irritations like stomach problems, given that he himself knows which medicinal plant to use.”
Dr. Falcón adds, in that respect, “I’ve noticed that with the moxa or Artemisa plant (a small cigar used in traditional Chinese medicine that tones up, and removes humidity and cold), he relieves his rheumatic pains; I also provide him with acupuncture and with very good results, especially on his ankles, as well as massages, infra-red, etcetera. Avión says that the medicine and little cigar are wonder cures.”
Is he more than 120 years old?
“According to his immigration documents, he is now 125. But the scientific test to prove that is not possible here in Ciego. Likewise, we suggest that an investigation should be done involving doctors who collaborate with us, in Haiti, in his birthplace, where perhaps the descendant of a brother or sister of his still lives, or a document or book could turn up that would answer any doubts. Somewhere in Haiti, there must be a record of his departure for Cuba in 1925, his date of birth and other identification information.”
Nevertheless, the respectful scientific manner and the caution not to offer an exact date implies that these doctors are convinced that this Haitian-Cuba is the oldest man in Cuba and perhaps in the world, as my colleague, Joaquín Oramas, stated in the last February 2005 edition of Granma International, in an article titled “Unprecedented Gathering of Centenarians,” an international event held in Havana sponsored by the 120 Years Club, a member of the Caribbean Medical Association directed by Doctor Eugenio Selman-Housein.
The Cuban population reached 11,241,291 on October 12, 2005 (and more than 2,500 are centenarians). Men comprise 50.03%, just a little more than women, who make up 49.97%, and life expectancy is 77 years. The average age is 35.1 years. Eighty percent of those who currently live on the island die when they are older than 60. A study carried out on a group of Cuban centenarians shows that 80% of them have never smoked, and the majority have not consumed alcoholic drinks. Likewise, the Cuban population could be the oldest in Latin America by 2025, with more than 25% of Cubans over 60 years old. GRANMA INTERNATIONAL/ONLINE EDITION