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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 June, 2005, 14:28 GMT 15:28 UK
Cuba's living embodiment of history

Stephen Gibbs
Ciego de Avila, Cuba

"I am 125 today," beamed Benito Martinez, as he joined the birthday party at his local old people's home in this central Cuban city.

Benito Martinez has just celebrated what he says is his 125th birthday

Dressed in his Sunday best of freshly-ironed shirt and trilby hat, he seemed determined to prove that laughter and music are the secret of a long and happy life.

A huge, toothless grin formed over his well-aged face as he grabbed the hand of one of his young nurses. They began to dance to the tune of a local guitarist.

Those legs of his might date back to the 19th Century, but they still have plenty of rhythm.

Benito Martinez's life story is short on detail, but very long on years. He says he was born near the Haitian town of Cavaellon in 1880. Looking for work, he travelled over to neighbouring Cuba by steamship in the mid-1920s. He planned to stay for only a few months, before going back home.

But he never left. He says he worked for a while on one of the biggest ranches in eastern Cuba, which happened to be owned by Fidel Castro's father.

He later helped construct the original highway across Cuba, before settling down in a small farming community outside Ciego de Avila.

Hard work

A few weeks before the birthday party, we sat together, on old wicker rocking chairs, outside his small one-bedroom shack.

Benito lives alone, although a local helper cooks and cleans for him. He has never been married and never had any children.

Castro
Castro: One of the proudest boasts of the Cuban revolution is that it has managed to raise life expectancy of its citizens
"You see those trees there," he says, pointing at an avenue of tall Cuban Royal palms. "I planted every one of them." He then shows me with great pride the small vegetable plot, which he still tends.

Hard work, not the pleasures of family, are what appeared to have sustained this determined man over the decades. He drinks alcohol only occasionally, no longer smokes, and eats mainly rice, stewed black beans and fresh vegetables.

His claim to be the world's oldest person has the backing of the Cuban government. Benito Martinez is the star attraction of the country's recently formed 120-Club, an organisation promoting healthy lives for Cuba's most elderly citizens.

No recollection

One of the proudest boasts of the Cuban revolution is that despite being one of the poorer countries in the world, it has managed to raise life expectancy of its citizens to 77 years, equal to that of the US.

The last time the club met earlier this year, Cuban experts said that they believed Benito Martinez was probably around 119. Comfortably older than the current official world record holder, a Dutch woman who is 114.

There is, however, no definitive proof of Benito's claim

Although it does appear certain that he has lived in Cuba for the last 80 years, what is unproven is how old he was when he arrived from Haiti. He has no birth certificate or any other documentation.

He speaks a little Creole, yet he has almost no recollection of what, if he is 125, would be the first 40 years of his life.

But his conviction is convincing.

I ask him his age a final time. He looks me straight in the eye. "Believe me," he says. "I know the year when I was born. 1880."




SEE ALSO:
Cuba claims 'world's oldest' man
12 Feb 05 |  Americas



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