BY GARY MARX
CIEGO DE AVILA, Cuba - (KRT) - Benito Martinez walks with a cane, speaks with a mumble and suffers from a weak heart, lower back pain and arthritis in his knees.
But his hearing is sharp, he doesn’t wear glasses and he has never been hospitalized.
Not bad for a guy who says he was born June 19, 1880. That would put Martinez on the cusp of his 125th birthday.
“I am the oldest person in the world,” said Martinez as he sat at a senior citizens home in this quiet provincial city about 240 miles east of Havana. “I am telling the truth.”
While Guinness World Records list the world’s oldest person as a 114-year-old Dutch woman, Cuban officials believe the title may belong to Martinez, a Haitian immigrant who arrived by steamship in Cuba around 1920 and has had a life of hard labor.
There are no documents to support the claim. Martinez can’t produce a birth certificate. He never married and has no living relatives.
But Moises Gonzalez, a Cuban journalist who has become Martinez’s unofficial biographer, said he has interviewed several Cubans born around the turn of the 20th century who knew Martinez and back up his story.
“They said that when they were kids he was already an adult,” Gonzalez said. “People said that he was always the oldest of the group.”
Martinez would be a marvel in any nation, but his case has been embraced and promoted by Cuban officialdom, which has formed the 120 Years Club for the island’s most senior citizens and last month held an international conference to explore the secrets of longevity.
Despite being a poor country, the average life expectancy for Cubans is 77 years, the same as that for residents of the United States.
The average life expectancy is 70 years for Nicaraguans, 69 for Brazilians and 53 for Haitians, according to 2003 figures from the World Health Organization.
Noel Lopez, Martinez’s physician, attributes Cubans’ longevity to the nation’s cradle-to-the-grave heath-care system, along with the fact that Cubans get plenty of exercise because bicycling and walking are often the only ways to get around.
Many Cubans cook with pork fat and love roasted pig, but they also eat fruits and organic vegetables. Processed foods are either unavailable or too expensive for most residents.
The stress level also seems lower in socialist Cuba than in capitalist countries where cellular telephones are ubiquitous, work dominates life and everyone is in a hurry.
Cubans often spend hours each day waiting for public transportation. The notion of a deadline appears lost on many Cubans.
“Stress is a factor that leads to many illnesses,” Lopez said.
But the elderly also hold a special place in Cuba, where almost every family seems to have someone in their 80s living with them. Even strangers go out of their way to help senior citizens, offering them a chair if they are tired or a glass of water if they are thirsty.
Lea Guido, the World Health Organization representative in Cuba, credits Cuban officials with nurturing “an attitude of respect for the elderly.”
“This is very important, because if you isolate elderly people, this contributes to depression and is a negative factor to living a long and healthy life,” Guido said.
Some Cuban physicians are promoting the idea that island residents hewing to the right diet and lifestyle can live well beyond their 100th birthday, including 78-year-old Cuban President Fidel Castro.
“He can get to 120 years without great efforts or sacrifices,” Eugenio Selman, Castro’s personal physician, told reporters last year.
Although details of Martinez’s life have slipped from his memory, he said he was born in the Haitian countryside and traveled to Cuba looking for work.
Martinez said he worked briefly at Castro’s father’s ranch in eastern Cuba and later as a laborer in the mid-1920s building the island’s central highway.
He spent most of his life living in a thatched-roof shack, shoeless, cutting sugar cane during the harvest and growing bananas, yucca and other crops on his small patch of land outside Ciego de Avila.
Martinez earned the nickname El Avion, the airplane, because he was such a tireless worker. He says that’s one secret to his longevity.
“All my life I’ve worked hard,” said Martinez, who still putters around the garden and raises fighting cocks. “Work never killed anybody.”
Like most Cubans, Martinez drinks a strong cup of coffee in the morning, and his diet consists mostly of boiled root vegetables like malanga and boniato, the Cuban sweet potato.
He quit smoking about a decade ago and shuns alcohol except for special occasions. “I drink one beer, but five or six, no,” Martinez said.
Another key to Martinez’s longevity is nurturing good friends and maintaining a positive outlook on life.
“I’ve never cheated anyone,” he said. “I’ve never said bad things about other people.”
But Martinez also has led a simple life. He never went to school, never learned to read or write, never flew in an airplane and never owned an automobile or a computer.
He got his first television and refrigerator only four years ago and he still doesn’t own a watch or know how to tell time, other than reading the angle of the sun and the moon. He eats when he’s hungry and sleeps when he’s tired.
Before he dies, Martinez said he would like to shake Castro’s hand, to visit Haiti and other countries. It’s obvious he expects to be around a while longer.