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    Hard times for Cuba’s elderly
    BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
    El Nuevo HeraldFebruary 5, 2014

    Retired Havana radiologist Lidia Lima says her $14 pension lasts her for
    only 20 days out of every month. But at the age of 78, she “can’t just
    invent” a way of joining the growing ranks of Cuba’s private businesses
    to earn a few extra pesos.

    Maximiliano Sanchez, 69, says his pension of $8 per month allows him
    only “to survive, not to live.” But the retired telegrapher adds that
    heart and vision illnesses have left him too infirm to own or work at
    one of the new businesses.

    Cuban ruler Raul Castro’s pro-market reforms have opened the doors to
    hundreds of thousands of eager young and middle-aged entrepreneurs, and
    many are profiting and joining a burgeoning middle class in the
    communist-ruled island.

    Carpenters, plumbers and construction workers can now easily and legally
    work on their own, and so can barbers, seamstresses and student tutors –
    in all, 182 permitted categories of “self-employment.”

    But the same reforms are hammering the estimated 1.6 million retirees,
    already suffering under historically meager pensions and now pummeled by
    the rising prices in the newly capitalist parts of the economy and
    shrinking government subsidies on the basic staples they desperately need.

    “The elderly are the most vulnerable sector of the Raul Castro economic
    reforms,” said Dagoberto Valdes, a lay Catholic activist in the western
    province of Pinar del Rio who publishes the digital magazine Convivencia
    - Fellowship.

    Cubans say they see evidence of the pensioners’ growing desperation
    everywhere: elderly men and women begging outside churches and high-end
    “dollar stores”; peddling peanuts and newspapers on the streets;
    “dumpster diving” for anything they can resell; and offering to sell
    even their most meager possessions, like a pair of shoes or a blanket.

    Some earn a few extra pesos as parking lot attendants, getting spots on
    Cuba’s myriad waiting lines and selling them, or running errands for
    friends and neighbors. A sack of crushed aluminum cans, picked out of
    garbage cans, can fetch 60 to 80 pesos.

    Sanchez said that from his 200-peso monthly pension – eight U.S. dollars
    - after working for 30 years for the government communications monopoly,
    he has to pay 30-40 pesos for electricity and 10-20 for telephone services..

    He must also pay the government 65 pesos a month for the TV and fridge
    he was forced to buy in 2005 as part of Fidel Castro’s campaign to
    reduce energy consumption by requiring all homes to replace their old
    appliances with more efficient versions.

    “What’s left for food?” Sanchez asked in a phone interview from his home
    in the eastern town of Palmarito de Cauto.

    The answer is increasingly less and less, as food prices spike under the
    pressure of market forces – 20 percent in 2012 alone. A pound of pork
    today sells for 22 pesos, four tomatoes cost 10 pesos and a bottle of
    cooking oil can go as high as 70-90 pesos.

    And while medical care and medicines are supposed to be free, Cubans say
    they are increasingly forced to give doctors under-the-table gifts, to
    assure proper treatment, and pay for medicines if they are in short
    supply. Sanchez said he regularly pays about 70 pesos per month for his
    medicines.

    Castro also has been tightening the government’s belt by shrinking
    ration cards that once provided all Cubans with a basket of essential
    staples at deeply subsidized prices and was hailed as proof of the
    island’s egalitarian ideology.

    Potatoes, peas, cigarettes, toothpaste and liquid detergent are now off
    the “libreta” and sell at five to 10 times their old prices, while
    rations of coffee and salt have been cut by half. Items still on the
    card are estimated to cost a mere 30 pesos per month – $1.20.

    “It’s one thing to allow more of a market economy, and another to end
    the (subsidies for) essential staples,” Valdes said. Like the others
    quoted in this story, he spoke by phone from the island.

    Cuban officials have spoken repeatedly about plans to eventually do away
    with the entire ration system – still costly to the government – and
    replace it with a subsidy for the neediest, perhaps in the form of food
    stamps.

    Lima said even her above-average pension of 350 pesos – minus the 60 she
    pays for her “better” fridge – and special chicken rations because of
    her diabetes last her only the first 20 days of the month. And that’s
    buying meat only once or twice per month.

    “I am pulling along, but if the pension was the only thing I had, I
    would be dead already,” said the physician, who retired five years ago
    from the Joaquin Albarran Hospital in Havana.

    Sanchez said he used to raise chickens, rabbits and pigs in his backyard
    for sale, but they were all stolen and he has not replaced them because
    of the rising crime – which he also blamed on Castro’s push toward a
    more capitalist economy.

    Both Lima and Sanchez said they survive only with the help of their sons
    and daughters in Cuba. Other pensioners receive cash remittances from
    relatives abroad, especially from in the United States, that help them
    make ends meet.

    Cuba’s revolution started out with one of the most generous retirement
    systems in the hemisphere, covering 90 percent of the labor force and
    allowing men to retire at age 60 and women at 55. But the country went
    into a tailspin after the collapse of Soviet subsidies in the early
    1990s, and a safety net that once guaranteed solid health, education and
    welfare services began to erode significantly.

    In 2008, the retirement ages were upped to 65 and 60 and the average
    pension rose to 235 pesos but had only half the purchasing power of the
    same amount in 1989, Carmelo Mesa Lago, a University of Pittsburgh
    expert on the Cuban economy, wrote in a 2010 report on the pension
    system. Cuba spent 4.4 billion pesos in pensions that year, almost twice
    the contributions of workers.

    Government homes for the elderly are known for the typical warmth of
    their staffs, but they are too few, have long waiting lists for
    admittance, their buildings are often in ruinous conditions, and food
    and other resources are often stolen by corrupt officials higher up the
    chain, Cubans say. The city of Santiago de Cuba, with 495,000 people,
    reportedly has only two asylums and two day care centers.

    Responsibility for caring for the elderly has been increasingly passing
    to their families – a full-day caretaker can charge 300 to 500 or more
    pesos – as well as the Catholic and other churches.

    Several parishes have reported growing numbers of pensioners requiring
    assistance with meals, their laundry, cleaning their homes and accessing
    volunteer physicians, dentists and eye doctors.

    What’s more, the problems for the elderly – and for the country – are
    likely to get worse.

    Cuba’s population is the oldest in Latin America after Uruguay, and
    getting even older as many of its young migrate abroad, birth rates
    remain low and the elderly live on average until the age of 79 – about
    the same as in the United States.

    Those 60 and older now make up 17 percent of the population and are
    projected to hit 26 percent by 2025, according to official figures.

    “Cuba needs youths doped up with caffeine, but the main actors in this
    city/country are the old people,” Havana blogger Daisy Valera wrote in a
    recent post on the Web site Havana Times.

    Source: Hard times for Cuba’s elderly | World | ADN.com –
    http://www.adn.com/2014/02/05/3310167/hard-times-for-cubas-elderly.html

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