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
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
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
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
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.
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