Getting By: The Daily Life of the Elderly in Cuba (Part I)

Regina Cano

Selling detergent. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Many a time, when I get up in the morning, I don’t need to look at the clock, for, at exactly 7 am every day, a man who sells bread and invariably walks past my house blows a whistle and yells out: “Bread, come get your bread!”

For some years now, this man, now around 70, pushes a cart loaded with sacks of bread (usually fresh), sparing people the walk to the neighborhood bakery.

Every morning of every day, in other places around Havana, other elderly men and women start on their daily walk in search of people they can sell such things to. Some of them rely on suppliers, others make their own products.

Currently, elderly Cubans – part of the population that does not contribute to the GDP – render different kinds of services of this nature, for making ends meet is becoming harder and harder as a result of rising prices and the repercussions of corruption. The elderly, for the most part retirees, have measly pensions and hardly any other income to help them get by. Sometimes that pittance is added to the family income and in others is their only individual substance.

In recent days, the government has repeatedly referred to the aging of Cuba’s population, something which was already being announced by the migratory avalanche that took place in the 90s, a phenomenon which takes on a different dimension now and has resulted in the loss of a great part of an entire generation.

At the time, most of the Cuban men and women who left the country, fleeing the economic crisis, were young people, young people who today swell the work forces of other countries and have had their children there.

Though they took the memory of their loved ones with them and promised to help them financially, in many cases, they cannot offer those who stayed behind as much help as they need or as they would want.

Lighter refiller. Photo: Juan Suarez

The cost of living in Cuba has also undermined the quality of life of many people now over or pushing 70, who live in poverty and are malnourished.

In addition to old people selling bread, sweets, peanuts or pastries, one sees elderly men and women selling tamales, working as errand people who take others their rations, gas bills and mail and even carrying people’s groceries.

In a fairly large area of Alamar, on the outskirts of Havana, two elderly street vendors have become well known in the neighborhood: one carries peanuts inside a can heated up with coals (to keep the product warm) and the other, an elderly lady, sounds a tiny bell to sell the different pastries she makes.

In other parts of the city, you run into elderly people who roam the streets, dirty or wearing rags, people who rummage through garbage bins in search of things, selling used plumbing or electrical fixtures, spare parts some people buy from them.

Some of them sell toothpaste, candles, tampons, bags of cotton balls, used shoes, cigarettes, popsicles, plastic bags or chicken bouillon.

Many of them are no longer able to find employment at State institutions and find illegal means of making a living.

Though all of this may be common in other societies, in the relatively recent past, retirees were a prioritized sector in Cuba. Now, this is no longer the case.

Well, folks, the situation has become worse and worse and has become more noticeable as time passes. These elderly vendors are part of the daily life of all of Havana’s neighborhoods, as we may well be one day, when we join the ranks of this army whose glorious battles are a thing of the past.

4 thoughts on “Getting By: The Daily Life of the Elderly in Cuba (Part I)

  • For those Cuban seniors who most vigorously supported the revolution and likely most venomously attacked those Cubans who chose not to support the revolution, this is bittersweet payback. My wife’s grandfather is an 80+ year old gallego lawyer who worked at Guantanamo for 40 years finally in charge of personnel. He is STILL a hardcore Fidelista but accepts the fact that he could not survive without the assistance that is provided by a negrito Yuma. He still believes everything wrong with Cuba is because of the US but says the American people are not to blame. He doesn’t accept that the Castros have failed him even while he waits for him monthly care package from the US. It is so sad that the Castros have betrayed so many loyal Cubans.

  • The situation for pensioners will only get worse. Currently, those over 60 account for 15% of the population. There are now more people over 60 in Cuba than there are Cubans under 15. By 2030, they will account for more than 30% of all Cubans will be over 60. With such a rapidly aging population, and the ongoing emigration of young Cubans of childbearing age, there will soon be nobody left on the island to do the work.

    Unless the Cuban government acts soon to make the necessary changes which will convince young Cubans to stay on the island and raise families, the Cuban nation will collapse.

  • For Cuban pensioners, the people that lived and worked under Castro’s revolution, life is a nightmare. Pensions of CUP 240 ($10) and even CUP 140 ($6) are standard. Nobody can life a decent life on that.

    Lots are forced to work – illegally as they can’t afford the licenses – to supplement their meager income.

    The case of this lady who stripped naked and shouted out the protest on the street and inside a large hotel after having her goods “decommissioned” (= taken away by police) is heartbreaking:

    Social security in Cuba is in fact social insecurity.

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