HAVANA TIMES – “The only thing I have left of my son are my grandchildren and I haven’t been able to see them for three years,” laments Abigail Rojas, 68, a resident of the city of Guantánamo. In 2015, her son lost his life in an accident at work after suffering an electric shock. Shortly after, the young man’s widow moved to Havana, remarried and cut ties with the family of the deceased.
Beyond the well-worn issue of same-sex marriage, the focus of attention on the Family Code — the debate on which began this Tuesday in 78,000 meeting points distributed throughout the Island — the draft bill provides rights for grandparents who, if they do not remain a dead letter, could solve some of the problems that older people in Cuba suffer the most.
“At first I saw the photos of my grandchildren on Facebook, but then she made her account private and I couldn’t keep watching how they grew up; the youngest is seven and the oldest is nine years old,” Rojas details. “I don’t know her address or her phone number in Havana because she has never given it to me, I know they haven’t left the country because recently a friend of mine ran into them on the street.”
“Why don’t I have the right to visit my grandchildren?” asks the grandfather. “If my son were alive, he would have the right to have the children with him for a few days, but since he died, the mother thinks that she no longer has to maintain the relationship with the paternal grandparents.” Rojas fears that “one day they will prepare the trip, leave Cuba and I will never see them again.”
The current Family Code, which dates back to 1975, provides that in case of separation, communication with “that of the parents to whom the custody and care of the minor children is not conferred” is preserved. With the current one, it is mandatory that parents respect and facilitate the maintenance of a system of “family communication with their grandmothers and grandfathers and other relatives or people with whom they have a significant affective bond.”
In addition, this thread of contact is considered, in article 156, a right for grandparents.
The population census carried out in Cuba in 2012 revealed that on the island 64% of families live with an older adult and most of these develop a “grandparent role.” Around 20,000 minors in Cuba live only with their grandparents, since the parents have emigrated, are on official missions abroad or have other jobs. The figure may have increased considerably in the last decade.
The new Family Code was hyped as “more inclusive of the elderly.” This is what Dr. Fernandez Seco underlined in the official press, adding that it is a project that “is essential to improve the quality of life and the rights of older adults.”
As explained by the specialist, the content of the current proposal highlights “the greatest autonomy for an inclusive old age,” since it will allow the elderly to determine the person who will care for them or support them in legal, personal and patrimonial matters, as well as “the free development of personality” in old age.
It is precisely this right that is in question due to a cultural dynamic that the country has made its own and according to which the elderly see their right to enjoy this period of their lives curtailed because they have to take care of their grandchildren as if they were their children.
Lazara remembers her grandmother taking her to school, cooking for her, and attending parent meetings. Since then, more than 40 years have passed and she now has two grandchildren who are “full-time workers.” With no time for anything other than standing in line and taking care of children, she trusts that the new Family Code supports grandparents, a forgotten part of the rights within Cuban homes.
Until a couple of years ago, Lázara attended the activities of the Circle of Grandparents organized by the polyclinic in her area, but the arrival of the pandemic interrupted those activities and now “everyone is at home or lining up all day,” she acknowledges. The rigors of isolation and the economic crisis have represented a severe blow for those over 60 on the Island.
“I spend my time in lines and I don’t even have time to dye my hair,” she tells 14ymedio. “I feel sorry for my children because they are trying to make a living, but nobody asks me if I want to dedicate myself to my grandchildren and lines all day, it’s like it’s something I have to do and that’s it. My life is to support them, but that does not carry a salary, nor vacations nor rest.”
Veronica, in her 70s, used to sing in a choir to pass her free time. She lives with her daughters in a colonial house in Old Havana and the care of one of her granddaughters falls on her shoulders. “She practically has no personal life, she can hardly ever do what she likes, which is to go to the activities of the elderly to dance, sing, have fun in the choir,” admits one of her daughters.
The child’s parents signed her up for Spanish dance classes but it’s up to her grandmother to drop her off and pick her up at each session. “She is a total slave, after she raised her children, now she is raising her granddaughter,” laments the woman, who can do little to relieve her mother of the workload imposed on her by her sister and her husband.
“My sister always wants to leave the girl with my mother who has a spinal disease and cannot stand for long. With the pandemic, they could not send her to school and since my sister did not want to stop working, it was my mother who had to take do of all the childcare, cooking and everything else.” In the end, she “ended up at the doctor’s with a pain crisis that lasted for months.”
Marcelo is 78 years old and has been in charge of his two granddaughters since his daughter emigrated through the Darién jungle to arrive in the United States in 2015. “The first three years I had to support the two girls out of my own pocket because my daughter couldn’t send any money and now, when she manages to collect something, she sends it but there is no frequency or a fixed amount,” he laments.
The pensioner has had to assume everything. “The girls became teenagers and I have even had to stand in line to buy their ’intimate’ supplies at the pharmacy, take them to the doctor, keep up with how they are doing at school. When I thought I had finished all this with my daughter, I had to start over with my granddaughters,” he laments. “Everyone thinks it’s normal, that this is what I should do.”
Thus, at this point in life, Marcelo has to perform magic to support himself and his two granddaughters with a pension of less than 2,000 pesos. “Every time I’ve gone to look into receiving some kind of state financial aid, they tell me that this is contemplated for mothers but not for grandparents, so I hope that with the new Family Code I have some right of that type.”
“I also don’t know how the obligations of the emigrated parents are going to turn out, because the girls’ father also emigrated a few years ago and has never sent a penny,” he explains to this newspaper. “In other words, I have all the responsibilities with the two girls but almost no rights over them because I am the grandfather and after more than five years raising them, if one of the parents wants to take them, I have no power to oppose or demand certain conditions for them to leave the country.”