By Monica Cisneros (Progreso Semanal)
HAVANA TIMES — When the vacations roll around, Yaxelis knows what’s waiting for her in advance: the same river swimming hole she’s known ever since she was a little girl, one or two “short trips” to the city of Camaguey, maybe the trip to Havana she’s been promising her sister for the past two summers…
She doesn’t have a lot more to tell you outside of these plans. The day after she finishes 11th grade at the school where she studies, her days will begin to fade into one with household chores and countless talent shows – on DVD – which fill her spare time. The small community where she lives, Yaguanabo, livens up with a party in her social club every now and again. The same can be said of family invitations: young people are becoming scarcer in the area, and the old people “don’t take it upon themselves to celebrate birthdays.”
Yaxelis’ fear is that it will be this way until the end of her days. “After graduating as a teacher, what will I do? I chose this degree so that I didn’t have to go out and work in the fields, but I can’t imagine myself in a classroom until I retire,” she says. She doesn’t want to get married when she’s younger than 20 years old either, like her mother, caring for several children under the uncertainty of economic crisis and the husband of the hour’s bad habits. “There’s nothing else to do but drink, fight and give birth.”
A dirt track, cleared through the dense brush weed, is the only communication path that links Yaguanabo to the rest of the world. There are nearly 10 kilometers between the town and the highway, where you can travel to the city of Camaguey (which is 30 kilometers away). You need to do practically everything there, as it’s almost impossible to get to the municipal seat, Jimaguayu.
“They put us there at a bad time,” complains Odalys, a local who was waiting for some kind of transport to take her from the provincial capital to Jimaguayu to do some legal paperwork.
Odalys has been trying, unsuccessfully, to get a government grant to repair her house for the last two years. “I must have spent 1000 pesos just going there and back. And this happens to everyone here, you have to go to Camaguey just to give a kid an aerosol!”
For Miguel Angel, it was a “scare” when his mother who has cancer told him “that there is nothing to look for in the countryside.” He says this with some frustration, as the estate he inherited from his grandfather had a “great well, which didn’t dry out even in the harshest of droughts, and a good herd of zebú cattle.” He sold all of this for a bargain price, to the first local who came to him. “With the cattle rustling, the lack of credit and transport problems, it didn’t make sense to work for nothing and see my family and I suffer.”
In his native town of Ciego de Najasa, “when night fell, you would be cut off from the world, without phones or even mobile phone coverage. None of that mattered too much to me until the day my mother got sick after having some cytostatic treatment. I don’t want my children going through what I had to that time.”
Paths that don’t lead to the countryside
The rural population in Cuba has been steadily falling ever since 1982. Thirty-five years ago, residents established outside of urban areas made up 30.03% of the population; in 2015, this proportion had decreased both as a percentage (23.11%) and in absolute terms, where a “loss” of almost 385,000 people was recorded (from 2,981,450 to 2,597,244). Even though the latest annual report from the Office for National Statistics and Information (ONEI) suggests a relative stabilization on paper, the truth is that the process has been accompanied by the total aging of the population, and as a result, of the workforce available.
An unshakeable fact confirms this: out of the 370,000 members of the National Association of Small Farmers in Cuba, only 52,000 (14.05%) are less than 35 years old. The ONEI’s report suggests that the 15-39 year age range has been the one that has decreased the most, with almost 340,000 registered people less (from 42.08% of rural inhabitants in 1982 to 35.16% in 2012). In 2012, about 911,000 Cubans between these ages lived outside of urban areas (close to 8% of the Island’s total population.
New ways of incorporating people in the agricultural sector, such as Resolution 449 by the Ministry of Agriculture (which encourages the hand-over of land to demobilized soldiers from the obligatory military service), have only managed to achieve modest results up until now (about 500 young men have joined farming production in this way).
“It isn’t that there aren’t people in the countryside anymore, but rather that these people are aging and they tend to concentrate in bigger towns or near highways,” notes Yaquelin Urquiza, a member of the Social Workers’ program in the Jimaguayu municipality. Even in this area, the least developed in Cuba if we exclude some of those in the province of Guantanamo, the phenomenon is tangible and increasing.
“In many communities, we have gone from seeking maintenance of schools or requesting transport for pregnant women for doctor’s check-ups, to the task of moving old people to homes or the opening of meal kitchens. In the last four years, we have had to close down three rural schools because there weren’t enough kids enrolling and some communities with only have four or five families left, or even less,” adds Yaquelin.
In 2006, in his doctoral thesis, professor Arnoldo Oliveros Blet, from the Population Studies Center at Havana University, warned that the country was facing a process of “movements from disperse rural settlements to concentrated rural settlements.” The “considerable drop (almost half) in rural births (…) from almost 9 children per 100 women in 1990 to just 4.3 per 100 women (in the year of the study)” is also a part of this reality. The most direct consequence of both phenomena was the fall in the economically active population directed at farming work and the development of a migration flow which cities and towns weren’t prepared to take on in most cases.
Sitting in the doorway to her house in the La Yaba neighborhood, to the south of Camaguey city, Yaquelin explains the subject in winning and losing terms. “I paid US $5,000 for this house and then I spent another $2,000 to decorate it; I got this money from selling my ranch, but even if I had it, it wouldn’t have been enough to do everything that it needed. I’m calmer now. It isn’t perfect, but things are always easier in towns, whatever people say.”