Cuba/Retirees: The Big Losers of the Reforms

Fernando Ravsberg*

Alcides Pérez gets up very early to wait in line to buy newspapers to resell. His retirement just isn’t enough.

HAVANA TIMES — The economic crisis of the 90s pushed much of the Cuban population into poverty, however subsequent reforms have allowed various sectors of the population to improve their living standard through the most varied pathways and mechanisms.

Nevertheless, one group that has failed to recover from the crisis is the retirees, whose pensions of $15 (USD) a month doesn’t allow them to make ends meet. As a result, the streets of Cuban cities have become filled with seniors trying to make a living.

Early every morning, grandparents line up at newspaper kiosks to buy stacks of dailies that they in turn resale. At the same time, other elderly individuals begin roasting peanuts, which they’ll hawk at stop lights, while other seniors are preparing to spend their days watching parked cars.

The reduction of subsidies and steady increases in prices are forcing them to continue searching for sources of income even after retirement. Anything goes – from selling cigarette lighters in the street to collecting empty beer cans and cartons.

Early birds

Alcides Perez, 76, can be found every day between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. outside a printing facility collecting newspapers and magazines for resale in the city. “I’m retired but I have to sell newspapers because my pension is next to nothing,” he said smiling.

Before retiring, he worked as a security supervisor with the Ministry of Construction. He explained to us that “the government gives me a regular quota of newspapers, and that helps me to earn a little something, but it’s not much,” adding that he’s out in the streets until they’re all sold. “You get tired, but you gotta work,” he said.

Luisa Bolaños supplements her pension by selling lighters.

Just after leaving Alcides at the door of Hotel Inglaterra, we ran into a woman who was going through trash bins on San Rafael Boulevard. “I collect material for recycling centers” explained Dagmaris Gonzalez, 70.

She collects pop and beer cans so she can sell them to the government. “With a sack full of crushed cans, I can earn 60 or 80 pesos (about $3 USD) in a day. I don’t feel very good about it, but my 242-peso-a-month retirement check ($10) isn’t enough.”

The Help that doesn’t come

A few yards from Dagmaris, a couple steps away from the side door of the Grand Theater of Havana, Luisa Bolaño was seated there selling cigarette lighters. “My retirement is 200 pesos a month, but I’m only left with 141 pesos ($7), because they deduct 59 pesos for my refrigerator payment.”

“I’m 68 but I have to take care of my 98-year-old mother,” explained Luisa. She added, “I’m asking for help for Social Services, but I applied a year ago and I still haven’t heard back. They say you have to wait for an investigation.”

Back in the car, we pulled up to a stoplight a few blocks away, and another senior citizen, Joseph Romero, came up to my window selling peanuts. “I sell these out of necessity,” he said. “I have to because my retirement isn’t enough.”

Dagmaris González works all day to fill a sack of tin cans for which she will receive US$3.

Formerly the manager of a bodega (a small grocery store), he said: “Now my day starts at 5:00 in the morning. I roast peanuts until about 8:00, then I come out here.”

“I work three or four hours a day to earn about 50 pesos ($2),” he explained.


Getting back home, I stopped by the supermarket and spoke with Felix Batista, a 76-year-old man who watches the parked cars – a job held many by retirees. During his working life he was the chief investment officer of Cuba’s sports industry.

“I started here because I’m retired and my retirement doesn’t stretch. People give what they want, a peso or so (three or four cents USD). I pick up around 400 pesos a month ($20) like this, so I have a pretty regular standard of living,” he said, adding, “I’m grateful to the government because now I hold a job and collect retirement.”

In this situation, the elderly continue to be very supportive of the government, even though many of them live in poverty. Most of them know how life was prior to 1959, when they suffered because they belonged to the most disadvantaged.

They were the poorest when the revolution occurred. Subsequently they were the ones who benefited from land reform, received ownership of the houses they previously rented, and were able to send their children to college. Yet they probably never imagined that at the end of the day they’d have no chance to rest.
*An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.

15 thoughts on “Cuba/Retirees: The Big Losers of the Reforms

  • Demographic trends have a huge impact on the future of a country. It’s inconceivable how a poorly managed economy like Cuba’s can possible afford to look after a population that is over 30% retirees. The gov’t must either find a way to reverse the trend, which means making Cuba a place Cubans will want to stay in and raise families, or the nation will collapse. There is no other option.

  • Griffin, I met a University of Havana professor last year who heads (or headed by now) a government-ordered study of the demographic trends in Cuba. What he carefully has shared with me is that his study is broken down into 5, 10, 20 and 50-year projections. What is most interesting to me about this study is that the results are being treated as a state secret. It will not be published for public dissemination. Sounds like bad news to me? The only other point he has shared about his study is that the results have little to do with whether or not Chavez lives or dies, the embargo ends or continues or whether the Castros are still around much longer. Again, by implication, it would appear that the die has been cast.

  • Second paragraph, you claimed precisely that, ending with “The price was the loss of all individual freedoms and human rights.”

    Don’t pretend you didn’t say something when it was crystal clear you said it.

  • Luis, if you have an argument to make, state it. Nobody is interested in your insults.

    Why did your three comments here get accepted anyway?

  • I made no such claim ever. Batista was a criminal, a murderer, a gangster and a thief. Cuba’s nightmare began with Batista’s coup.

  • Oh, how nice. The vulture in you has returned.

  • I really appreciate this kind of comment as it shows the very essence of not knowing the heck what you are talking about.

    Fernando’s article shows EXACTLY a negative effect of a ‘change in strategy’ happening in Cuba. The only path you advocate for Cuba is a complete submission to the US interests, like a right-wing coup or something.

  • Not only dishonest and mean-spirited, you are also quite cynical – like if Cuba was the greatest champion on ‘individual freedoms and human rights’ in the good old Batista days.

    Who do you think you are fooling?

  • Griffin, as I’ve said many times, Cuba must have a form of society that values the historically evolved legal institution of private productive property rights; and a form that ensures that ownership of most productive property is both directly and broadly held by those who produce.

    Whether farming families, restaurateurs, or cooperative workers, most enterprise must be owned primarily by the working people.

    This form of society however is not new capitalism. It is cooperative, state co-ownership socialism.

  • Walter, I would imagine that you and I will disagree about most things regarding Cuba. I hope on this point we can find common ground: What the Castros promised to deliver is not what exists in Cuba today. Do you agree? The role of leadership, in any organization, is to lead despite the obstacles. The Castros, despite the embargo, despite the fall of the Soviet bloc, and even despite hurricanes are ultimately responsible for the Cuban disaster that exists today. The solution: change the leadership, change the strategy, change the future.

  • Walter, I am neither dishonest nor mean-spirited. Quite the contrary.

    Before the revolution many Cubans lived in terrible poverty. No argument there. The Revolution promised food, decent shelter, education and healthcare for all. To a large extent the Revolution provided those things …for a while, and at a great price. The price was the loss of all individual freedoms and human rights.

    Like living high on your credit card, Socialism works for a while. Until the rulers run out of other people’s money to spend, until their Soviet patrons cut off the subsidies, and until the accumulated wealth in real estate, farms, factories and infrastructure is allowed to run down, decay and collapse. Then the country lies in ruins and economic reality finally arrives.

    That’s what Cuba faces today. To confront these challenges, the government of Cuba must make Cuba a place where Cubans will want to live. Otherwise, the hemorrhaging of young Cubans will accelerate. To make Cuba a place where Cubans will want to live requires true economic and political liberalization. The State will have to respect human rights and freedoms.

    Anything less, and the demographic death spiral will continue. Anybody who argues that the Castros’ version of socialism is the only path forward are arguing for the demographic death of a nation. And that is truly mean-spirited.

  • The very seniors that today the Castros have doomed to spend their twilight years in despair were the same twenty-somethings who 54 years ago pledged their all to support a Revolution which promised them a socialist paradise. Most politicians lie and a great number fail to keep promises. There is nothing unique to Cuba on these points. Nearly everywhere else in the world, however, when politicians fail to deliver on their promises, the public can replace them for new leaders and new promises. Cubans have been under Castro rule for nearly three generations.The good news is that time is finally running out for this regime, biologically and politically.

  • Sad stories, but not the complete picture. Fernando, is correct to point out individual examples of poverty, even in “retirement.” But comments such as Griffin’s are dishonest and mean-spirited. Before the revolution, like most poor countries, the elderly were even worse off. Not only were there not enough pensions or social security benefits, but they were at risk of losing their home if they had one. The critics of the revolution and the socialist effort, leave out the facts of past oppression and the damage done by both the US effort to destroy the Cuban economy and the failures of the soviets. Anyone really concerned about the majority of Cubans, and not just the better off, knows things got better, then got somewhat worse under the Special Period. And now it remains to be seen if the government can improve conditions for all or at least most Cubans. In the US where I live, most elderly can not live on Social Security and retirement is increasingly not available – and the US was the richest country. I am as old as these dear elders, and I too can not stop working. But part of what I will do is see if I can help, not only myself, my family, but also people like the Cuban people who have struggles so bravely. I will come back to these pages later, glad to exchange ideas, but I will try to ignore the nasty and pointless comments. So let’s hear it from Fernando and others, what do you suggest that can help? I have some ideas I will share later today.

  • The Revolution failed to deliver the promised socialist paradise. 55 years of insane economic policies have destroyed all accumulated wealth and hollowed out the country. Now as the population is rapidly aging, with the young continuing to leave in droves, Cuba is facing a demographic collapse. By 2030, one-third of the Cuban population will be over 60. No country has faced a demographic distortion like that and survived.

    History will not absolve those who destroyed Cuba in the name of the socialist delusion.

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