Elio Delgado Legón
HAVANA TIMES — Much has been said recently about population aging, not only in Cuba but also in the rest of the world – especially in developed countries.
To counter the situation, in some places workers are being imported through immigration and policies have been adopted to increase the birthrate.
With Cuba’s revolution in January 1959, the altering of the situation of stark poverty and terror that reigned across the country resulted in a demographic explosion. In just 50 years the population doubled.
However, the level of social development (health care and education) that we have attained has acted to slow population growth and at the same time increase life expectancy (which before 1959 was 60 years of age and today has reached almost 80).
Population aging poses a challenge to the government, and for that reason one of the guidelines of the economic and social policies adopted at the Sixth Congress of the Party expressed the need to “pay particular attention to the study and implementation of strategies in all sectors of society to address the high levels of population aging.”
Faced with this increase in the median age, a number of measures have been taken. These included increasing the retirement age by five years, allowing retirees to return to work without losing their pensions, and creating and expanding senior recreation facilities.
Another measure that I think will be necessary is to increase the capacity and improve conditions of nursing homes, since there are many seniors who lack family support and need to be provided with social, psychological and medical attention at that stage of their lives.
Although the family circle is the ideal setting for promoting the most pleasurable golden years for the elderly, there are many who lack this possibility; therefore it’s the responsibility of the socialist state to provide these conditions.
The Ministry of Health is taking up the challenge of the growing number of people over 60 and it intends to continue working to increase life expectancy by improving the quality of assistance, which — as we know — is completely free.
But it’s not enough to care for the elderly. The country’s economy needs to replace its workforce, which is why it’s necessary to increase the fertility rate. In 2011 this was at 45.3 births per 1,000 women of reproductive age, and the average number of children per women was 1.77, which is below the required replacement rate.
There are many reasons for the low birth rate, including the elimination of discrimination against women and their access to higher education free of charge (and therefore opportunities for them obtaining important jobs and management positions in production, politics and government).
Career opportunities alone make women carefully consider the fact that by having a child they will be kept away from their work for a while just at the age when they’re beginning their professional lives.
In my view, these are the fundamental causes for the low birth rate, but there are other factors such as difficulties in obtaining housing and the high cost of living – especially the high prices of items for children.
What also has an effect, though to a lesser degree, is the emigration of women of reproductive age, which should decline to the extent that the economic situation improves.
While it’s true that the revolutionary government has passed laws that benefit working women (such as paid maternity leave for three months, the possibility of taking leaves from their jobs for up to one year to care for their babies without losing the job, and the creation of day care centers where education begins at the age of one), further actions are necessary given the need to increase the birth rate.
In the last session of the outgoing legislature of the National Assembly of People’s Power (Parliament), a commission was created to study the issue of population aging and the birth rate, which shows that the government is fully aware of the problem.
Undoubtedly, increasing the birth rate in Cuba is a strategic need that in the long-term will benefit the economy. It’s necessary to adopt policies with specific measures toward that end. I would suggest two, which would undoubtedly help a great deal.
First, give privileges (such as obtaining housing with loans) to couples who have a second child. Second, sell baby’s and children’s items at just over cost, which could significantly reduce their current high prices.
These and perhaps other measures that could be suggested by the commission charged with the matter. In the medium term, these measures could reverse the predicted trend of population decline thus guaranteeing workforce replacement and mitigating the economic consequences of population aging.