By Frank Calzon*
HAVANA TIMES – The Cuban government relented under the pressure of Cubans and closed its borders. Thousands of foreigners have left, but unfortunately the number of infected individuals and deaths will reflect the authorities delay in canceling flights.
The pandemic underscores the serious limitations of Cuba’s care for the elderly, a cohort greatly impacted by the virus around the world. The island’s facilities are inadequate, and according to Cuba’s 2018 Statistical Yearbook their average monthly pension is equivalent to $13 a month and most caregivers are unpaid women. There are serious shortages of soap, detergent and disinfectant.
Many young Cubans dream about leaving the island. Their departure partly explains why Cuba has the oldest population in the region -20% of the population is 60 and older; by 2025, it will be 25%- and will increase at one of the highest rates in the world. Raul Castro, 89, has not announced any measures to help the elderly, now threatened by the growing spread of the virus.
President Miguel Diaz Canel has yet to ask help from important sectors of Cuba’s society; and in the absence of official guidelines, Cubans began to take steps on their own against the epidemic, having learned about it in the internet.
Teachers, ignoring regime’s orders, closed schools and sent the kids home. The Church, aware of the danger presented by public gatherings, suspended religious services. Cuba’s beleaguered independent journalists raised the alarm while the official media insisted that the country was prepared for the epidemic, that tourists were welcomed while the pandemic ran its course elsewhere. Officials said that Cuba’s sun was “a good antidote.”
The elderly, unlike their US counterparts, are at the bottom of the economic ladder; and if you are old and Black your situation is worse. Some old folks scratch a meager living selling single cigarettes, old newspapers that are used as toilet paper, and toasted peanuts. Some search the piles of uncollected garbage for anything of value they can barter for food. Given their age, illnesses and inadequate nutrition, many will not survive.
Some churches sponsor soup kitchens, offering soup made with chicken bouillon donated by Cubans living abroad, and whatever rice or vegetables they may find.
The United States offered to help Iran and North Korea deal with the crisis, but they rejected the offer, as Havana has done in the past. The government has now closed its airports, but until a few days ago it was collecting import duties, claiming that the humanitarian assistance was a cover for profit making.
The authorities prohibit the distribution of aid by private citizens or Cuban Americans visiting their families; and the government retains a large percentage of aid sent to the Church. During other emergencies foreign donations delivered to hospitals were collected later and sent to army units, some resurfaced in the government’s hard currency stores.
There is little transparency and lots of corruption and waste. The Cuban people would benefit from international aid if the donors could distribute it to the needy themselves.
Despite the government’s echoing Chinese disinformation, Cubans realize the United States is not at fault and that the magnitude of the tragedy across the Florida Straits is due to a large extent on the regime’s instance to protect its tourist dollars.
*Frank Calzon is a Cuban American social scientist.