The Plight of Cuba’s Elderly

Fernando Ravsberg*

Cubans living on pensions have nearly no purchasing power and many elderly people on the island are forced to work in order to survive.
Cubans living on pensions have nearly no purchasing power and many elderly people on the island are forced to work in order to survive.

HAVANA TIMES — During the Summit of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) held in Old Havana earlier this year, I heard a police officer be informed over the radio that the foreign delegations would be passing through his area. He was ordered to “ensure that no individuals fitting the description of a dumpster-diver or beggar be seen south of Cuba street.”

When one has guests over, it is natural to try and give them the best possible impression, but sweeping poverty under the rug doesn’t seem like the best course of action, particularly because most of these individuals are elderly people looking to compensate for their meager pensions.

Ironically, the police officer and I were standing a stone’s throw away from the monument to the Caballero de Paris (“Paris Gentleman”), a vagrant renowned for his idiosyncrasies and the fact he was the only homeless person in Havana. This was one of Cuba’s achievements for decades. Now, it is gradually fading away.

One need not look far to see that the number of old people asking for change, selling newspapers on the street, collecting empty cans or rummaging through garbage bins in search of something of value, has risen dramatically.

Many jobs that could provide the elderly with higher incomes are being taken by young people capable of working in other areas.
Many jobs that could provide the elderly with higher incomes are being taken by young people capable of working in other areas.

I know many aren’t pleased that I should address the issue, but silence will not make this ugly truth go away. On the contrary, it will serve only to delay any solution to the problem. No one has the right to ask us to look the other way.

It’s true that the country’s resources are limited, but those available aren’t always distributed fairly. The government insists on maintaining a ration booklet that offers subsidized food products to pensioners and the nouveaux riches without distinction.

One need not be an economist to deduce that, if this State aid were restricted to those who truly need it, the amount of food products handed out to each person would increase, without the need to spend an additional cent of the State budget.

Knowing who the poorest people are shouldn’t be complicated in a country where there’s a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) in every neighborhood, ready to inform the government about who needs these subsidies and who is able to afford food sold at market price.

There are equally affordable options for pensioners who can and wish to continue working. It would be possible to give them exclusive access to a number of activities that do not involve great effort and mean good incomes, such as looking after vehicles at parking lots.

The elderly begin to stand in line in the early morning to buy newspapers they later resell for a few extra cents.
The elderly begin to stand in line in the early morning to buy newspapers they later resell for a few extra cents.

Depending on the location, someone can earn as much as US $300 a month, the equivalent of three times the cost of enough basic food and hygiene products. The problem is that many of these jobs are taken by young people of working age who are capable of doing other jobs.

Next to the cashiers at supermarkets in Baja California Sur, Mexico, one sees elderly people wearing the store uniform and helping customers place their groceries in bags. The tips they earn help them make ends meet. Some of them told me they received no pensions.

With determination and a bit of imagination, the possibilities are endless, but the first, indispensable step is to put behind a bureaucratic system that assigns jobs to friends or sells these to the best bidder, at an auction where pensioners have absolutely no chances of getting anything.

The Elderly Are Not the Problem

Cuban-American economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago reports there are 1.8 million retired persons in Cuba currently receiving an average of US $ 10 a month, pensions that represent around 3 percent of the country’s GDP, and that, currently, this is “a problem for which there is no long term solution.”

The government has announced the opening of new homes for the elderly and the repair of existing ones.
The government has announced the opening of new homes for the elderly and the repair of existing ones.

If the State isn’t currently able to provide the elderly with pensions that meet their basic needs, it could at least prioritize them in its subsidies program and in terms of jobs that could help them earn their daily bread with dignity.

The government has already announced it would build new old people’s homes and asylums. This are indeed good news, as food and basic care are guaranteed at these institutions, but it will not be enough, for the challenge is growing every year.

For an economically developed nation, this matter is very complex. For a poor country, it is a challenge with very few options: either society and the economy are transformed culturally or a greater life expectancy becomes a burden.

The economic crisis of the 1990s stripped pensions of their purchasing power and the elderly now face the liberalization of the market without a penny to their names. Their vulnerability is considerable and will continue to grow if we don’t act with promptness, imagination and efficacy.

If a society’s culture can be measured by how it treats its weakest members, its collective intelligence could be gaged by the kind of treatment it offers the elderly, because the bells that toll for them today will toll for all of us sooner or later.
(*) Visit the blog of Fernando Ravsberg.

29 thoughts on “The Plight of Cuba’s Elderly

  • I’ve been to Cuba, from one end to the other, campo y cuidad, over 25x since 1993, meet Cubans living in the US as part of my work every week and have been married w/ a Cuban for over 10 years, I agree consistently with John. Of course I work for a living and identify with the hoi poloi unlike the mysterious Griffen and Moses who have the resources to either not work or who are in fact “working” when they post here, and who despise anything progressive from Nicolas Maduro to OWS.

  • His wife was one of those that was involved in corruption scandal with food and other goods bought with army money and then taken by the elite.
    She just “walked in and took”.
    As far as Fidel goes: via RAFIN and other holdings he controls a sizable part of the top Cuban companies.

  • YES Mr. Goodrich. Fidel Castro in Granma three years ago wrote that he sees no difference between “Socialismo” and communism. What exists in Cuba is therefore communism or socialism or the reverse.
    I am personally not confused between democratic socialism – ie: my friends of the left who believe in and support free democratic elections and ‘pure’ socialism where the leaders believe that “everybody is equal except me and I am in charge.” The obvious difference between the two being between representation or control of the people.
    I now understand from the comments of some of your fellow US citizens contributing to this blog that you do not personally know Cuba.
    I do, having my home there and being related through marriage to over 60 Cubans. I would advise you to rent a room in a casa particular for a month in one of Cuba’s non tourist not spots and experience what life is actually like for Cubans. Try the site for information and you can book through the site. Buy your own food and cook it, visit a couple of hospitals and see the conditions under which Cuba’s hard working Doctors have to operate. Join the group waiting patiently to purchase their daily bread from tthe empresa – remember to say: “Que esta ultimo/” to mark your place in the group as Cubans don’t queue or line-up. But be prepared to wait for up to forty or fifty minutes for a 200 gm loaf. Be prepared to walk everywhere as a bici-taxi costs 10 pesos – half a days pay for a Cuban.
    I encourage you to continue your interest in the country, Cubans are a delightful people, their mainstay socially is “la familia” and the soul of the country is its music. You should note that both of these are free, for Cubans have little else. But, those of us who are not US citizens tire of the constant haragues about US Government policies from US citizens who elect those same governments. Don’t over-emphasize the importance of US policies. You folks elected George W. Bush and quite properly you have to live with the consequences.Look at Iraq today! Ignorance of other countries and other cultures is an outstanding facet of US foreign policy and has repeatedly led to problems and failure. I understand – and no doubt you will correct me if I am ill informed, that only some 15% of US citizens have ever had a passport.
    It is a conceit to consider that US culture is good for all. In the wider world we don’t need or want it. When eventually free, Cuba has other potential alternatives to being controlled by the US. In particular a freely elected Cuban government without, Monroe Doctrine, without the Platt Amendment and without Helms/Burton. The general population of Cuba amongst whom I live, despise the US Government but not US citizens. Keep up the interest!
    One last comment, Hitchins is dead – I know he would agree! I gained much entertainment from his public debate with Tony Blair a Catholic convert and George W’s Socialist buddy. Hitchins won convincingly. But he is irrelevant in discussion about Cuba.

  • Fidel Castro’s “retirement home” is the same compound he lived in as president: punto cero. It is made up of various luxury villas for himself and family members. His house has a pool and helipad. For his private food needs there are hydroponic greenhouses.
    Not a “mansion”?
    The reason why he is not in the South of France is that various complaints against him have been filed in European courts. In one case – the treatment of homosexuals in the UMAP in Cuba – Castro himself has admitted he is responsible for crimes against humanity.
    Note that he had no estate to give and when revolutionaries came to Biran to take over the place his mother greeted them with a gun in hand. it took Raul to calm her down.
    Fidel profited tremendously from the “revolution”. Forbes estimates him to be close to a billionaire.
    As for his daily life: in the past French wines and Spanish ham in a nicely furbished house with pedigree dogs imported from Germany. The video one of the ex-girlfriends of Castro’s son shows the lavish lifestyle of the family. Now he get special food from Italy flown in for his special diet.

    PS: see my record: I have always opposed Batista. Don’t misrepresent my views.

  • Error! In 1959, there were 6 million Cubans, not 11 million.
    You don’t know what you are talking about, do you John.

    You’re on a bit of a rant tonight, spamming every thread with the same comments, but you are factually ignorant about Cuba in every comment.

  • Poder Popular is a fiction. There are books about it, but it does not actually exist. You are falling for the dodge.

  • You don’t really know anything about Fidel Castro and his life do you? A moral man? Tell me about what happened to Manolo Castro and then tell me Fidel is a “moral leader”.

    You have no effiin’ idea.

  • Your desperate cries from your atheist nothingness aside, Cuban ‘rumors’ are not just any rumor. Since you know diddly-squat about Cuban reality, simply put, the truth in Cuba is often couched as rumor so as to give the teller deniability. But for the ignorant, it is a fact that Fidel owns several very large and well-furnished homes. But so what? As Griffin comments below, de facto, he owns the whole island.

  • I’m sure you can get any number of people in Miami and Hialeah to agree with you that Cuba would have been much better off had Batista remained in power and lived for 130 years .
    Unfortunately for you, the other 11 million Cubans who remain in Cuba did not think that would be a good idea..
    He would have been succeeded by someone just like him or at least as acceptable ( i.e. pro-capitalist/pro-neo-colonialist and anti-communist) to the GOUSA or that successor would be facing an intervention by the U.S. as have some 90 countries since the end of WWII.
    ( source: ” Rogue State: A Guide To The World’s Only Superpower- see the entire list at the eponymous website. )

  • Griffin,
    In order for your post to have validity , it was necessary for you to self-censor any mention of a century old U.S foreign policy mandate to crush any democratic movement that presented a threat to totalitarian capitalism.
    Cuba is but one of some 90 countries and nationalist/populist movements into which the U.S. has intervened to overthrow, prevent or subvert democratic movements .
    The very nationalization you spoke of- alone- is standard sufficient reason for a U.S. intervention .
    A multi-party election is, in no way, guarantor of a free election nor of an effective opposition .
    Try reading Arnold August’s “Democracy In Cuba ….”
    and get an understanding of how Poder Popular is set up .
    You need only look at the results of a two-party system in the U.S. in which both parties are effectively controlled by the wealthy few and the public will ignored to see the obvious.

  • Forbes Magazine once listed him as one of the richest men in the WORLD because ( as they said) he can walk into the Cuban national treasury with a wheelbarrow anytime he needs a few million pesos.
    They actually said that.
    Fidel lives a relatively quiet and simple life
    as befits a physically failing 86 year old man .
    His enemies might like to tar him with the usual attributes of the great many dictators installed and/or supported by the U.S.G over the past 100 years but all but you die-hards will acknowledge that he always lived a relatively simple life as leader of the revolution for some 50 years .
    Given the politicians you support in the imperial USG and the great many distasteful thugs installed and supported tacitly or overtly by you, I can imagine how difficult it must be for you to even imagine a moral leader who would eschew ostentatious trappings and hero worship as has Fidel over his long career .

  • SFB,
    When you have two ” he is RUMORED…” hypotheses in one short post , any but the “dim-witted’ will know that you’re basically getting your facts from the National Enquirer and right next to an article on alien abductions.
    The pity of it is that you actually believe these rumors just as you believe in impossible-to-believe religious nonsense .
    It’s in your nature to be gullible and to think that the rest of us are as gullible as you.
    For instance, your religion teaches you that it
    is moral and mandatory to accept the
    punishment of another to absolve your sins, a belief which flies in the face of the concept of personal responsibility .
    If you can believe that immoral concept, you can believe any fantasy.

    It’s called scapegoating and Christopher Hitchens explains the immorality and illogic of accepting Christ’s dying for our sins. in a very convincing manner in 12 minutes and 59 seconds

  • In the meantime, YOU , my friend, don’t have any interest in democracy nor does your definition of it fit the actual meaning.
    You live in the U.S. or Canada and are supposed to know what democracy is but apparently don’t.
    More apparent to me is your stated preference for democracy in Cuba and your adherence to the totalitarian forms in which your life is spent and the fact that you can’t recognize that contradiction.
    I do not have to go to China to know how bad their human rights record is . I do not have to live in Cuba to know what the United States is doing to it because I am well versed in U.S. foreign policy .
    As far as judging Fernando, a person is judged by his actions or, in this case, his words.
    He chose to self-censor out any mention of U.S. imperial intentions which, IMO, amounts to collusion with enemies of the revolution in blaming ONLY the GOC when discussing economic problems in Cuba.
    It’s not objective, not factual . It’s blindly one-sided and lends to the counter-revolutionary propaganda effort.

  • There is no “economic war”. It is the 5 billion+ remittances mostly from the US that support families and the elderly in Cuba.
    Raul Castro admitted that the regime was to blame for the lack of agricultural production: the primary concern for Cubans.
    While the elderly suffer 1.3 billion goes to the military. New housing projects are constructed for police and military. If that spending would be redirected elderly people in Cuba would live a lot better.

  • The instructions ask partipants to have the photos be 600 x 400 pixels max.

  • First of all, the pictures you’ve seen were taken in this fashion to give the dim-witted exactly the impression you have. Second, Fidel has more “guards” than a US President. He is rumored to have traveled with body doubles and more than 500 security staff, including tasters and dressers. Third, you can’t even enter the area where he lives known as Punto Cero. His HOUSES are mansions. He is rumored to have several in Havana, a couple in Varadero and at least two others in the Oriente. He has a yacht and practically his own hospital wing at CIMEQ. You know so little about Cuba, it is frustrating in a bad way to read your wacky comments.

  • Would you please explain why you believe that Fernando, who lives in Cuba, is unaware of the US embargo? No wait, better yet, explain why a guy like you who has never been to Cuba, manages to know more about Cuba’s problems than a well-known paid blogger like Fernando?

  • You present a false dichotomy. The choice was not between Batista or Fidel. They people rose up against Batista to regain their democracy under the 1940 constitution. That is what Fidel promised to do. But once in power, Fidel broke that promise. There would be no elections, the 1940 constitution was torn up. Instead, Fidel installed a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship.

    Imagine what Cuba could have been if Fidel had kept his promise. If he had allowed a free & democratic multiparty election, Fidel would have been elected President by a huge margin. His 26th of July Movement would have won most of the seats in the Cuban legislature. His government could have nationalized important industries and funded social programmes to help the poor. He would have served two terms as specified in the constitution and then retired a hero of the nation of Cuba. Cuba could have grown to become a free and prosperous democracy. But no.

    Fidel would not do that for two reasons: an election would have legitimized the existence of a loyal opposition and he would have had to share some of his power with others. To do that was anathema to Fidel. Dictatorship was the only acceptable future for Fidel.

  • Read my comment more carefully. I am referring to my wife’s grandfather. The lack of medicine in Cuba has NOTHING to do with the US embargo as medicines are EXCLUDED from the embargo. Batista would be 113 years old if he were still alive. In a perverse way, it may have been better for the Cuban people had he remained in charge of Cuba. He died in 1973. This means he would have ruled Cuba only another 14 years. Despite the brutality of his dictatorship, his death would have triggered a change in leadership. Instead, Cubans have had to endure 55 years of Castro tyranny.

  • Unlike yourself, John, Fernando lives in Cuba and knows what he writes about. I’m sure he will be amused to discover he has been called a “counter-revolutionary, anti-Castro, anti-socialist, anti-communists and anti-democracy type” in the comment of an American who has never been to Cuba even once.

  • Cuban independent journalist, Camilo Ernesto Olivera, visited the Havana neighborhoods of San Leopoldo and Coco Solo, which tourists don’t frequent, and asked them about recent efforts to lobby President Obama to bypass Congress in further easing sanctions.

    Here’s how the conversation went (in Diario de Cuba):

    An elderly woman said: “If the Americans ease the embargo any further, then they better get on all fours so Raul and these SOBs can screw them. These guys in the government are a mafia, not a government that one can negotiate anything with.”

  • If Batista were still running the country, your uncle, if poor, would have been dead by now.
    Now, even with his background he is subject to the same deprivation as all Cubans subject to the effects of the U.S. government’s embargo that YOU want strengthened.
    You sociopaths should be careful what you wish for.

  • Can you please define socialism for me as you see it existing in Cuba ?
    You should understand that the U.S government is waging an economic war on the people of Cuba and the explicit aim of that war/embargo is to make life so difficult for all Cubans that they would overthrow their revolution and revert to the capitalist form that created the revolutionary circumstances in the first place.
    This war has been waged for some 54 years and apparently you are either unaware of it and its effectiveness or you have the normal imperialist reasons for not mentioning it : you want to place all the blame on 1) Castro 2) socialism or 3) both.
    FYI, Neo-liberal capitalism does not work well in developing /Third World countries with few resources and results in the normal 20% plus poverty rate in every country in which it is utilized.
    You can catch up with the rest of us on historical U.S. foreign policy objectives by reading just one book: ” Killing Hope” by William Blum.
    I would suggest you go to the eponymous website and read the INTRODUCTION to the book to pique your interest for the contents.
    A caveat: If you actually believe that the GOUSA is about doing good in the world, chances are you will not even be able to finish the introduction to the book .

  • I’ve seen pictures off his retirement home.
    It’s better than the average Cuban home but certainly NOT a mansion .
    I’ll Google it up after I post this just to refresh my memory of the house.
    I would expect the hero of the revolution to have guards and more security than the normal citizen especially given the numerous past attempts on his life and the insanity of much of the anti-Castro community in the States.
    He ‘s not in the south of France in a castle bought with Cuban national funds like a great many ousted dictators supported by the U.S.
    Your boy, Batista flew to Miami with a grand piano stuffed with money.
    Hey, Fidel gave up his family estate to the revolution . It was the first estate to be broken up at the beginning of the revolution
    That’s not the act of a man who is full of himself nor that of a man likely to live in a mansion.

  • It is a pity that you, Fernando seem to have no knowledge of the economic war being waged against all the people of Cuba for the past 54 years by the Yanqui imperialists.
    The stated purpose of that war/embargo is to make life for all Cubans or enough Cubans that they would willingly overthrow their own revolution and revert to capitalism again.
    I read the entire article after first scanning it quickly for any reference to the quite effective embargo and found not one mention of this factor.
    The fact that the U.S. government refuses to drop the war is all the proof any rational person needs to know that the embargo is having the desired effect of immiserating the country BUT has failed to convince the Cuban people undergoing the deprivation they have for 54 years that surrendering and going back to pre-revolutionary ways is what they want to do.
    You and all the anti-Castro, anti-socialist, anti-communists and anti-democracy types always fail to remember that this is standard U.S. foreign policy and has been for at least a century and including 60 interventions to overthrow an existing government and 30 interventions against populist and democratic movements just since the end of WWII.
    It is sheer willful ignorance to think that somehow Cuba would be exempt from the same sort of intervention.
    The problem is , YOU just can’t admit it or you are criminally and willfully ignorant of actual history in order to suit your counter-revolutionary purposes.
    “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

  • One wonders how the most well known retiree in Cuba, Fidel Castro, is able to afford life at his mansion with a 250 CUP pension.

  • Following the revolution, Fidel Castro Ruz decided to become a communist and along with little brother Raul and friend Ernesto Guevara to subject Cuba and Cubans to his type of Socialismo. It is policy to make ciizens dependents of the state and this policy has been successful, Cubans are dependent upon the state. The abject poverty of the elderly with the pittance of 200 Cuban pesos per month pension is a direct consequence of government (Castro regime) policy. The government has ‘el poder’ – the power and both big and little brother are able through the CDR to ascertain who may be a potential trouble maker (one who questions the system) and to lock them up as “dissidents”. Both big and little brother are watching. Astonishingly there exist in the free democratic countries, those who admire the system and the Castro regime. Usually they have had little or no experience of the miserable life that is the lot of those living under “Socialismo’ but are vocal in their ignorant support.
    The only way in which Cuba’s economic condition can be improved is by the introduction of “Capitalismo” and Raul Castro unlike Big Brother recognises this. Hence the visit to Vietnam and China both of which have adopted capitalism and the construction of the list of 187 private enterprise occupations which Cubans having paid for a licence can adopt, the policy of being able to sell and buy homes and cars and the encouragement of foreign investment by partnering with the government which retains control of those employed.
    The State supposedly looks after the needs of Cubans from the cradle to the grave.

  • My wife’s grandfather, himself a retired attorney who headed the Cuban Personnel Dept. on the US Naval Base there for dozens of years, and an avowed Fidelista, now receives just less the 10 cuc per month in pension. He is in his 80’s and suffers from high blood pressure. If he had to buy his life-saving blood pressure medicine, chlorothiazide, himself, it would cost him well over the entire pension payment he receives. He would have to buy it from a pharmacy in a tourist hotel in Santiago and only then when it is available. It is not carried in the pharmacies that sell medicine in national pesos. Fortunately, his granddaughter lives in the US and can afford to send him his medicine every month. In fact, his doctor asked him to ask us if we could send more as there are other elderly Cubans who have the same condition without family living abroad to send them medication.

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