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 Cubaparticular.com 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.

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