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.
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.
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.”
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.