Cuba’s elders struggle daily with poverty

Despite — or because of — economic reforms introduced by Cuban leader Raúl Castro, the country’s elderly have trouble paying for basic necessities.

By Juan O. Tamayo

Retired Havana radiologist Lidia Lima says her $14 pension lasts her for only 20 days out of every month. But at the age of 78, she “can’t just invent” a way of joining the growing ranks of Cuba’s private businesses to earn a few extra pesos.

Maximiliano Sánchez, 69, says his pension of $8 per month allows him only “to survive, not to live.” But the retired telegrapher adds that heart and vision illnesses have left him too infirm to own or work at one of the new businesses.

Cuban ruler Raúl Castro’s pro-market reforms have opened the doors to hundreds of thousands of eager young and middle-aged entrepreneurs, and many are profiting and joining a burgeoning middle class on the communist-ruled island.

Carpenters, plumbers and construction workers can now easily and legally work on their own. So can barbers, seamstresses and student tutors — in all, there are 182 permitted categories of “self-employment.”

But the same reforms are hammering the estimated 1.6 million retirees, already suffering under historically meager pensions and now pummeled by rising prices in the newly capitalist parts of the economy and shrinking government subsidies on the staples they desperately need.

“The elderly are the most vulnerable sector of the Raúl Castro economic reforms,” said Dagoberto Valdés, a lay Catholic activist in the western province of Pinar del Rio who publishes the digital magazine Convivencia — Fellowship.

Cubans say they see evidence of the pensioners’ growing desperation everywhere: elderly men and women begging outside churches and high-end “dollar stores”; peddling peanuts and newspapers on the streets; “dumpster diving” for anything they can resell; and offering to sell even their most meager possessions, like a pair of shoes or a blanket.

Some earn a few extra pesos as parking lot attendants, getting spots on Cuba’s myriad waiting lines and selling them, or running errands for friends and neighbors. A sack of crushed aluminum cans, picked out of garbage cans, can fetch 60 to 80 pesos.

Sanchez said that from his 200-peso monthly pension — eight U.S. dollars — after working 30 years for the government communications monopoly, he has to pay 30 to 40 pesos for electricity and 10 to 20 for telephone services.

He must also pay the government 65 pesos a month for the television set and refrigerator he was forced to buy in 2005 as part of Fidel Castro’s campaign to reduce energy consumption by requiring all homes to replace their old appliances with more-efficient versions.

“What’s left for food?” Sanchez asked in a telephone interview from his home in the eastern town of Palmarito de Cauto.

The answer is increasingly less and less, as food prices spike under the pressure of market forces — 20 percent in 2012 alone. A pound of pork today sells for 22 pesos, four tomatoes cost 10 pesos and a bottle of cooking oil can cost as much as 70 to 90 pesos.

And while medical care and medicines are supposed to be free, Cubans say they are increasingly forced to give doctors under-the-table gifts to assure proper treatment, and pay for medicines if they are in short supply. Sanchez said he regularly pays about 70 pesos per month for his medicines.

Castro also has been tightening the government’s belt by shrinking ration cards that once provided all Cubans with a basket of essential staples at deeply subsidized prices and was hailed as proof of the island’s egalitarian ideology.

Potatoes, peas, cigarettes, toothpaste and liquid detergent are now off the “ libreta,” and sell at five to 10 times their old prices, while rations of coffee and salt have been cut by half. Items still on the card are estimated to cost a mere 30 pesos per month — $1.20.

“It’s one thing to allow more of a market economy, and another to end the [subsidies for] essential staples,” Valdes said. Like the others quoted in this story, he spoke by phone from the island.

Cuban officials have spoken repeatedly about plans to eventually do away with the entire ration system — which is still costly to the government — and replace it with a subsidy for the neediest, perhaps in the form of food stamps.

Lima said even her above-average pension of 350 pesos — minus the 60 she pays for her “better” fridge — and special chicken rations because of her diabetes last her only the first 20 days of the month. And that is with her buying meat only once or twice per month.

“I am pulling along, but if the pension was the only thing I had, I would be dead already,” said the physician, who retired five years ago from the Joaquin Albarran Hospital in Havana.

Sanchez said he used to raise chickens, rabbits and pigs in his backyard for sale, but they were all stolen and he has not replaced them because of the rising crime — which he also blamed on Castro’s push toward a more capitalist economy.

Both Lima and Sanchez said they survive only with the help of their sons and daughters in Cuba. Other pensioners receive cash remittances from relatives abroad, especially from the United States, that help them make ends meet.

Cuba’s revolution started out with one of the most generous retirement systems in the hemisphere, covering 90 percent of the labor force and allowing men to retire at age 60 and women at 55. But the country went into a tailspin after the collapse of Soviet subsidies in the early 1990s, and a safety net that once guaranteed solid health, education and welfare services began to erode significantly.

In 2008, the retirement ages were increased to 65 and 60, and the average pension rose to 235 pesos but had only half the purchasing power of the same amount in 1989, Carmelo Mesa Lago, a University of Pittsburgh expert on the Cuban economy, wrote in a 2010 report on the pension system. Cuba spent 4.4 billion pesos on pensions that year, almost twice the amount contributed by workers.

Government homes for the elderly are known for the typical warmth of their staffs, but they are too few, have long waiting lists for admittance, their buildings are often in ruinous conditions, and food and other resources are often stolen by corrupt officials higher up the chain, Cubans say.

Responsibility for caring for the elderly has been increasingly passing to their families — a full-day caretaker can charge 300 to 500 or more pesos — as well as the Catholic and other churches.

Several parishes have reported growing numbers of pensioners requiring assistance with meals, their laundry, cleaning their homes and accessing volunteer physicians, dentists and eye doctors.

What’s more, the problems for the elderly — and for the country — are likely to get worse.

Cuba’s population is the oldest in Latin America after Uruguay’s, and it is getting even older as many of its young migrate abroad, birth rates remain low and the elderly live on average until age 79 — about the same as in the United States.

Those 60 and older now make up 17 percent of the population, and are projected to hit 26 percent by 2025, according to official figures.

“Cuba needs youths doped up with caffeine, but the main actors in this city/country are the old people,” Havana blogger Daisy Valera wrote in a recent post on the website Havana Times.