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    She’s aging in the hemisphere’s oldest nation and survives by digging through Cuba’s trash

    She’s aging in the hemisphere’s oldest nation and survives by digging
    through Cuba’s trash
    BY MARIO J. PENTÓN Y LUZ ESCOBAR
    mpenton@elnuevoherald.com

    HAVANA
    At 67, struggling against the challenges that come with aging and a
    meager pension, Raquel, an engineer who in her own words was “formed by
    the Revolution,” survives by sifting through garbage every day in search
    of recyclable products.

    Hands that at one time drew plans and measured distances now pick up
    cardboard, cans and other discarded containers.

    “My life is a struggle from the moment I wake up,” Raquel said.

    “My last name? For what? And I don’t want any photos. I have children,
    and I once had a life. I don’t want people talking about me,” she said
    after agreeing to tell her story.

    Digging through garbage as a way to make a living was not part of
    Raquel’s plan but she is not alone. Many within the island’s growing
    aging population are struggling with survival in the twilight years.

    Cuba has become the oldest country in the Western Hemisphere, according
    to official figures, amid an accelerated process that has even surprised
    specialists who had not expected the phenomenon to become apparent until
    2025.

    Facing a pension system that is increasingly nonviable, a harsh economic
    recession and an expected impact on social services as a result of the
    aging population, the island is confronting one of the biggest
    challenges of its history, experts say.

    Almost 20 percent of Cubans are now over the age of 60, and the
    fertility rate stands at 1.7 children per woman of child-bearing age. To
    counter the aging population, the fertility rate would have to rise to
    2.4 children per woman of child-bearing age. Cuba’s economically active
    population shrank for the first time in 2015, by 126,000 people.

    “The population aging that is affecting the country leads to a
    significant increase in public spending as well as a drop in the
    population of the fertile age, which in turn leads to a decrease in the
    fertility rate,” said Juan Valdés Paz, a Cuban sociologist who has
    written several books on the issue.

    Valdés said no government can be prepared for the kinds of demographic
    problems that Cuba now has.

    “If there’s no harmony between demographic progress and economic
    development, the latter is impacted,” he said.

    Declining subsidies
    Government spending on public health per capita in 1999 was 21 percent
    lower than in 1989, according to economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago. Official
    Cuban figures show that category of spending dropped from 11.3 percent
    of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2009 to eight percent
    in 2012.

    Although Raquel is retired, government pharmacies do not subsidize the
    medicines she needs for her diabetes and hypertension. State social
    service programs do not serve elderly Cubans who live with relatives or
    other presumed caretakers.

    “I get a pension of 240 pesos a month,” said Raquel, the equivalent of
    less than $10. “From that money, I have to pay 50 pesos for the Haier
    refrigerator the government forced me to buy and 100 pesos to buy my
    medicines.”

    Cuba has about 300 day-time centers for the elderly and 144 nursing
    homes, with a total capacity of about 20,000 clients. Officials have
    acknowledged that a significant portion are in terrible shape, and many
    elderly prefer to go into one of the 11 homes across the country run by
    religious orders. They operate thanks to foreign assistance, like the
    Santovenia asylum in the Cerro neighborhood of Havana.

    The state-run daycare centers charge 180 pesos per month and the nursing
    homes charge about 400 pesos. Social Security subsidizes the payments
    when social service workers determine that the clients cannot afford to
    pay those fees.

    Cuba once had one of the most generous and broadest social security
    systems in Latin America. But that was largely possible because of the
    massive subsidies from the Soviet Union, calculated by Mesa-Lago at
    about $65 billion over 30 years.

    “Although the pensions were never high, there was an elaborate system
    established by the state to facilitate access to food and other products
    at subsidized prices,” said the economist.

    After the Soviet subsidies ended in the early 90s, pensions remained at
    about the same level but their purchasing power collapsed. In 1993, a
    retired Cuban could barely buy 16 percent of what he could afford in
    1989. By the end of 2015, the purchasing power of retirees remained at
    barely half of what it was when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba
    entered into the so-called “Special Period.”

    Raquel is a product of that reality.

    “It bothers me when I hear talk of the good services for the elderly,”
    said Raquel. “I don’t get any subsidies because I live with my son, his
    wife and my two grandchildren. But they have their own expenses, and
    can’t afford to also pick up all of mine.

    “I need new dentures,” she added, “and if you don’t give the dentist a
    little gift, they take months or come out bad.”

    Other elderly residents on the island echoed Raquel’s sentiments.

    “We are two old people living alone, we have no one overseas, so we
    receive no remittances,” said Andrés, a former cartographer who lives
    with his wife Silvia in the central city of Cienfuegos and now sells
    homemade vinegar and other products to make ends meet. “It’s very hard
    to get old and live off a $10 pension when four drumsticks of chicken
    cost $5.

    “Last year I was awarded with a lifetime achievement recognition at work
    and then I was laid off,” he said. “I was already retired but continued
    to work because we could not live on my pension.”

    Drastic cutbacks
    After Fidel Castro left power in 2006, following a health emergency, the
    Raúl Castro government began drastic cutbacks in social security
    benefits under the rubric of “the elimination of gratuities.” Of the
    582,060 Cubans who were receiving social assistance benefits in 2006,
    such as disability or special diet funds, the number was slashed to
    175,106 by 2015.

    Castro also removed several products from the highly subsidized ration
    card, such as soap, toothpaste and matches, forcing everyone to pay far
    more for those products when they bought them on the open market.

    The government has launched some new programs for the elderly. The
    Sistema de Atención a la Familia (System to Help the Family), for
    example, allows more then 76,000 low-income elderly to obtain food at
    subsidized prices. That’s a tiny number compared to Cuba’s elderly
    population, estimated at more than 2 million in a nation of about 11
    million.

    Some elderly Cubans also receive assistance from churches and
    non-government organizations.

    “People see me picking up cans, but they don’t know I was a
    prize-winning engineer and that I even traveled to the Soviet Union in
    1983,” Raquel said.

    After retirement, she had to find other ways of making ends meet. She
    cleaned the common areas of buildings where military officers lived near
    the Plaza of the Revolution until she got too old to handle the work.

    “They wanted me to wash the windows of a hallway on the 9th floor. That
    was dangerous, and I was afraid of falling. I preferred to leave, even
    though they paid well,” she said.

    Raquel was earning 125 pesos (about $5) per week — more than half her
    monthly pension of 240 pesos.

    Raquel said she sells the empty recyclable containers she collects to
    state enterprises but would love to be able to sell them to a private
    company, instead, to avoid bureaucratic problems and delays. In the
    patio of her home, she has created a home-made tool to crush the empty
    cans she finds on the streets.

    The work can be profitable but competition is stiff and physically
    tougher for the elderly and disabled who have to wait in long lines to
    sell their products at state enterprises or pay someone else to hold
    their spot in line.

    “In January I made 3,900 pesos on beer bottles. But I paid 500 pesos to
    hold my spot in line because I can’t just lay down on the floor while I
    wait,” she said. “Aluminum also pays well. They pay 40 pesos for a sack
    of cans. It’s eight pesos per kilogram.”

    Cuba does not have official statistics on poverty.

    A 1996 government study concluded that 20.1 percent of the 2 million
    people in Havana were “at risk of not being able to afford a basic
    necessity.” A poll in 2000 found that 78 percent of the country’s
    elderly complained their income was not enough to cover their expenses.

    The majority of the elderly polled said their main sources of income
    were their pension benefits, assistance from relatives on the island and
    remittances sent by relatives and friends abroad.

    Many elderly now walk the streets in Havana and other cities, selling
    home-made candy or peanuts to make ends meet. Others resell newspapers
    or pick through garbage for items to sell. The number of beggars on the
    streets of Cuba’s main cities has visibly increased.

    For Raquel, the daily struggle is but another chapter of her life.

    “I have always been a hard worker because the most important thing is my
    family,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me to wear old clothes while I
    collect the cans. The one who has to look good is my grandson, who just
    started high school.

    “The kids in school sometimes make fun of him but my grandson is very
    good and he’s not ashamed of me, at least not that he shows,” she said.
    “He always defends me against the mockery.”

    THIS ARTICLE WAS DONE IN COLLABORATION WITH 14YMEDIO AS PART OF AN
    AGREEMENT WITH EL NUEVO HERALD.

    FOLLOW MARIO J. PENTÓN ON TWITTER: @MARIOJOSE_CUBA

    Source: Growing old in Cuba is tough and getting harder | Miami Herald –
    www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article136984308.html