Sunday, December 10, 2006

Cuba's aging society straining resources

Posted on Thu, Dec. 07, 2006
Miami Herald

Cuba's aging society straining resources
The Cuban government has been confronting a demographic reality that promises to wreak havoc on an already overburdened social service system.

Regla, a 38-year-old security guard, is precisely the type of married woman the Cuban government is worried about: She had a baby 17 years ago and called it quits.

Money is tight and so is housing, so she had an abortion each of the four more times she got pregnant. Her teen daughter terminated a pregnancy last year, too.

''With this economic situation, who can have more children?'' Regla said. ``We're in the special period that never ends. Abortions are free and have no stigma attached. Everybody does it. Everybody.''

Regla's attitude is not unusual. In a nation faced with chronic shortages of everything from housing to food, more and more women are choosing to have just one child -- or none at all. A country with one of the hemisphere's highest life expectancy rates and lowest birthrates finds itself with a dwindling population -- one that in just 13 years will see the number of retired people outnumber the labor force.

The Cuban government-run media has tackled the issue in recent months, running remarkably candid coverage of a demographic phenomenon that promises to wreak havoc on an already strained social service system. As Fidel Castro -- himself 80 -- languishes in his sick bed, the effort to sustain the socialist society he built is being constantly challenged by emigration, aging adults and childless women.

''I'm 41, my son is 23, and I decided: That's it. No more,'' said Idania, an office worker in the city of Santa Clara, whose last name, like others in this report, was withheld for fear of reprisals. ``You want to give your children absolutely everything in life. If you are in a situation where you can't give your child absolutely everything, then why have more kids?''


Since 1978, Cuba's fertility rate has decreased to levels that can no longer sustain current population levels. Now at 11.2 million, the Cuban media says it is unlikely to ever reach 12 million.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Cuba's annual birthrate was about 250,000. In 2005, there were slightly more than 120,000 births, despite there being 1 million women of reproductive age.


Seniors age 60 and older now make up about 16 percent of Cuba's population. The Cuban government estimates that by 2025, 26 percent of Cubans will be elderly.

If current trends don't change, Cuba will join the 11 countries with the world's oldest populations, Granma, the island's main daily newspaper, reported.

''In a few years, it is almost certain that the demand for senior citizen centers, dining halls, homes and other senior citizen facilities will exceed the new factories and schools,'' Granma said.

Another newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, put it like this: ``If in 10 years we haven't reached a coherent reproduction policy, we'll see each other more frequently at wakes than at children's birthday parties.''

Among the causes, Granma cited ''material'' problems such as housing shortages, high cost of living, lack of day-care centers and goods like children's clothing. The paper also acknowledged the outward migration of adults of child-bearing age, but said positive changes such as advances for women in the workforce and availability of birth control also contributed.

But experts say Cuba's declining birthrate and aging populace is nothing new. Cuba's population rate started to slip in the 1950s, just as it did in Europe and other nations. The birthrate is 1.62 children per woman, compared to the United States' 2.04 birthrate.

But about 1.4 million new immigrants enter the United States every year, while Cuba sees tens of thousands leave.

With Castro sick and his revolution perhaps on the brink of radical change, the situation is particularly critical, said sociologist Mauricio Font. If communism collapses after Castro's death, Cuba is likely to witness a massive outward migration of its much-needed youth, as occurred in Eastern Europe.

''What we know of Cuba is that the young people are not particularly happy and are searching for more opportunities,'' said Font, director of the Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies at the Graduate Center in New York. ``People are leaving, and it's going to get worse. That's something to think about. It's going to be a huge challenge with or without a transition.''


A decline in population isn't necessarily bad, said Arie Hoekman, Cuba director for the United Nations Population Fund. Cuba, which suffered a sharp economic decline after the fall of the Soviet Union -- the ''special period'' that Regla referred to -- probably could not sustain massive population spurts.

''A dwindling younger population and high elderly population places challenges on social systems such as health, education, social security,'' Hoekman said. ``On the other hand, continued growth would not be sustainable. They are already facing challenges.''

The biggest difficulty for Cuba will be to address the swelling numbers of elderly. Cuba already has about 300,000 people over the age of 80, but the government has focused its attention on other issues, such as tackling infant mortality and educating children. ''We've been seeing this coming for a very long time,'' said Lisandro Pérez, a sociology professor at Florida International University. ``I think it is a problem. I don't think the Cuban health system is geared toward the catastrophic illnesses older people get.''


The strains are already showing. Elderly people earn less than $10 a month on their pensions, so many of the street vendors who peddle snacks and newspapers on the street are older adults who say they were forced to return to the workforce because they could not survive on their incomes.

''A lack of children is something the state has to worry about, not me. I say the thing elderly folks worry about is food,'' said Víctor, a 70-year-old newspaper seller. ``Our health system is good, our education system is good, but our food situation is very bad.''

He was accompanied at an Old Havana plaza one recent afternoon by Cecilia, a 73-year-old grandmother who hops a bus to tourist areas to supplement her pension by begging for contributions from foreigners. She is worried because her 25-year-old grandson has not had any children.

''I'm concerned about the lack of children, sure,'' she said. ``You have to have future generations. What society will we have if there are no children?''

The Miami Herald withheld the name of the correspondent who filed this report because the author lacked the Cuban journalist visa required to work on the island.

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