Posted on Mon, Dec. 11, 2006
Cuba’s aging society straining resources
HAVANA – 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
“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
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
“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 Perez, 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 Victor, 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
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.