Growing Old in Cuba: Luck or Misfortune? / Cubanet, Ana Leon
Cubanet, Ana Leon, Havana, 3 March 2017 – Jose Vargas is 85 years old
and a retired musician. He lives alone in a room in a tenement in Old
Havana, depending on a monthly check of 240 Cuban pesos (eight dollars
U.S.) and whatever help his neighbors can offer.
For two years this old man has waited for cataract surgery in both eyes.
He was “given the run around” without the least consideration at the
League Against Blindness; at Dependent Hospital, the operating room
ceiling collapsed, causing the indefinite postponement of the surgery;
and at Calixto Garcia Hospital there were no doctors available.
In spite of Vargas’ ordeal, the official press speaks with pride of the
aging population that today comprises 18% of the Cuban population. It
argues that this longevity is an achievement of the socialist system and
optimistically describes it as a “challenge” for the near future. But at
the current juncture, the free health benefits that the Island’s high
officials preach so much about in front of international agencies are
not perceived. How can you plan to confront the “challenge” if a
helpless old man has to wait two years for a cataract operation?
Disabled by partial blindness and diabetes, Vargas began to experience
hunger. He suffered hypoglycemia more than once from not eating for long
hours. Rosa, 68 years old, is the only neighbor who, in accordance with
her means, has dealt with feeding him and washing his clothes. “It hurt
me to see him so dirty and hungry (…) I have seen him eating things that
are not good for an old diabetic,” the lady told CubaNet.
Nevertheless, Rosa could not take on that responsibility for long given
that she herself is retired and has health problems; so she tried to
Trusting in Christian charity, she went to the New Pines Evangelical
Church – very near the tenement where Vargas lives – which distributes
food daily for some elderly loners. But what a surprise when a woman
responded to her, without the least sign of compassion: “That is not our
problem. Go see the delegate [to the local People’s Power], the Party
and the Government.”
Rosa explained Vargas’ case to Old Havana’s Municipal Government and
sought a food quota and social worker services from the Family Attention
Centers. Reluctantly, they gave her written authorization that would
permit Vargas to carry home, twice a day, a bowl with rice, peas,
scrambled eggs and jam; all poorly made and without the necessary
As if that were not enough, Vargas had to walk a kilometer a day or pay
30 Cuban pesos (a fifth of his pension) for a bicycle-taxi in order to
collect the food. The social worker who should have taken care of this
task never showed up.
Behind the suffering of a forsaken old man there is so much
administrative corruption and human sordidness that right now the
prospect of growing old in Cuba is terrifying. The State does not have
the institutions or the specialists equipped to confront the wave of
aging that is approaching. The old age shelters – with a couple of
exceptions – are worse and do not accept old people with dementia,
advanced Alzheimer’s or any other illness that requires care around the
At the beginning of the century Fidel Castro dedicated many resources to
graduating thousands of social workers who only served to squander
public funds in that crazy “Summer on Wheels” campaign, where the same
young people charged with regulating fuel consumption in order to
protect State property wound up stealing it. The government spent
millions of pesos, awarded college degrees to a gang of delinquents and
today cannot even harvest the humanitarian benefit of the investment
planned on the basis of political volunteerism and a lack of common sense.
In Cuba today there are not enough social workers, geriatric
specialists, adequate food or medicines. Many unfortunate old people
live in dwellings that are in a deplorable state. Vargas himself is in
constant risk of slipping on the mold caused by leaks in the tenement’s
cistern; or being killed by a piece of loose brick from the eaves and
balconies of the building whose century-old structure is in an advanced
state of deterioration.
In the face of official indifference, people who don’t have a place to
live enter “the mansion” in an old folks’ home, to be “cared” for in
exchange for staying with the living instead of the dead. While death
approaches, who complains of mistreatment? Who can say if the old person
accepts his new situation or is feeling threatened?
A country that does not concern itself with old adults leaves them to
the mercy of bad people. That is the future that awaits Cuba, given that
the State wants to subsidize everything, and it is not possible.
Families have fragmented because of the exiles, and not even the Church
can be counted on. It is no wonder that the number of suicides by
elderly people has increased, although the government hides the statistics.
Translated by Mary Lou Keel
Source: Growing Old in Cuba: Luck or Misfortune? / Cubanet, Ana Leon –
Translating Cuba –