Friday, March 24, 2017

As Cuba’s economy flat-lines, retirement has become notional

As Cuba's economy flat-lines, retirement has become notional
Tiny pensions must be supplemented by whatever work is available
Mar 23rd 2017 | HAVANA

NORBERTO MESA, a 66-year-old grandfather, stands in the hot sun 11 hours
a day, six days a week, guiding cars in and out of the parking spaces in
front of a bustling farm stand. The 4,000 Cuban pesos ($170 at the
official exchange rate) he earns each month in tips is more than ten
times his monthly old-age pension of 340 pesos. Without it, the retired
animal geneticist could not afford fruit and meat, or help his children,
who work for low salaries, to feed his four grandchildren.

Though revolutionary Cuba had one of the region's earliest and most
comprehensive pension systems, in recent years retirement has almost
vanished. Without further economic reform, and the cheap oil that used
to come from Venezuela, the economy has stalled. Pensions have been
frozen, and their value eaten up by inflation. According to the most
recent government statistics, from 2010, a third of men past retirement
age are working. Three-fifths of older people say they often have to go
without necessities.

The insular socialist paradise supposedly offers a social safety-net,
cradle to grave. But it is full of holes. Medical care is free, but most
medicine is not. Retirement homes are scarce, and rules that mean
residents must give up their pensions and homes put off many, since
these are often a lifeline for younger relatives in equally distressed

So old people can be seen on the streets of Havana selling newspapers
and peanuts, or recycling cans. They are scrubbing floors in affluent
homes or cooking for a growing number of private restaurants and
bakeries. Ernesto Alpízar, an 89-year-old former agronomist, goes
door-to-door selling strawberries and flowers. Even so, he remains an
ardent "Fidelista", grateful to the island's late dictator for the free
cataract surgery that saved his eyesight.

For even as the island's old and infirm must hustle to survive, they
have benefited from its success at providing health care. Life
expectancy at birth is 79, not far short of most developed countries,
and widely available birth control helps explain why family size has
fallen further and faster than in most other countries (see chart). The
flip side, though, has been a breakneck demographic
transition—exacerbated by the large share of young and middle-aged
Cubans who have fled to America. Over-65s now make up 14% of the
population. The national statistical office estimates that the total
number of pensioners will overtake the number of state-sector workers by

A few churches and charities, mostly funded from abroad, are trying to
fill the gap. Rodolfo Juárez, a pastor of the International Community
Church, a Protestant congregation, helps 60 indigent elderly people in
Havana. His scheme provides fruit, vegetables and beans to supplement
government rations of a daily piece of bread; and 7lb of rice, 2lb of
sugar, five eggs and a piece of chicken a month. Although running it
costs just 18,000 pesos a month, funding is a constant problem.

Mr Juárez and his wife, at 80 and 75, are older than many of those they
help. Between their church duties and his teaching at a seminary, they
make 3,600 pesos a month. Though that does not go far, it dwarfs Mr
Juarez's pension. As long as Cuba's economy flat-lines, its elderly will
have no rest till they drop.

Source: Hustling, cradle to grave: As Cuba's economy flat-lines,
retirement has become notional | The Economist -

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