The Caribbean's geriatric facility
In recent weeks some media outlets have once again underscored Cuba's surprising demographic trends, pointing out that the country features demographic characteristics of a developed nation, but saddled by a Third-World economy. In that vein, the daily Granma, the Communist Party of Cuba's (PCC) official publication, recently published figures updated since the last census (2012), generated in 2015 by the National Bureau of Statistics and Information’s Population and Development Studies Centre.
As the regime often does, its statistics contain certain adjustments and a little makeup to keep them from straying too far from the ideal they wish to project. Just to mention the most glaring example: the document states that the migration balance in 2015 was less than 25,000; that is, just over 25,000 more people abandoned the island than moved to it.
It is difficult to reconcile this figure with the migration figures from the United States, Ecuador, Panama, Mexico, Spain and other countries that regularly receive Cuban exiles/emigrants. I have not seen exact statistics in this regard, but the numbers consulted suggest that the exodus last year was at least double what the authorities in Havana report.
The statistical manipulation involved a change in the emigrants' classification, the result of Cuba's latest immigration reform: before 2013 those who left the island without intending to return were classed under "indefinite leave permit" if the Government authorized them to travel, or "illegal exit" if they left at their own risk. Now those people are simply termed "residents living abroad" who, in theory, can return to the country in the following two years without losing their status as citizens under the regime. In this way they do not count as migrants, nor are they subtracted from calculations of the total population.
As reality is one thing, and demographic analysis another, the negative forecasts seem to be confirmed sooner and sooner. A decade ago it was estimated that by 2025 the number of retirees would equal that of active workers. Today it is believed that this parity could materialize in 2021.
While the 2012 census indicated that 18.3% of the Cuban population was 60 or over (2,041,392 citizens) and exceeded by more than one percentage point those ages 0-14, today almost 20% of Cubans are 60 or older, accounting for some 2,200,000 people, while the population age 0 to 14 represents only 16% of the total population. A change so sudden (three and a half percentage points in just three years) indicates that something is very wrong, both in the statistical system and in society as a whole.
Until recently the official interpretation of the demographic data was both facile and triumphalist, like almost everything emanating from the government. The declining birth rate and ageing of the population provided "irrefutable evidence" of the development and modernization provided by Communism. In these regards Cuba was on the same level as the most advanced countries in Europe, etc. And if the number of elderly grew, it was due to an increase in life expectancy, thanks to the advances of socialist medicine. If the number of children dropped it was because, thanks to Castroism, women controlled their sexuality and had been liberated from domestic slavery.
These arguments served to evade such basic aspects as the causes and consequences of migration, the incidence of divorce, abortion and suicide, deteriorating economic conditions, and the absence of measures to bolster birth rates.
The problem with ideology is that it normally cannot withstand reality's onslaughts. No matter how they try to manipulate the statistics, or sweeten their interpretation, it is evident that Cuba is turning into a kind of giant geriatric facility, and soon the number of pensioners will exceed that of the economically active.
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One of the first images that jump out at you in Cuban cities is the great number of elderly who struggle in poverty, many reduced to begging. They walk about trying to sell anything they can, or provide some service, in exchange for a few coins. The official press does not call them beggars, euphemistically referring to them as "vagrants." The police arrest them and lock them up in shelters for a few days whenever some VIP is going to visit the island. These measures constitute "a protocol for the admission, diagnosis, care and social reintegration of vagrants," according to the high-sounding rhetoric recently published in the newspaper Juventud Rebelde. According to these arguments homelessness and begging are "a lifestyle," supposedly caused mainly by family conflicts, alcoholism, and dementia, and government policy has not the slightest responsibility for the phenomenon.
Without private pension plans, property, businesses, or the possibility of working any longer, and in many cases abandoned by children who have left the country, the fate of thousands of elderly Cubans is to live on the meager pension provided them by the State (10 dollars a month in 2016), the charity of the Catholic Church, or relatives living abroad. And their number is growing inexorably, with the consequent increases in social assistance, pension and health care costs.
In the coming years the situation will worsen, because the demographic trends are profound and are not going to change overnight. The population is ageing and emigration is increasing, especially among young people, who see few prospects for the future under an oppressive and unproductive regime. And there is no immigration in sight. Although some exiles have returned, for various reasons, few, whether Cubans or not, wish to settle permanently in a country where there is no freedom and the economy is in shambles. Nor are there incentives for young people to start families and have more children.
The island's demographic crisis entails a potential for poverty, suffering and social backwardness whose effects are only now being revealed. The real causes of the phenomenon are not openly discussed, because doing so would involve a debate about the nature of the regime, the lack of freedom, the systematic violation of rights and Communism's productive impotence. And without a discussion of these fundamental issues, there will emerge no effective solutions in the medium or long term.
The paradox of the situation is that the elderly are both victims of the system that has plunged them into destitution, and its biggest defenders. Ageing societies - like Japan, Germany and Uruguay - tend to be very conservative and averse to sudden changes. Cuban seniors, highly dependent on the regime's support, in the form of pensions, subsidies and medical services, however paltry, will serve in the future as pillars of the same system that reduced them to fearful paupers deprived of their freedom.
Three generations of Cubans have lived chanting slogans, marching in squares, cutting sugar cane and serving as informants for the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. While the foreign subsidies lasted - first from the USSR, followed by Venezuela - the propaganda machine worked well enough, and the regime was able to disguise shortcomings of all kinds with brand-new schools, fancy hospitals and Olympic medals. But when the handouts came to an end, the cardboard scenery collapsed. Today the schools are rotting, the hospitals are falling apart, and lack even the most basic supplies, and athletes are fleeing abroad in search of freedom, and to get paid what they are worth.
The metamorphosis of the "fighting people," as extolled by the propaganda, into the reality of Cuba's indigent masses, captures the true history of the so-called "Cuban Revolution." And no number of speeches, or statistical manipulation, or complicity by foreign allies will be able to mask that failure. And nothing symbolizes this better than the horde of octogenarian leaders who at the closing of the last CCP Congress promised, among cheers and applause from their followers, that the next ten years will bring more of the same.
La Isla tiene una demografía de país altamente desarrollado y una economía de país subdesarrollado. Algunos demógrafos estiman que se producirá una disminución de la población económicamente activa a partir del año 2021. Entonces los cubanos que lleguen a la edad de jubilación superarán a los que entran en la edad laboral. Este mapa-reportaje, producido a partir del Anuario Estadístico de Cuba 2013, ilustra la crisis poblacional en Cuba.