Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

CHILDREN-CUBA: Street Kids on the Increase

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Jul 16 1996 (IPS) - The streets of Cuba’s major cities, once free of beggars, are becoming increasingly filled with children hustling to make a a few cents – let alone a dollar,

Dressed mainly in ragged clothes, but sometimes in school uniforms, the street kids work at anything they can – cleaning car windscreens at stoplights, guarding parked vehicles, selling craftwork, cigars and even drugs. Some offer to act as tourist guides despite their scanty knowledge of local history.

The streets have always been crowded with youngsters who merely ask passers-by for sweets, but the number of children looking for cash is growing. When tourists say “I haven’t got any change,” the answer is “well give me anything you can.”

These children of the mid-nineties are often under the pressure of parents who sent them on the streets to earn their living. While most spend their time begging and doing minor chores, there are others who have turned to crime – stealing handbags from tourists or picking poickets – .like the 1,000 minors serving snetences in detention centres throughout Cuba.

“What I do is beg…my brother is ill, I’ve got to buy medicine… I haven’t got any shoes,” said Raul, an 11-year-old who spends his time after school tailing tourists through the streets. He goes home when it is dark and gives his mother whatever he has collected, from money to soap. He says he gets little thanks.

Some years ago authorities would have said Raul was in a social group incompatible with the socialist ideal, but today he is just one more character in a nation where the economic crisis of the last five years has led to a crisis in values among the Cuba’s population.

Sociologists, however, agree that child labour and the phenomenon of street children on the island is still insignificant compared to the situation in other nations of Latin America.

According to the United Nations International Childrends Fund (UNICEF) there are 200 million children worldwide aged under 15 “who work practically all their waking hours, often at the expense of their physical and mental development.”

In Cuba children are not seen sleeping in the streets, and even when their hopes of earning money distance them from schooling, the great majority benefit from nine years of free education.

Sources in the Ministry of Education (MINED) said school rolls for next year will list 2.3 million pupils attending the 12,200 primary, secondary, and tertiary establishments in the nation. Last year, 99.6 percent of the Cuban children in the six to 11 age group attended school, along with 90.9 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 14.

“The number of working children in Cuba is statistically insignificant,” said the Cuban weekly Juventud Rebelde recently, although it provided no further statistical information. A previous survey by the publication in 1994, revealed that the children who work in the streets were aged between 9 and 12 years old. Today the figures would be different and in 1994, the survey showed that many younger children “worked” while watched by their mothers or a grandparent.

At the time, only 5.1 percent of those questioned had left school to go tailing the tourists, while 93.5 percent said they went out “to earn money” after school was over.

In the last two years, however, the phenomenon has become more worrying, according to psychologist Illovis Portieles, member of the Department of Minors of the Cuban Interior Ministry, as more children are leaving school to beg on the streets.

Specialist studies state the majority of these children come from broken homes or live in conditions of overcrowding, economic instability due to unemployed parents – most of whom make an income from illegal or criminal activities.

Juventud Rebelde recognised the “undoubted” influence of the economic crisis experienced in the island since 1990 and the recent appearance of permitted self employment.

“There are children who work to help their parents in small businesses, or in agricultural sectors like coffee and tobacco.

The newpaper said that ‘across the board’ opposition to child labour would be “questionable,” though it added that the child’s involvement should not be allowed to interfere with its “normal development.”

According to Cuban law, no one under the age of 17 can work, unless they have graduated from a special trade school at the age of 15.

Sources in the Ministry of Justice said that planned modifications to the penal code will punish parents or guardians who encourage children to beg, but not for having their children help them in their own business.

The modifications also include tough measures on cases of the sexual exploitation of children or their use in pornography, though so far few cases of this sort have come to light on the island.

However, despite the concern of officialdom, people in the streets of Havana are remarkably tolerant of the child beggars at a social level. Although many people turn them down, many more accept their existence, seeing them almost as a “necessary evil” at a time of economic difficulty.

“Children have a right to live a childhood, as the moment to work will arrive too soon,” said Enith Arlem Prieto, of the Jose Marti Pioneers Organisation, and she called for the phrase “poor but honourable” to be brought back into common use.

 
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