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CUBA: Growing Old Without a Staff to Lean On

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Mar 20 2007 (IPS) - Josefa Martínez, a Cuban woman in her forties, looked after her mother until she died, but she herself will not be so fortunate. “It was my decision not to have children and to dedicate myself entirely to my profession. Now I wonder, who will take care of me when I’m over 70 and no longer strong?”

The concern voiced by Martínez, who was born in the mid-1960s, is shared by many other women of her generation who had no children, or chose to have only one child, under the protection of a health system that made contraception freely available and legalised abortion to prevent maternal deaths.

“Maybe the same thing would have happened if I’d had a son, because looking after elderly people has always been something we women did. It’s an open question whether my son would have been willing to break with the normal patterns and stay home,” Martínez, whose brother emigrated to Spain 20 years ago, told IPS.

Both she and her brother were born in a decade of high fertility in Cuba, with years in which 250,000 births were recorded. But demographic studies show that high birth rates are a thing of the past in this Caribbean island nation, where the population began to decline in 2005. In 2006, there were 3,715 less people in Cuba than the previous year.

According to the National Statistics Office (ONE), there were 110,000 births in 2006, but the total population fell from 11,243,836 people to 11,240,121. Experts had forecast that a decline in the absolute number of people would not occur until around 2024.

In this decade, the annual population growth rate fell from three per 1,000 population in 2000 to 0.2 per 1,000 in 2005, and to -0.3 per 1,000 in 2006. Projections based on these growth rates indicate that in 2020, 21.4 percent of the population will be 60 or over, and only 15.6 percent will be 14 or under.

At present, 16.2 percent of the Cuban population is over 60 years of age. Cuba and Barbados will soon become the countries with the most elderly populations in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to estimates by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Cuba “has reached the upper limit of its population, which will not reach 12 million,” the resident coordinator of the United Nations system in Cuba, Susan McDade, told reporters in Havana. In her view, the phenomenon implies structural changes which will require an adequate response.

McDade, as UNFPA’s representative, said it was important to design public policies that took the ageing of the population into account, and to begin spending programmes to provide for future needs in terms of housing, transport and infrastructure in general.

In her view, one of the major challenges will be to achieve economic stability so that enough men and women can help care for the elderly.

Cuba has a national programme for older adults, and in recent years there have been initiatives to make a dignified old age possible, but experts say that the progress made has not been sufficient. The challenges include changes needed in public health and social assistance.

“In any country in the world, if ageing of the population occurs rapidly and abruptly, it will have a big impact. It’s not the same thing to provide for a young population as for an elderly one, with greater needs of all kinds,” Alfonso Farnós, a national official with UNFPA, told IPS.

Experts agree that emigration has also contributed to the decrease in population. But they point out that the main causes are the low birth rate, which has been below replacement level (one daughter per woman) since 1978, and the rise in life expectancy to 77 years.

This is not only a Cuban phenomenon. In Latin America and the Caribbean in general, fertility rates have been falling steadily since the 1970s, mainly as a result of contraceptive use.

According to projections for 2007 by the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the average worldwide fertility rate this year will be 2.55 children per woman, and the regional rate somewhat lower at 2.38 children per woman.

In Cuba, it would be necessary to persuade some couples to have more than two children, “or in other words, 210 children should be born to every 200 couples,” to replace the ageing population, said Farnós, who was one of the first Cuban experts to call attention to the demographic effects of the decrease in fertility over 20 years ago.

For years, the Cuban government has ruled out implementing a population policy to promote having children. Experts say that economic incentives, such as access to housing, could help increase the birth rate.

However, other experts are not wholly convinced of the effectiveness of such solutions, which have not had the desired result in developed countries. “Industrialised countries have tended to rely more on selective immigration, based on country of origin and professional training,” Farnós said.

He pointed out that Cuba itself, which has always been a country with slow population growth, swelled its numbers in the early 20th century with Spanish, Haitian and Jamaican immigrants.

Some of the basic reasons for the decline in fertility are the broad access to education and employment that Cuban women enjoy, their high level of professional achievement, and the comprehensive family planning services provided by the state.

In the last 15 years an additional reason has been the severe economic recession, brought on by the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, when Cuba lost its main aid provider, market and source of cheap oil. Combined with the effects of the U.S. embargo that has lasted four decades, its impact was considerable.

“I delayed having children for professional reasons, and when the crisis began I kept waiting because I wasn’t in a position to raise a child. Now I think my moment has passed,” said Raquel Díaz, a 44-year-old biologist.

But unlike Martínez, Díaz is not worried about what might happen to her in her old age. “I have very good friends, and I’m sure I’ll never be left alone. Anyway, children leave. I know older couples whose children have left Cuba, or even if they work here it’s in sectors like tourism, and their parents are utterly alone and abandoned,” she said.

Beyond the confines of the family, some economists are beginning to wonder how the country will cope with the continual increase in the number of people over 60 and the shrinking of the working age population.

“The burden on the national economy will become more critical over the next 20 years, and we have to make plans now, pass legislation, widen the productive base and attend to other aspects, in order to face the challenge,” an economist who preferred to remain anonymous told IPS.

 
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