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Old and poor in Cuba: nearly 1,600,000 retirees, with more than half on minimum pensions

The Ordering Task’s initial calculations 'envisioned higher retirement amounts', say academics. With what they receive today, and inflation, thousands of elderly people languish in penury.

An elderly Cuban woman living in poverty in Cienfuegos.
An elderly Cuban woman living in poverty in Cienfuegos. 5 de Septiembre

The "economic independence" of the elderly in Cuba and the meager assistance provided by the Cuban State to the most vulnerable have suffered in the wake of the "monetary regulation." This population group has been plunged into misery with pensions that are not enough, while their situation is exacerbated by the inflation racking the island.

According to José Luis Rodríguez, winner of a National Economics Award (2019) and Social Sciences Award (2021), "an example of the most vulnerable segments can be seen when taking into account that Cuba has around 1,600,000 retirees, and of them, more than half receive bare-minimum pensions," published the newspaper 5 de Septiembre.

This trend hits other peaks in Cienfuegos, where, according to data from the Provincial Directorate of Labor and Social Security, of the approximately 58,310 retirees, 70% receive the minimum amount, set at 1,528 pesos for those who retire due to old age or total disability, and 1,070 for widow and widower pensioners.

The reality of the elderly assisted by the government, receiving assistance of around 1,260 pesos for one person, is even more penurious.

"The hardest thing about this age is that one is getting closer to death, and the enjoyment of the time we have left can become a nightmare," Enrique Rodríguez García, 75, who lives with his sister, who is disabled and 86, told the official media outlet.

"What is 1,570 pesos today? I worked my whole life. At the time I did what I was supposed to do, and now I feel that I’ve been mistreated in terms of salary, without compensation. I suffer from anemia, I can't go out in the street, due to the risk of falling, and my situation requires an answer. I don't want any special treatment…? said this man, a university graduate, philologist and fluent in four languages.

63-year-old Albina Lugarda Chaviano lives under even more hardship. She receives, through Social Assistance, a check for 1,260 pesos.

"Look at my medications, I have so many diseases! I spend most of my money at the pharmacy," she complained.

"There are the groceries, necessities and there's no way I can make ends meet. I have sold almost everything I had of value, and there are months when I don't know what I'm going to do. I have no clothes, no shoes, nothing. I live off people's charity, on whatever they can give me, and I don't feel ashamed to say so," she said.

"We are aware that, with today's exorbitant prices, the minimum pension does not meet the needs of retirees," admitted Lino Pérez Díaz, provincial director of the National Social Security Institute (INASS) in Cienfuegos.

According to Eduardo López Bastida, a professor at the University of Cienfuegos (UCF) and president of the Cuban Academy of Sciences in the province, "the initial calculations of the Ordering Task envisioned higher retirement amounts, but they were decreased so much that they ended up being too low for people who worked all their lives."

"Now, with inflation, a large percentage cannot even afford basic groceries," he acknowledged.

"Let's add to this the enormous number of elderly people who live alone, a phenomenon that has worsened in the last decade," added Olga Lourdes Vila Pérez, a professor at the UCF and the author of several studies on population aging in the country. "We are talking about older adults abandoned by their families, and also by their children and close relatives, who are emigrating today, which makes them much more vulnerable," she said.

According to 5 de Septiembre, apart from the growing number of elderly people living in economic dependence, other retirees are extending their working lives or taking on informal jobs to help their families or support themselves, regardless of their ailments and desires.

Irrael Lobelle Diéguez, 83, who receives a minimum pension of 1,528 pesos, told the newspaper: "I spend almost everything on food alone. That's why I collect raw materials, to have some extra money, because I like to give a little gift to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren on their birthdays, buy them some trinkets. When my payment was 300 pesos, I felt it was enough, but not anymore …"

Dagoberto Cobas Vidal, who is 84 and receives a pension of 1,570 pesos, declared: "My strength is failing, and sometimes I go to work in the fields to earn a little more, to be able to buy things on the street. Of course, I worry about the day when I won't be able to do that; it will be dramatic."

In September 2021 the Cuban government approved a 280-peso bonus for retirees living alone and earning the minimum pension without economic help from any obligated family members. On this the authorities said that the State spent 1.9 billion pesos, equivalent to 79 million dollars, according to a report by the Prensa Latina news agency.

Eirinevys González Navarro, deputy director of Prevention, Assistance and Social Work in Cienfuegos, said that in the province, "at the time the measure was applied, around 990 elderly people were benefited, and now there are more than 2,000, because it is still in force," but it has not resolved the situations of those affected.

Armando Poblet Figueredo, 74 years old and with a pension of 1,500 pesos, is one of the beneficiaries of the Family Attention Service (SAF) in Cienfuegos, a program through which he tries to guarantee his daily food.

"Money is tight, and sometimes I can't even take advantage of all the bargains, even though the food is worse than before," he said.

Juan Millares Mesa, 76, also dependent on this program, stated that there are days when he eats nothing but a plate of rice. "I don't have enough to eat anything else. Just yesterday I had lunch with the food here (from the SAF) and I left a little for the evening, and so," he declared, "I go on living, God willing."

The provincial administration of the INASS stated that "the increase in pensions depends on the country's economic capacity to generate revenue, and being able to allocate it for this purpose. Thus, our analysis is focused on how to lower prices." The same is true to the Social Assistance area, with projections oriented towards prevention, since "monetary aid and the delivery of resources do not solve the countless difficulties faced by the elderly at home," they conceded.

Professor Vila Pérez, however, believes that "it is necessary to be flexible with labor and wage policies, especially those aimed at retirement and social assistance. Pensions should be increased for those people who have worked hard during their lives; this is evident in the current situation."

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