How the Elderly Survive in Cuba

 An example of how some elderly live in Cuba. 

An example of how some elderly live in Cuba. 

Last week, I authored a piece in The Economist about how the elderly have to hustle to survive in Cuba. I came up with the idea while thinking about the issue of poverty on the island. Cuba is unique for a developing country, because people have access to free education and health care, and usually housing is provided for. 

Even so, many people are cash poor, and I've felt a sense of deprivation from nearly everyone I've meet. For the first year or so I lived here, it was hard to sort out how much of it was poverty as opposed to material deprivation. (I feel that deprivation too, as you may have sensed if you read my recent toilet paper post). After living on the island for a while, I began to realize that while nearly everyone in Cuba is poor by American standards, there are many different levels of poverty in Cuba. 

This realization came to me after I befriended a church pastor and his wife who run a charity project. After speaking with them extensively, I realized that the people they help, the elderly, often struggle to eat. With pensions of roughly $11 per month, there is no safety net or ability to retire in Cuba without financial assistance from family or friends. I often see the elderly on the streets working, whether recycling cans, selling newspapers, peanuts, or other small household items they’ve managed to round up. I’ve met elderly who retired from careers, respectively, as a scientist, doctor, and teacher, who now work as a parking attendant, a muffin vendor on the beach, and a door-to-door vendor of illegal black market products. 

I mentioned a brave couple in the Economist story, Rodolfo and Flor Juarez, aged 80 and 75, who run the Elders’ Care project of the International Christian Community in Vedado. The couple met in Cambodia in the 1980s. Rodolfo, a Cuban, had been sent there to work as a hydraulic engineer to help rebuild the country after Pol Pot’s rule, while Flor, a Filipina, was the head of World Vision.

After they returned to Cuba together in the early 1990s, they began their church, the only English-language Protestant service in Cuba. After the government reached out to churches for help with the elderly in the early 2000s, they began the Elders Care program, which runs on a shoestring budget of about $700 per month. The program employs four full-time workers, who walk up to 20 miles a day, to visit the 60 people whom the project supports. Each worker is in charge of 15 recipients, who are chosen with the help of religious leaders in the community. (Religious affiliation is not a prerequisite to becoming a recipient of the program.) 

Some of the project’s elderly have children who have left for the United States but do not send money to them. Others have no children or family who can care for them. Still others have children who are in just as much — or more — need than themselves.

I met an 85-year-old woman and a 90-year-old man whom the project supports. They lived in a tiny apartment smaller than my living room. Like most others in the program, they had a refrigerator, television, and bathroom, but they lack regular running water and a phone line. Their 70-year-old son suffered from a neurological disorder. The 85-year-old mother was bedridden because she fractured her hip last year. She did not want to get a hip operation because a relative received one — free from the government — but died several months later. So she remains in bed. 

Her husband, who was a sweet old man who marveled at how well I wrote in Spanish, worked for decades as a truck driver for the state and retired with a pension of $10 per month. To make ends meet after his official retirement, he roasted and sold coffee on the streets of Havana. But he retired from that about half a decade ago, when he was about 85. The project assists them by taking them to doctor's appointments, procuring medicine, and making weekly visits to check on their health, both physical and mental. Most importantly though is the food the project delivers weekly: a bundle of produce worth 36 Cuban pesos, or $1.50. That usually buys a few malanga (taro root), a few bananas, a tomato or two, and a pound of black beans. This elderly couple, like others, otherwise survive on their ration book, which provides a good amount of sugar, rice, and starch (a daily piece of bread), but little else.

The couple are extremely appreciative of the $6 of food they get every month from the Elders’ Care project, which helps add calories and nutrition to their diet. Even so, “we barely have any meat or eggs in our diet,” the husband said. “We have a piece of chicken and five eggs per month. Eggs are a luxury. Sometimes all we have in a day are some beans and a bread bun.”