HAVANA (AP) — The scene at Havana’s Victor Hugo Park is unfortunately typical, with a handful of boys kicking a soccer ball through trees while dozens of gray-haired seniors bend and stretch to the urgings of a government-employed trainer.
So few children, so many elderly. It’s a central dilemma for a nation whose population is the oldest in Latin America, and getting older.
The labor force soon will be shrinking as health costs soar, just when President Raul Castro’s government is struggling to implement reforms that aim to resuscitate an economy long on life support.
“We must be perfectly clear that the aging of the populace no longer has a solution,” Castro’s economic czar, Marino Murillo, told lawmakers in an alarmed tone last month. “It is going to happen, and that cannot be changed in the short term. … Society must prepare itself.”
The aging of Cuba’s population has its roots in some of the core achievements of Fidel Castro’s revolution, including a universal health care system that has increased life expectancy from 69 years during the 1960s to 78 today, comparable with the United States.
Abortions are free and it is estimated that half of Cuban pregnancies are terminated. High university graduation rates, generally associated worldwide with low fertility numbers, have Cuban women averaging 1.5 children, below the rate of replacement.
Cuba’s National Office of Statistics says about 2 million of the island’s 11 million inhabitants, or 17%, were over 60 years old last year. That’s already high compared to Latin America as a whole, where the rate is somewhere north of 9%, extrapolating from U.N. figures from 2000.
That U.N. study shows Cuba’s population is aging even faster than that of China, which has forbidden couples to have more than one child. Cuba’s rate would be typical in a wealthy European nation. But Cuba lacks the wealth to cope with it.
The trend is accelerating, with the number of seniors projected to nearly double to 3.6 million, or a third of the population, by 2035. During the same period, working-age Cubans are expected to decline from 65% to 52%.
The future may look a lot like Emelia Moreno. Still vigorous at 75 years old, she lives alone in a small apartment in Central Havana and spends much of her time at a neighborhood senior center that provides 1,000 retirees with medical attention, meals and social activities such as singing and dance classes.
“Cuba is fighting so that people of a certain age don’t feel too bad,” she said.
But her only child left for the U.S. a decade ago, and she knows that one day she’ll be completely dependent on the government because she has no family to take care of her when she cannot.
“I had heard people talk about how they felt empty when a family member left, but I had no idea,” Moreno said, caressing a photo of her daughter, Yeniset.
The graying trend can be traced partly to the country’s weak economy, resulting in the loss of people such as Yeniset, an outflow of 35,000 per year as people seek opportunity in the United States and elsewhere.