Cuban exodus leaves elderly behind

Carlos Batista
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Elderly Cubans wait for help at La Milagrosa Grandparent House in Havana

Elderly Cubans wait for help at La Milagrosa Grandparent House in Havana (AFP Photo/Adalberto Roque)

Havana (AFP) - They have lived through dictatorship, the Cuban Revolution, the Missile Crisis, the Cold War, the near-starvation of the "special period" and rapprochement with the United States.

Now, many of Cuba's senior citizens are alone, left behind by an exodus of younger generations that has given the country a rapidly aging population.

"I'm 88 years old. My son doesn't send me anything. At first he sent a little money, but I don't even hear from him now," said Leocadia Aguila, whose son Valentin, a martial arts expert, left two years ago for the United States.

Leaning on her cane, the brown-skinned, white-haired former hospital janitor said she was scraping by with the help of the Catholic Church, which supplements her tiny pension from the state.

The average retiree in Cuba gets a pension of $10 a month.

To help impoverished seniors, the Church runs a charity called the "Grandparents' House" in Havana, where aging Cubans gather to talk, share their hardships, watch TV and play dominoes.

"My 'brothers' here are the only family I have," said 93-year-old Raimundo Aleman, who arrives at the center every morning at dawn to help out in the kitchen.

The retired delivery-truck driver's only close relatives are his three children in the US.

Politics drove the first major wave of Cuban migrants to the United States, after Fidel Castro's band of rebels overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

More recently, it is the communist island's economic woes that have sent younger Cubans abroad.

Cuba is doing better than during the economic crisis in the 1990s provoked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main benefactor -- the so-called "special period."

The economy grew a respectable four percent last year.

But tentative economic reforms by Castro's successor, his 84-year-old younger brother Raul, have so far failed to deliver the hoped-for results. This year, the government is forecasting just two-percent growth.

And the thaw with long-time enemy the United States has only accelerated the Cuban exodus.

Last year, 43,000 Cubans entered the US, a new record.

The restoration of US-Cuban ties after more than half a century of enmity has raised fears on the island that Washington will soon change its preferential policies on Cuban immigrants, which fast-track them for permanent residency.

- Loneliness and poverty -

"Today, emigration mainly involves the relatively young, from 20 to 45 years old," said demographer Alina Alonso.

Often, those who reach the US then bring over family members, but senior citizens are frequently left behind.

Today, 12.6 percent of Cuban households consist of just one person, a retiree.

The government runs some 150 retirement homes, but they tend to be overcrowded and poorly maintained.

Many would rather scrape by on their meager pensions and the money they get from the Church, which receives state funding and foreign donations to assist the elderly.

"They take good care of me here," said Maria Angelica Vidal, a 72-year-old former English teacher with a son in Haiti and grandson in the US.

At the Grandparents' House, she gets food, clothing, medical care and most importantly, affection.

Cuba, where nearly 20 percent of the populace is over 60, is on track to have the oldest population in Latin America by 2030. It is currently second only to Uruguay.