Cuba's Aging Population Will Test Economic Reform

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"Reform becomes more difficult due to emigration," said Sergio Diaz-Briquets, a Washington-based expert on Cuban demographics. "Those who leave are the youngest, best-educated and most ambitious."

And with the ranks of seniors increasing, Diaz-Briquets said, resources that could be used to stimulate the economic project inevitably will have to be diverted to care for the elderly.

Demographers agree that Cuba's population has topped out around 11.2 million, and negative growth will be the rule for the forseeable future.

Murillo, the economic czar, said authorities are studying measures for next year to try to stimulate fertility rates, but he did not give details.

"We are going to have a serious problem with the availability of a labor force," Murillo acknowledged.

In recent years Cuba has implemented a number of measures for the aging, including an expanded denture distribution program and establishing "grandparents' circles" of elderly citizens who get together for activities and help each other out when the relatives they live with are at work.

Authorities recently asked seniors to keep active later in life by rolling the retirement age progressively back from 55 to 60 for women and from 60 to 65 for men. Raul Castro himself is already 16 years past his golden-watch moment, at 81.

Cuba recently allowed retirees to return to work and still collect their pensions. They're also being encouraged to join the class of small-business owners setting up shop under Castro's reforms, though experts say that idea has limited potential.

Aging populations present difficulties for countries around the world, and attempts to spur birth rates have produced meager returns, Diaz-Briquets said.

But he suggested that if Castro's reforms can create more opportunities for private enterprise, Cuba might be able to woo immigrants from countries where extreme poverty is rampant and homicides are skyrocketing, places where the Communist-run island's free health care and relative public safety might seem a good alternative.

"The situation in Haiti and some Central American nations will continue to be even worse than in Cuba," Diaz-Briquets said, adding that a post-U.S.-embargo Cuba could be even more attractive to potential migrants from those countries. "The way things are going, and assuming some more positive scenarios for Cuba, the idea doesn't seem that outlandish."


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