Retirees in the socialist paradise forced to work just to eat? Nah, couldn’t happen. Right?
Maria is 59 and retired – at least in theory. For the past four years she has held two jobs in the underground economy to supplement her government pension. Like many of her generation, she is finding that what was possibly once the most generous pension system in Latin America now struggles to sustain its oldest citizens.
“The poorest, most vulnerable group in Cuban society are pensioners,” said economist and University of Pittsburgh professor emeritus Carmelo Mesa-Lago, co-author of the 2004 book Cuba’s Aborted Reform.
Now, throughout Havana, retired scientists and teachers dot the streets – driving cabs, hawking newspapers, guarding parked cars for tourists in front of the lush Parque Central.
Here on the Malecon, Maria has competition.
“Mucha competencia,” mutters Maria, who worked three decades in a factory that made drinking glasses and busts of independence hero Jose Marti.
Other gray-haired vendors add to the chorus of calls, the names of their wares swallowed in the echo of crashing waves below.
“Mani,” one man cries, offering white paper cones full of peanuts to camera-toting tourists and Cubans drinking rum.
Another man with a shoulder sack sells caramels and lollipops in pink and purple wrappers. A woman peddles stuffed animals.
“Cubans are fighters,” Maria says. “Everybody has su manera.”
That manera, or way of getting by, is often the booming underground economy.
Maria earns a pension equal to about $7 a month. But the monthly rations Cubans can buy in peso stores last about a week. Health care is free, but state-subsidized pharmacies sit bare.
If she can’t find pills and food at pharmacies and peso stores, Maria must buy them in dollar stores or on the black market at higher prices.
Some seniors depend on money sent from families. Maria has no one outside Cuba.
Like most older Cubans, she lives with her whole family. She shares a two-room apartment south of the city with her husband, their son, pregnant daughter and twin 14-month-old granddaughters.
Her husband, retired, refuses to work anymore. They fight about her other jobs.
“Why are you working there?” he yells. “You are a slave.”
Indeed, sir, the people of Cuba are all slaves.