Cuba’s Time Bomb

Rachel Kondrat '17, Staff Writer

Today, Cuba faces an unprecedented population decline. In 2010, Cuba’s entire population was about 11.3 million, but this number has decreased by 30,000 citizens in just the past 5 years. If this trend continues the effects of this population loss will be far-reaching. The government is keenly aware of the urgent situation and is looking for a solution to remedy this bleak situation.  A key factor in this crisis is the country’s poor economy. While there have been some positive upturns in recent years including the prospect of normalized relations with the US, the country continues to have a high rate of poverty and very few growth opportunities for its citizens. The core causes of the ongoing poverty in Cuba have not been effectively tackled. The hope for a better future has been diminishing, especially among young Cubans. The current decline in Cuban population has been incited by several key factors including an aging population, a low birth rate and an increase in migration.

Aging population: The sizable number of elderly citizens in Cuba is primarily the result of the medical advances generated after the country’s revolution. Cuba’s sophisticated medical system has extended life expectancy to levels unparalleled in any other nation in Central America and the Caribbean. The free medical care has helped increase the average life expectancy to 77 (as opposed to 71 in most of Central America). Due to the longer life expectancy, 16.6% of the population is over 60; by 2025 the percentage of the population over 60 will increase to 26%. However, Cuba is a victim of its own medical success. As a result of universal health care, people that are elderly are living longer, but there are now fewer young people to support them. There are simply not enough young working people to cover the costs of social security and other vital resources. Consequently, there will be a massive impact on productivity and the cost of pensions as well as health services, which will further damage the economy.  This creates a damaging cycle that contributes to the decline in overall population.

Declining birth rate: The cause for the declining birth rate in Cuba may be rooted in the country’s socialist revolution. Within this socialist system more women are working, and all women have access to universal healthcare.  These factors would ostensibly provide ideal circumstances for having multiple children. However, Cuba’s lackluster economy and housing shortage are causing married couples to have fewer children. Those who support a more traditional patriarchal society maintain that the inclusion of women in the work force has been keeping the birth rate low. In response to this issue, the Cuban Ministry of Public Health recently implemented financial incentives for young women and couples to start a family. In addition, they are expanding maternity leave to a full year with pay.  But how can such measures sustain a family, when the youth do not have the economical opportunity to rely on a salary that isn’t a mere formality?

Young migration: In 1966 the US Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, a law that grants permanent residency status to Cuban nationals within one year of their arrival.  This program was intended to assist migrants who were trying to escape Cuba after the revolution.  The effects of this Cold War Era policy still clearly impact the current population decline in Cuba. Juan Carlos Alfonso, director of the Center for Population Studies, has sanctioned various measures to impose a “significant impact on the formation and renewal of human capital and the availability of the workforce”. Unfortunately, emigration has increased in recent years; the Cuban Adjustment Act, the cash- starved economy, and lack of housing are the fundamental reasons for the Cuban exodus to the US. The Cuban government blames the US for draining the vital professionals and working-age adults needed to sustain and improve the economy. However, Cuban-American legislators claim the economic migrants are abusing the Cuban Adjustment Act’s original intention of helping political migrants. In addition to the legal opportunity to enter the US, the declining economy still consistently fuels the majority of migrants. The economic conditions make Cuba’s youth believe there are no solutions in the future.  Both the lack of housing and the lack of money reinforce the economic difficulties of day-to-day life. The emigration of the younger generations produces a reproductive hole, one that is irreversible in terms of human resources needed to support the older generations.

The Cuban reality of declining birth rate and aging work force that is not being replaced is diminishing the hope for a better future. These phenomena are well known in other countries: declining birth rates in developed countries and emigration in underdeveloped. What makes Cuba a special case is the coexistence of both trends. To help increase the potential, the government has approved a set of measures to “recover increase rates to a more favorable population”. In addition, the government has distributed $58 million in its 2013 economic plan to finance 30 programs aimed at improving senior care and boosting birth rate.