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Cuba going gray

Shrinking population, long life expectancy may be demographic time bomb.

A man gets a haircut at the Santovenia Asylum in Havana, July 6, 2009. The asylum is run by nuns who belong to a congregation called "hermanitas de los ancianos desamparados" or "sisters of the unattended elderly" whose mission is to help elderly people who have no family. (Enrique De La Osa/Reuters)

HAVANA — This country reached a tipping point in 2006. It wasn’t any one event in particular, but according to Cuba’s Office of National Statistics, the island’s population of 11.2 million stopped growing that year, and dipped slightly. And it has been falling ever since.

Cuba’s population is projected to decrease by 100,000 by 2025, and the arithmetic behind that decline is a simple matter of subtraction: More and more Cubans are leaving the island, and Cuban mothers are having fewer children. The country’s fertility rate of 1.4 children per woman ranks as the lowest in Latin America.

The statistics highlight a risky demographic experiment that has been developing here for years.

While Cuba’s socialist health care system takes good care of the elderly and has prolonged life expectancy rates, the island’s lousy economy — squeezed by U.S. trade sanctions and its own inefficiencies — is driving young people to emigrate, while limiting family size.

As a result, senior citizens will be one of the fast-growing sectors of Cuba’s population in the coming decades. Life expectancy in Cuba is now 75 years for men and 79 for women, roughly on par with the United States, where those figures are 75 and 80, respectively, according to United Nations statistics. By 2025, according a recent article on the topic in Cuba’s communist newspaper Granma, 26 percent of Cubans will be 60 or older — the highest percentage of seniors in Latin America.

This, according to Granma, should be viewed as a success, rather than a burden: “Analysts agree that the aging of country’s population shouldn’t be seen as a negative thing, but as an achievement of the political, economic, and social systems that provide longer lives and better quality of life.”

Cuba’s health care system provides generally high-quality care for free, and government social workers organize exercise groups and other activities for Cuban seniors. Their morning calisthenics sessions are a common sight in Havana’s parks.

But the presence of many elderly Cubans selling goods on the streets or doing odd jobs is a reminder that Cuba’s pension and social security system fails to provide for many who reach retirement age here.

“I’ve got no other choice,” said Antonio, an 80-year-old retired butcher selling plastic bags, cigarettes and government-rationed toothpaste at an outdoor market in one of the capital’s more run-down neighborhoods. He said his social security payment from the government was 200 pesos a month, or about $9. “It’s not enough to live on,” said Antonio, fanning himself with a piece of cardboard on a sweltering morning.