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Cuba going gray

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

The 200 pesos didn’t last him a week, he said. “A pound of lemons is 10 pesos,” he said. “A mango costs 7 pesos. A papaya is 15.”

Under Cuba’s socialist system, Antonio’s housing, utilities and other basic needs are all subsidized by the government. But with the island’s population declining, there will be fewer working-age adults whose labor can support such a system in the future.

Cuban families are generally small, partly as a result of the country’s low wages and persistent housing shortages. But the social and cultural advancements of Cuban women in recent decades are another reason that the island’s birthrate is on par with that of many European countries. Birth control and abortion services are free and widely available, and despite generous maternity benefits, many Cuban women are professionals who choose to delay childbirth.

Women accounted for 65.6 percent of the island’s professional and technical workers in 2007, according Cuba’s state-run media.

Concerned by these demographic trends, the Cuban government has created a task force to promote larger families, but unlike some European countries with similar programs, it can’t afford to offer much in the way of material incentives.

Then there is the other major drain on the island’s workforce: An increasing number of Cubans, many of them young people, are leaving.

The number of Cubans who emigrated in 2008 reached 36,903, according to Cuba’s National Statistics Office, the highest one-year total since the 1994 rafter crisis.

The actual figure may be even higher, as some 49,500 Cuban immigrants became U.S. permanent residents last year, and significant numbers of Cubans are also going to Spain and other Latin American countries. So many Cubans have arrived in Ecuador recently that the country changed its laws to screen out the fraudulent marriage arrangements that have been used by thousands to gain residency there.

The brain drain of many of the country’s best-educated and most productive workers is a phenomenon Fidel Castro has likened to “brain theft,” and the government tries to stem the process by requiring Cubans to apply for permission to travel outside the country. But with the island’s anemic economy further weakened by the global recession, the outflow is likely to continue.

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