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Cuba: grandmothers who care


Putting two coffee pots on a stove at 5.30 in the morning, 73 year-old Estrella Rodriguez prepares the tamales she will sell at midday.  She roasts some peanuts, prepares snacks for her young granddaughter, wakens the family, and then leaves home.

Credit: RadioRelojFrom sharing her working life with looking after five children and various grandchildren, she has become used to being an early riser. She carries her wares to the bus stops when people are leaving for work and sells them a small cup of coffee or a little cone of peanuts.

The rest of the day is spent at the entrance of the building. Her products have become famous in the Havana neighbourhood of Abel Santamaria. At two in the afternoon, she returns home to prepare some food and collect her granddaughter before her mother gets in from her job at the hospital.

 ‘I earn between 50-80 pesos daily (between 2 and 3 US dollars), which helps with my spending and feeding the family, because my pension of 200 pesos (8 US dollars) isn’t enough,’ the former manufacturing worker explained.

 ‘The salary of my daughter, who’s an ophthalmologist at the Ameijeiras hospital, pays the bills and buys what the girl needs. As for the other children, I try to help them whenever I can, because their salaries don’t go far enough either’, she says.

Retirement, which Rodriguez thought would bring her a more restful life, has involved new domestic and economic responsibilities, in a country where shortages affect daily life due to a  crisis that has lasted for nearly three decades.

 White-haired Employees

More than 1,268,000 Cuban women are of post-working age (older than 57) according to data from the last population census (2012).  That is in a country with a total population in excess of 11 million.

Of that number, 603,000 receive a pension after retiring from work. That represents 36.2% of the total retirees on the island, according to information from the National Institute of Social Security.

For her [part, the psychologist Teresa Orosa considers that Cuban women come to terms with retirement better than men. The minimum retirement age has increased with the new social security law of 2008 to 60 for women and 65 for men.

‘They are more accustomed to change, and are closer to domestic chores. For them, retirement does not imply a return to the home, they’ve never left it,’ says the professor from the University of Havana.

The average pension of nearly 260 Cuban pesos (11 US dollars) is insufficient to cover their basic needs, despite the existence of a rationing system that guarantees staple foodstuffs, and various social security programmes directed at old people.

The subject is complex because Cuba is a nation with one of the most ageing populations in the Americas. 18.3% of the population are older than 60, which is more than one percentage point higher than for those who are under the age of 14, according to the 2012 census.

Statistical calculations estimate that by 2025, one in four inhabitants of Cuba will be over the age of 60, with a tendency towards the feminization of the elderly due to the fact that women tend to outlive men.

Cultural norms position men as providers for the family and determine that they spend the longest time working and rejoin the workforce in greater numbers than women, say experts.

There exists a large group of men and women of retirement age who carry on in their jobs.

Of the 371,150 economically active people older than 60 in Cuba, 29.3% are women.  They are concentrated in the state sector (nearly 95,000) whilst a sizeable number are self-employed (more than 3,700), according to the 2012 census.

‘Even when she has grown old surrounded by machista attitudes, the older Cuban woman of today wants to be part of the labour market and has become both the provider and  economically independent,’ says Orosa.

From research undertaken by SEMlac’s Mujeres Emprendedoras communication project, Orosa draws attention to the stigmas that weigh on female workers and female managers of state companies.     

‘What for older men in nearly all labour sectors is recognised as experience, for older women who continue working they are seen as grandmothers,’ says Orosa.

The professional expertise accumulated by women, together with the high rate of divorce and widowhood, are factors that motivate Cuban women to work beyond the retirement age established by the law.

To earn extra income and keep busy, many women dedicate themselves to travelling round selling food, making arts and crafts, caring for children or other old people, undertaking domestic chores for money, or they return to teaching, observes Orosa.

Sometimes these activities result in new opportunities for personal fulfilment, as happened to 69 year old economist Idelina Cruz, who did a course in arts and crafts at the Casa de la Cultura in the Havana municipality of Plaza de la Revolución, and started to make wallets, necklaces and kitchen utensils for a professional artisan.

‘I‘ve discovered a new vocation and I can spend hours sewing or inventing new patterns with the seeds that I buy and collect in the parks’, she says.

‘This guarantees me sufficient money so that I don’t have to trouble my daughter, who has enough maintaining the house and bringing up two children of 13 and 17 without concerning my daughter, who works in a farmers’ market,’ she notes.

‘Super Grannies’

‘Whatever aches and pains they may have, retired women have the strength and desire to keep active, and if they can return to work, so much the better,’ says 75 year-old Arquelia Hernández Silva.

But she warns that families can ask too much of these grandmothers.

‘They want us to look after the grandchildren, do the housework, and run errands. Often this isn’t a demand, but they appeal to us emotionally, and we end up devoting all our time to others,’ says the community activist.

In a project undertaken in 2012 which looked at women of retirement age, the psychologist Laura Sánchez found that her interviewees felt more overburdened in retirement than when they worked.

‘There exists invisible and unpaid work that the grandmother undertakes on behalf of the family and which makes them renounce other interests and projects which are normally associated with this stage of life,’ says Sánchez.

In addition, there are specific fears that elderly women experience, such as the fear of being alone, not having money, deteriorating physically and aesthetically, routine and activity, according to a book written by the Cuban doctor Gerardo Martinez Veitia.

Veitia studied retirement life in the community of Placetas in the central province of Villa Clara during 2012.  He found that retirees lived in a context of little social activity and were limited to activities based around the home.

The paradigm of elderly women in Cuba is based on sacrifice, and it is the case that sons and daughters expect grandparents to look after their grandchildren, according to social studies.

However, Orosa attests to the emergence of ‘a new kind of grandparents,’ who have their own projects, fresh aims in life, and seek to defend their rights as citizens, and their spaces for personal fulfilment, sexual enjoyment, leisure, and social and community participation.

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