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Where Have All the Young Ones Gone

Buena Vista Social Club, old cars, the graying Castro brothers--all have become enduring symbols of a Cuba that has already entered what demographers consider a "very advanced stage of transition." Transition is a demographic phenomenon that tracks a nation's progress from periods of high infant mortality and high fertility but low population growth over many decades to a more mature point where both infant mortality and fertility decline, resulting in slow or no growth and a population that is graying.

In all of Latin America, only Cuba and Barbados are considered to have reached this advanced stage. In Cuba, the change has been relatively quick--demographically speaking--and quite sharp. The latest figures released by the government's National Office of Statistics and Information (INEI) clearly show the severity of Cuba's aging. Nearly a fifth (19.8%) of Cuba's population is now over 60. In 1985, just 11.3 % of Cubans were that old. Even the Isle of Pines, renamed the Isle of Youth by the Revolution, is graying, with nearly 18% of the inhabitants there being over 60.

Compare this to the rest of Latin America which, by general perception, is young and growing. According to the United Nations' Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, in 1950 the proportion of Latin America's overall population over 60 was 5.5%. By 2000, improved health care and lower fertility rates had combined to push up that percentage to 8.8%, a substantial increase for sure, but nothing like what is happening in Cuba.

Of course, Cuba being Cuba, there are other factors to consider. For one, many of the thousands who have left Cuba on anything that floats, have been young. And there has been no in-migration to speak of to help replace those who left. In addition, the dire economic conditions in Cuba, and the ferocious shortage of decent housing, have combined to make the prospect of a large family untenable. The fertility rate in Cuba is now 1.5 per adult woman, which is below replacement level.

Cuba truly has become a country of old men, a nation that increasingly holds less appeal for Cuban Millennials and those born after the days of revolutionary promise. Raul Castro turned 86 in June, and like other members of the central committee of the ruling Communist Party, he refuses to make the kind of changes that will keep young Cubans loyal to Cuba. The widespread negative reaction to Castro's latest edict suspending the issuance of new licenses for private sector workers is yet another indication of a serious distortion in the visions of Cuba held by the young and those who rule them, a problem of vision and optimism that will plague Cuba's future unless a way is found--and found quickly--to bring both sides into focus.

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