Latin America Faces ‘Population Winter’
BY Alejandro Bermudez
August 1-7, 1999 Issue | Posted 8/1/99 at 2:00 PM
LIMA, Peru—A common view in the West is that Latin America's struggles against poverty is due to too many people trying to live off too few resources.
The United Nations Population Fund, for instance, maintains that the situation calls for nothing less than a concerted effort to dramatically reduce the population. That body has called for, among other measures, aggressively dispensing birth control.
Now a respected Peruvian author and government official has raised his voice to explain that the true problem, and the wisest solutions, lie in the exact opposite direction.
“Health authorities here are so eager to embrace the modern model of progress that they are happy to see the decrease of the population even in areas that are already depopulated,” says Arturo Salazar Larrain, a congressman whose 1994 book, The Great Lie, debunks the overpopulation myth. “They don't seem to worry that people are still poor, and getting poorer in places where manpower is critical.”
Salazar Larrain will point out the challenges of low birthrates at an upcoming meeting of Latin American politicians and legislators sponsored by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, to be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in early August. Not the least of these challenges, he says, is a premature aging of Latin America's population.
Salazar Larrain will support his assertions with empirical data from his book and from a report issued last February by the Latin American Center for Demography, an office of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in Santiago, Chile. The latter holds substantial credibility among the U.N. Population Fund personnel since it can hardly be accused of pro-life sympathies.
According to the Center for Demography, the Latin American economy has improved steadily since 1980; as a result, life expectancy has increased and standards of living have risen. A corresponding decline in fertility, however, has reduced the number of children, creating an imbalance that could jeopardize the region's economic and social future.
“The demographic tendencies are clearly leading the region to a process of accelerated aging,” admits José Antonio Ocampo, executive secretary of the economic commission in Santiago. “This will force our nations to restructure all our social security provisions, especially those related to the elderly.”
According to the Center for Demography report, in 1970, five children were born for each Latin American woman of child-bearing age. At present, the average is down to 2.9 and the bureau projects that, if the current trend continues, the figure will dip below two children per woman by 2025. At that rate, deaths would exceed births.
The center also acknowledges that the aging problem is already upon some Latin American nations. Next year, Cuba, the only Latin American country in which abortion is legal, will displace Canada as the country with the lowest rate of inhabitants under age 15 (21%). It will be followed closely by Uruguay (24.8%) and Argentina (27.7%).
In Argentina and Uruguay, two countries with markedly improving life expectancy, there will be more people over 65 than under 15 by the year 2020 (17.82% to 17.71%, respectively).
Also, Chile's National Institute of Statistics has revealed that the popularization of birth control in that country is having a dramatic effect on the aging of the population. According to the institute, the average age of the Chilean population was 26 in 1950. At that time, for every 100 Chileans under age 15, there were only 18.7 over age 60. At present, the average age is up to 31, and there are 35.8 elders per each 100 young Chileans.
A primary source of problems may be so few young trying to care for so many elderly. By 2035, there will be just 82.2 Chileans under 15 for every 100 over 60.
More sobering still, these projections are based on current birthrates. If population-control efforts continue to spread and accelerate, what Salazar Larrain calls a “population winter” could come even sooner. According to Giorgio Agostini, a Chilean sociologist and psychologist interviewed by the Santiago daily La Tercera, “This massive aging will imply that our youth will have to bear a greater load, not only socially and economically, but also psychologically.”
If the current trend continues, the figure will dip below two children per woman by 2025. At that rate, deaths would exceed births.
Agostini adds that, since the process of depopulation is linked with the disintegration of the family, youth in the future will have to face the challenge of working harder to sustain elders with no emotional ties to them.
A Sign of ‘Progress’
“The dramatic thing here,” says Hernan Villablanca, a sociologist from the University of Chile also quoted in La Tercera, “is that many people— even authorities—see this phenomenon as a sign of progress, because we are sharing the same fate as the most developed countries.”
Salazar Larrain is dumbfounded by the enthusiasm. “To me, their embracing of [population-control] measures is crazy. It is like celebrating the arrival of a rich cousin who brings several contagious diseases and none of his wealth.”
In Cuba, some members of the communist government are proud that 13% of the populace is older than 60, a figure that, according to them, shows how the revolution has been able to improve health services and increase life expectancy. (These results were achieved, however, through massive birth control and the legalization of abortion, which have combined to give the island country the lowest birthrate in Latin America.)
Meanwhile, some encouraging signs have surfaced. Faced with the facts of dramatically declining population — such as the prospect of one in four Cubans older than 60 by 2020 — other officials seem ready to question their assumptions about progress.
According to Carlos Alfonso Fraga, director of the Cuban Center for the
Studies of Population and Development, Cuba is already in the midst of a population autumn that will bring unexpected and unimaginable challenges to the system. “As early as 2020, Cuba could already become a country of the elderly,” he says.
And Enrique Vega, director of Cuba's National Social Program for the Elderly, noted that Cuba may have just 100 children for every 156 adults as early as 2010.
If that comes to pass, he allows, “we will have to redefine our programs.” That's a communist euphemism for a 180-degree change in policy.
According to Salazar Larrain, even if tentative, these first expressions of alarm may be the first cracks into the previously rock-solid dogma of population control.
“This information must keep flowing in the region,” he says. “If we act now, we still have some time to change course and avoid a stone-age future for our grandchildren.”
Alejandro Bermudez is based in Lima, Peru.
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