CRS Warns of ‘Hunger Pandemic’ Afflicting the Elderly in Cuba

“There’s a shortage of food, hygiene supplies and personal health protection equipment” in Cuba, according to a CRS director.

Protesters in favor of democracy in Cuba protest in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. on July 26, 2021.
Protesters in favor of democracy in Cuba protest in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. on July 26, 2021. (photo: Cox Photography/Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — Catholics around the world should help Cuba, especially its elderly who are suffering from a “hunger pandemic,” according to Ana Gloria Rivas-Vásquez, the director of the Hispanic Development Unit of Catholic Relief Services (CRS). 

“In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a hunger pandemic in Cuba. The people most affected are the elderly. The people of Cuba are aging and around 20% are older people,” Rivas-Vásquez said on July 25, the day the Church inaugurated the first World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly.

According to 2017 data from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), 20% of the population of the countries of Barbados, Cuba and Uruguay was 60 years old or more, and 6% to 7% of the population was 75 years old or more.

The commission’s data also indicated that Cuba became the first aging economy in the region since 2010 due to various factors, including a sustained decline in fertility and a sustained net loss in emigration versus immigration.

The Cuban government itself reported that at the end of 2020, 21.3% of its population was over 60 years old. Some estimates indicate that in the near future, one-third of the island's inhabitants will be seniors.

In this context, CRS has been working closely with Cáritas Cuba for about 30 years to help the vulnerable population, including the elderly.

Both humanitarian agencies currently have a feeding program for older adults in the dioceses of Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Holguín.

Rivas-Vásquez indicated that, due to the coronavirus pandemic, this “program for the elderly, which was initially carried out in soup kitchens, is now carried out individually, house by house.”

“We also bring food to people who are in isolation after being infected with the virus, which makes logistics even more difficult. However, thank God, Caritas Cuba has a network of volunteers who help these people who need it so much,” she added.

The Catholic Relief Services director said “there’s a shortage of food, hygiene supplies and personal health protection equipment” in Cuba.

Massive protests took place across Cuba from July 11-12. Protesters shouting “Freedom!” also cited concerns about inflation, shortages of food and medicine, and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel has blamed the United States for the country’s economic problems, as the Castro brothers before him had done. The United States has maintained an economic embargo of exports to Cuba since 1960. However, the U.S. State Department stated on July 23 that the embargo “allows humanitarian goods to reach Cuba, and the U.S. government expedites requests to export humanitarian or medical supplies to Cuba.”

Given the situation, Rivas-Vásquez said that “what we want is to increase the help we provide to Caritas Cuba, because the elderly are the most affected by the crisis.”

“We do everything possible so that the food reaches our partner agency. We work in more than 100 countries around the world and we are always looking for ways to get help to those most in need. We have nearly 80 years of experience in many different environments,” she explained.

Rivas-Vásquez said that CRS has “very generous Catholic and non-Catholic donors in the United States,” but that today they want “to reach more people to help us, especially with our brothers and sisters on the island.”

Donating responds to “the call of the Gospel, to help others,” she said. “We thank in advance for all the financial help, because without that we would not be able to do our job. But we also always ask for prayer.”

Father Alberto Reyes has emerged as a critical voice against the extreme poverty and repressive actions of Cuba's police state.

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The Office of Religious Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba “manages the different aspects of religious life” in the country, as noted in the 2023 Religious Freedom Report of Aid to the Church in Need.