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Despite hardships, Cubans live long lives

/ Source: The Associated Press

“Fidel: 80 More Years,” proclaim the good wishes still hanging on storefront and balcony banners months after Cubans celebrated their leader’s 80th birthday.

Fidel Castro may be ailing, but he’s a living example of something Cubans take pride in — an average life expectancy roughly similar to that of the United States.

They ascribe it to free medical care, mild climate, and a low-stress Caribbean lifestyle, which they believe make up for the hardships and shortages they suffer.

“Sometimes you have all you want to eat and sometimes you don’t,” said Raquel Naring, a 70-year-old retired gas station attendant. “But there aren’t elderly people sleeping on the street like other places.”

Cuba’s average life expectancy is 77.08 years — second in Latin America after Puerto Rico and more than 11 years above the world average, according to the 2007 CIA World Fact Book.

It says Cuban life expectancy averages 74.85 years for men and 79.43 years for women, compared with 75.15 and 80.97 respectively for Americans.

Laid-back lifestyle

Most Cubans live rent-free, and food, electricity and transportation are heavily subsidized. But the island can still be a tough place to grow old.

Homes that were luxurious before Castro’s 1959 revolution are now falling apart and many cramped apartments contain three generations of family members. Food, water and medicine shortages are chronic.

But most prescription drugs and visits to the doctor are free and physicians encourage preventive care.

“There’s a family doctor on almost every block,” said Luis Tache, 90 and blind from glaucoma but still chatty and up on the news.

Tache lived in New York for six straight summers starting in 1945, paying $8 a month for a furnished apartment at 116th Street and Broadway. An English teacher, he retired 30 years ago.

Sitting in a rocking chair in his breezy living room in Havana’s Playa district, Tache said Cuban communism “is both good and bad,” while the high cost of living in capitalist societies “must be very stressful.”

A relaxed lifestyle, which prizes time spent with family over careers, helps keep Cubans healthy, Tache said.

“It’s bad for production, bad for the nation,” he said. “But it’s good for the people.”

The government runs residence halls for seniors with no family to care for them, though space is severely limited. Community groups make sure older people look after one another.

“It’s a very happy society. There aren’t so many worries and problems and that helps,” said Alida Gil, 57, leader of a community group in Old Havana known as “Circle of Grandmothers 2000.”

Raul Castro, 75, took over in July after the president underwent intestinal surgery. Officials offer increasingly upbeat reports about his progress, but his condition and ailment remain state secrets.

One of Fidel Castro’s personal physicians, Dr. Eugenio Selman, in 2003 helped launch the “120 Years Club,” an organization of more than 5,000 seniors — many 100 or older — from several countries including the United States. They hope to reach the 120-year mark through healthy diet, exercise and a positive outlook.

Selman has not spoken publicly since Castro fell ill, but had previously suggested the president could live to 120. Whether Castro is a member of the club is unclear.

Gerardo de la Llera, who still practices medicine at 77, is the club’s vice president. He said the oldest member was a 122-year-old woman who lives in the eastern Cuban province of Granma, but he did not know her name or exact birthrate. Cuba has a history of claiming very old citizens whose ages have not been authenticated.

The government says it wants Cuba to become the world leader in life expectancy, vying with the 82-year average for Japan and Singapore.