Fidel Castro may be ailing, but he's a living example of something Cubans take pride in...n average life expectancy roughly similar...

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HAVANA — 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, a 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.

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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.

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 as he sat in his living room in Havana’s Playa district.

A relaxed lifestyle, which prizes time spent with family over careers, helps keep Cubans healthy, said Tache, a retired English teacher who spent six years in New York City back in the late 1940s.

“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.

“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.”

Shortly after 8 a.m. every weekday, Gil leads two dozen elderly women through 40 minutes of calisthenics on the windowless, water-damaged ground floor of a state-owned building adorned with photos of Castro and his brother, Raul.

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. They hope to reach the 120-year mark through healthy diet, exercise and a positive outlook.

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

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