The regime alleges that most women postpone motherhood until they have passed 30 years of age, the same as in the First World, for the sake of their professional careers. Opponents and dissident journalists point in another direction.
They assert that it is a problem more of an economic nature than professional pretensions. After Fidel Castro took power in January 1959, the doors of the working world opened to many women who lived maintained by their husbands, raising children, completing domestic chores and listening to radio soap operas.
But in spite of women having a more relevant role in all spheres of public life — except in politics, where they are a distinct minority — since 30 years ago, they have on average less than one child by the conclusion of their reproductive years.
I consulted 18 childless women aged between 19 and 43. Also six mothers with young children about the difficulties and shortages in raising a baby.
The figures are disturbing. The Cuban people are aging. And decreasing. More people die than are born. Other bad news is that less than one girl is born for each woman capable of bearing children.
Let’s review some numbers. The average age in Cuba is 38 years. In 2025 it will rise to 44. By then more than 26% will be more than 60 years old.
In 2030, 3.3 million people will exceed that age. Currently the group of Cubans older than 60 is 17.8%. Greater than the segment of children under 14 years which is 17.3%.
The gap, according to analysts, has to grow. Emigration is one of the factors that hampers maternity in Cuba. More than 30 thousand people leave each year for the United States or somewhere else on the planet in order to improve their precarious living conditions. The majority of those emigrants are young women and men with good academic training. It is a tragedy.
Yudelis, a 21-year-old university student, is clear. ”One of the causes of women not wanting to have children is the economic situation, which is burning. I myself live in a house with three different generations. My parents, my grandparents and I. My boyfriend has the same situation in his home. If we were to marry and try to have children, where would we live?”
Yudelis finds only one answer: ”To emigrate, nothing else occurs to me if I want to start a family. If I wait for things to improve economically in Cuba, I would never have children. It’s been bad since I was born. I do not believe things will improve in some five years.”
Eighty-five percent of the 18 women surveyed who do not have children think that the economic factor is key to not starting a family. Eleven of them live in homes with numerous family members and without the best conditions (62% of dwellings on the island are in fair or poor condition).
Elsa Lidia, 41-years-old, still has no child. She watches the calendar with worry. ”I don’t have much time. But I live on a tenement, in a little room with a barbecue. Five of us live in 30 square meters. My parents’ room is separated by a plasterboard partition. My sister and I sleep on the bed. My brother sleeps on a cot in the living room. I have a had a formal relationship for years. My partner wants to have children. But how? With my salary of 450 pesos (20 dollars) as a mid-level technician I will never be able to aspire to buy myself an apartment with a price of 10 to 20 thousand dollars.”
The future for Elsa Lidia is a bad word. ”I have no family abroad. My life project is day-to-day. When I think what is going to become of me in five years I panic.”
Some of the women surveyed who still are not mothers live in good houses, are high-caliber professionals, and receive dollars from relatives living abroad.
“But I do not want to raise my child surrounded by uncertainty. With the anguish of whether I will be able to feed him well, buy him clothes, shoes, toys… With my salary I cannot guarantee a good level of life. It is very difficult to have a family in Cuba in the current economic conditions,” says Sulia, an architect.
I was investigating with mothers who have children 5 years and under. After the flower bouquet and the unmatched emotion of childbirth, four of six consulted suffer deprivations in raising them.
And it is not a medical problem. During pregnancy the State guarantees a daily dose of iron and vitamin complex called Pre-natal. In the neighborhood offices or clinics they keep track. They advise them about adequate weight and they receive free advice about how and for how much time to breastfeed the future baby.
Even through the lean ration book they offer them an extra quota of three pounds a month of beef and fish. And some extra kilos of root vegetables. Maybe those attentions, rare in a poor Third World country, have provoked the Save the Children organization, with headquarters in London, for the second consecutive year to consider Cuba as “the best country in America to be a mother.”
Probably the British NGO ignores the problems that begin after birth.
I spoke with Yadira, a young computer science graduate. ”I have had three abortions. I took contraceptive pills. But even so I got pregnant and it was dangerous for me to undergo another D and C. I cannot stand another. We fixed the room as we could. The family gave me a crib. Through the ration booklet, the State offers you 10 meters of antiseptic cloth and gauze to make diapers, baby cologne, a pair of shoes, a cream for the baby, three soaps and a baby bottle, among other things. It costs 85 pesos. But it is not enough. If the child gets sick, as mine is, problems increase.”
The pediatrician recommended that Yadira buy in one of the foreign currency stores the formula NAM by Nestle; each can costs more than 4 CUC. ”The baby was consuming two or three cans a month. We had to sell personal articles to be able to buy them for him.”
According to the consulted mothers, some with more solvency than others, the advisable thing is to save no less than 600 dollars and to be able to guarantee a proper layette. The prices of strollers, playpens and walkers are sky-high.
One rocking cradle between 110 and 130 CUC. A playpen between 80 and 140 CUC. The stroller between 60 and 180. A crib mattress exceeds 50 CUC (the average salary in Cuba is 20 dollars a month, and one CUC, with exchange fees and taxes, is a little less than one dollar).
“Add to all that, as he grows, food, clothes, shoes toys, walks and birthdays. Even having the money, there are articles that are scarce and cost a lot I work to get them. One does not regret having a child, but in Cuba it is very hard,” says Yadira while her two-year old son sleeps rocking in an iron chair.
Photo: Hospital Materno Ramon Gonzalez Coro de Havana. Taken from The Hard Test of Maternity.
Translated by mlk
5 October 2013