Where are all the kids in Cuba?
Contributor
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
March 2011
Contributor
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
March 2011

Where are all the kids in Cuba?

I had been in Havana for over three weeks of my month-long stay in January before it occurred to me that I saw hardly any kids when I was out and about in this city of over two million people.   I did see groups of uniformed schools children on field trips in Habana Vieja  and Parque Central.  One Sunday, I stopped in a small park to watch a few little ones playing on the swings and monkey bars.  But it was rare to see a pregnant woman or a family walking with little kids.  Were my eyes deceiving me?   Were there really very few kids?  And why?

As I tried to puzzle it out, I came up with a few factors that might have been contributing to this striking impression:

  • I am used to the very large families that spread across the sidewalks of my immigrant neighborhood in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where it is common to see a kid in a stroller, with two or three toddlers and school age kids tagging alongside, and a pregnant Mom shepherding them along.
  • The kids in Cuba were all in daycare or school, not walking around the streets of Havana.
  • The frente frio, with unusually cold temperatures in the low 60’s, was keeping kids indoors evenings and weekends.
  • Cuban families were too occupied with getting to and from work, putting a meal together and worrying about day to day challenges to be out strolling around with their kids---plus they couldn’t bribe or reward them for good behavior with treats or toys because those were either too expensive or nowhere to be found, so it was just easier to stay home.

One day I made plans to meet my friend Anita (who has one child) and Margosita (who has one child and one grandchild) at the Cardiovascular Hospital in Havana.  We were to keep Margosita company while she waited for her monthly appointment at the clinic there.  I arrived a bit early and decided to do a little experiment.  In the half hour or so that I waited on a busy corner in Cuba’s largest city, I counted the number of pregnant women I saw and the number of small children. 

Here are the results:

  • Pregnant women:  1
  • Small children: 0

My experiment was carried out in a bustling residential neighborhood with a large hospital and several other large institutions nearby.  Would I have seen more small kids and pregnant women in the same amount of time on a New York City street corner?  In my neighborhood?  Absolutely!  I tried to think of other similar neighborhoods in New York and imagine the demographics at 9:30 AM on a mild spring day.   There would have been more kids for sure.  And I missed them on this corner in Havana.

I first traveled to Cuba in 1971, just twelve years after the revolution that overthrew a brutal dictatorship and brought Fidel Castro to power.  I joined the Venceremos Brigade, with hundreds of other idealistic young Americans,  and spent a couple of months building houses in Cuba to support the revolution.  I was young, the revolution was young, and I remember lots of young Cuban kids.  On Sundays, we would walk from our camp into the nearest town—San Antonio de los Baños—to buy ice cream cones, stroll around and practice our Spanish.  I remember kids everywhere—curious, friendly kids who tagged along, plying us with questions and asking for pencils (kids in Cuba asked for pencils, not money, or chicle as in many other parts of Latin America).  When we went on a tour of the island after our work was through, I remember the flocks of kids in maroon and white uniforms with the blue and white bandanas of the pioneros (a patriotic scouting group) who greeted us at every stop—reciting poems by Jose Marti or singing songs at the top of their lungs —so confident, feisty and full of life.

Back in Havana in 2011, Anita finally arrived to meet me at the hospital, wrung out from her trip on a crowded bus and worried about Margosita, When she had caught her breath, we sat on a wall in the sun and I put my question to her.

“I’ve been sitting here for half an hour, Anita, and I haven’t seen any young kids or pregnant women walking by.  Am I crazy, or are there really fewer kids in Cuba now?”  And then I told her some of the explanations I had come up with.    

“You’re not crazy, Elena,” she replied laughing.  “It’s true that we Cubanas keep our kids home in the cold weather so they won’t get sick.  And a lot of the little ones go to the circulos infantiles (daycare is free and available to all working families in Cuba).  But, there really are fewer kids.  Women just don’t want to get pregnant now.  They’re choosing not to have kids because it’s so hard.  They worry about the future their children will have.”

There was so much food for thought in Anita’s response.  First I was reminded of the element of choice that she and other Cuban women are able to take for granted.  Sex education, reproductive choice, and access to birth control and abortion were big changes brought about by the revolution, led by the Federacion de Mujeres Cubanas (the Federation of Cuban Women or FMC).  So Cuban women really can choose to procreate or not, without financial burden and without stigma attached.  And, according to Anita, they are.

I didn’t think too much more about the kids or lack thereof during the rest of my stay in Havana.  I was too busy making the rounds, saying my good-byes, But today, back in Brooklyn on a mild afternoon with spring in the air, I took a walk in my neighborhood to do some errands.  First, the library-- always jam packed with the Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican and Chinese children of my immigrant neighbors, using the computers and piling up stacks of books to take home.  Then along the avenue to the Key Foods supermarket, dodging strollers and wandering toddlers all the way.  I passed the playground filled with more kids throwing off their jackets and running every which way.  And I was struck again by how different it feels. 

 

Now for some facts…

Could I confirm my anecdotal observations about few kids in Cuba and Anita’s opinion as to the cause?  I turned to Google to do some detective work on population and demographics.  Here are some interesting things I found out:

  • Yes, in fact, the Cuban birth rate has been dropping

An article in Granma, the main newspaper in Cuba and official organ of the Cuban Communist Party, reported a drop in the birth rate in 2006 of 8 percent.  That combined with a life expectancy of 77 years (no small achievement for a small developing country—compare this to Haiti with a horrifying low of 54 and the Dominican Republic with 71) is rapidly changing the demographics in Cuba.   

  • And the population is aging

The population in Cuba is aging fast-- it is estimated that 25% of the Cuban population will be over 60 by the year 2025.  This demographic picture is much more like that of a developed, industrialized country than that of Cuba’s neighbors in the developing world.  And it is a worrying statistic because it can mean a smaller productive workforce and increased health care and social security costs in the future.

  • And young people are emigrating

Since the height of the “special period” in 1994, external migration has been growing (at double or triple the rates of the 80’s with the exception of 1980 (which includes the Mariel boatlift when over 100,000 Cubans left in a few dramatic months).   Most of those who leave are young, entrepreneurial and educated—and would otherwise be productive members of the workforce.

But why…?

But why the dropping birth rate?  Much of what I had guessed at on that street corner in Havana is true.  Cuban women do have access to free birth control and abortion and are well educated about their reproductive health.  Cuba had a “baby boom” during the first decade of the revolution, with 4.5 children per woman.  An improved standard of living and a big dose of hope and optimism about the future probably account for that increase.  In the next decades, Cuban women went to work, and increased urbanization and guaranteed government pensions meant that families no longer had to be large to provide for the old folks, so the birth rate began to decline—to a low of 1.39 in 2006. 

Taking all of this into account, it appears that Anita may be right.  The optimism of the early years of the revolution has gradually been eroded.  A prolonged economic crisis with no end in sight has tired everybody out…and (because they can!), Cuban women are choosing not to have babies.


So…why is this a problem? 

Aren’t there too many people on the planet already?  Well, yes and no, it seems.  For any society to maintain a healthy demographic balance, the statistics I read suggested that a birthrate of 2.2 is needed for stability.  As the Cuban population shifts in age, the economy, already strained to the breaking point, will be required to provide for more and more older, non-working and perhaps unhealthy people.  And the productive workforce will be further depleted by all of the young people leaving Cuba, hoping for a better life in Mexico, Spain, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Brazil…and the U.S.

 

Yet another challenge for Cuba?

All of my reading left me better informed but a bit overwhelmed.  How could this struggling island cope with yet another challenge?  Somehow I don’t think this issue is high on the priority list at this moment and I certainly didn’t see any evidence of a campaign to increase the population.

I wonder how Anita’s only daughter Rocio feels about having kids.  She is eighteen, sexually active with a steady boyfriend (who she sleeps with on the couch in Anita’s living room) and very open in discussing the various birth control options she has tried out.  She was one of those adorable Cuban pioñeros I remember so fondly from my earlier trips—skinny legs poking out from under her short maroon skirt.  But even at the age of five she was well aware of the challenges of daily life in Cuba. 

Rocio was born at the beginning of the special period when apagones or blackouts were common in Havana.  Both gas and electricity were frequently cut off in the afternoon or evening.  I watched her playing with dolls in the exterior hallway of her building on a stifling August afternoon.  She was making them a merienda, a little snack.

            “Apurrate,” she chided her dolls who were taking their own sweet time getting to the table.  “Hurry up and come to the table.  I have to cook the dinner and clean the house in case there is no gas.”

Apagones hardly ever happen anymore.  That problem seems to have been solved, at least.  But I wonder what choices that little girl, all grown up now and applying to the university to study theater design and art, will make.

Here is a link to an interesting article on this topic:

http://thecubaneconomy.com/articles/2010/11/cuban-demography-and-development-the-%E2%80%9Cconception-seasonality-puzzle%E2%80%9D-the-%E2%80%9Cdissipating-demographic-dividend%E2%80%9D-and-emigration/

And a P.S….

Today is International Women’s Day, a good day to stand up tall and proud and celebrate our strength.  A couple of weeks ago, I attended a rally in Foley Square in Manhattan with hundreds of others, to defend Planned Parenthood (and hard-won reproductive rights) from the attacks of the Republican Congress.  Those of us old enough to remember the battle for abortion rights were shaking our heads in disbelief that we were on the streets again, all these years later, to make sure that our rights are not taken away.  And in Cuba, an American friend who has lived there for many years confided some anxiety about a small but growing anti-abortion sentiment she had noticed after the visit of the Pope in 2008.  Women hold up half the sky and we claim our victories today, but our struggles, it seems, go on and on.

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Comments
  • Barbara Stein

    Interesting information.

    So very true about about our strength, but our ongoing struggles to obtain and maintain our equality and rights! 

     

  • Mona Fitch-Elliott

    Good job Elena! Very interesting and informative.  It is sad to look around and realize children are dissappearin the. That is some sign of the times for Cuba- disheartening. Mona