Giving Birth in Cuba

Isbel Diaz Torres

The mother ceases to be the central figure.

My niece Isabela was just born. As occurs with all Cuban babies, she had to come into the world in one of our hospital institutions. In this case it was the renowned Maternidad Obrera hospital in Havana.

Even though I was bubbling with happiness over the event, I witnessed the absurd mechanisms in the operation of this medical facility.  My observations were reinforced by what I had learned in the last workshop of the Haydee Santamaria Critical Thought Collective, where discussion had revolved around women’s experiences and the dynamics of subordination.

While waiting for the girl’s birth, I was able to corroborate what had been presented in that workshop concerning problems faced by women during pregnancy.  The strict medical subordination of the expecting mothers was unbearable (though it continues to be presented to us in the national media as a component of women’s emancipation).  The relatives as well as the soon-to-be mothers are converted into patients, as we all had to support the most unrestrained depersonalization.

At the very moment the expecting mother enters the Cuban system of pregnancy attention, she ceases to be the principal figure in the management of her own problems, priorities and interests.  This is a completely free and universal system… but it’s also mandatory.  Its procedures have been established at the service of an array of statistics (carefully selected); and to achieve those numbers, any imposition is accepted.

Maternidad Obrera hospital

The alienation that women are subjected to excludes them from the most important decisions: the place where they want to give birth, the doctor who will assist them, whether to use surgical or non-surgical procedures, whether the father can be present at the moment of birth, whether invasive procedures can be used to stimulate or slow the delivery of the baby, as well as repeated blood tests and other types of examinations.  What’s more, if a significant amount of money is not paid to the doctor, abuse and misinformation is guaranteed.

The relatives, on the other hand, instead of experiencing the comprehensible happiness implied by receiving a new member into the family, are forced to negotiate the most absurd obstacles.  All males are excluded from the caregiving that the mother requires during her hospital stay, even if they’re the husband or the father of the mother-patient.  Access to the woman during the entire process of childbirth (before and later), as well as any information, is completely null.

We had to wait in the stairwell, hide in the bathroom or conceal ourselves in phone booths with the fear of being expelled from the spacious areas of the maternity hospital.  The space officially dedicated for this is the waiting room, an excessively distant and solitary place where rarely is anything reported.

On one occasion I was pursued by the security guards, who —when seeing that several relatives didn’t leave the building’s second floor— called a police patrol car.  Then the two officers went through the whole building booting people out.  Two minutes later, we were all again sitting on the floor, waiting.

A nurse called a father to show him his newborn, but the man wasn’t there – or maybe he was, some place in the dark waiting room, on another floor or several distance corridors away.  When Isabela was born, as soon as the nurse appeared, we were right there (where it’s prohibited) to see my beautiful niece for the first time.

5 thoughts on “Giving Birth in Cuba

  • 6 years ago crazy

  • Another important documentary on this topic is “Motherland Afghanistan.” Afghani-American filmmaker Sedika Mojadidi shadows her father, a women’s health specialist working to rebuild hospitals in war-torn Afghanistan, in this thought-provoking documentary filmed in the wake of the United States’ invasion of the region. In a country where one in seven women dies during childbirth, many women are willing to travel for days to receive adequate care from a trained professional.

  • A good documentary on this topic in the U.S. is “The Business of Being Born.”

  • Thank you for your continued activism and thoughtful writing. I love you, Isbel.

  • Very unsocialist. In future communist society, things will be very much as you wish for here, by definition. Birth should be a family thing, accomplished more often than not in the home of what will likely be large extended families, much like in most of our human past. Birth will be natural, as women have done for millennia, with hospital intervention just minutes away, if actually necessary: all the medical help necessary being already on the spot. The pathological technologism of an unaccountable bureaucracy is clearly off the rails here (not just in Cuba), as far as real socialist praxis is concerned — and obviously follows the bourgeois/stalinist ‘top-down’ model, as you describe. Thanx for giving us the details on how the much-vaunted cuban medical model actually works in material practice.

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