Are Women to Blame for Cuba’s Demographic Problem?

By Yailen Rodriguez   (Progreso Semanal)

Photo: Roberto Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — She is nearly 30 years old and still hasn’t had any children. She is already feeling society’s pressure on her: what are you waiting for? In our society, where gender stereotypes are still firmly rooted, being a woman means being a mother, just like that, by default.

However, she feels it’s her right to decide when she is going to have children and she is even contemplating whether having children features in her life plan. However, she doesn’t dare speak such things out loud, it would be demonized by many…

Over the past few years in Cuba, birth rates have fallen significantly, something which, along with other factors such as lower mortality rates (associated with longer life expectancy) and Cuba’s negative net migration rate, make the country’s demographic picture very complex, so experts say. Looking at the issue from this angle, this trend has important repercussions on the country’s health and economy, and thus results in many challenges for our society.

Year     Births   Birth rate per 1000 inhabitants

2012     125 674            11.3

2013     125 880            11.2

2014     122 643            10.9

2015     125 064            11.1

2016     116 872            10.4

Source: Annual Health Statistical Report 2016.

Cuba hasn’t reached the replacement level it needs since 1978, as its global fertility rate is less than 2.1 children per woman which is needed to reach this replacement.

Year                                                                                            1970     1990     2000     2015     2016

Global fertility rate (no. of children per woman)               3.70      1.83      1.58      1.72      1.63

Net reproduction rate (no. of daughters per woman)       1.80      0.89      0.76     0.83    0.78

Source: Annual Health Statistical Report 2016.


Cuba’s birth rate (number of births per 1000 inhabitants in a year (was 11.1% in 2015, which seemed to be a slight increase when compared to 2014. However, there was a sharp decrease in 2016 which was more steep than it had been in previous years: falling to 10.4%; along with a fertility rate (average number of children per woman) of 1.63.

If generational replacement is a historic problem (an indispensible factor when it comes to analyzing the causes), the fall in the national fertility rate has become even more pronounced.

[Editor’s Note: In many countries with a low birth rate, permitting immigration from other countries helps deal with the problem.  However Cuba is not a country accepting immigrants].

Who is to blame for this “problem”? What factors come into play? When and how many children are women having? Do these figures correlate with ideal figures?

When looking at comments made on articles about this issue, we came across many different and mixed opinions: from those men who blame women for this “problem” and label them “selfish”, to those who recognize and respect the right every person has to choose their own lives and decide what is best for them.

“It’s simple, women aren’t having children anymore because there isn’t enough food, there aren’t enough homes, there isn’t enough money, there aren’t enough resources, there isn’t enough transport, there isn’t enough will to have a family,” was one opinion.

Issues such as families, (often with several different generations) overcrowding in one apartment or house, increasing financial difficulties in everyday life and women having greater education and job opportunities in Cuba were repeated on online forums discussing the issue.

The financial impediment to cover the astronomic expenses starting or making a family bigger entails has been the most mentioned factor, there’s no doubt about that, including women who have confessed that they would have liked to have had three or more children.

Without calling the existence of each and every one of these factors into question for why couples decide to have less children and/or postpone motherhood, generalizing them would be wrong without first carrying out an in-depth investigation which documents and assesses these factors, especially their hierarchy.

Nearly 10 years after the last fertility survey was carried out (2009), repeating an exercise of this nature would help us clear up just how important each of the aforementioned factors are in determining this issue or not.

In this vein, demographer Grisell Rodriguez discovered that Cuban women assess material conditions and a home at their disposal above all else, placing satisfying professional, work and personal goals and interests on the same level.

Therefore, while an article published in the Cuban Public Health magazine recognizes the ever-present hardship of couples not having their own home as a limiting factor, another study mentioned in the Population Development Magazine considers that many Cuban women put off motherhood as the result of their plans to leave the country.  

Another factor which experts analyze when studying this issue is women’s access to birth control methods. We Cuban women have the right to abort, we have affordable and subsidized birth control available to us: achievements of the health sector which favors of our ability to make choices about our sexual and reproductive health, which result in there being less unwanted or “accidental” pregnancies.

Although this way of thinking about birth control is becoming dangerous in the face of religious and extremist positions gaining strength worldwide, labeling a human right to choose a sin or immoral.

Sociologist Fleitas, however, thinks that low fertility rates are also the result of a consumerist culture where “concepts of wellbeing that we have created for taking care of children and the great difficulties that exist to make these viable” also influence people’s decisions.

Indeed, consumerism is setting standards; my generation grew up with muslin diapers, the ones that you had to boil and then iron out one by one. However, nobody is putting into doubt the obvious relief having disposable diapers has, and not just keeping one or two packets as if it were gold for the day we want to take the kids outside the house, or to re-use them by filling them with cloth or other materials.

On the other hand, the gender focus of this issue offers critique. In private spaces, stereotypes which continue to place the woman as the head of domestic chores and care in the home still rule. Professional women, female technicians, workers, who are getting more and more involved with their jobs that demand a lot, with professional goals that require giving time and dedication to studying, find it very hard to reconcile their work and family lives, and that’s where having more than one child significantly increases the overloading that they are already victim to.

We aren’t denying the fact that men have begun to more willingly do domestic chores and take on a more responsible father role in recent years here in Cuba. However, it’s about having co-responsibility.

The other side of the coin is marked by high divorce rates, including the number of consensual unions breaking up. It’s a fact that in most of these situations, children mostly stay in the mother’s care. If not choosing to have children was satanized, just imagine what would happen if a women, after getting divorced, demands that the father take on full time care or full responsibility for the child.

I know that none of these situations can be generalized. In fact, I’m trying not to be absolutist: I know outstanding fathers. Updating the law so that its ensures men are co-responsible in looking after and meeting their children’s financial needs is still a pending matter. We need to also continue to promote involved fatherhood in raising children that goes beyond financial help.

All of the many aspects of this issue are complicated. These figures point to replacement levels not being viable objectives. If experts really do think that Cuba’s socio-demographic situation is irreversible in nature and the result of a positive demographic transition, then Cuba needs to promote actions that ensure the wellbeing of couples who do decide to procreate.

Cover photo: Roberto Suarez (Taken from Moncada).

3 thoughts on “Are Women to Blame for Cuba’s Demographic Problem?

  • Doubt it tell me a western democratic country apart from Israel that has a baby boom?

  • I agree. Once Cuba is free, I predict hundreds of thousands of Cuban expatriates will return to Cuba and the baby boom will explode.

  • What’s the use of having children when there is no future for them in Cuba’s current conditions. Women have enough problems taking care for themselves. I heard that Cuba has the highest suicide rate on this side of the world. Watch for a baby boom as soon as democracy is restored after the last Castro kicks the bucket!

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