By Fabián Flores (Café Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — For the second consecutive year, the London-based organization Save the Children has identified Cuba as the best country in Latin America to be a mother. Reading this, I cannot but think that the author of the report must have visited a Cuba located on another planet and not the country where the mother of my children has to get up every morning.
Thinking about her and the millions of Cuban women who celebrated Mother’s Day this past Sunday, caught up in the heroic task of raising their children in a country that is in economic shambles, I took on the task of finding out how much bringing a child into the world on this Caribbean isle actually costs.
The results of my study explain, in part, why Cuba’s population remains more or less static at around 11 million people, with an annual growth rate which, in 2011, was of 0.6, the first positive figure reported by the National Statistics Bureau (ONE) since 2006. Statistical predictions show that the population will continue to grow little and that the number of inhabitants on the island will be below 12 million in 2025.
In Cuba, all pregnant women enjoy a planned care program as of the moment of their pregnancy is officially registered, and every expectant woman is given a daily dose of ferrous fumarate (iron, that is) and a vitamin supplement called Prenatal.
However, these vitamins are generally made available to women as of the second trimester of their pregnancy, not before, much later than is accustomed in most countries with an advanced healthcare system. Cuban doctors themselves usually tell pregnant women the following: “If you can get your hands on prenatal vitamins from abroad, throw away the ones you get here,” something which casts some doubts on the quality of the pills made available to Cuban women.
As holders of a libreta, or ration booklet, pregnant women are “entitled” to three or four pounds of beef and the same amount of fish a month.
Labor becomes something of a nightmare for Cuban women, given the disastrous conditions that most hospitals around the country are in.
Last year, I was surprised to read a comment that was posted on Cubadebate when this official Cuban government website published the Save the Children report which praised the country’s prenatal care system, a comment that had somehow made it past the site’s filter. The person who posted the comment, who identified himself as MG, wrote:
“Has anyone paid a visit to the Fe del Valle Maternity Hospital in Manzanillo, Granma? Anyone who sets foot in this hospital, anyone who has to suffer the condition it’s in, anyone who has to spend even a fraction of the time a woman who has just given birth has to there, will realize this article makes absolutely no sense.
“My twin daughters were born this past October at this hospital, where, owing to shortages, they would put TWO pregnant women in each bed (I know some people won’t believe me, but it’s true), where pregnant women don’t even have a sink they can brush their teeth in in the morning, where they have to carry buckets of water to the bathroom in order to flush the toilets, because the flushing mechanisms in these aren’t working, where the sight of the bathrooms makes your stomach turn, where the lobby and cafeterias were turned into maternity wards due to lack of space, where those who accompany women who have undergone caesareans do not have a chair to sit in, not even in the recovery area where these women are placed after the operation, and must remain standing for the 6 hours of the recovery process.”
Mothers-to-be are also “entitled” to a basket which includes a blanket and a handful of items. A typical maternity basket includes three mattress cases, two mid-sized towels, two pacifiers, a rubber toy, a pair of panties, a T-shirt, four bars of soap, a bottle of cologne, one body lotion, one body oil, ten gauze diapers, ten meters of antiseptic fabric (to make diapers out of) and a pair of socks, all of which is sold at 85 Cuban pesos (just over 4 USD).
A Maternity Basket from the Cuban State
If the pregnant woman works somewhere where employees belong to the country’s official union (the Cuban Workers Federation) or at any of the ministries, she will receive a more “generous” one time maternity basket for her first birth.
How will this woman get her hands on all the other products she needs to care for her baby during his or her first year of life? A Cuban’s average monthly salary is about 455 CUPs, the equivalent of 20 dollars or Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUCs).
The two most important items, the diapers and milk, are sold at exorbitant prices. Cuba does not produce disposable diapers and the prices of this imported product in the market, in CUCs, are beyond the possibilities of the immense majority of families: a package of diapers costs anywhere from 4 to 12 CUCs.
Milk with vitamin supplements is only sold to women who are unable to breastfeed (and can offer medical proof of this), and the assigned quota is limited. At hard currency stores, a can of NAN-brand supplemented milk costs a little over 4 CUCs. Other brands are sold at around 5 CUCs.
At the very few State stores that sell articles for newborns, the prices far exceed what a person living on an average salary can afford.
“Most people don’t buy baby articles at State stores, they use the maternity baskets they get from relatives abroad,” said Marinela Frometa, a housewife living in Havana’s neighborhood of Centro Habana.
At Cuba’s State stores, a blanket for a crib costs somewhere between 8 and 10 CUCs, and the price of a crib, as such, is between 100 and 120 CUCs. The mattress one needs to buy also is around 50 CUCs. A stroller can cost between 50 and 180 CUCs, depending on the characteristics of the product.
This “heavy artillery” isn’t the only thing that’s expensive in Cuba, however. The little “one-size” overalls for babies (“one-piece suits”, as they are called in Cuba) cost anywhere from 3 to 7 CUCs. Underwear for both genders can cost as much as 10 CUCs.
The stress felt by parents grows as the baby’s first birthday nears, for, depending on the size and brand, the baby sneakers can cost as much as 20 CUCs.
“I put together my own maternity basket from items I bought at private kiosks and stuff they sent me, plus the clothes I ordered from seamstresses. We wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise,” said Marlom Silvera, a factory worker.
One of ways parents can secure what they need for their newborns at lower prices is to purchase these items at Cuba’s parallel markets. One of the most frequented is located on Calle 21, between 4 and 6, in Vedado, Havana. It is a privately-run establishment where prices, though still high for Cubans living on State salaries, are less prohibitive than those one comes across at State stores.
“Most of our products come from people who no longer need them and sell them to us, and from business people that bring them from Ecuador, the United States or Venezuela. Seamstresses also bring us homemade products for which there is a high demand,” we were told by the store owner, who did not want us to reveal her identity.
The deals customers get at this store, according to the owner, are considerable.
“At State stores, a milk bottle can cost anywhere from 1.50 to 5 CUCs. The ones we carry here have a flat price of 2 CUCs. This is why we have more customers. We also carry products that are hard to find, like pacifiers, corrals and other accessories,” she added.
In Cuba’s interior, mosquito nets are sold at 300 CUPs (12 CUCs) and gauze diapers at 6 CUPs a piece at these parallel markets.
The Drama of Nutrition
This is one of the most serious problems surrounding the care of a baby during his or her first months of life. The availability of cereals is extremely limited and, when you can find the product, it costs anywhere from 5 to 10 CUCs a box.
“I believe the most expensive part of having a child in Cuba is buying the food. The products you buy at the vegetable and meat market “eat up” what one earns in a month at lightning speed,” said Joel Gutierrez, the owner of small private business.
“At the ration store,” he added, “you get fairly poor-quality milk and some baby food that you feel bad giving your kid. From time to time, they give you these weird things called “Fortachon”, a cereal imitation, but that’s hardly enough. And what should you do when you run out of these things?”
The comments posted by MG at Cubadebate backed this opinion: “I am the father of twins and earn a basic salary of 432 Cuban pesos a month. Do you know how many cans of NAN-PRO milk I can buy with this? Do the math: I have to buy these at the hard currency store, each at 5 CUCs (125 Cuban pesos), because not one pharmacy in the entire province of Granma carried the milk assigned to new mothers. The mother of the twins has just graduated, she isn’t working, isn’t earning any money, so, I ask you, do you think I can support two girls on my salary alone? You go through your entire salary just to buy the child’s food for a week or two.”
Following a quick glance at the basic products one needs for a newborn and after visiting several stores, we calculated that the initial cost of a birth in Cuba (or caring for a baby during its first six months of life) is between 700 and 750 CUCs (a figure that varies in dependence of store prices),
OTHER PRICES AT STATE HARD CURRENCY STORES:
Mosquito net: 30-40 CUCs
Wash bowl: 5-12 CUCs
Walker: 18-25 CUCs
Baby carry-bag: 20-25 CUCs
Wet towels: 1-3 CUCs
Large towel: 10-12 CUCs
Gerber baby sauces: 0.80-1.20 CUCs each
Nestle cereals: 3-5 CUCs
Toys: 5-30 CUCs
Talcum powder: 2-6 CUCs
Corrals: 15-20 CUCs
Child medication sold at hard currency pharmacies: 9-15 CUCs
* This article is the result of a six-month-long journalistic investigation conducted with the support of the editors of CaféFuerte.