In Cuba, an Abundance of Love but a Lack of Babies
By AZAM AHMEDOCT. 27, 2015
HAVANA — A magnetic energy courses between Claudia Rodriguez and
Alejandro Padilla, binding the couple in clichés of intimacy: the
tendency to finish each other’s sentences; hands that naturally
gravitate toward one another; a shared laughter that forms the
soundtrack of their romance.
What their love will not bear, for the moment, is a family. Though they
plan to marry and have children, they will wait — until they are no
longer sharing a small apartment with a half-dozen others, or perhaps
until obtaining diapers and formula is no longer a gamble.
In short, they will be waiting a long time.
“You have to take into consideration the world we live in,” said Ms.
Rodriguez, 24, who says she has had two abortions to avoid having
children too soon. Clutching Mr. Padilla’s hand, she said, “It would be
so much harder with a child.”
By almost any metric, Cuba’s demographics are in dire straits. Since the
1970s, the birthrate has been in free fall, tilting population figures
into decline, a problem much more common in rich, industrialized
nations, not poor ones.
Cuba already has the oldest population in all of Latin America. Experts
predict that 50 years from now, Cuba’s population will have fallen by a
third. More than 40 percent of the country will be older than 60.
The demographic crisis is both an economic and a political one. The
aging population will require a vast health care system, the likes of
which the state cannot afford. And without a viable work force, the
cycle of flight and wariness about the country’s future is even harder
to break, despite the country’s halting steps to open itself up to the
“We are all so excited about the trade and travel that we have
overlooked the demographics problem,” said Hazel Denton, a former World
Bank economist who has studied Cuban demographics. “This is a
Young people are fleeing the island in big numbers, fearful that warming
relations with America will signal the end of a policy that allows
Cubans who make it to the United States to naturalize. Until recently, a
law prohibited Cubans from taking children out of the country, further
discouraging many from having children to avoid the painful choice of
leaving them behind.
Those who remain in Cuba say they are also reluctant to have children,
citing the strain of raising an infant in a country where the average
state salary is just $20 a month.
“At the end of the day, we don’t want to make things more difficult for
ourselves,” said Laura Rivera Gonzalez, an architecture student,
standing with her husband in central Havana. “Just graduating doesn’t
mean that things are resolved. That won’t sustain us.”
Ms. Gonzalez embodies an irony of the Cuban demographic crisis: As the
government educated its people after the revolution, achieving one of
the highest literacy rates in the world, its citizens became more
cautious about bearing children. Scant job opportunities, a shortage of
available goods and a dearth of sufficient housing encouraged Cubans to
wait to start a family — sometimes indefinitely.
“Education for women is the button you press when you want to change
fertility preferences in developing countries,” said Dr. Denton, who now
teaches at Georgetown University. “You educate the woman, then she has
choices — she stays longer in school, marries at an older age, has the
number of children she wants and uses contraception in a more healthy
There is another factor that alters the equation in Cuba: Abortion is
legal, free and commonly practiced. There is no stigma attached to the
procedure, helping to make Cuba’s reported abortion rates among the
highest in the world. In many respects, abortion is viewed as another
manner of birth control.
In Cuba, women are free to choose as they wish, another legacy of the
revolution, which prioritized women’s rights. They speak openly about
abortions, and lines at clinics often wrap around the building.
Continue reading the main story
The State of Cuba
Contradiction is more than just a sign of a changing Cuba — it is a
fundamental characteristic of it.
OPEN Interactive Feature
By the numbers, the country exhibits a rate of nearly 30 abortions for
every 1,000 women of childbearing age, according to 2010 data compiled
by the United Nations. Among countries that permit abortion, only Russia
had a higher rate. In the United States, 2011 figures show a rate of
But experts caution that the liberal abortion policy is not responsible
for the declining population. Rather, it is a symptom of a larger issue.
Generally speaking, many Cubans simply believe they cannot afford a child.
“I’ve had two abortions, one of them with Jorge,” said Claudia Aguilar
San Juan, a 27-year-old restaurant worker, referring to her boyfriend of
two years, Jorge Antonio Nazco. “At the time, we didn’t think we were
ready to have kids, and we continue to think that it’s still not the time.”
Mr. Nazco added: “We need to be able to afford basic things for
ourselves, and we’re also not going to be living three people in one
room. I just want to give my kids a comfortable life, a better life than
what I had.”
That is the case with Elisabeth Dominguez and Eddy Marrero. Together,
the couple earn about $70 a month for her work as a psychologist and his
as a pediatric nurse, a relatively high income by Cuban standards.
The standard, however, is the problem.
“It’s barely enough for the two of us,” said Ms. Dominguez, 29, shaking
her head. “How could we afford a kid?”
Recognizing the problem, the government has begun to circulate
pro-pregnancy messages, pamphlets and fliers to encourage young couples
to keep their children. Some women said that in recent months,
government doctors have discouraged them from having abortions, while
others have noticed sudden shortages of condoms and birth control pills.
While those assertions could not be verified, most experts say it hardly
matters. Cuba will not be able to procreate its way out of the current
crisis anytime soon.
Very few tactics work to increase a nation’s fertility rate, despite
efforts in countries like Japan to pay families to have children.
What some suggest could help is if the government could manage to
encourage the vast Cuban expatriate population to come home. There, too,
the government has shown some willingness to adjust its stance,
including easing the return of islanders living or traveling abroad.
But surmounting the longstanding bitterness of many families toward the
government, which still holds a tight grip on the country, poses
challenges of its own. And the returning Cubans will need to be
interested in more than an extended vacation or investment opportunity.
“Already there is more flow,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the
Brookings Institution who studies Cuba, referring to the return of
Cubans abroad in their 20s, 30s and 40s. “But is it going to be a matter
of ‘I want my vacation home there,’ or will they put down roots?”
Separated families are a fact of life for most Cubans, another element
straining the state of the Cuban family. With millions abroad, and a
domestic population of just over 11 million, few families are left
untouched by the schism that followed the country’s revolution.
Ms. Rodriguez and Mr. Padilla both have relatives living in the United
States, some of whom they have not seen for years. Some do not want to
return, having disconnected from the rhythm of life on the island.
Others return and appear changed, no longer the cousins and nephews from
In many respects, their relationship represents the challenges facing
the government as it confronts an industrialized world problem with a
developing world economy.
In their minds, there is no doubt the two of them will get married. As a
jeweler, Mr. Padilla, 29, plans to design the ring himself and propose
once he saves enough money to buy a diamond.
Even then, they say, they are not certain they can afford the burden of
a child. Earlier this year, the pair aborted a pregnancy, a decision for
which they both express a degree of sadness. Still, it is not so
uncommon in their families. Their mothers have had four abortions each,
the two say, seated on the back porch of Ms. Rodriguez’s mother’s home,
where the couple live.
Mr. Padilla, smirking, blurted out that Ms. Rodriguez’s aunt had
undergone 10 procedures, prompting his partner to laugh.
“Quiet,” she whispered sharply, slapping his arm. “She has a degree in
French and is inside right now.”
He giggled quietly and looped his arm through hers. Ultimately, he said,
they do want a family. The when of the matter would come in the
not-too-distant future, he hoped.
“We don’t want to pressure ourselves,” Mr. Padilla said. “We want to
live our lives, day by day, each day in its own time.”
Hannah Berkeley Cohen contributed reporting.