Another country, another slow-motion demographic collapse. This NYTimes article highlights low birthrates, ageing population and impending demographic collapse in Cuba: another nation to add to the growing list of Western Europe and East and South-East Asia. If something doesn’t change, Cuba’s demographic future is a bleak one of decline:

“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 Cuba’s future is even harder to break, despite the country’s halting steps to open itself up to the outside world.”

The reasons for the population decline are a mixture of the familiar and the novel. The familiar first: women started to get married later and to have fewer children as their educational standards rose after the revolution. As Dr Hazel Denton, a former World Bank economist who studied Cuban demographics and is now at Georgetown University, argues:

“Education for women is the button you press when you want to change fertility preferences in developing countries…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 manner.”

Further, the economic situation in Cuba is such that there are strong financial restraints on having a family. The NYTimes cites scant job opportunities, a shortage of available goods and a dearth of sufficient housing as reasons why Cubans are postponing (sometimes indefinitely) having children.

Aside from these common factors, there are a couple of reasons for Cuba’s demographic outlook that it does not share with the rest of the world. First, there is lure of overseas for the island’s young people, particularly the lure of the United States. Millions of Cubans live overseas and the temptation to leave for the US is increasing surprisingly due to the recent US-Cuba rapprochement:

“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.”

Secondly, there is the extremely high abortion rate in Cuba. At 30 abortions for every 1000 women of childbearing age, Cuba’s rate is second only to Russia and almost double that of the USA. (My own country, New Zealand, has a rate of 14.4 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44.) As the NYTimes notes, abortion is “legal, free and commonly practised”. Not only that, but there seems to be little in the way of social stigma about having abortions.

“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.”

Have a read of the following quotations from the article:

“‘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.’”

And:

“‘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.’”

But perhaps the most shocking was this exchange:

“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.’”

When the number of abortions that your aunt has had is a matter of mirth then you know that there is something seriously wrong with a society’s moral compass. Let us hope that Cuba’s view of family and the unborn changes for the better. Without such a change, the country faces a bleak future. But not quite as bleak as that faced by unborn Cuban children.

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...