Cuba is well aware of its demographic woes and continues to think of ways to turn its low fertility rate around.  The latest initiative is to give parental leave to the grandparents of newborns.   They are entitled to receive up to 60% of their annual salary for up to a year. This adds to what is already a generous parental leave policy which gives mothers and fathers partial pay for a year.  The country also offers significantly reduced daycare rates for mothers of two or more babies.

According to the Communist Party newspaper Granma, the decision to extend parental leave to grandparents was necessary:

“to deal with the high degree of aging among the population, and to encourage fertility in the short term … The challenge of raising the birthrate in Cuba is a challenge that cannot be put off,”

However, so far the initiatives have not managed to increase the birth rate to replacement level – it is currently just 1.7 births per woman.  Some Cubans argue women are not financially able to have children.  Others say that it is the propensity for women to work and study instead of having children that has caused the low fertility rate.  The country also has an extremely high abortion rate – there were 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.

On top of the low fertility rates, between 60,000 to 80,000 Cubans emigrate each year, many of them young people looking for better opportunities in the United States, Europe and Latin America.  Thus, there is a shrinking pool of Cuban workers to keep the state-run economy afloat.

As a result, Cuba’s population is set decline dramatically over the next decade.  By 2025, due to low fertility and high emigration, the population is projected to fall from 11 million to 10 million people.   With the increasingly elderly population, many struggle to survive.  Pensions are small and the country’s nursing homes are often in terrible shape; many elderly prefer to go into one of the 11 homes across the country run by religious orders, such as the Santovenia asylum in the Cerro neighborhood of Havana which is run by nuns who belong to a congregation called “sisters of the unattended elderly”. 

One elderly woman who used to be an engineer now rummages through the rubbish in search of recyclable products to survive.  She writes:

“People see me picking up cans, but they don’t know I was a prize-winning engineer and that I even traveled to the Soviet Union in 1983 … I have always been a hard worker because the most important thing is my family.  It doesn’t bother me to wear old clothes while I collect the cans. The one who has to look good is my grandson, who just started high school.”

According to reports, many elderly now walk the streets in Havana and other cities, selling home-made candy or peanuts to make ends meet, and the number of beggars on the streets of Cuba’s main cities has visibly increased.  It is a sad situation and a complex problem to solve given the myriad of issues communist Cuba faces.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...