Can private daycares help Cuba counter its aging population?

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A mother carries her child in Old Havana. Photo by Jon Braeley.

When teacher Eneyda Díaz Díaz opened a childcare center in her native Cardenas, she didn’t know how to run a business, nor did she expect so much demand in an island where the birthrate has been substantially shrinking for decades.

“I had no idea how to start. I had a loan, I had two kids I knew I needed to feed, and so with that money, I put together the basics and the Garden of Eden was born on the terrace of my house,” she said during a presentation on entrepreneurship at the 2017 Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy conference in Miami. “The majority of us Cubans begin businesses out of necessity.”

In 2015, Cuba had an average of 10.9 births per 1,000 people, about half of what it was in the 1970s, and substantially less than the World Bank’s estimated global average of about 19 births per 1,000 today. This has contributed to what demographers call a “depressed” birthrate.

Even so, Díaz quickly discovered there weren’t enough daycares, especially in areas where parents work long hours in the burgeoning private sector. State-run daycares are short on subsidies and staff willing to work for low state salaries. Before Díaz even knew how to balance her accounts or grow her team, children were flooding in. “There were kids and kids and more kids, and I couldn’t handle that all by myself,” she said.

Fortunately, Cardenas’ Center for Christian Reflection and Dialogue, a protestant organization helping Cubans start small and medium-sized businesses, gave her management training and helped her train and license other daycare specialists to assist her.

Baby Making Capital

Daycares are of great interest to demographers because they could be part of a long-term solution to a rapidly approaching demographic crisis in Cuba. By 2021, the Cuban government estimates that more people will be retiring from the workforce than joining it.

“On average, we need two kids [per couple] just to sustain a population,” explained Sergio Díaz-Briquets, a Cuban-American economist and owner of NTS, an international development consulting firm in Virginia. But Cubans have been falling short of that average for four decades. As women became more educated and involved in the workforce, many of them delayed having children, limited the number they had, or simply opted out of having any. While Cuba is more egalitarian than many nations, and men are expected to share more responsibilities in childrearing, women still carry the bulk of household responsibilities. “They really have to hustle,” said Díaz-Briquets, and that’s tough in a country where transportation and products are limited and expensive.

But in Cardenas, home of Díaz’s Garden of Eden Daycare, hustling can pay off. Located nine miles from Varadero, Cuba’s most important beach destination for international tourists, Cardenas supplies more than half of the area’s workforce. Like Díaz, many of those workers are entrepreneurs who likely earn more than the average $25 monthly salary of state workers. But between their commute and long, erratic hours, they need flexible childcare.

Similar scenarios are playing out in the more populous and entrepreneurial capital. Carlos Gomez, a 31-year-old filmmaker who moved to Havana four years ago from the rural eastern community of Bayamó, paid more than most to put his then two-year-old son in private daycare. It was a move he had to make to accommodate the unpredictable schedule and out-of-town travel that comes with freelancing in video production. “I had to pay a little more for a private daycare but that gave me more flexibility, because I sometimes work late into the night and so does my wife. We found one for $80 per month and that includes everything, even transportation,” including pick up and drop of your child, Gomez said.

daycares cuba Jon Braeley

A child sits on his father’s shoulders in Old Havana. Photo by Jon Braeley.

Public versus private

Like most social services in Cuba, state-run daycare services suffered cut backs in the “special period” of the 1990s, and it has never fully recovered. Many women responded by using informal private daycare. Then, in 2010, the Cuban government began issuing licenses for individual childcare providers to serve up to five children. Many teamed up to create small, home-based centers.

“That gave important visibility to a practice that had been developing for some time,” said Elaine Acosta, a Miami-based sociologist who investigates social services for children and the elderly across Latin America. She is hopeful visibility will create more awareness of the economic and demographic benefits of daycare.

It has certainly raised questions about the quality of public versus private daycare.

Díaz says her private center can offer unique perks and individualized attention. She prefers the term children’s center to guardería, the generic Spanish word for a daycare, because she says she does more than just watch over children.

“I prepare human beings,” said Díaz, a practicing Christian. “I’m a fan of emotional intelligence… We can change their social radar so that they know the role they can have within a larger group.”

Private daycare can also offer more activities such as foreign language instruction, music, and acting, programs most Cuban children can access only once they enter public school. But Gomez says these stratified daycares also make children more aware of income disparities, leading to questions and expectations most Cuban parents aren’t accustomed to addressing.

“Sometimes I think state-run daycares are a little more pure,” he said, noting that raising respectful and egalitarian-minded children was always a source of pride for the Cuban Revolution. He also noted that the state offers parents a home-based curriculum called Educa a Tu Hijo (Teach Your Child), to ensure all children, with or without daycare, can be ready for public school at age five.

While Gomez recognizes that private daycare options can give children a competitive edge, he also notes that state-run campaigns exposed him to lessons on discipline and civility as a child. For example, most Cuban children learned to go to bed at the same time through the broadcasting of a nightly sleepy-time cartoon called La Calabacita (The Little Pumpkin). And in place of advertising, many public safety announcements on TV often gave children instructions on how to play nicely with each other or be gentle to their pets. What they don’t offer are the kind of flexible, late hours that workers in the growing tourism economy, need.

daycares Matias J. Ocner

A father walks with his daughter near Havana’s El Capitolio. Photo by Matias J. Ocner.

A demographic time crunch

In any case, it is clear Cuba needs more babies to keep the country going. But will more private daycares encourage Cubans to have more children?

“You can’t make that leap just yet,” Acosta said. “You have to look at this within Cuba’s current economic and cultural context. That means exploring changes in the Cubans’ expectations of family, of professional endeavors, what they want for the development of the children if they have them, what types of services are being offered, and what social groups they’re satisfying.”

For those lucky enough to carve out a niche in this busy new entrepreneurial class, the private daycare system is worth it. “The chance to get some sleep and some down time,” Gomez said, “that’s what I’m investing in.”

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  1. Daily Briefing - October 23, 2017 - Cuba Trade Magazine - October 23, 2017

    […] Countering a demographic downturn: Cuba is a difficult place to raise a child, and that has discouraged many Cubans from having children. The impact of fewer children is that Cuba has an aging population. While Cuba’s demographic challenges are multifaceted, the rise of private daycares may convince some prospective parents that it is possible to raise multiple children while maintaining a demanding job. (Cuba Trade) […]

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