Migration becomes more feminised in Cuba and brings with it new challenges

Emigrating was an agonising decision for Cuban Ana Iraida. She left behind family and friends; in her backpack she carried many aspirations, but also the fear of being harassed on the journey to the United States.

“My salary and that of my second job, as an editor, were insufficient. I wanted to prosper and help my parents. Nor did I want to have a child in a country where it is an ordeal to buy everything from disposable nappies to soap, not to mention food,” the 33-year-old philologist, who, like the others interviewed for this story, asked to withhold her surname, told IPS.

After selling her flat in Havana, she left for Nicaragua in December 2022.

“Some friends lent me the money I needed. I arrived in Mexico by land. I paid 1,800 dollars to be taken to the border. I crossed and turned myself in to the border patrol in Yuma, Arizona, on New Year’s Day,” she said from the US city of Houston, where she now lives.

Estimates put the number of Cubans who emigrated in 2022 at 300,000. Of these, some 250,000 people turned their compasses towards the United States, the main receiving nation of migrants from the island and separated by 167 kilometres of the Florida Straits.

“The crossing was stressful. I could be robbed of my money, raped or even murdered. Almost two years ago, when the airports reopened after the covid pandemic, some young women who lived near my house left and their families never heard from them again”: Ana Iraida.

The increase in the exodus from this Caribbean Island country of 11 million inhabitants occurs in a context of a deteriorating economic situation, fuelled by covid, the strengthening of the US embargo, partial dollarisation, a fall in the acquisitive power of salaries and pensions, shortages of essential products and inflation.

Added to this are failures and delays in the implementation of a set of reforms to modernise the country, approved in 2011, and the unsuccessful monetary order implemented as of January 2021.

For some local officials, the Cuban Adjustment Act, in force since 1966, stimulates the exodus of migrants, as it allows all Cubans to be eligible for permanent residency after a year and a day in US territory.

In the past, this rule benefited all Cubans who set foot on US soil, while since January 2017 it has only benefited those who have entered the country legally.

However, the migratory flow towards the neighbouring nation decreased after President Joseph Biden’s administration established a humanitarian temporary residence permit programme, known as ‘parole’, on 5 January, similar to the one implemented in October 2022 for Venezuelans and previously for other nationalities.

As of the end of July, more than 41,000 Cubans had obtained parole, of whom more than 39,000 had already travelled, according to the US Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on 18 August.

In addition, after four years at a standstill, the US embassy in Havana resumed processing immigrant visas on 4 January, a decision that the island’s government described as a “necessary and correct step” aimed at guaranteeing regular, orderly and safe migration.

Women queue for it to buy food in Havana. The economic situation, the ageing of the population and the emigration of young people and professionals are placing additional obstacles in the way of caregivers to ensure food security, buy medicines and manage supplies. Image: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS
Risks and impacts

International organisations and human rights defender groups warn of the risks faced by people in a situation of human mobility, especially women, children and the elderly, who are more likely to be victims of abuse, mistreatment, discrimination, extortion, kidnapping and sexual violence by organised crime groups.

Other migrants never reach their destination and remain in transit countries in overcrowded conditions or victims of violence.

Concerned also “that they would detain me, send me back to Cuba and that finally I would have no home to return to and debts”, Ana Iraida added.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), women represent 48% of international migrants worldwide and more and more are migrating independently, even as heads of household, in search of new opportunities, to reunite with their families, or to help relatives in the country of origin.

Research indicates that this phenomenon, known as the feminisation of migration, has significant impacts on demographic, physical, economic, cultural and gender indicators in regions and countries.

An older woman walks in Havana with the help of her companion. The National Survey on Population Ageing showed that about 68% of caregivers in Cuba are women, and most of them are over 50 years old. At the same time, more than 57% of the population over five decades old prefer care to be provided by women. Image: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS
Cuba’s January 2013 immigration reform eliminated exit permits and letters of invitation for nationals residing on the island, extended from 11 to 24 months the time to stay abroad without losing residency, and repealed legislation that allowed the confiscation of assets of those who left the country.

Subsequent regulations have also favoured increased travel abroad for personal reasons, the possibility to live temporarily or permanently outside the country and opened the door to a better relationship with the island’s diaspora.

Women predominate among those who opted for temporary residence abroad and men, among those who decided to live permanently, revealed the report of the National Migration Survey (Enmig 2016-2017), published by the state-run National Office of Statistics and Information (Onei), in January 2019.

The survey found that 59% of men and 45% of women who decided to live temporarily or permanently in another country did so “to improve their economic situation”.

In the case of women, “to get closer to or visit family”, “to support or take care of relatives” and “to help their family here” (35 %) are the most important reasons, while in the case of men, the figure is only 21 %.

Mothers accompany their children, primary school students, during the start of a new school year in Havana. Researchers have called for more attention to be paid to the relationship between the feminisation of migration and the burden of care. Image: Jorge Luis Baños / IPS
Focusing on care

In the Cuban case, they analyse, migration itself often becomes a complementary strategy for dealing with the problems associated with care.

The economic situation, the ageing of the population and the emigration of young people and professionals, all place additional obstacles for caregivers to provide food, buy medicines and manage supplies.

“I moved to Ecuador seven years ago. My two children were born here. My work allows me to send money, medicines and other products to Cuba to care for my 80-year-old father, who has senile dementia. Otherwise, it would be very difficult for my older sister to provide adequate care for him,” 38-year-old teacher Betsy told IPS from the city of Guayaquil.

In Cuba, 22.3 percent of the population is over the age of 60, and by 2025 it is estimated that one in four of the island’s residents will be older.

The National Survey on Gender Equality, published in 2019, showed that Cuban women spend an average of 14 hours more than men on unpaid work per week, which includes caring for the elderly, chronically ill and dependent persons, as well as supporting the schoolwork of children and adolescents.

For its part, the 2017 National Survey on Population Ageing (Enep), whose data became known in 2020, showed that around 68 % of those who offer help are women and most of them are over 50 years old.

If care is needed, more than 57% of the population over five decades old prefer it to be provided by women, according to the study.

“I chose to stay and live in Canada almost two years ago. It has been an ordeal, but I have no regrets. It’s a way to help my 11-year-old son and my retired parents, who are looking after him until we can get back together,” said Rocio from Halifax.

The 40-year-old translator, who used to live in the eastern city of Holguín, told IPS that “with my salary, my son and I were living on a tight budget. I could do little to help my parents, whose chequebooks barely cover the household bills, medicines and the few affordable foodstuffs. I am far away, I suffer from separation, but every month I can send them money so that they can live more comfortably and eat better.

An increasingly young and feminised emigration challenges national development plans on a sustainable basis.

“This situation calls for more research and public debate on the present and future impacts of demographic dynamics such as migration and ageing, as they relate to the social organisation of care on the island,” argues Cuban sociologist Elaine Acosta.

In the opinion of the executive director of Cuido60, Observatory of ageing, care and rights, it is urgent to “accelerate and deepen structural reforms so that migration ceases to be a daily survival strategy and, at the same time, to obtain the necessary resources to implement appropriate and integrated social policies to face the current and future challenges of ageing”.

Inter Press Service