Inside a Cuban Orphanage

If you know me, you know I get terribly bored (and sometimes in trouble) if I’m not learning anything new. If you know my writing, you know that one of the things I love about Cuba is that I’m learning new things all the time. It’s stimulating, humbling – an eternal education, vaya. A recent experience was particularly educational when Cuba Libro, together with our family of Harlistas Cubanos, paid a visit to the Guanabacoa orphanage.

Here’s what I learned:

1) In Cuba, orphanages are not called orfanatos like in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world. Here, they’re called casas de niños sin amparo filial (literally children without family protection; more proof that Cubans are masters of euphemism. This is something I knew from my days volunteering here during the ‘Special Period in A Time of Peace,’ – how Cubans refer to total economic catastrophe);

2) In Cuba, these children aren’t called orphans. They’re called niños de la patria (how’s that for euphemism?);

3) There are some very dedicated, loving and compassionate people working in this sector (all are women at this particular orphanage, something I suspect is par for the course across the country);

4) I knew before this visit that there are few orphanages in Cuba (thanks to a variety of factors, including free, safe abortions), but I learned this weekend that the most common reasons children end up here are: neglect, their parents are in jail or addicted to drugs or they’re abandoned outright;

5) Orphanages in Cuba are divided by age – there are orphanages for infants who are still breast feeding, others for children from 1-1/2 to 11 years old; and others for kids 12 to 18;

6) Some children arrive at orphanages having never seen a doctor – despite Cuba’s free, universal health system. A 5-year old boy at the Guanabacoa orphanage, for example, arrived with an undiagnosed degenerative childhood disease. His muscles will atrophy until he dies, before reaching adulthood. He’s now receiving appropriate medical attention, but his is a bleak diagnosis. In addition to full medical care, the government provides these children with food, clothing, beds and linens, soap and toothpaste (a bar and tube, respectively, for each child every month), school uniforms, and a monthly stipend;

7) Every opportunity to place orphans with foster or adoptive families is investigated and made. Although the process is incredibly long and arduous, requiring all kinds of background checks, character testimonies, home visits, and documentation, several of the 20 children at the orphanage we visited were with their foster families for the weekend. Additionally, one 4 year-old girl was with her adoptive family which was finalizing her adoption;

8) The chance to visit the Guanabacoa orphanage and learn how all of this works in Cuba was possible thanks to a donation initiative by Havana Harley-Davidson riders and Cuba Libro. Most Here is Havana readers already know about Cuba Libro’s robust, targeted donation programs but this was our first donation to an orphanage. We’re incredibly thankful to have friends and family among these generous bikers who provided the opportunity to learn what orphanages most need in Cuba:
– infant and boys’ and girls’ clothes;
– sneakers and shoes;
– washcloths and shower scrubbies (caretakers are prohibited from having skin-to-skin contact with the children); and
– white knee socks – part of the official school uniform.
Thanks to this initial donation (organized by our Donation Coordinator, Yenlismara), Cuba Libro will be continuing to support the wonderful staff and children at this orphanage. If you would like to participate in this or other donation programs administered by Cuba Libro, please drop us a line;

9) The last thing I learned was the provenance of this house – a mansion really, with multiple gardens, a pool and Jacuzzi, three-car garage and so many bedrooms I lost count. Several years ago, an official police video made the rounds (you can get the new fuzz reels every week from any little storefront business selling the paquete) about a massive bust in Guanabacoa. The video showed all manner of ill-gotten goods – including eight cars, gold and jewels, appliances, electronics, the works. They even found bricks of cocaine stashed around – it was really some Cops Miami type shit. The culprit? A half-assed Cuban rapper wanted in the United States for a giant Medicare scam which fleeced boatloads of money from the federal program. I had never heard of Gilbert Man before I saw the video, nor after – until we were preparing the kids’ donations. Turns out that after he was caught, charged, sentenced to 17 years and imprisoned, the Cuban government converted his house into this orphanage. Upon visiting and beholding the f-ugly furniture, gold and brown brocade drapes, god awful porcelain vases and gilded mirrors, I learned that Gilber Man may have been (temporarily) rich, but had perennially bad taste.

I also learned that wonderful things can be sown from nefarious seeds and soil.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Inside a Cuban Orphanage

  1. You mentioned in the article that caretakers are prohibited from having skin-to-skin contact with the children, do you mean the people that actually give baths, feeding a personal grooming to the younger children?

    • Hi there. I do not understand your question. While bathing the children, they are prohibited for hygiene and ethical reasons for having skin to skin contact. Sorry if that wasn’t clear…Cheers

      • Hello. Thank you for your response. I was just confused because, I fail to understand how you can bathe a child without some skin to skin contact, I realize that they would use wash cloths and towels but at one point, some skin would come into contact with each other.
        Great article though. Thank you.

  2. Elizabeth Holt

    Thank you for this informative post…it is eye opening. Good to know about opportunities to donate

  3. Jill Bradley

    Hi Connor .
    Will you accept donations at your shop . We will be in Havana for a couple of days later in the week and were planning to visit your shop for iced coffee. And having read your blog would like to bring over a few things ?
    Thanks
    Jill

    • Hi Jill. Cuba Libro accepts material donations (we just made one to the nursery school children of Paso Quemado, Pinar del Rio) and Friends of Cuba Libro (our 501c3 non profit in the USA, financial donations for 3 lines of programming: cat & dog rescue; independent media; and support for families with members with parkinsons). thanks for asking! Although I see you are coming to Havana this week and as is our custom for the past 5 years – we close for the month of august. reopening September 9. Have a wonderful trip!! Cheers, Conner

  4. Lourdes Garcia

    In Havana prior to 1959 at the corner of San Lazaro Y Belascoain was La Beneficiencia ran by the Catholic Sisters of CHarity. Also, prior to that horrible date, Father Teste, a Catholic priest, was building La Ciudad de los Ninos with donations from individuals and businesses, of course, neithr of those places exist now. Where La Beneficiencia was is Almejeiras Hospital an architectural and medical disaster and Ciudad De Los Ninos was never completed. I’m only speaking from memory as I left Cuba in 1961 as a 16 year old.. .

    • More support for abandoned/unwanted children is always welcomed. Having said that, Im willing to bet my dog (down Toby!) that there were WAY more orphans back when the Catholics were in charge. Personally, I prefer fewer orphans/unwanted children and orphanages to catholic doctrine and dogma. There are still active convents here by the way – all over the place!

      I understood that Almejeiras was a bank prior to the revolution. Anyone have verifiable data? Also, you may not know that Im accredited press here and have been covering the health system for over 15 years. You say that this hospital is a medical disaster (having not been back since it was designated a hospital if Im reading your comment correctly) – on what do you base this opinion?

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