According to Cuba’s National Statistic Office (www.one.cu), the population in July 2009 was estimated at 11,235,000, of which 75.9 percent were classified as urban; 19.9 percent live in the city of Havana, with a population of about 2,200,000. Santiago de Cuba, the second-largest city, has about 350,000 people. The annual average growth rate is 0.23 percent and declining.
The low birth and mortality rates and high life expectancy also mean a rapidly aging population. About 16.2 percent of the population is 60 years or older—an enormous social security burden for the beleaguered government.
The United Nations Human Development Index ranks Cuba third in the Caribbean (behind the Bahamas and Barbados) and fifth in Latin America (behind Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica).
Ethnicity and Race Relations
Officially about 37 percent of the population is “white,” mainly of Spanish origin. About 11 percent is black, and 53 percent is mulatto of mixed white-black ethnicity—Cuban lore claims there is some African in every Cuban’s blood. Chinese constitute about 0.1 percent.
After emancipation in 1888, the island was spared the brutal segregation of the American South, and a black middle class evolved alongside a black underclass, with its own social clubs, restaurants, and literature. “Cuba’s color line is much more flexible than that of the United States,” recorded black author Langston Hughes during a visit in 1930: “There are no Jim Crow cars in Cuba, and at official state gatherings and less official carnivals and celebrations, citizens of all colors meet and mingle.”
Gradually, U.S. visitors began to import Southern racial prejudice to their winter playground. To court their approval, hotels that were formerly lax in their application of color lines began to discourage even mulatto Cubans. Cuba on the eve of the Revolution had adopted discrimination. When dictator Fulgencio Batista—who was a mixture of white, black, and Chinese—arrived at the exclusive Havana Yacht Club, they turned the lights out to let him know that although he was president, as a mulatto he wasn’t welcome.
The Castro government swiftly outlawed institutionalized discrimination and vigorously enforced laws to bring about racial equality. The social advantages that opened up after the Revolution have resulted in the abolition of lily-white scenes. Cuban society is as intermixed as any other on earth.
Racial harmony is everywhere evident. Mixed marriages raise no eyebrows in Cuba. Black novelist Alice Walker, who knows Cuba well, has written, “Unlike black Americans, who have never felt at ease with being American, black Cubans raised in the Revolution take no special pride in being black. They take great pride in being Cuban. Nor do they appear able to feel, viscerally, what racism is.” Hence, blacks are, on the whole, more loyal to Castro than whites.
Nonetheless, the most marginal neighborhoods still have a heavy preponderance of blacks. Most Cuban blacks still work at menial jobs and earn, on average, less than whites. And blacks are notoriously absent from the upper echelons of government. (Since 1994, when Havana witnessed what were essentially race riots, the government has been promoting black officials and elevating blacks to more prominent positions in tourism.)
Nor has the Revolution totally overcome stereotypical racial thinking and prejudice. Black youths, for example, claim to be disproportionately harassed by police (though, ironically, blacks are well represented among the uniformed police). And you still hear racist comments, though most racial references—and Cuba is full of them—are well-meaning.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition