People and Culture

Cuba has the largest population among Caribbean countries, nearly 11.5 million inhabitants. The island's population is highly urbanized, with 76 percent of the people living in cities. With so many people in cities, rural areas are sparsely settled. Like two poles of a magnet, Cuba's population is concentrated on opposite ends of the island. Thirty-eight percent of the population resides in the western end, mainly in urban areas of Havana, Matanzas, and Pinar del Rio provinces. Another 35 percent of the population is in the eastern provinces and mostly in the cities, such as Santiago de Cuba, Las Tunas, Bayamo, Holguin, and Guantanamo. The remaining 26 percent of the population resides in the central provinces, which include the cities of Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Ciego de Avila, and Camaguey.


When the Cuban Revolution ended in 1959, the island's population was 6.9 million. Since Fidel Castro took over the government, Cuba's population has continued to grow, but in decreasing numbers. Cuba now has the lowest population growth rate in Latin America, 0.3 percent per year.

The large number of islanders leaving Castro's Cuba each year slowed the rate of population increase. As mentioned in Chapter 3, hundreds of thousands of boat people have left the island illegally since 1980. Moreover, since 1994, the Castro government has allowed 20,000 Cubans to emigrate legally each year. The government uses a lottery to determine who may leave the country. An estimated 500,000 Cubans have signed up to be included in the lottery.

Nevertheless, thousands of additional Cubans emigrate illegally each year. Some come by water, crossing the Straits of Florida. Sadly, many die during their attempt. Others are stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard. Many others slip across the U.S.-Mexico border or enter the country on flights to Miami from various Latin American cities. Because so many dissatisfied people have emigrated from Cuba since 1959, more than half of the country's population is under the age of 40.

Other factors besides emigration contribute to Cuba's slow population growth, including higher education levels, better health care, birth control, and greater female participation in the workforce.


According to the latest census, the Cuban population is composed of the following: 65 percent of the people are whites (criollos), most of whom are of Spanish ancestry; 25 percent are of mixed black and white descent (mulattoes); and 10 percent trace their ancestry to black African origin. A small number of Chinese and other ethnicities also live on the island. There is little trace of the indigenous population today, except for archaeological sites. Unlike most former Spanish colonies, there are almost no people of Arawak-Spanish descent. War, hard labor, disease, and suicide almost wiped out Cuba's native Amerindian population very quickly.

Before the revolution, it was typical for whites to discriminate against blacks both socially and in employment. One of the first acts of the Castro government was to make racial discrimination illegal. Cuban society now accepts mixed marriages as commonplace. The proportion of blacks and mulattoes is increasing gradually due to improvements in health services and because most Cubans leaving the country are white. Some white families came to Cuba from Spain in the early colonial period. Other criollos are descendants of Spaniards who arrived from other Spanish colonies that gained independence from Spain in the early 1800s. Still other whites are descended from immigrants that came to Cuba from Spain and the Canary Islands (a Spanish colony in the Atlantic Ocean) between 1900 and 1933. About 750,000 Spaniards arrived during that period.

Many blacks in Cuba are descendants of African slaves. The Spaniards imported African slaves to replace the Indians as laborers. Slave traders brought 800,000 African blacks shackled in irons. Most black slaves belonged to the Yoruba and Bantu tribal groups. Some of their original traditions survive today in various Afro-Cuban religions.

During the colonial period, the number of “free colored” people in Cuba was greater than in other Caribbean societies. The large proportion of free blacks rose from Cuba's legal system. It allowed slave owners to free their slaves if the slaves would agree to pay for their freedom. Many slave owners often found this practice profitable. In the mid-1800s, the conversion of sugar mills from manual power to steam power reduced the demand for slave labor. This change in technology also enabled more blacks to purchase their freedom and to enter the general Cuban population.

In 1886, Spain ended all forms of slavery in Cuba. Blacks, both slaves and free, made up one-third of the total population, or about 500,000 of 1.5 million people. The proportion of blacks has decreased since then. An exception to the black population's downward trend took place between 1919 and 1926, when plantation owners in Cuba recruited 250,000 black laborers from Jamaica and Haiti to work for wages on sugarcane plantations.

There was some infusion of French culture into Cuba's white and black populations in the early 1800s. Several thousand French-speaking whites and African black slaves came to eastern Cuba from Haiti (a French colony) at that time. These emigrants were seeking safety from Haiti's war of independence from France. French cultural influence is still apparent in the cities of eastern Cuba, the main destination of people who were fleeing the conflict. Additional French emigrants came from the Louisiana Territory following purchase of the territory from France in 1803. Many of these emigrants settled in what is now Cienfuegos Province.

The Chinese element is very small. Cuban plantation operators imported 125,000 Chinese laborers into Cuba between 1847 and 1874. The Chinese came from southern China, which was experiencing a tremendous surge in population. (During this same period, Chinese emigrant laborers also were mining gold in California and building railroads in the United States.)

The Chinese came to Cuba as indentured servants, which meant that they signed contracts promising to work for a certain number of years. (Their contracts were for a minimum of eight years.) No women were in this population; Cuba was in need of male laborers who could do backbreaking work in sugarcane fields and on construction projects. Unfortunately, the plantation bosses treated these early immigrants like slaves. The bosses often shackled them in irons, and they were menaced with whips by the guards assigned to watch them. Plantation owners brought another 30,000 southern Chinese laborers to the island in the 1920s. The bosses treated this later group more humanely.

Few Chinese could afford to pay for a ship's passage back to China after their contracts ended. Many who stayed married black Cuban women. A small Chinatown in Havana is a reminder of this part of Cuba's cultural history. Additionally, rice—an important staple to the Chinese diet—became a fixture in the Cuban diet as well.


Before the Cuban Revolution, skin color was a divisive issue. Blacks, especially, had little access to good jobs. Racial prejudice blocked them from joining white country clubs and attending white private schools. Cuban whites were insensitive to the feelings of people of color; they often used terms such as El Chino (the Chinese man), El Negrito (the black one), and La Mulata (the mixed one).

Today, making racial distinctions is a social taboo. People of all races receive the same care in hospitals and attend the same schools. Intermarriage between whites and blacks is commonplace, and virtually all neighborhoods are integrated. Nevertheless, there is evidence that racial discrimination persists. There is no black political leader of significant power.

The proportion of black Cubans earning university degrees is low compared to that of white Cubans. Additionally, there are noticeably more whites who are able to interact with foreigners in jobs as waitresses, doormen, tour guides, and cab drivers in the tourism industry. Even Castro has acknowledged in recent years that there are “lingering traces of racial discrimination in Cuba.”


The Latin American social fabric supports male-dominated gender roles. Machismo (an exaggerated sense of “maleness”) is common everywhere and males usually dominate the decisionmaking process. The role of women was traditionally relegated to keeping the household tidy and raising children. Until recently, males almost entirely controlled political and economic sectors of activity. Cuba was no exception. What Communism has managed to influence, however, was to narrow the existing gender gaps and offer opportunities for females. Formal education is one of the success stories.

Communist ideology supports gender equality, so the Communists sought to help female emancipation early on. Literacy rates, post-secondary education achievements, and employment opportunities for women have significantly increased since the 1960s. All these factors have combined to increase the quality of life among Cuban females. Currently, their life expectancy is nearly 80 years of age. Despite difficult economic conditions, this is rather admirable for a country in the Western Hemisphere.

Reduction of natural birthrates certainly can be attributed to improvements in the lives of females. Opportunities for personal and professional development in modern society vastly influence fertility rates (the number of children per woman during her fertile years). In a traditional agricultural setting, children are considered a form of capital. They work, collect wood, and support the family in many other ways. The modem lifestyle, on the other hand, makes a large number of children rather expensive for parents. The reduction in fertility rates illustrates this. With an estimated fertility rate of 1.6 (2009), Cubans are not replacing themselves biologically. The replacement rate is 2.1 children per female.


Spanish is Cuba's official language. Knowledge of it is necessary for a visitor traveling around the country. Almost all newspapers, magazines, books, signs, documents, maps, menus, and museum captions are in Spanish only.

Cubans use some words of Arawakan, African, and English origin. They use Arawakan nouns to identify many mountains, rivers, and towns. For example, the name “Cuba” comes from the word cubanacdn, meaning “a center” or “central place.” Ceiba is the Arawakan name for a prominent tree on the island. Sabaria is the Arawakan name for grassland. Camagtiey, the main city in central Cuba is also of Arawkan origin. Hurricane is another Arawakan term, meaning “big wind” in the Arawakan language.

African terms include names of various plants and animals, such as afi, a species of yucca. Mambt, the African name for rebel fighters, was the name given to pro-Castro guerrilla fighters during the Cuban Revolution. Many words of African origin—such as rumba, mambo, and conga—deal with aspects of African religion and music found in Cuba.

Cubans do not speak much English. Primary schools only teach it in sixth grade. Therefore, ordinary people speak only some English and then very poorly. Nevertheless, Cuba's proximity to the United States has a strong influence on everyday speech. Many English words concern baseball, boxing, automobiles, and popular brand names of American products. An example of English word usage involving boxing is as follows: “Mohammed Alt le solt dos uppercuts y tres jabs que lo dejaron groggy” (Mohammed Ali threw out two uppercuts and three jabs that left him |the opponent] groggy).

Before Castro took over the government, more Cubans spoke English, as the educated middle and upper classes had dealings with American businessmen and tourists. Castro's policy of confiscating the property and bank accounts of Cuban “capitalists” forced most of these English speakers to flee Cuba. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in learning English again. A good command of English is a key to jobs in the tourist industry, which is a way to potentially access U.S. dollars.


Most outsiders think of Cuba as a Catholic country because it is a former Spanish colony. Before Castro took power, however, Cuba was the least religious country in Latin America. Only about 10 percent of the population regularly attended church. Nevertheless, the Castro government tries to discourage religion. Communist governments view any form of organized religion as a threat. Communism requires allegiance of the individual to the state. The Christian religion asks for allegiance to God. Moreover, Communist governments view the Christian religion with great suspicion because it has a hierarchy of worshippers, priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, and a pope. Communist governments view this hierarchy as a possible network for antigovernment conspiracies.

The Castro government pressured into exile about 90 percent of the practicing Catholics and Catholic priests in the country by 1965. The government did not necessarily target Catholics for their religious beliefs, as the wealthy and middle-class Cubans leaving the country for political reasons made up most of the practicing Catholic population. Nevertheless, the Cuban government continues to stifle organized religion by banning the distribution of religious literature and the airing of religious television and radio programs.

Castro eased up on suppression of religion by allowing Pope John Paul II to visit Cuba in January 1998. The pope celebrated open-air masses in Havana, Santa Clara, Camagtiey, and Santiago de Cuba. The government gave the Catholic Council of Churches permission to distribute 100,000 Bibles as gifts during the papal visit. Cuban experts see the pope's visit as a hopeful sign that the government is feeling less threatened by religion than it did before.

The most widespread form of religion in Cuba today is neither Protestant nor Catholic, but a belief system called Santeria—“way of the saints.” This system teaches that Afro-Cuban gods and spirits (orishas) inhabit forests. Therefore, forests are sacred. Santeria is the largest of the Afro-Cuban religions. African Yoruba slaves (from a region that is now in Nigeria) developed the religion as a way to trick slave owners: While publicly professing their worship of Catholic saints, the slaves privately worshipped animistic gods and goddesses of their homeland. Believers worship these African spirits through plant, food, and animal sacrifices offered during chants and dancing initiations. Cubans in Havana do not call this religion Santeria; they prefer to call it the “Yoruba religion” after its place of origin.

Some Catholic priests welcome Santeria as a way to attract parishioners to Christian teachings, while others see it as evil. Many worshippers regard themselves as Roman Catholics. They believe that the names of the Catholic saints are Spanish translations of Yoruban names of orishas. There are more Santeria priests in Havana than Catholic priests in all of Cuba.

There are two smaller African religions in Cuba. African Bantus brought the first, Regia Cona, to Cuba. It originated in the Congo region of Africa. African slaves from Nigeria brought the second, Abakua. Worshippers practice Abakua mainly in the provinces of Havana and Matanzas.

African religions swear their worshippers to secrecy, a tradition that slaves developed to avoid punishment from their white masters for practicing a non-Catholic religion. Although African slaves were responsible for the emergence of these religions, they have gained in popularity among every race on the island. The priests of Afro-Cuban religions have no hierarchy or centralized leadership. Therefore, they have never been a threat to the Castro government. Freedom from persecution may explain why such religions are so popular.


Cuban music and dance reveal the soul of Cuban culture: They bring together Cuba's African and European traditions, offering a distinct blend of the two. Fernando Ortiz, a Cuban social historian, described Cuban music as “a love affair between the African drum and the Spanish guitar.” The Cuban-American scholar William Luis says in Culture and Customs of Cuba, “Cuban music is lively, energetic, and invigorating, but also soft, sensual, and emotional. The music makes listeners want to dance and touches the deepest parts of the soul. Indeed, Cubans carry music in their blood.”

Cuban music and dance are inseparable. They are the most famous expressions of Cuban culture. The Cuban son, an Afro-Cuban music form, came first. A combination of Cuban dance and music called the rumba came next. Cuban and North American musicians made the son and rumba and their variants famous in the twentieth century by modifying them into popular forms of entertainment.

Son was the first music to successfully mix Spanish lyrics with African rhythm. The son originated in the mountains of eastern Cuba and became popular in the cities there in the late nineteenth century. The radio popularized it throughout Cuba in the 1920s. In its original form, son music was performed by groups using guitars, bongos (a pair of small round drums joined by a piece of wood), a bass, claves (two wooden sticks tapped together to set the beat), and maracas (gourd-shaped rattles). The son involved music, not dancing. A variation of the son is the rumba, which gave rise to several other forms of music and dance.

The rumba is an Afro-Cuban music and dance combination that began in the early twentieth century in urban centers and in small settlements around sugarcane mills. Like the son, the rumba combines Spanish lyrics and African rhythm, but the African rhythm is stronger. The rumba features a soloist and chorus and a single dancer or pair of dancers. The musical instruments include a clave, the drum, the quinto (a higherpitched drum), and spoons.

In the 1920s, the rumba spread to New York where orchestras changed it into a big-band ballroom dance with the addition of horns and strings. The rumba is rich and has many variants, including combination music and dance forms called the conga, mambo, and cha-cha.

Conga music is a variation of the rumba. It is possibly of Bantu origin and includes the conga drum. The conga drum is a tall barrel-like drum held together by metal hoops. Musicians and participants dance in a line, improvising steps.

The mambo has a fast beat and uses the violin, flute, piano, contrabass, timbale, and guiro (an elongated gourd rasped with a stick, although there are tin guiros). Later, it acquired a conga drum, two violins, and three singers. A Cuban musician invented a ballroom dance, the cha-cha, in the late 1940s to appeal to North American dancers. The cha-cha is not too fast, it is easy to learn, and it has simple lyrics to the songs.

Cuban music has been popular in the United States. RCA Victor and Columbia Records launched their record companies in the 1940s by featuring Cuban musicians. Well-known Cuban musicians, such as Xavier Cugat, who composed music and appeared in many Hollywood movies, promoted Cuban music. Desi Amaz, a Cuban, married comedienne Lucille Ball and was an actor and producer on the I Love Lucy show. He popularized the conga line in the United States.

Authentic Cuban music and dance have declined in popularity since about 1980. A loosely defined style related to jazz, called salsa, has replaced them. East Coast musicians in the United States developed salsa. It is a mixture of the Cuban son and other Latin rhythms.

Music bridges the political divide. This was proved in the late 1990s when the movie Buena Vista Social Club was released in theaters throughout the United States. The story talks about the lives of musicians active since the 1940s in what used to be one of Havana's exclusive clubs. The movie and the sound track became internationally popular. By portraying aging Cuban artists, it gave a human face to the island's society put in front of the American public. Many realized that after all politics are put aside, ordinary people share the same zest for life as days go by.


If Cuban music and dance reveal the soul of Cuban culture, then Cuban baseball reveals its heart. As in the United States, baseball is Cuba's national pastime. The adoption of a team sport as a national pastime is important to a country, as its popularity cuts across lines of class, age, race, gender, and politics; it appeals to people living in cities and in rural areas. It teaches people of diverse backgrounds that they can work together toward a common goal.

Cuba is the first country outside of the United States to play baseball. Cubans built the first baseball stadium in Matanzas in 1874. After the Spanish-American War, U.S. soldiers stationed on the island played against the islanders. Cubans have had a passion for baseball ever since.

Baseball has brought greater contact between Cuban and U.S. cultures. Games between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban All Stars have been a regular event for several years. Additionally, more than a few Cubans have played in the major leagues, including the well-known Pedro (Tony) Oliva. He played for the Minnesota Twins, was named the American League Rookie of the Year in 1964, and won three batting titles in his career.

Mike Cuellar, who first played for the Havana Sugar Kings, won the Cy Young Award while playing for the Baltimore Orioles in 1969. Tony Perez played for a sugar factory in Cuba and signed with the Cincinnati Reds in 1960. Seven years later he became the Red's most valuable player (MVP). Perez became a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1970.

There were many other Cuban players with outstanding records in American baseball: Sandy Amars, Orestes (Minnie) Miftoso, Camillo Pasual, Tony Taylor, Octavio (Cookie) Rojas, Pedro Dagoberto Blanco (Tony) Campaneris, and Luis Tiant Jr. Other famous American players were bom in Cuba, but they did not play in Cuba. For example, Jose Canseco (Oakland Athletics and Florida Marlins) and Rafael Palmeiro (Baltimore Orioles) were born in Havana, but they came to the United States when they were youngsters.

Cuban baseball has had to make adjustments under Castro. Entrance fees to games are much lower now, so that less money is available to pay for equipment. As a result, Cuban teams must use aluminum bats because they break less often than the expensive wooden bats. Fans must return foul balls because they are too expensive to replace.

More serious is the defection of the island's star players. For example, Ivan Hernandez joined the Florida Marlins in 1996 and became the MVP of the World Series in 1997. The next year, his half brother, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, defected. El Duque signed a contract with the New York Yankees, where he made important contributions to the team's victories in the 1998 and 1999 World Series.

Boxing, in addition to baseball, has had a long-standing tradition in Cuba. Additionally, Cubans are outstanding competitors in track and field, judo, volleyball, water polo, and weightlifting. The Castro government is largely responsible for Cuba's reputation as a world leader in sports. It established a sports academy system where promising athletes continue their education while they receive specialized training in sports.