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Cuba     the facts

Lying at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, Cuba is both the largest and the most populated island in the region.
The Spanish established their first settlement in 1508 and the first sugar cane was planted less than a decade later.
The country struggled against Spanish colonialism, home-grown dictators and American intervention until Fidel Castro emerged in 1959.
Since then Cuban-style socialism has moulded the nation’s unique – and controversial – development.
Rainbow nation

Cuba’s 11 million people are the most racially varied in the Caribbean.

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Officially the population is 66% white, 21.9% mulatto (mixed), 12% black and 0.1% Asian. However, the figures are widely disbelieved. In the eastern province of Oriente and in Matanzas province near Havana, blacks are more than half the population.

Racial equality is enshrined in the Cuban constitution and discrimination was outlawed in 1966. But blacks still predominate in low-end service jobs, sports and music. Of the 24 members of the Cuban Communist Party’s powerful Politburo there is one black man.

Thousands of slaves from Senegal, Congo, Gambia and Guinea were brought to work the sugar plantations. From 1821 to 1831 nearly 600,000 Africans were imported. After slavery was abolished another quarter million blacks came from Jamaica and Haiti earlier this century. 1

Eastern European Jews fleeing oppression flocked to the island in the 1920s, mostly to Havana. By 1940 there were 24,000 Jews in the country. Ninety per cent fled after the 1959 Revolution. Today around 1,000 remain. 2

More than 150,000 Chinese were brought as indentured servants in the nineteenth century to build railroads and work the sugar fields. Most fled after 1959; those who remain are slowly being absorbed into the ethnic polyglot. 1

Serving the people

In 1996, over 20% of the country’s budget was devoted to health- care and education.11

All schools were nationalized after the Revolution and education became free right through university. The Cuban school system is the envy of the Third World and comparable to many Western countries.

In 1961, a nationwide literacy campaign sent 250,000 young people to the countryside to teach peasants to read and write. Today the adult literacy rate is 95% – the same as Australia or Sweden.11

The Cuban public health system is superb though now in crisis as a result of the US economic embargo. All services, including family planning, are free and widely available.

Hundreds of hospitals and rural clinics have been built since the Revolution and basic health indicators are among the world’s highest.

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Selected health indicators – 199412
  Cuba Latin America
Life expectancy 75.4 68
Infant mortality 7.9/1,000 births 38/1,000
Under five mortality 12/1,000 births 47/1,000
Maternal mortality 21/1,000 births 178/1,000
Access to health services 98% population 73% pop
Women on top

Cuban women have made enormous strides since 1959 even though macho traditions continue. The Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC) is one of the country’s largest, best organized ‘mass organizations’ and claims to represent 84% of all women.

The Family Code passed in 1975 gave Cuban men and women equal rights and responsibilities for child rearing, education and housework.

Women now make up 43% of the workforce compared to 20% before the Revolution. More than 60% of scientific/technical workers are women and they are also the majority in healthcare and education.

Women have been less successful breaking into the political arena: 22% of National Assembly members are female and just 12% of the powerful CPC Politburo are women. 10

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Salsa and beisbol

Cuba has a rich and vibrant cultural life, despite the fact that many of the country’s writers, artists and performers now live in exile.

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Afro-Cuban music has been especially influential. The roots of modern salsa lie in Cuban son, a heavily percussive musical style with bass, bongos, trumpets and guitar. Cuba also spawned the conga, the mambo, the rumba and a unique style of Cuban jazz.

Cubans are sports mad. Ironically, baseball (imported from the US in the 1860s) is a passion. The national team won the 1992 Olympic gold medal. And Cubans were glued to their radios last year when the young Cuban pitcher and recent exile, Livan Hernandez, powered the Florida Marlins to a World Series victory.

Fidel Castro pitched for the University of Havana team and was offered a contract with the New York Giants in 1949 that included a $5,000 signing bonus. The sport’s terminology has been hispanicized: a home run is a jonron and a double play a doble plei.3

Religious resurgence

Cuba is a secular state though a recent poll found 74% of Cubans believe in a ‘higher power’. Faiths based on beliefs brought by African slaves are most widespread. Catholicism is the main Christian faith but Protestant churches, especially the Baptists and the Presbyterians, are also important. 4

The Catholic Church was seen as a vestige of Spanish colonialism and an ally of the wealthy, white élite. The hierarchy opposed the Castro Government’s takeover of Church schools: 131 priests were expelled in 1961 as counter-revolutionaries and hundreds more went into exile. 5

The Government says 1-2% of Cubans are practising Catholics. The Church says it’s more like 50%. There are no reliable figures.

Cuba became an atheist state after the Revolution and religious believers were discriminated against. In 1991 Communist Party membership was opened to religious believers. The following year the notion of an atheist state was shelved. Since then all religions have been on an upswing.

Afro-Cuban religions are widespread and practised by all races. The best known is santeria or regla de ocha which has a pantheon of over 400 gods or orishas, many of which are identified with specific Catholic saints. It is common to find Catholics who have household shrines to the orishas and santeria followers who include Catholic saints in their worship. 6

Santeria priests known as babalawos are gateways to the gods and are consulted regularly. They interpret the commands of specific orishas and pass on sacred teachings to believers who undergo secret initiation rites to become true santeros.

The Catholic Church in Cuba
  1959 1997
Churches 700 625
Priests 700 258
Nuns 2,500 500
Sweet hereafter

Sugar is the island’s main crop, employing nearly 400,000 people and covering nearly half the arable land. In 1989, three times as much land was devoted to sugar as to food crops.

US investors moved into the Cuban sugar business in the early part of this century and by 1959 half the sugar factories were American owned. In the 1950s sugar accounted for 80% of the country’s export earnings – 60% of those exports went to the US which paid above world prices. Sugar exports now account for around 40% of export earnings. 3

After the Revolution, a new deal was struck with the USSR. The Soviets paid five times more than the world price and arranged a sugar-for-oil swap which cemented Cuba’s dependence on sugar exports.

Due to cheap energy from plentiful Soviet oil, sugar production jumped from an average 5.6 million tons in the 1950s to 7.5 million tons in the 1980s. After the Soviet oil deal fell apart production fell by 42%. 7

The Government is currently ‘rationalizing’ the industry, threatening to shut down inefficient mills and stabilize production at four to five million tonnes.

After the fall

In a desperate attempt to garner hard currency to pay for imports of food, medicine, clothing and spare parts the Government is courting foreign investors. Tourism and nickel have replaced sugar as the major dollar earners.

Cuba has an estimated 35% of global nickel deposits. Nickel and cobalt production doubled from 1994 to 1996 to 55,000 tonnes and nickel is the country’s second biggest foreign-exchange earner.
The industry is controlled by the Canadian company Sherritt International which has more than $200 million invested in the country. 8

Tourism is Cuba’s main source of hard currency. The Government predicts seven million visitors a year by 2010. The industry brought in $1.35 billion in 1996 of which 30% was net profit. 9

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1 Cuba: The Land, the History, the people, the culture, by Stephen Williams, Friedman Publishing, New York, NY, 1994.
2 Personal interview, Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba, Havana, Nov 1997.
3 Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Thomas G Patterson, Oxford University Press, New York/Oxford, 1994.
4 CubaINFO, Vol 9, No 8, Johns Hopkins University Cuba Exchange Program, Washington, 1997.
5 Archdiocese of Havana, 1997.
6 Personal interview, Casa del Caribe, Santiago de Cuba, Nov 1997.
7 Cuba Business, Vol 11:5, Summer 1997.
8 CubaINFO, Vol 9, No 12, Sept 11/97.
9 Ministry of Tourism, Havana, 1997.
10 Personal interview, Federation of Cuban Women, Havana, 1997.
11 Human Development Report 1996, UNDP, Oxford University Press, New York/Oxford, 1996 and State of the World’s Children Report 1996, UNICEF, New York, 1996.
12 The Impact of the US Embargo on Health & Nutrition in Cuba, American Association for World Health, March 1997.

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New Internationalist issue 301 magazine cover This article is from the May 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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