An Introduction to Cuba

Exploring and Living in Cuba

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Cubans are generally gregarious, happy, hospitable, like foreigners, outgoing, vivacious and have a great sense of humor.

Cuba's nearly 12 million people are mostly Spanish and Africans who came to the island over the past 500 years.  About 65 percent of Cubans consider themselves as white or descendants of Spanish colonial settlers and other immigrants.  Around 10 percent of the population is black, 20 percent mulatto (a mixture of European and African) and 1 percent Chinese who were brought in as laborers in the mid-1800s as the slave trade from Africa disappeared.  Most of the country's Chinese population lives in Havana's Chinatown.  At one time Havana's China Town or Barrio Chino was said to be the largest in Latin America. However, today the neighborhood has lost most of its former splendor as the country's Chinese popular dwindled or was absorbed into the Cuban culture.

               Cuba’s Indian population was virtually wiped out centuries ago, so the Spanish imported 800,000 African slaves. The percentage of blacks is much higher in eastern Cuba.  These figures may not be accurate since Cuba is a ‘melting pot’.  The races have so intermingled that it is impossible to classify Cuba’s population mixtures with total accuracy. 

               Cubans seem to prefer the urban lifestyle.  The population density is 99.6 inhabitants per square kilometer with the majority of people living in urban areas. Nearly 70 percent live in cities and towns with a third living in Havana province and a fifth in the city of Havana itself — around 2.2 million.  Santiago has around 440,000 inhabitants, Camaguey 300,000, Holguín 240,000, Guantánamo 208,000, and Santa Clara 200,000.  Other areas in decending order of inhabiitants are Bayamo, Cienfuegos, Pinar del Río, Las Tunas, Matanzas, Manznillo, Ciego de Avila and Sanctí Spíritus.

               All of Cuba’s people brought with them their traditions and culture, so present Cuban traditions, music, dance and religion show aspects of the different groups.

               Freedom of religion and beliefs is guaranteed by the Constitution of the republic. Most Cubans are Roman Catholics.  There are also a small number of Protestants and a Jewish community of several thousand in Havana who still express a sense of community despite their dwindling numbers.  Prior to the revolution there were around 20,000 Jews in Cuba, most of whom sought refuge during World War II.  Presently there are only a few thousand Jews left in Cuba. There is still a Kosher butcher shop, a synagog and a Hebrew Sunday School for children in Havana. A couple of the synagogs heave been remodeled.

               Many of Cuba’s blacks are followers of various Afro-Cuban cults or religions similar to the voodoo cult of Haiti.  These cults have their origins in Africa, were introduced by African slaves and are a blend of elements from Catholicism and African native traditions.  They are reflected in the country’s literature, poetry, dance songs and dramatic arts.  Santería is the most widespread of the Afro-Cuban religions.

               One thing that sets Cubans apart from other Caribbean peoples is their work ethic.  Of all Latin American people Cubans are by far the hardest working and are known for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills.  However, the Cuban people are unique in that they combine a strong work ethic with the ability to enjoy themselves like other Latins.

               As in most Latin American countries the family is the center of most Cuban’s lives.  Family ties are strong and much time is spent with one's family.  Since the revolution women have made great strides.  Now they compose almost half of the work force with many standing out in such fields as law and medicine.  Furthermore, husbands are expected to do their share of household duties.

               Despite all of these advancements towards sexual equality, Cuba is still a male dominated society.  Women have made great progress in the workplace, but some are still often relegated to doing most household tasks. This is probably due to the deep-rooted institution of machismo found in all Latin American countries.  In case you don’t know, machismo is the belief in the natural superiority of men in all fields of endeavor.  It becomes the obsession and constant preoccupation of many Latin men to demonstrate they are macho in a variety of ways.

               There is no telling what lengths men will go to in order to demonstrate their virility.  A man’s virility is measured by the number of seductions or conquistas he makes, or his capacity to consume alcohol.  Women walking alone on the street are the target of sexual comments and innuendos by men.  These piropos or flirtatious remarks range from ordinary compliments about a woman's beauty to obscene and often insulting phrases.  Among males, virility is highly esteemed and disparaging names are pinned on homosexuals.

               The greatest successes of the revolution are in the fields of education and public health.  About 40 percent of Cuba's budget is currently devoted to education and public health.  As we mentioned, Cubans are well-educated people.  Education is compulsory up to the 12th grade and is free at all levels from pre-school to university.  Cubans enjoy learning.  About a third of the people attend some type of classes regularly.  Cuba’s literacy speaks for itself.  Before the revolution only about 75 percent of the people could read or write with 25 percent being semiliterate.   Today most of the people are literate, with illiteracy almost being eliminated. This  accomplishment alone speaks for Cuba's outstanding educational system. The country now boasts around one teacher for every forty inhabitants.  There are also 60 universities located all around the country.

               Despite the hardships of the U.S. embargo Cubans are relatively well-off when compared people at the lower end of the economic spectrum in other Latin American countries.  Because of this Cubans are considered to be "The richest poor people in the world."

               Cubans are a healthy people with a life expectancy of 75—one of the highest in Latin America and as high as many developed countries.  The country also has the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America.  There is approximately 1 doctor for every 400 people. In the year 2000 the World Health Organization ranked Cuba's public health system as the 39th best of almost 200 systems worldwide.

               Cubans are generally gregarious, happy, hospitable, like foreigners, outgoing, vivacious and have a great sense of humor.  Their many cubanismos, or witty expressions, and piropos reflect their sense of humor.  If you are lucky enough to understand Spanish you can really enjoy listening to Cubans interact with each other.

               Cuba's vibrant culture is most typified by their music. Perhaps in no other field have Cubans excelled more than music.  They love to dance and play music ranging from tropical to jazz.  Most of Cuba’s rich musical heritage comes from its black population.  Afro-Cuban is a mixture of Spanish and African music.  The rumba, son, salsa, guajira, mambo, cha-cha-cha and conga are all songs and dances native to Cuba.  All have enjoyed international popularity at one time or another.  There are even special instruments of Cuban origin invented to play this Afro-Cuban music, such as the maracas. 

               Cubans love to party and dancing is an integral part of most Cuban’s lives.  Sensual music and dance are their preferred pleasures.  Music seems to fill the air wherever you are in Cuba and it seems someone is always playing music or dancing.  Almost every celebration, private or public, includes some type of dancing.  People can be seen dancing at carnivals, fiestas and in local dance halls. 

               Cubans in general are fun-loving despite the economic hardships they have had to endure in recent times.  Cuba is a sexually permissive society.  Sex seems to be the favorite hobby of many Cubans.  Promiscuity is widespread as are extramarital affairs. Sensuality seems to pervade the air and is reflected in the country's music and inviting piropos.  Because most of the people have to share homes and apartments, privacy is rare.  So, love hotels— special places where people go to make love—are flourishing.  A Cuban friend once told us, "The reason we enjoy sex so much is because it is one of the few things we can do for free here."

               Besides music and dance Cubans enjoy sports which play an important role in their lives.  Cuba’s favorite sport is baseball.  Cubans are fanatical when it comes to this sport.  Even after the revolution it has still remained popular.  Many big league players have come from Cuba.  Cubans have also distinguished themselves as world-class athletes in boxing, track and field and Olympic competition. 

         If you want a graphic picture of Cuba’s people and culture, read Tom Miller’s insightful book, Trading With the Enemy. 


Official Guide to
Cuban Spanish

Official Guide to Cuban Spanish

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