If you want to understand the complex cultural fabric of Cuba, you must first start with its people.
Cuba freed its slaves in 1888 and until the 1930s the country’s institutions remained open to people of all color. However, in the 1940s and ‘50s businesses sought to appeal to American visitors and adopted a similar form of racism prevalent in the United States. There were three social class tiers the bourgeois, the poor, and blacks and mulattos. Castro’s 1959 revolution worked to erase all social economic division resulting in a society that is fairly diverse and accepting of all people. Marriage between blacks and whites is very common.
In 2012 the Cuban census reported a population just north of 11 million. Thirty seven percent are self-declared “white”—essentially people of Spanish descent, 11% black and approximately 52% a mixture of white and black. A small percentage have native Taino-Arawak, Russian and Chinese roots.
You will encounter a society that is warm, engaging and gregarious. Cubans embrace strangers and are quick to offer a handshake. They are mostly curious as to where you’re from and what you think of Cuba.
The people of Cuba maintain an animated, amplified and remarkably quick sense of humour, their amusing and witty nature often reflects their hardships of daily life. They are respectfully candid and honest—if you accidentally overpay on a purchase or lose something of value there’s a good chance that you will get it back. Cubans want visitors to have a positive experience of their country.
You will see Cubans are always out and about engaging with one another or pedaling around on bicycles on their way to resolver (solve) that day’s challenge. On La Habana’s Malecón (an esplanade, seawall) you’ll witness couples kissing, musicians playing and friends talking about baseball and boxing.
Relationships with family and friends are prized above all. The people are tightly interconnected with one another, which is refreshing for visitors from countries where technology has influenced interpersonal communication. In fact, the lack of technology in Cuba – cell phones, TVs, and computers – has made socializing more of a necessity. It’s how people get their news and entertainment.
Due to their tight social network and outgoing attitude, Cubans seem happy—you often see them smiling, chatting, and hugging one another. However, beneath the surface there is also sadness and dissatisfaction. Cubans feel trapped by economic and political restrictions nevertheless, they never show that discontent to foreigners.
Despite their economic and political woes, Cubans are highly educated and one of the most literate societies in the world. Cuba’s scientists were the first to halt mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis and boast a successful biotech industry, its drugs can be found in almost 50 countries. They designed a preventive and universal health care system that rivals that of most nations resulting in a lower childbirth mortality rate and longer life span than that of the United States.
Today a small middle class is burgeoning in Cuba, most receive remittances from families and friends outside the island. In the late 90’s the government permitted select Cubans to service the growing number of foreign visitors by converting their homes into casa particulars and paladares (bed and breakfasts). Recently, Raul Castro gave Cubans title to their homes and the opportunity to sell them to other Cuban citizens around the world. He also slashed half a million workers from its payroll and encouraged them to become quenta propistas, licensed independent contractors. This supervised chance at capitalism was seized by a small wave of entrepreneurs who now operate small and medium-sized private enterprises, some financed with with private foreign capital.
Whether it’s the tropical climate or the underlying rhythmic culture, Cubans are highly sensual. They kiss openly and are indulgent in their attitudes about sex. Women and men check out one another and foreigners alike. Sex is a pastime and, like some Cubans say, is one of the few things that Castro can’t restrict or ration.
Despite an average $20 a month salary, Cubans take pride in their appearance and try to dress well. Attention is given to personal hygiene and in the harshest of times some would place the need for soap, deodorants and other personal products, above anything else.
Cubans genuinely love their country and feel a strong loyalty to her. Ask them why they love Cuba and they will tell you about the country’s friendly culture, beautiful landscapes, and inviting climate. They are proud of their history and always hopeful about their future.