Population of Cuba: Data and Analysis

Baracoa, Cuba
Dancing at Sunday afternoon street party - Baracoa, Cuba.

Holger Leue / Getty Images

As the largest island in the Caribbean, the population is estimated at 11.2 million. The population grew by a rate of over 10% from 1960 through 1990, at which time growth slowed noticeably. By 1994, the growth rate had dropped to around 2% to 4% per year, and the new millennium has seen a negative growth rate. The most recent figures, taken from the Cuban government's published population data in 2018, show a negative growth rate of -1%.

Key Takeaways: Population of Cuba

  • Cuba has a population of 11.2 million and a negative growth rate.
  • Cuba's population is the oldest in the Americas, with over 20% of the population over the age of 60.
  • The latest census count listed Cuba's racial breakdown as 64.1% white, 26.6% mulato (mixed-race), and 9.3% black. However, many scholars believe these figures underrepresent Cuba's non-white population.

Cuba's Demographic Makeup: Gender and Age

The gender makeup of Cuba is roughly even, with 5.58 million men and 5.63 million women in 2018. This gender breakdown has been relatively stable throughout the past 60 years. In terms of age, Cuba is the oldest country in the Americas, with over 20% of the population over the age of 60 and a median age of 42. This is due to several factors, including long life expectancy (thanks to Cuba's famous universal healthcare system), low birth rates (related to the fact that, unlike in many Latin American countries, abortion has long been legal in Cuba and is not stigmatized), and out-migration by younger generations fleeing a stagnant economy. Cuba's birth rate in 1966 was over 33 live births per 1,000 people, which in 2018 dropped to just over 10 births per 1,000 people.

Maternity patient in Cuba
A physician fills in notes beside a smiling patient, following a successful delivery at a maternity hospital in Havana, Cuba. Tim Page / Getty Images

The Controversy Over Racial Demographics

Racial makeup in Cuba is a controversial issue, with many scholars feeling the state has tended to underrepresent non-white Cubans, both those who identify as black and those who identify as "mulato" (mixed race). Unlike in the U.S., with its history of binary racial categories dating back to the late 19th century (the "one-drop rule"), Cuba has had a separate census category for mixed-race people since 1899. The latest census count from 2012 listed the figures as: 64.1% white, 26.6% mulato, and 9.3% black.

These figures may not be representative of the population for a number of reasons. First, the numbers depend on who is determining racial identity (a census taker or the subject). Moreover, in Latin America, even when people self-identify, they often “whiten” themselves statistically. In other words, individuals who could be considered mulato might identify themselves as white, and dark-skinned people could present themselves as mulato instead of black.

In Cuba, race data has often not been published. Cuba scholar Lisandro Pérez notes, for example, that although race data was collected in the 1981 census, the results were never released: “It was argued that the race item was not tabulated because it was decided after the census was taken that questions of race are not relevant in a socialist society.” In fact, Fidel Castro famously announced in the early 1960s that the socialist redistribution of wealth had solved racism, essentially shutting down any debate on the issue.

Many researchers have questioned the accuracy of the past two census counts in Cuba (2002 and 2012). In the 1981 census, the figures were 66% white, 22% mestizo, and 12% black. For the percentage of white people to remain so stable from 1981 to 2012 (from 66% to 64%) is dubious when taking into account that most Cuban exiles to the U.S. since 1959 have been white. In other words, Cuba should be (and is viewed by most people as) a demographically blacker nation now. Nonetheless, the census counts don't seem to reflect this reality.

Mother and daughter in Cuba
Mother and daughter in Cuba.  Nikada / Getty Images

Region and Internal Migration

In terms of the urban-rural divide, 77% of Cubans live in urban areas. Over two million people, or 19% of the island's population, reside in the La Habana province, which includes the capital and neighboring municipalities. The next largest province is Santiago de Cuba, in the southeastern part of the island, with just over one million people. Since the 1990s and the onset of the "Special Period"—the period of economic crisis precipitated by the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cuba's economy contracted by around 40% as it lost its primary trading partner and economic sponsor—there has been widespread migration from eastern Cuba to the west, particularly to Havana.

All of the western provinces except the westernmost, rural Pinar del Río, experienced in-migration since 2014, while the central Cuban provinces showed modest out-migration and the eastern provinces notable out-migration. The easternmost province of Guantánamo showed the largest population drop in 2018: 1,890 people moved to the province and 6,309 migrants left the province.

Baracoa, Cuba's easternmost city
Baracoa, town at the eastern end of the Oriente region, Baracoa Bay and Mount El Yunque. GUIZIOU Franck / Getty Images

Another major issue in Cuba is emigration, primarily to the U.S. Since the Cuban Revolution, there have been several waves of exiles from the island. The year 1980 had the largest out-migration, when over 140,000 Cubans left the island, most during the Mariel exodus.

Socio-Economics

The Cuban government does not release socio-economic data on the census, largely because it claims to have successfully redistributed wealth throughout the population. Nonetheless, there has been widening income inequality since the Special Period, when Cuba opened up to foreign tourism and investment. A minority of Cubans (primarily in Havana) have been able to capitalize on the hard currency (referred to in Cuba as "CUC," roughly pegged to the U.S. dollar, minus a percentage taken by the state) that tourism has brought in since the 1990s. Most of these Cubans are white, and have been able to start up tourist businesses (bed and breakfasts and paladares, private restaurants) with resources sent from their relatives in the U.S. In the meantime, state wages have remained stagnant for decades.

Shrimp in coconut sauce at Paladar El Colonial, Baracoa
Shrimp in coconut sauce at Baracoa's Paladar El Colonial, a privately run restaurant catering to tourists. Holger Leue / Getty Images 

A 2019 independent study on growing income inequality in Cuba states, "While almost three-quarters of respondents report an annual income of less than CUC 3,000, 12% receive between CUC 3,000 and 5,000, and 14% report incomes higher than CUC 5,000 and up to CUC 100,000 annually." Furthermore, 95% of Afro-Cubans earn less than CUC 3,000, demonstrating the links between class and race in Cuba.

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