Cubans - Orientation

Identification and Location. Cuba is the largest of the Caribbean islands in the West Indies. Situated between 19°40′ and 23°30′ N and 74° to 85° W, the Antillean nation of Cuba comprises approximately 120,000 square kilometers of land, including over 1,500 islets and keys and the Isle of Pines southwest of the Gulf of Batabanó. Cuba measures 200 kilometers at its widest, southernmost point and under 35 kilometers at its narrowest point. Natural harbors and ports dot the northern coast's low marshlands, swamps, and bluffs, and mountain ranges define the southern coast.

Elevations of the Maestra, Escambray, and Guaniguanico mountain ranges—located in southeast Santiago de Cuba, south-central Villa Clara, and Pinar del Río provinces respectively—vary from 2,000 meters in the Sierra Maestra to 600 meters in Guaniguanico. Between these chains, which cover 35 percent of the island land mass, are hills and sea-level plains suitable for a wide variety of tropical agricultural cultivation, ranching, and forestry. The stable climate, with temperatures that seldom drop below 21° C and average rainfall of 137 centimeters a year, contributes to the production of tropical crops. Cuba has often been in the path of devastating tropical storms and hurricanes that negatively affect production.

Linguistic Affiliation. Cuba's earliest inhabitants were the seminomadic Ciboney, and little information on their language remains. Their successors, the Arawak, dominated the island at the time of Spanish exploration and occupation. Terms taken from the Arawak language became incorporated into the major language of Cuba, which continues to be Spanish. By the end of the sixteenth century, most of the native population had ceased to exist, further homogenizing language, but African slaves from Bantu-language groups of West Africa have contributed many terms to Spanish as spoken in Cuba.

Other permanent immigrants from China, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States tended to adopt the Spanish language. After Cuba's separation from Spain in 1898, the English language was incorporated into school curricula and North American terms and commodity trademarks infiltrated Cuban speech. Beginning in 1961, as a consequence of closer ties with the Soviet Union, the government promoted learning Russian and Eastern European languages to facilitate business and diplomatic communication.

Before the 1959 Revolution, the urban literacy rate was high by Latin American standards, but the literacy rate in the countryside was particularly low. An intensive literacy campaign focused first on teaching the rural population the fundamentals of reading and writing Spanish, then on gradually improving levels of literacy. Cuba's accomplishment in this regard has gained universal recognition.

Demography. In 1991 more than half of the Cuban population of 10.7 million was under the age of 30. This pattern is related in part to the emigration of over 1 million Cubans to other countries following the 1959 Revolution. The Cuban population is 51 percent mulatto, 37 percent White, 11 percent Black, and 1 percent Chinese. Forty percent of the population resides in the western provinces and the major urban areas of Havana, Matanzas, and Pinar del Río. Another 20 percent of the population resides in the provinces of Villa Clara and part of western Camagüey. Twenty percent resides in northwestern Santiago de Cuba and Camagüey, and the final 20 percent in the easternmost area of Santiago de Cuba. The eastern naval base of Guantánamo, leased to the United States in 1903, houses 6,000 U.S. military personnel and their families and is effectively separated from Cuba.

Since the late Spanish colonial period, the rural population has migrated to the major cities of Havana, Matanzas, and Santiago de Cuba. Following the 1959 Revolution, efforts have been made to emphasize services to the countryside and slow down the migration to cities. Although population growth has declined in Havana, the trend toward urbanization has continued: in the late twentieth century 62 percent of women and 58 percent of men reside in cities. In contrast to pre-1959 conditions, however, the rural population has enjoyed improved provision of health care, education, housing, and other basic needs.

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