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Cuba: The Society and Its Environment
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment


Cuba confronts daunting social issues in its fifth decade of socialist rule, despite having a fairly well-educated and healthy population and low fertility and mortality rates. Many of the widely praised social achievements of the 1970s and 1980s-in health, education, and social security-are no longer sustainable given the absence of Soviet subsidies and the poor performance of the economy. The health sector, severely battered by the economic crisis of the "special period in peacetime" (periodo especial en tiempo de paz; hereafter Special Period-see Glossary), and with some indicators suggesting worsening standards, lacks even the most elementary medical inputs and no longer delivers the services Cubans had come to expect. It is also burdened by a bloated staff of physicians, nurses, and other health personnel far too numerous for the country's needs. Similar difficulties are plaguing the education sector, where even pencils and notebooks are scarce. Cuba has far more teachers than it can use productively, its educational infrastructure is crumbling, and its study programs are poorly attuned to the needs of a country urgently needing to restructure its economy and become integrated into the world economy (see Performance of the Economy, ch. 3).

To make matters worse, the financial resources needed to maintain the generous safety net developed since Fidel Castro Ruz (president, 1976-) seized power in 1959 are simply not available. Pensions for early retirement and extensive unemployment programs-crucial national entitlements-are taxing the country's finances, while providing only miserly benefits. A rapidly aging population is adding to the onerous cost of these programs. Regardless of developments in the economy, low birth rates ensure that problems associated with the elderly population will intensify as the number of working-age Cubans relative to the elderly continues to decline. On the positive side, Cuba can count on a relatively well-trained work force and the fact that the number of children relative to the working-age population continues to decline further. (The relative decline in the number of children counterbalances the increasing dependency ratio as the proportion of elderly in the total population rises.) Under the proper economic incentives system, Cuban workers have the potential to become highly productive.

Concern is most warranted in the agricultural sector, where widespread adoption of capital-intensive (see Glossary) methods, such as chemical inputs and mechanization; grandiose but often poorly conceived infrastructure development plans, such as dams and irrigation projects; and central planning (see Glossary) may have compromised the sustainable use of some of the country's soils. Cuba, however, is one of the few developing countries that has managed to reverse a long-term deforestation trend, although this achievement may now be threatened by the country's current inability to import lumber and cooking fuels.

Because of the Special Period, economic and social initiatives have been implemented that are reversing a long-term commitment to maintaining the national income distribution within a narrow band. The free circulation of the dollar, the assigning of priority to foreign tourism, and policies designed to increase emigrant remittances are having a regressive effect on income distribution. Not all Cubans have ready access to dollars; most of those who do either have family members residing abroad or are employed in, or derive some benefit from, the tourism sector. Because relatively few black Cubans have emigrated, this particular social group suffers the brunt of the perverse income-distribution effects of remittances. So do those Cuban families, who, regardless of race, have no immediate relatives abroad, or whose wage earners are employed in state enterprises or in social sectors, such as health, in which the government has proscribed self-employment. The increasing number of visits by emigrants further contributes to the growing income differential trend and serves to highlight social disparities. In response to these conditions, social ills less visible in Cuba before the Special Period-such as prostitution, begging, and property and violent crimes-are on the rise.

Mass organizations, although still a dominant feature of social life in Cuba, have lost much of their influence because of general apathy and disillusionment with Cuba's state of affairs. A religious revival is underway; many Cubans seem to want to fill a spiritual void. Participating in religious ceremonies, an activity no longer stigmatized, has become an important social safety valve inasmuch as doing so permits citizens to show discontent without fear of government retribution. Pope John Paul II's visit in January 1998 gave added legitimacy to religion as a valid component of Cuban life (see Religion and the State, ch.4).

Last Updated: April 2001

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Cuba was first published in 2001. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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