The world population grew in the last quarter of the century at an average rate of 1.2% per year, reaching almost 8 billion inhabitants.
The trend was similar in Latin America, where the population now exceeds 600 million.
Except in cases of war or other extreme events, it is uncommon for a country’s population to stagnate or even decline over a 25-year period.
But Cuba is not a normal country.
In 1984, the island surpassed the 10 million inhabitants mark; in 1997, 11 million; and, after some ups and downs, the most recent figure for 2021 is 11.1 million.
To make a comparison: in Brazil, the population in 1984 was estimated at 132 million; in 1997, 167 million, and in 2021, 212 million.
What are the reasons that explain this unusual trend in Cuba?
A little of history
“In Cuba, you ask anyone how many children they want to have, and the answer is 2 children, and they even have one, first a boy and then a girl. It’s a reproductive ideal that comes from our Spanish grandparents”, he explains to the BBC. News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-language news service, Juan Carlos Albizu-Campos, professor at the Center for the Study of Cuban Economics at the University of Havana.
The academic, who is the author of several studies on the subject, points out that, since the beginning of the 20th century, Cuba has always had a different demographic behavior from its Latin American neighbors.
“As early as 1900, fertility was relatively low compared to the rest of Latin America, at 6 children per woman (in Mexico, for example, it was 7, and in other countries in the region, the number was even higher), and the population began to adopt the small family scheme”, he explains.
In the first half of the last century, the island reached levels of development unattainable in other countries in the region and received a large wave of European migrants, mainly Spanish.
Both factors marked its differentiated demographic trend.
From the 1960s onwards, declining infant mortality and greater access to health and maternity services, among other factors, led to a “baby boom”.
But it didn’t last more than a decade: in the 1970s, the rate of 2.1 children per woman that guarantees generational replacement dropped for the first time.
Thus, by the end of 1985, the combination of fertility and life expectancy in Cuba “already resembled the European average more than the Latin American average”, says Albizu-Campos.
Birth, mortality and poverty
In 2021, Cuba recorded the lowest number of births, 99,096, and the highest number of deaths, 167,645, in the last six decades.
Although the death toll has been elevated by the deadly wave of Covid-19 that has hit the country, birth records confirm a sharp downward trend that goes back years.
Today, the total fertility rate is 1.45 children per woman, well below the replacement rate — and also the average of 2 children in Latin America, according to World Bank data.
This trend comes at a time of extreme crisis in Cuba, where there is a shortage of food, medicine, medical supplies and other basic goods.
According to Albizu-Campos, the country is experiencing what some academics call “poverty Malthusianism.”
“In Cuba, up to 3 or 4 generations live together in the same house, and food is also scarce. So, the first question a young couple asks when they want to have a child is: where will I put him? this is resolved, what am I going to feed him?.”
In other words, Cuban women today perceive the birth of another child as a real risk for those already in the family.
When this situation continues over time, he points out, “it ends up transforming the reproductive pattern, and women experience a fall in their fertility level, as happened in the ‘special period'”.
The “special period” was the extreme crisis that set in Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, with a situation of widespread shortages that many compare to the current one.
“In the ‘special period’, the number of children per woman dropped from 1.8 to 1.6 and, as it was a crisis sustained over time, it changed the reproductive pattern of Cuban society”, says Albizu-Campos.
Sociology doctor Elaine Acosta, a research associate at Florida International University in the US, notes that Cuba “leads the aging process in Latin America” due to its demographic pyramid more similar to that of a European country.
“Even in comparison with what is experienced in European societies, the jump produced between 1970 and today was more vertiginous in Cuba, where the elderly population went from 9% of the total to 20%”, he says.
However, she considers problematic the combination, in the last 25 years, of a population pyramid similar to that of a developed country with the gradual deterioration of the levels of well-being and human development.
This last issue, according to her, not only contributed to the reduction of fertility, but also fostered another factor that explains the population stagnation on the island: emigration.
It is estimated that nearly one million Cubans have left the country in the last 25 years.
Of these, more than 800,000 emigrated to the United States, according to the country’s official records.
The flow had been oscillating between 30,000 and 70,000 migrations a year until the pandemic, but in the first nine months of 2022 alone, 200,000 Cubans arrived in the North American country – a historic record that surpasses that of previous mass exodus, such as the de Mariel in 1980 (when 125,000 Cubans had left the island in just 7 months) or the ferryboat crisis during the “special period”.
“The uncontrolled increase in inflation, the fall in the real value of wages and pensions, food insecurity, shortages of medicines and the deterioration of housing, among others, reduced well-being levels to minimum levels similar to those of the special period, but with lower levels of social protection and in an environment of greater political tension and popular dissatisfaction”, explains the sociologist.
“All this ends up influencing thousands of young and even elderly people to join the migratory stampede that started again when flights were reopened in November 2021.”
Will it drop to 10 million?
This means that, after 25 years of stagnation, the Cuban population may be starting a downward trend, especially if we take into account that most emigrants are young people or people of childbearing age who will have children outside the island.
Demographer Albizu-Campos predicted years ago that the Cuban population would return to the 10 million mark by 2030, with the entire 1960s baby boom generation in their old age.
However, the process seems to have accelerated, and the reduction of the level of 11 million could occur as early as this year, when the registry is updated with new data on births, deaths and emigrants.
“The perverse combination between sustained emigration and the increase in deaths may indicate that we are closer to lowering this mark again”, says the expert.
The demographic picture is even more complicated for 2050, when more than 3.7 million Cubans out of an estimated population of 10.1 million will be over 60, according to United Nations projections.
Of these, almost 1.3 million will be elderly people over 80 years old.
Elaine Acosta also notes that these projections were formulated before the current migration crisis.
“Consequently, the population contraction could be even greater than expected.”
This text was originally published here.
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