by Mario Valdés Navia
Cuba was a country with a positive migratory balance until 1959. The highest expression of that is the simile of the ajiaco or potpourri, created by Fernando Ortiz as an illustration of the tri-continental mixture of ethnicities that made up the Cuban one. A simple glance at the family background of many revolutionary leaders of our history shows that they were the sons of immigrants (Varela, Martí, Mella, Guiteras, Fidel…), or foreign (Gómez, Che…).
Until 1958, the emigration of Cubans looking for work or better living conditions was never a trend. Mostly there were so-called temporary migrants, or ‘swallows’: unemployed people who went to the US looking for better fortune. In contrast, immigration was constant due to the needs of the Cuban economy, mainly the sugar industry. More than half a century on, the option of reopening to immigration isn’t even considered, though we still have land to spare and a lack of workforce.
At present, about two-and-a-half million Cubans, nearly 20% of the total, live abroad for personal, political, and economic reasons. The main destinations are the US, Puerto Rico, Spain, Ecuador, Italy, Venezuela, Mexico, and Canada. With the current negative migratory balance and the aging population, without this being alleviated by the arrival of replacement migrants, as other countries affected by similar phenomena do, the population will decrease at an ever-faster rate.
In about 50 years, we will drop to 8 million inhabitants on the island.
This negative migratory balance requires − as any demographic and economic crisis it accentuates −, a political solution that may influence two connected factors: that the government wants to bring immigrants and that they want to come. Since in both cases the answer today is negative, nobody comes. Let us briefly analyze the history of the problem, its current manifestation, and some viable palliatives to solve it in a mid-to-short term.
In the first census of the Republic (during the second intervention government, 1907), out of a population of 2,048,980 inhabitants, 203,637 (9.87%) were foreign. 185,393 were Spanish; 11,217 Chinese; 7,948 African and 6,713 from the US. However, in the 1919 census, the percentage of foreign nationals had grown to 11.7 (339,082 out of a total of 2,889,004) due to the growing immigration from Spain (245,644) and the Caribbean (44,659).
Although the Cuban workers’ movement opposed it, the policy of introducing laborers from the Canary Islands or the Antilles was maintained in order to cover the growing needs of agriculture and other economic spheres, in a country that, in 1919, barely had 17.9 inhabitants per km2 and a vast extension of unexploited fertile land. This positive trend held until 1958, although it began to decrease in the postwar period. In the last census during the Republic (1953), the percentage of foreign nationals had dropped to 3.3% (230,431 out of 6,829,029 inhabitants).
There have been two main reasons for the transition to a negative migratory balance after 1959: the exile of those hostile to the Revolution – with great waves in 1959-1961, 1980, and 1994 – and the sustained diaspora due to the economic crisis and the lack of opportunities and incentives for young people and qualified personnel. The majority of those who immigrated came from countries in the former socialist bloc, mostly Soviets – who officially couldn’t be called by their national designations –, though for the people they were simply ‘the Russians’, as all Spaniards used to be the gallegos (the Galicians).
In the 1990s, with the debacle of real socialism and the Special Period, most of them went back, although in 2008 the Russian community (including direct descendants), reached a total of about 6,000 people, nearly all of them in the capital. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, we also had a community of Latin American exiles who fled the dictatorships; but, once democracies were restored, the vast majority returned to their countries.
Now, the country suffers a shortage of workforce and disproportionate aging of the population – since 1978 we don’t achieve the rate for population replacement: 2.1 children per woman –, while a large part of the young population doesn’t officially work, leaves the country, or chooses not to start a family due to economic problems, lack of housing and the check on entrepreneurs. Therefore, the main solution is to create the conditions so that more Cubans join the labor force, create a family with the income from their jobs, and prolong the chain of human reproduction.
This could all be sped up and promoted through immigration.
The issue is political in both cases: if we maintain an economic model like the current one, which causes the diaspora of Cuban nationals, much less will anyone else want to come to get settled in Cuba to live, work and invest time and capital. It’s obvious that devising advantages for immigrants that are not available for Cuban workers is out of the question. The same reforms to the model of state-run and bureaucratic socialism which would free up the initiative of individuals and collectives, and achieve greater well-being through free and honest work, would also boost interest in coming to work and live in Cuba.
Measures such as monetary and exchange unification; incentives to farming and cooperative production; the establishment of independent small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs); the freedom to export and import; the elimination of the subordination of non-state forms of production to government companies and ministries; the raising of salaries to the level of those in the Central American and Caribbean region; an attractive fiscal, credit and insurance policy for new businesses; the reduction of bureaucratic obstacles; the facilities for the construction of new housing and the purchasing of automobiles and machinery, among others, would not only retain Cubans in the island but also attract many exiles to return and foreign nationals to immigrate.
In Cuba, in addition to its prodigious nature and its social benefits (security, education, healthcare), there’s much idle land to attract Syrian, Haitian, and Eastern European farmers, empty shops to be tended by Chinese and Latin American storekeepers, factories to be built and services to be provided by Europeans and Asians. It’s only left to be seen whether the SPG (State/Party/Government) will run the risk of introducing to Cuba a mass of immigrants from other contexts, more rebellious and non-conformist than that of the Cuban socialist society.
I believe that the incentive to demographic and economic growth through controlled and selective immigration could bring to Cuba should not continue to be ignored. If in the 19th century a Spanish military officer and a Canarian housewife engendered the Apostle of our independence, who could say that a couple of Syrian farmers won’t usher into the world a Hero of Socialist Work in the 21st century.
Contact the author at email@example.com
 In the 2017 list of countries and dependent territories by population density, Cuba ranked 110th, with 101 inhabitants per km2 (Haiti, 35th; Dominican Republic, 65th; Spain, 118th; México, 152nd; USA, 178th; Venezuela, 182nd; Canada 229th). The countries with the greatest ethnic and cultural diversity in the Americas are: the USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Uruguay and Venezuela.
Translated from the original