Located 90 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, Cuba is the largest Caribbean island nation. Its neighbors are the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and Haiti. Cuba spans 44,200 miles, making it a bit smaller than the state of Pennsylvania. Its varied geography includes rolling farmland, rugged mountains, urban metropolises, quaint Colonial villages and white-sand beaches.
The island is divided into 15 provinces and one special municipality, Isla de la Juventud. Notable Cuba areas include rural Piñar del Rio, where tobacco farming builds economic momentum; seaside Santiago de Cuba, the country’s second largest city next to Havana rife with colorful Afro-Cuban influence; and colonial Trinidad, a sleepy town designated a UNESCO world heritage site nestled between majestic mountains and the sea.
Cuba’s population is richly diverse, with 11.2 million residents. Despite its Native roots, the most profound effects on Cuban culture are the result of European, African and North American influences.
Cuba is the only country in the world that met the World Wildlife Fund criteria for sustainable development in 2006, making it one of the “greenest” nations due to its low environmental impact. There are six UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in Cuba and nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Cuba measures 770 miles wide and is the largest Caribbean island. It has 3,570 miles of coastline and the longest river, the Rio Cauto, is 213 miles long. The nation is also home to the world’s smallest bird, a hummingbird called a Zunzuncito.
The country-wide literacy rate is an astonishing 99.8 percent, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organizations’ Institute for Statistics. This is the second highest literacy rate in the world. The Cuban government spends ten percent of their central budget on education, making it free for all at every level, and includes all materials such as books and uniforms. Class size is limited to 25 students and if a student can’t come to school, a teacher is sent to their home. Cuba has 47 universities with 112,000 citizens enrolled.
Cuba's story is one full of perseverance. The island was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and soon became a territory of Spain. In 1898, the U.S. claimed Cuba during the Spanish-American War. However, in 1902, Cuba gained its independence. The Cuban Revolution occurred between 1953 and 1959, which removed Fulgenicio Batista and installed a government run by Fidel Castro, who declared Cuba a socialist state in 1961. Castro remained in power until falling ill in 2008, at which time he relinquished control of Cuba to his brother, Raul Castro.
The Cuban state follows a socialist economic model. While the state controls most resources and the majority of citizens are employed by the government, there has been a noticeable emergence of a private employment sector. A new legislation recently introduced private ownership of homes and cars. In 2006, the private sector employed 22 percent of citizens, which is 14 percent more than in 1981. The main industries of Cuba are food production and industrial products and their main exports are sugar, nickel, seafood, citrus, tobacco products and rum.
Cuba has a semi-subtropical climate, divided into two seasons: wet (May-October) and dry (November- April). However, regional variations and trade winds account for fluctuations. Cuba’s average temperature is 77 °F. Compared to most countries, Cuba experiences little variation, although July and August can be hot and humid. Nearly two-thirds of all rainfall occurs during the wet season. Hurricane season is from June-November. Cuba has an advanced disaster preparedness system and civil defense network for evacuations.
Spanish is the official language of Cuba. Please note that Cuban-Spanish contains variations, making it difficult for native-Spanish speakers, who may get lost in translation at times. The majority of Cubans only know Spanish, but in larger cities and tourist areas, English is commonly spoken. InsightCuba’s English-speaking hosts will translate throughout the program. Although knowledge of Spanish isn’t required, we encourage you to learn some simple words and phrases to maximize your experience with the Cuban people.
Over half of all Cubans consider themselves Catholic. Santeria also plays a large role in the nation’s self-identity. Santeria was brought over to Cuba by Africans and the most common form of Santeria combines Catholicism with Yoruba beliefs. Other religions practiced in Cuba, though minimal, are Protestantism, Judaism, Islam and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are many beautiful churches and synagogues scattered throughout Havana, but no mosques.
Cuba is the most populous island in the Caribbean and home to over 11 million residents. It is a multi-ethnic melting pot with a population that is 65 percent white, 24 percent mixed-race, ten percent black and one percent Chinese. Due to the free education system, the cities are becoming filled with people pursuing higher education. To increase the population in rural areas, the Cuban government has offered land incentives to city-dwellers and Cuban citizens must have governmental consent before moving to Havana.