CubaNews / July 2011
By Larry Luxner
Sometime before this decade is over, the Dominican Republic’s population will hit 11 million, meaning that for the first time in recorded history, Cuba — the Caribbean’s largest nation in size — will no longer be its largest in population.
If current demographic predictions are correct, that event will probably take place in 2019.
And three years later, in 2022, impoverished Haiti will also overtake Cuba in population and may eventually surge past the D.R. — with which it shares the island of Hispaniola — to become the Caribbean’s most inhabited country.
“I guess it’s historically significant, because this will be the first time Cuba is surpassed in population, not by one but by two [Caribbean] countries,” said Thomas Boswell, professor of geography at the University of Miami and an expert on the demographics of Cuba.
“That doesn’t surprise me, because they both have much higher fertility rates than Cuba. All Marxist states — with the exception of Albania and maybe North Korea — have tended to have very low fertility rates.”
In addition, he said, Cuba has substantial out-migration — a consequence of the country’s difficult economic situation.
“So do Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but more people have come here from Cuba than from the D.R. or Haiti,” he told CubaNews. “So the real difference is in terms of their birth rates. It doesn’t surprise me that the D.R. is catching up.” (See population graph, page 3).
According to official statistics, Cuba’s population peaked at 11,243,836 in 2005 and has fallen slightly since then, to around 11,241,161 at the end of last year. Barring unforeseen developments, that number will fall below 11 million in 2019, just as the Dominican Republic reaches and surpasses the 11-million mark.
By 2050, Cuba’s population will have dropped by 13.5% to about 9,725,000, by which time there could be 13.4 million Haitians and 13.7 million Dominicans, predicts the U.S. Census Bureau.
Other sources, however, project that Haitians, with their much higher fertility rate, will one day outnumber their more prosperous neighbors, even though Haiti is smaller in size and already ranks as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Cuba and the Dominican Republic together account for 53% of the total population of the Caribbean. Yet economically and demographically speaking, they are quite different.
In 2010, the Dominican Republic’s GDP expanded by 4.2%, following 3.5% growth in 2009 and 5.3% growth the year before. Its total GDP is estimated at $50.9 billion.
Cuba’s economy, by comparison, grew by only 1.5% in 2010, 1.4% in 2009 and 4.1% in 2008. Many experts outside Cuba don’t even believe those official figures — and think the economy actually shrank last year.
Rapidly growing Santo Domingo is already the largest city in the Caribbean, with more than 3 million inhabitants — far larger than stagnant Havana, with about 2.2 million.
Furthermore, the D.R.’s 2nd-largest city, Santiago de los Caballeros, has around 1.3 million people, making it three times the size of Cuba’s 2nd-largest city, Santiago de Cuba.
Other indicators point to a widening gap between the two Caribbean nations. As of July 2010, the Dominican Republic had a 90.7% mobile penetration rate, with around 8.9 million cellphone subscribers — so many, in fact, that the D.R. recently had to add a third area code to the two it already had, just to keep up with all the new numbers being assigned.
By contrast, Cuba has just 1.6 million mobile subscribers, ranking it dead last in teledensity for Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Dominican Republic also has a far younger population than does Cuba. Only 22% of Cuba’s people are 15 years or younger, while in the D.R. the figure is 36%.
Cuba’s shrinking population has enormous implications for the communist-ruled island, which last year saw more than 38,000 of its citizens leave the island, the largest exodus of emigrants since 1994. So says Cuba’s National Bureau of Statistics and Information.
Juan Carlos Alfonso Fraga, the bureau’s director for population and development studies, said that by 2030, Cubans aged 60 years or more will account for 31% of the island’s population, up from 17.8% now, making it one of the world’s grayest countries.
“Since 1978, the overall fertility rate, which represents the average number of children per woman, is less than needed to allow for population replacement and therein lies the main cause of aging in Cuban society — without a doubt one of the most significant challenges the nation must face,” he told the official Communist Party newspaper Granma.
It was this trend, in fact, that led the Castro regime in 2009 to boost the retirement age to 65 for men and 60 for women. If that hadn’t happened, he said, by 2015 more people would be leaving the workforce than entering it.
“Such a scenario would break the necessary balance that must exist between the number of people working and those enjoying their retirement — and pensions significantly increasing state social security expenditures,” he said.
Many countries are aging, not only Cuba. Japan, which in 2005 had a median age of 43.5 — giving it the world’s oldest population — will see its median age climb to 55.5 by 2050. South Korea will be a close second at 54.9 years; in at least 10 more countries, 40% of citizens will be 60 or older.
And according to the United Nations, by 2045 elderly people will outnumber children for the first time in human history.
Yet while world population could reach 9 billion by then, several countries are losing people faster than ever before.
Between now and 2050, says the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, Japan will see its numbers shrink from 127 million at present to around 95 million — a drop of 25.3%. Other nations likely to witness dramatic reductions in population include Ukraine (23.1%), Georgia (22.6%), Bulgaria (21.9%), Poland (16.6%) and Russia (10.7%).
“It is highly unlikely that Cuba’s population will ever reach 12 million,” said Alfonso. “Given the progressive aging of society, it is essential that policies be designed responding to the reality of a population in which the number of elderly will continue to grow.”
Cuba’s not the only Caribbean country losing inhabitants, by the way.
Just as Cuba may never reach the 12-million mark, Puerto Rico’s population is unlikely to ever hit 4 million. The crowded U.S. commonwealth — already one of the most densely populated jurisdictions in the world — reached a population of 3.9 million in 2008 and has since been losing residents to the U.S. mainland. The island’s population now stands at around 3.7 million and is expected to drop another 7.1% by 2050.
As is the case with Cuba, Puerto Ricans are emigrating en masse to the U.S. mainland, with strong concentrations settling in the Orlando area. In the past 10 years, Florida’s Puerto Rican population has skyrocketed from 482,027 in 2000 to 847,550 in 2010 — a 75% increase. They now constitute the state’s 2nd-largest Hispanic group after Cuban-Americans, which could prove to be a key factor in the 2012 U.S. presidential elections.
Some speculate that if the embargo is lifted and Cuba returns to capitalism, exiles will flock back, the birth rate will rise again, and Cuba will see its population take off. But experts say that’s not likely to happen.
Even so, in a 2003 paper titled “Population Challenges: Cuba and the Dominican Republic,” demographer G. Edward Ebanks of the University of Western Ontario’s Population Studies Centre argues that Cuba — with its far lower population density and more educated workforce — is in better shape to take on the challenges of a competitive global economy, if only it would throw off the confines of Marxism and adapt free-market principles.
“Cuba’s window on capitalism, which is similar to that of China — if it is maintained to the year 2050 — will re-establish the quality of life at a significant level above the Dominican Republic,” predicted Ebanks.
“If Cuba abandons socialism and embarks upon the road being traveled by the D.R., Cuba will still have a higher quality of life than the D.R.,” he said. “Cuba has much pent-up demand for moving the country forward.”