Where Are the Singers From?


Havana Panorama. Photo: Sumn Hadler
Havana Panorama. Photo: Sumon Hadler

HAVANA TIMES, March 14 (IPS) – “Here, everybody has a relative from the country…, Havana can’t take any more…,  How would you like to become a Havanan…, I was born in Havana and I want to die in Havana,” or “Havana is Cuba, and the rest is countryside… ”

In much of the music, in many sayings and in daily phrases sprinkled into conversations of those who live in Cuba, mention is usually made of  the island’s capital – loved by some, not well liked by others, but always the topic of conversation.

The centuries-old city of San Cristobal de La Habana, to where all the roads of this archipelago lead, the Mecca of so many pilgrimages, has been the dream of emigrants from yesteryears to the present.

With its relative highs and lows, for the last half century the principal Cuban urban center has remained as the favorite destinations of internal migratory currents; a December 2008 report by the National Statistics Office (ONE) confirmed that tendency. As an old Cuban song goes, the singers continue be “from the hills,” but “they sing in plains.”

The period prior to the revolution taking power in 1959 was characterized by a marked preference for Havana Province as the goal of those early emigrants.

According to census data collected in 1953, some 63 percent of those people who moved from their home towns or cities ended up settling in the republic’s capital, the country’s almost exclusive center of economic development, except for the agricultural sector.

The other favored destination was the former province of Camagüey, given the sugar industry investments made in that region in the first decades of last century, according to observations by researcher Norma Montes Rodríguez in her article “An Approach to the Study of Internal Migration In Cuba,” published by the magazine Temas in 2000. This demographic study also revealed that 10.8 percent of the Cuban population of that time resided in a place different from where they were born.

Until the 1970 Census, internal migratory movements did not experience major changes with respect to the period prior to January 1959. The figure for residents living outside their place of origin grew slightly, up to 11 percent, while Havana (with 28.9 percent of its population not originating there) continued being the receiver par excellence, although with smaller weight in the face of similar growth in the provincial capitals.

Showman in Old Havana. Photo: Glen Ellis
Showman in Old Havana. Photo: Glen Ellis

The then Oriente Province contributed a third of the total positive balance of migrants, according to a note by Monte in her monograph, with this tendency persisting today.

The overall picture changed relatively after new political-administrative divisions established under the 1976 Constitution. Expenditures made by the government in the fourteen newly established provincial capitals and 169 municipalities (prior to this there were six provinces and 407 municipalities) increased the number of people that settled in these urban nuclei. These two categories of settlements captured 64.4 percent of internal emigrants at that time.

According to Montes, “Agricultural transformations, the creation of new communities, electrification, the specialized organization of rural areas, the mass establishment of cooperatives, the construction of reservoirs, mechanization, and the localization of services that demanded by certain population concentrations, favored the reduction in dispersal populations and their relocation to other settlements.” Such settlements were represented by provincial capitals and small, rural area towns and villages.

However, in the 1981 Census, four of the five eastern provinces (Granma, Guantánamo, Santiago de Cuba and Las Tunas) again reported negative migratory rates of between -3.3 and -6.5 per each 1,000 inhabitants.

In that group, Monte highlighted the exodus toward Havana from Santiago de Cuba, the second most important city in the nation, with 9,000 emigrants in the period 1970-1981.

In the five-year period 1984-1989, which preceded the economic crisis, provincial capitals increased their weight as population receivers in the face of a decline experienced by the island’s capital. Nonetheless, this was also the time of famous songs such as “Havana Can’t Take Any More” or “The Barbecue,” by the popular music group Los Van Van. These tunes chronicled those times and perhaps foresaw the abrupt change that would occur in the 1990s.

By the middle of the nineties, near half of the young and adult Cuban population had immigrated to some place on the island different from their place of birth, according to data collected by the National Internal Migrations Survey of 1995.

A third of those people came from rural settlements of less than 200 inhabitants, what has been a constant in recent decades. On the other hand, the negative migratory balances recorded by the most important cities in provinces and municipalities represented a transformation with regard to the pattern existing since 1976.

“The contraction of the economy, beginning in the 1990s, and the end of the policy of expenditures that favored other provinces, expressed themselves in an increase, from that moment, in migration to the capital, which practically recaptured the levels of immigration characterized in the years just following the revolutionary victory,” pointed out Monte.

The number of immigrants settling in the Cuban capital doubled between 1990 and 1996. To address this situation, in April 1997 the government enacted Decree-law 217, to make illegal unauthorized migration to the City of Havana.

The statute established that anyone who aspired “to take up residence, reside or cohabit” in the city must have guaranteed housing conditions. In addition, they had to have the authorization of the property owner, lessee, or a state agency in cases involving special areas or those declared of “high significance for tourism.”

Although these regulations served to somewhat contain the uncontrolled emigration toward Havana, the recent “Study of Internal Migrations” by the statistics office shows that that the flow was not completely controlled.

That research points out that while “the migratory currents of Havana Province as a destination” are now more notable, “the number of immigrants heading to the City of the Havana increased” in the period 1998-2002, to the point of having “a higher net rate of positive migration, contrary to what occurred in the 1977-81 period.”

Old Havana Street. Photo: Derek Blakadder
Old Havana Street. Photo: Derek Blakadder

At the same time, the emigrant issuing pattern of the four eastern provinces previously mentioned has become worse. While the period 1977-1981 contributed 22 percent of those emigrants, by 2002 this proportion had increased to 30 percent.

An illustrative example of this population imbalance can be demonstrated by the difference in non-natives residing in the municipality of East Havana and that of Maisi, in eastern Guantanamo Province. While by the population of the former is 76.3 percent non-natives, the latter instance records barely eight percent of the population as having been born in another place.

For those who live in the “Capital of all Cubans,” the presence of immigrants is a daily episode. In Central Park discussions on sports, in the Latin American Stadium during Santiago vs. Industriales baseball games, in bicycle-taxis, among the police force, on construction sites, in the voices of street vendors hawking their various products, on television… wherever one wishes to look, there they are.

Who in this city doesn’t have a grandmother, uncle, cousin, or nephew or some relative from the country? On this city plain, far from the peace of the hills, the singers intone their familiar song every day, as an essential part of their lives.

One thought on “Where Are the Singers From?

  • Or, as my grandfather, a World War I veteran, used to croon, “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, once that they’ve seen Paree?!” There has been a similar trend in most Latin American countries , too, of population shifting from the countryside to capital cities (also true of African and Asian countries). The latest trend, of course, is population movement from the Third World to the First. How the current economic crisis will affect this, however, remains to be seen.

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