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Comparing Puerto Rico and Cuba

Cuba and Puerto Rico were described by Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodriguez de Tio as “two wings of the same bird.” They have a strong historical connection and much in common, but comparing Puerto Rico and Cuba shows significant differences.

The flag of Puerto Rico was inspired by the flag of Cuba. Both were inhabited by the Taino first and visited by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Both were colonies of Spain for centuries, though Cuba had a strong and violent independence movement toward the end of the nineteenth century.  Both were ceded to the United States in 1898, Cuba with the understanding that they would be an independent nation. Puerto Rico has continued as a territory of the United States since that time.

Cuba’s independence was determined by the Treaty of Paris in 1898, but the United States administered Cuba until 1902. Cuba became independent in that year but fell under the power of a dictator. Following an unsuccessful revolution, Sergeant Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar came into power, first as president but later as dictator. Cuba experienced another revolution in 1959, this one bringing Fidel Castro into power, and more than 36,000 displaced Cubans relocated to Puerto Rico, according to Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know by  Jorge Duany of the Cuban Research Institute. This community tended to be more politically conservative and favors statehood for Puerto Rico. 

Over a million Cubans immigrated to the United States after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, many on precarious rafts on which safe passage was far from guaranteed. They left to escape political repression and economic hardships.  Many of these refugees reached Florida, where there is a thriving Cuban American community today.

Cuba is about 12 times larger than Puerto Rico, with a population about three times larger.


Cuba is a communist republic, an independent nation. The leadership of Cuba has agitated for independence for Puerto Rico, notably with the United Nations, for decades in spite of the unpopularity of independence in Puerto Rico. Cuba is in fact a reason for the strong anti-communist sentiment in Puerto Rico.

World Data gives Cuba a ranking three points higher than Puerto Rico’s for political stability (71 to 68) but gives them a ranking of 29 for civil rights, compared with Puerto Rico’s 68. Cuba gets a corruption ranking of 55 (bad) compared with Puerto Rico’s 37 (moderate).


The average annual income in Cuba is $8,920, compared with Puerto Rico’s $24,560. The cost of living is comparable. Per capita GDP in Cuba is $12,300, and Puerto Rico’s is $34,518, according to Index Mundi. Unemployment in Cuba is just 1.4 %, while Puerto Rico shows an unemployment rate of 6.0 %. However, since jobs are provided by the government in Cuba, this may be misleading.

During the Cold War, Cuba and Puerto Rico came to represent the communist and capitalist systems, or the Soviet Union and the United States. The U.S.S.R. gave at least $500 million dollars to Cuba every year until it was disbanded. The U.S.S.R. also provided extensive military support and bought goods such as sugar from Cuba at inflated prices. The end of the Soviet Union created significant economic hardship for Cuba. The U.S. has had an embargo against Cuba throughout that time, though there were efforts during the Obama administration to relax the embargo. This has also had economic consequences for Cuba.

Wealth is more evenly distributed in Cuba than in Puerto Rico, but  Cubans have a relatively low standard of living. As a person from Puerto Rico described his observations in visiting Cuba, “Imagine that you live in a huge prison…. Everything is controlled by the jailers (Castro government) so the jailers give you food at a very low price, even clothes are also rationed, medical care is free, but you must buy medicine (they give you nothing) but as in every prison there are many ways to obtain a little extra things, the farmer has only recently allowed him to sell his products, logically the jailers control him ‘what and how much’, other people obtain resources from their relatives outside the prison, others they manage to go out and buy products abroad and resell them on the island, there is no extreme poverty, because despite the attempt of the jailers to keep the Cuban people in misery, they have known how to engineer mechanisms to survive.”

It can be challenging to compare a communist nation with a capitalist territory, but the numbers show that Puerto Rico is better off than Cuba economically, as it is better off than the rest of its neighbors.


Cuba and Puerto Rico’s health and healthcare statistics are a mixed bag. Again, it can be difficult to compare the two, since the political and economic underpinnings of the healthcare systems are extremely different. Cuba has declared that healthcare is a human right, while it continues to be a for-profit system in Puerto Rico.

Cuba’s World Data health ranking is 75 and Puerto Rico’s is 91. Life expectancy in Cuba is 75 for men and 76 for women. Puerto Rico’s life expectancy is 76 for men and 85 for women. The average age is similar — 42 for Cuba and 43 for Puerto Rico — but both the birth rate and the death rate are much higher in Cuba. Cuba’s birth rate is 8.92% while Puerto Rico’s is only 5.90%. The death rate in Cuba is 14.65% compared with 8.60% in Puerto Rico. Infant mortality is higher in Puerto Rico than in Cuba, but the maternal mortality rate is 41.7% higher in Cuba.

Cuba is admired for its healthcare system in some circles, and it has better access to health care than Puerto Rico — 5.33 hospital beds and 8.19 doctors per 1,000 residents compared to 3.32 hospital beds and 1.75 doctors in Puerto Rico. 13.7% of Puerto Ricans have diabetes, while 9.6% of Cubans do. Tuberculosis is higher in Cuba, but so are tuberculosis cures. Cuba focuses on preventive medicine and wellness, providing free healthcare for all citizens, but chronic diseases continue to be significant problems and the major causes of death.

Comparing Puerto Rico and Cuba

While Cuba and Puerto Rico have similarities in climate, culture, and history up to the 20th century, their paths have diverged since then. Cuba is less prosperous than Puerto Rico and faces challenges that Puerto Rico does not suffer. Differences between the two islands are intensified by their different economic systems.


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