By 1958, Havana’s economy was approaching collapse.
Public works programs such as tunnel construction came to a halt and unemployment increased. Seventy-eight thousand people in the capital were totally without employment and many of those working were receiving marginal wages. The effects of these developments were clearly visible in Havana.
Urban slums ringed the capital. The neighborhoods of Luyano, Jesus del Monte, and Las Yaguas were crowded with tens of thousands of poor, unemployed, and unemployable, living in squalor and destitution, eight to a room in hovels of tin sheeting and cardboard without sanitary facilities, garbage collection, sidewalks, or street lighting, and increasingly without hope.
Many wandered about aimlessly without work and some without motivation, many crippled, maimed, and ill, living off public welfare and private charity. Many were petty criminals, peddlers, and panhandlers, or, at best, bootblacks, newspaper vendors, car washers, and dishwashers.
More than five thousand beggars walked the streets of Havana in 1958, many of whom were homeless women with children.
Signs of social stress appeared in other ways. Havana was transformed into a center of commercialized vice of all sorts, underwritten by organized crime from the United States and protected by Batista’s police officials.
Illegal drugs were plentiful. Gambling casinos emerged as a major industry. In 1957, receipts reached $500,000 a month. Pornographic theaters and clubs were expanding everywhere in the capital.
Brothels multiplied through the early 1950s; by the end of the decade, 270 brothels were in full operation.By 1958, an estimated 11,500 women earned their living as prostitutes in Havana.
Throughout Cuba crime was escalating as was juvenile delinquency.
Also, suicides were rising. By the mid 1950s, more than 1,000 Cubans a year committed suicide and another 3,000 attempted to end their lives.
The condition of women was also deteriorating. Even though 12% of the working labor force in 1953 were women, an estimated 83% of all employed women worked less than ten weeks a year. Only 14% worked year-round. Nearly 65 % of all women employed in 1953 were engaged in the service sector.
The Afro-Cuban population during the 1950s was similarly marginalized. In 1953, people of color made up 27% of the total population and constituted approximately the same percentage of the labor force. Afro-Cubans tended to be over-represented in entertainment, construction, and domestic services and under-represented in banking and finance, professional and technical occupations, and government. Few Cubans of color reached the upper levels of public administration.
In the main, Afro-Cubans occupied the lower end of the socio-economic order. Blacks tended to constitute a majority in the crowded tenement dwellings of Havana. They suffered greater job insecurity, more unemployment and underemployment, poorer health care, and constituted a proportionally larger part of the prison population. They generally earned lower wages than whites, even in the same industries. Afro-Cubans were subjected to systematic discrimination, barred from hotels, resorts, clubs, and restaurants.
Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe.