In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. Subsequently, Cuba’s economy suffered severe shortages of food and oil in the mid 1990s. Food shortages and prolonged blackouts caused Cubans to riot in Havana. The Cuban government responded by allowing 30,000 more Cubans to leave by boat for the United States. Cuba-US relations got worse in 2003. Cuba sided with other countries in questioning the motives of the US-led war on Iraq. The Obama administration sought to normalize relations with Cuba.
With the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Cuba found itself truly independent for the first time in its history. However, there is an old adage that says that one should be careful what one wishes for. Fidel Castro quickly realized that Cuba could not stand by itself and that new economic and political policies had to be implemented. These policies clearly reflect the acknowledgment that Cuba can never be truly independent in today’s global political economy. During this so-called Special Period, Castro placed Cubans on a wartime economy. Austerity measures were put in place.
The end of the Cold War and the Special Period dramatically affected the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces—Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias or FAR. All military assistance and deliveries of weapons and supplies came to an end. One of the major reforms was that the mission of the FAR changed. Castro announced that the FAR must help with the economy. Soldiers returning from abroad were put to work on farms run by the state, while officers with technical expertise were put to work finding alternatives to the island’s dependence on imported fertilizers. Another major reform was that the size of the military was reduced considerably.
Dissident groups on the island increased and became more vocal in challenging authorities. The government responded with both repression and reform. The country was declared to be secular rather than atheist. The political system was reformed in 1993 by allowing the election of members to all levels of the Popular Power assemblies rather than just the municipal level. Non-Communist candidates were allowed to run for office and some were elected. By 1995, ten of the fourteen provincial PCC secretaries had been replaced with younger members.
By 1996, it was clear that the economy was growing once again and that Cuba had survived the worst of the Special Period. Yet, the reforms were having some unanticipated outcomes. In particular, the dual existence of the dollar and peso economies was beginning to bring about a visible gap between the rich or privileged and the poor. The privileged work in the tourist and service industries that have access to dollars. The poor are those trapped in the peso economy of the ration card and state-run stores.
Castro showed that he was like Cuban leaders of the past: he did not like to share power. Yet he was different from all leaders of the past because he created and was committed to maintaining a more economically egalitarian Cuba. The real threat to Castro’s political power came from within the country. By achieving one of the most literate and highly educated citizenry in the world and by achieving a revolutionary social safety net found nowhere else in the developing world, he created a set of high expectations and desires among his people. The desire for greater political freedom is a natural outgrowth of this success.
One may have expected the policy of the United States towards Cuba to change in the early 1990s with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. In addition, three of the four stated conditions necessary for US normalization of relations had been met by 1992. It looked like President Bush was moving to change US policy toward the island. But the presidential election of 1992 and the power of the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) brought an abrupt end to any thaw in US policy.
Due to the crisis created with the arrival of the balseros during the Special Period, President Clinton worked with Cuban officials to promote safe, legal and orderly immigration to the United States. The United States agreed to allow at least 20,000 legal Cuban immigrants per year. Clinton then took steps to promote more people-to-people contacts between the United States and Cuba by allowing private organizations to develop relationships with Cuban organizations.
In 1992, the US government passed the Cuba Democracy Act in order to discourage trade with Cuba. The US Helms-Burton Act of 1996 is the most recent economic sanction taken by the United States against Cuba. It was a US response to the downing of the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft over international waters. This act authorizes the US president to prevent business executives of foreign countries from entering the United States if their companies use US property seized by the Castro government. The law gives American businesses the right to sue in US court any foreign nations that benefit or profit from using the seized property.
Perhaps the primary obstacle to a change in US policy is the importance of the state of Florida in the presidential election. This was clear to all in Bush’s narrow electoral victory over Al Gore in 2000. Cuban Americans in Florida voted overwhelmingly in favor of George Bush in the 2000 election and Jeb Bush in the 2002 election. As a result, US policy toward Cuba did not change significantly under President Bush.
In 2006 the ailing eighty-year-old leader temporarily transferred power to his younger brother Raul. Two years later the transition became permanent when Fidel Castro officially stepped down after forty-eight years in power. Although some people hoped that Raul Castro would introduce major reforms to the island nation, he made it clear that he intended to proceed slowly. Still, the new Cuban leader made incremental changes that earned praise from the international community. Raul Castro also made a few overtures toward improving relations with the United States.
In late 2014, after a year of secret negotiations, the United States and Cuba reached a historic agreement to restore the formal diplomatic relations that had been severed in 1961. President Obama announced his decision to open a new chapter in US-Cuban relations. In addition to establishing an embassy in Havana, Obama said the United States would eliminate many restrictions on travel, commerce, and information technology. Although the American trade embargo remained in place, Obama asked Congress to consider lifting it. The president also promised to continue pushing Cuba to make democratic reforms and end human rights abuses.
Cuba at the turn of the twenty-first century is undergoing a transition similar to that which occurred at the turn of the twentieth century. At that time, Cuban leadership, the United States and world economic forces interacted in such a way as to usher in a period of US hegemony. Today, Raul Castro, the United States and world economic forces are interacting in such a way as to integrate Cuba further into the global market place. Yet the biggest difference is that, at least in the near future, Cuban leadership— Raul Castro—will have more influence over the process of change.