Cuba officially became a Communist government in 1965. The country started receiving military aid from the Soviet Union and Eastern European Communist countries. Castro used this aid to support guerrilla movements in Africa and several countries in Latin America. This policy lasted until the late 1980s. The United States protested vigorously against Cuba’s policy of exporting revolution.
In the early 1960s there was much optimism about the economic future of Cuba. The revolutionary leadership embarked on a strategy designed to reduce the island’s dependence on sugar. This was to be achieved through rapid industrialization and the diversification of agriculture. All of this required imported technologies and materials. Sugar exports were to provide the necessary funds to purchase the needed imports. The attempt to achieve rapid industrialization failed.
Recognizing that industrialization depended on foreign exchange or capital that only the sugar sector could provide, the revolutionary government adopted a new strategy of development in 1964. This strategy focused on sugar and agriculture. Increasing sugar production for export, the diversification of agriculture and the focus on agricultural support industries became the model for national economic growth. By controlling most of the cultivated land in the country, the Cuban government created the most egalitarian distribution of income in Latin America.
The new socialist man never materialized during the radical experiment, the institutionalization of the revolution in Cuba. The victories and euphoria of the early years of the revolution were replaced with hard work and austerity. Due to the provision of free education, healthcare, social security, day care and housing, worker wages were almost meaningless. Yet, appeals to socialist ideals failed to motivate workers. Resistance took the form of foot-dragging and high absenteeism. This resistance, coupled with a lack of motivation, adversely affected the economic production of the state.
Cuba underwent a demographic transformation after the Revolution came to power. There was a ‘baby boom’ in the early 1960s, which saw the crude birth rate increase by about a third compared to the late 1950s. The principal explanation for the baby boom is probably the improved economic conditions for lower-income Cubans resulting from redistributional policies, together with improved health facilities in the rural areas. The baby boom was followed by a baby bust. The crude birth rate was reduced by half between the end of the 1960s and the end of the 1970s.
Even though Cuba failed to meet the stated goal of 10 million tons of sugar in 1970, it did produce a record crop of 8.5 million tons. However, the Cuban economy was in shambles. Non-sugar agriculture and state industry suffered due to neglect and the vast amount of resources that had been redirected towards the production of sugar.
The external component of the radical experiment focused on the support of revolutionary groups throughout Latin America. The goal, in the words of Guevara, was to create ‘two, three, many Vietnams’. This issue exacerbated the already strained relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union. The USSR did not agree with Castro’s efforts to promote violent revolution in Latin America. In the end, Cuba’s support for revolutionaries failed to bring about victory.
In August 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed that country’s attempt at liberalization. Castro spoke in support of the Soviet invasion in an attempt to create a closer, more cooperative relationship between the two countries. He began to show greater solidarity with the USSR. He reversed a PCC decision and allowed a Cuban representative to attend, as an observer, the World Conference of Communist Parties held in the Soviet Union a year later. The purpose of the conference was to show solidarity against the Chinese Communists. At the same time, Havana sought to maintain good relations with as many governments as possible throughout the world.
Revolutionary idealism, spirit, excitement and fervor eventually give way to the realities of everyday living. After the failure of the radical experiment and the strengthening of relations with the Soviet Union, the hard facts of everyday life in a revolutionary socialist society became evident. Cuba was forced to turn to a more pragmatic strategy of development. The Cuban revolution attempted to adopt a more institutionalized model of socialism, somewhat closer to that in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Yet, it was clear that Cuba under Castro could never imitate this model.
Cuba benefited from the Soviet Union’s preferential trading policies. The USSR continued to purchase Cuba’s sugar at above world market prices and it provided oil at a price lower than that provided by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. This helped to protect Cuba from the oil shocks of the early 1970s that caused severe economic problems for the United States and the West European countries. On the negative side, this relationship served as a disincentive for the diversification of the Cuban economy.
Castro attempted to institutionalize the revolution by drawing the jurisdiction lines of government more clearly. The PCC was to make political decisions, the state was to administer the policies, and mass organizations, such as the Cuban Confederation of Labor— Confederacion de Trabajadores de Cuba or CTC—were to provide for popular participation. Cuba’s first socialist constitution was adopted at the First PCC Congress in 1975 and approved through a referendum. It created the Popular Power system in which elected municipal assemblies chose the members of the regional assemblies and the National Assembly by vote.
Several factors contributed to the rise of Cuba as a force in international politics by the mid to late 1970s. Throughout the first half of the decade, Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces—Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias or FAR—underwent major changes. Cuba’s isolation within Latin America also came to an end. At the same time, Castro was busy establishing himself as a leader of the developing countries of the world. Cuban troops intervened in the Angolan civil war that had broken out when the Portuguese empire in Africa began to crumble. In Nicaragua, Castro supported a revolution.
Even in the radical foreign policy years of the 1960s, Cuba had maintained good trade relations with several Western European states. Cuba also retained correct diplomatic relations with the Mexican government. Cuba moved steadily to improve its relations with most governments. Economic relations with Western European countries and Japan improved further as the Cuban economy recovered from the ravages of the 1960s. Cuban relations with Africa and Asia also improved in the 1970s.
A US reconnaissance plane photographed the construction of a Soviet submarine base in the southern coastal city of Cienfuegos. Richard Nixon argued that this violated the missile crisis agreement banning the introduction of offensive weapons systems in the Western Hemisphere. He negotiated with the Soviet Union to stop the construction while the Cubans, once again, had little say in the issue. Just as in the missile crisis, it was common in the United States to view the relationship between the USSR and Cuba as one in which the Cubans merely followed Soviet orders. This is not only simplistic, but also historically incorrect.
Castro knew that if Reagan were to be elected president, any meaningful accommodation with the United States would not be possible. He allowed almost 125,000 Cubans to leave the country via the port city of Mariel in 1980. Among these émigrés were political prisoners, common criminals—less than 4 percent of the total—, Cubans released from mental health facilities and Cuba’s poor. Most were from the Havana area. The overwhelming media attention focused on the criminal element among the Mariel émigrés, and Florida officials indicated that they could not provide the services, schools and jobs needed for them.
Ironically, the same year that tens of thousands of Cubans left the island from the port of Mariel for economic reasons, the economy began to improve once again. Castro further liberalized the Cuban economy, relaxing the regulations on foreign investment by allowing foreigners to have up to 49 percent ownership in local businesses. The production of steel, medicines, electronics and chemicals increased. With the reduction in state provided housing through the minibrigades, the private sector began meeting much of this demand.
Cuban internationalism expanded in the early 1980s. Cuba provided soldiers and construction workers to twenty countries in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia. Thousands of Cuban healthcare workers, doctors and teachers provided assistance to countries in the developing world. Castro announced a change in his military policy. He created a militia made up of non-military personnel that numbered almost 1.5 million people. Castro later justified this in terms of responding to the aggressive nature of the Reagan administration.
President Reagan, who viewed the world strictly through the East-West Cold War perspective, brought a desire to restore US power in the world and implement a hard-line anti-communist foreign policy. He viewed Cuban internationalism as simply part of the Soviet Union’s ‘evil empire’. US defense expenditures escalated sharply, and aid to countries under the threat of communist or communist-inspired insurgencies increased dramatically. Reagan acted quickly against Cuba by halting all air links with it and effectively banning travel to Cuba by prohibiting monetary expenditures on the island by US citizens.
By 1984, the world market price of sugar had fallen and the Cuban economy was once again in recession. The country suffered from increasing international debts, the increased cost of hard-currency imports due to the devaluation of the US dollar and the need to increase foreign investments and government revenues. Even with the private construction of housing, there was still a shortage and the construction of clinics and day care facilities did not meet the nation’s demand. Corruption had increased and was clearly associated with the growth of the peasant markets. Castro viewed this as a breakdown in revolutionary community conscience.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s revolutionary changes in the Soviet Union, which included economic and political liberalization under the labels of perestroika and glasnost, appeared at a time when Castro was initiating his own campaign for rectification. Castro and the ageing revolutionary leadership reacted with hostility to the reforms of the Soviet Union and the changes happening in Eastern Europe. Castro initiated reforms prior to the PCC congress of December 1986 under the name of rectification—a return to the revolutionary idealism of the 1960s. Rectification was a mixture of revolutionary ideals and pragmatic, market-oriented policies.
With rectification policies in place, Cuban internationalism had also begun to contract. In particular, Cuba could no longer afford its large military presence in Africa. This policy caused resentment among many of the officers of the proud Cuban military. Returning military personnel faced a difficult economy when they returned home. General Ochoa was most vocal in his criticism of the cutbacks in the international mission of the FAR and the treatment of Cuban troops when they returned home from Africa to face economic austerity. Ochoa and other high-ranking military officials were also charged with drug trafficking.
Although no one, including Castro, predicted the abrupt end of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, he clearly knew that any change in the preferential relationship with these countries could threaten his own revolution. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Castro found Cuba truly independent for the first time in its history. Yet, that very independence threatened his revolution like no other event since 1959. Castro faced economic and social problems at home.