What is perhaps the first time in the country’s history since the revolution, the Cuban government faces a level of discontentment amongst its people that could truly test its continuity. There have been protests born out of economic despair in the past, but there appears to be an air of intolerance that resembles the mood of 1959 when Fidel Castro overthrew the sitting president to become the leader of Cuba. The Cuban Communists have a serious problem on their hands.
It can be argued that no country has had as much of an influence on Cuba as the United States of America, at least over the last 100 or so years. Considering its proximity to the U.S mainland, with Florida lying a mere 150km to the north of the island, it becomes easy to understand why this is the case. American involvement in Cuba dates back to the 19th century when it established business interests in the former Spanish colony to exploit its sugar production. At the turn of the 19th century, the Cubans were engaged in a war of independence with their Spanish colonisers. The U.S government sent a navy ship to protect its interests, but when the ship blew up, rumours were rife in the American press about the Spanish being the perpetrators of the blast. This forced the U.S to become involved and thus resulted in the Spanish-American War which began in 1898.
The war lasted a mere 10 weeks and resulted in victory for the U.S. This also meant that the Cubans gained independence from the Spanish. The U.S gained the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands while also having temporary control over Cuba in terms of managing the newly independent country’s finances and foreign policy. While the U.S played a key role in Cuba’s struggle for independence, the next half-century of Cuban life would be brazenly dictated by those in Washington D.C. U.S interests, of course, revolved around its commercial presence in Cuba. This began with sugar but soon diversified into gambling and hospitality. The U.S government also had direct influence over the political landscape of Cuba, supporting individuals who were sympathetic to the American agenda to lead the country.
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Many metrics from the time paint a picture of economic prosperity in Cuba. Amongst Latin American countries, Cuba boasted the highest per-capita consumption of meat, automobiles, telephones, and radios. Inequality, & unemployment amongst the poor and the young had reached unsustainable levels. Fulgencio Batista was the president during this time, and he aligned with the wealthiest landowners while also cosying up even further to the Americans. By 1950, more than 70% of arable Cuban land was owned by foreigners.
With Cuba virtually operating as an American shell state, public unrest was beginning to gain momentum. Out of the numerous groups who were voicing their dissent, one particular movement stood out – the 26th of July Movement headed by Fidel Castro. The movement derives its name from the failed attack on the Moncado Barracks led by Castro. He was captured and jailed, but the attempt was enough to operate as a rallying cry for the many oppressed Cubans. Over the next few years, Castro was released from prison and eventually launched a second attack which saw thousands of Cubans joining in as volunteers to overthrow Batista. The U.S supplied the Cuban government with arms to aid against the rebellion, but once they saw that Batista was fighting a lost battle, they withdrew support and essentially forced him to step down. Acknowledging his invariable fate, Batista fled to Spain along with his inner circle, from where he eventually settled in Portugal, continuing to live there until his death in 1976. The revolution was successful.
Cubans were jubilant at the outcome of the result, with millions gathering on the streets to celebrate. Castro did not initially assume a leadership position in the newly-formed Cuban government, but it wouldn’t be long before he did. After being sworn in as Prime Minister in February of 1959, Castro began to implement his vision for a communist Cuba. This included land reforms which resulted in a redistribution of more than 15% of the wealth of the nation. No Cuban was allowed to own more than 993 acres on their own, and foreigners were completely prohibited from owning land at all. This of course conflicted with the interests of American businessmen who owned thousands of acres in Cuba, which forced a reaction from the US government. Castro had been travelling around the world in order to seek investment from richer nations, but with his land reforms having antagonized wealthy U.S individuals who likely had an influence in the politics of their country, the U.S government began to look upon Cuba in adversarial terms.
Herein begins the decades-long animosity that the U.S held against the Cubans, in particular Fidel Castro. While Castro knew he needed a wealthy ally to help kickstart his economy, he would not allow it to come at the cost of excessive foreign influence. With the U.S introducing a number of trade embargoes against Cuba and even secretly attempting to assassinate Castro via the CIA, Cuba’s efforts were divided between managing its domestic affairs and holding off external pressure from its North American neighbour.
Being a communist nation, and located close to the U.S, the Soviet Union grew favourable towards Castro and his country. Cuba presented a strategic opportunity for the Soviets in the midst of the Cold War, as there was American presence in countries like Turkey and West Germany, being uncomfortably close to the Soviet’s mainland. By making Cuba an ally, the Soviets could now eqaulise any threat that the U.S posed on its borders.
This strategic alliance would prove vital for the Cuban economy as the Soviets sent billions of dollars in aid annually along with military resources as well. The U.S sanctions meant that Cuba’s trade was restricted not only with its American neighbours but also with a number of other U.S allies such as the members of NATO. This left Cuba with no other option than to trade with the Soviets. Trade plays a key role during the developmental stage of an economy, and is one of the factors that transforms a country from being poor to rich.
For about 30 years, this arrangement with the Soviets worked for the Cubans, and Castro was able to keep the U.S at arm’s length both economically and politically. There was a particularly tense period in 1962 which nearly led to the outbreak of a third world war, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was perhaps the closest that humanity had come to an all-out nuclear war, but was thankfully averted after nervous negotiation. Such a crisis all but confirmed to the U.S that Cuba was not worthy of friendship.
Towards the end of the millennium, however, Cuba’s most important friend, the Soviet Union, ceased to exist. Its largest trading partner and the source of crucial funds in the form of aid could no longer support the little island all the way on the other side of the world. This meant that the Cubans faced a serious recession known in the country’s history as the “Special Period” with a 35% contraction in their economy during the early 1990s. This was according to official government estimates. Fidel Castro and his government now needed to figure out how to move forward without the support of the Soviets.
Was it still possible to remain a communist nation? Not entirely. Like every other now-successful former-communist country, the Cubans opened up their economy and embraced a certain degree of capitalism. They invited foreign investment and opened up their tourism sector while also allowing certain people to start their own businesses.
This liberalisation enabled the country to endure the special period and emerge as a quasi-capitalist country with a strong socialist base. This did lead to some strange outcomes, however. Cuba is perhaps the only country in the world where a porter i.e, a luggage handler at a hotel, earns more money than a doctor. This is because the Cuban government legalised the use of the U.S Dollar as legal tender in its country as a part of its liberalisation programme. What this meant is that with tourism being opened up to the world and guests from countries like the U.S coming to visit, those working in the tourism sector would often get paid in U.S Dollars which are far more valuable than the local Cuban Peso.
The average monthly salary for a doctor in Cuba is around $800. It is not at all unusual for a porter or a receptionist to earn more than that in a month in just tips. The health industry in Cuba is completely under the control of the government, and as such the salaries are paid by them. Having said that, the quality of life provided by the government is actually quite high, with the country ranking 70th out of 189 on the human development index (HDI) in 2019. There is no homelessness in Cuba and all the basic requirements in relation to food, education, healthcare, etc. are taken care of.
Normally, when a country can not adequately reward its most skilled workers, it undergoes a phenomenon known as the ‘brain drain’. This is when people working in professions such as medicine, law, engineering, etc. leave the country in search of better opportunities, usually for financial reasons. One would naturally assume that Cuba would face such a problem, as doctors are paid so little, but interestingly enough this has not happened there thus far. One explanation has to do with Cuba’s education system, which is also ranked quite high.
A student going to school and then university will learn the same things that a student in the U.S or the U.K would be learn in a given field. Additionally, the government makes it compulsory to teach its communist philosophy as a part of its curriculum. This results in a considerable amount of indoctrination of the educated populace which actually helps prevent the brain drain. The ethics of such an approach are of course questionable, but it does help the government deal with a problem that almost every other developing nation has to contend with.
Does this mean that the Cuban government’s economics actually work? Not entirely. Cuba always seems to have just enough in terms of its resources in order to avoid a crisis. When something disastrous like a pandemic occurs, the true state of the country’s economy is brought to light. Over the last year and a half, the Cuban economy has been squeezed like never before. Tourism, which enlisted a significant amount of income, has been virtually non-existent. This means that there are very few U.S Dollars coming into the country. Cuba imports around 70% of all its food needs.
The lack of U.S Dollars means that importing food becomes very expensive, and this is further exacerbated by the fact that global food prices are at their highest in more than a decade. Nationalisation has meant that Cuban farmers are disincentivised from producing enough food on their own as the state sets the prices at which the produce is procured from the farmers.
With respect to the virus itself, Cuba has managed to develop its own vaccine but it does not have enough syringes to administer the vaccine to large parts of its population. Historically, dissent has been handled by the government through detainment and executions. Today, the situation seems to have reached a point where Cuban nationals no longer fear such an outcome. The protests we see in Cuba are not something that the communist government has ever had to deal with. With its finances dwindling and public support being at an all time low, one can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the end of the communist party in Cuba?
The story of Cuba is without a doubt fascinating, having come under the influence of colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and communism. It is a product of all those things today, and has, in spite of the efforts of the most powerful nation, managed to maintain its independence. One of its great achievements, or at least that of Fidel Castro’s, has been its ability to ward off pressure from the U.S. Castro is said to have survived more than 600 assassination attempts from the C.I.A. For as long as he was alive, the Cuban experiment seemed to work, but not without embracing at least the smallest amount of free market thinking. Today Cuba faces another great challenge. The most vulnerable, however, are not the Cubans themselves, but the ideas that Castro and his communists have fought to uphold for such a long time. Another compelling chapter awaits to be added to the story of that small island in the Gulf of Mexico.