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Cuba Modern History

Revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who took over power in early 1959, initially represented himself as a democrat and reformist in the spirit of national hero José Martí, but soon his politics became more radical. As a result, Castro lost its support in parts of the middle class. About 700,000 Cubans left their country. Most of them settled in the United States.

Many foreign-owned industries were nationalized, creating a conflict with powerful American interests. In 1960, the United States introduced import stops for Cuban sugar and then banned all trade with Cuba except for food and medicines.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Cuba. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

Castro was now approaching the Communist Party, which he saw as a suitable instrument for governing the country. His struggle against US domination was supported by large population groups, which he skillfully exploited. In December 1961, Castro openly supported Marxism-Leninism. At that time, the free elections he had promised for his long-standing power were branded as "counter-revolutionary". The Communist Party became the only permitted party.

Castro was drawn to the Soviet variant of socialism. Foreign policy served the Soviet Union as a counterbalance to the United States. The US government in turn supported exile Cubans who attacked the regime in Cuba. This policy culminated in an unsuccessful invasion of exile Cubans in the Gulf of Pig in southern Cuba in April 1961. In February 1962, the United States imposed a complete trade blockade against the country. That same year, Cuba was excluded from the United States Cooperative Organization (OAS).

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The Castro regime tried to industrialize the country according to the Soviet model. Heavy industry began to build up and a centralized financial planning was introduced. The aim was to reduce Cuba's large dependence on sugar exports, but the attempt failed. The Cubans were not used to industrial work, and the Soviet planning economy did not fit Cuban conditions.

Between Castro and the Soviet Union, contradictions arose during the Cuba crisis in October 1962. The crisis was triggered when the United States discovered that launching ramps for Soviet nuclear weapons were being built in Cuba. The US responded with a seablock by Cuba. After 13 days of nervous war, Moscow agreed to dismantle the ramps. This was one of the most serious international crises since the Second World War.

After the unsuccessful investment in heavy industry, the economy returned to its traditional dependence on sugar and tobacco. At the same time, the leaders sought to make Cuba self-sufficient in food. This return to agriculture aroused strong interest in China. Between 1966 and 1970, some elements of the Chinese version of communism, Maoism, were introduced, in which the countryside was favored at the expense of cities. At the same time, progress was made in the social field with improvements in education and healthcare.

Action against bourgeois values

In 1968, Castro followed China's leaders in the tracks and directed a severe blow to the bourgeois urban population through the "revolutionary offensive" against all bourgeois institutions, ideas and privileges. All the 55,000 privately owned small businesses in cities such as hairdressers, bars and shoemakers were nationalized. The goal was to stimulate the revolutionary spirit and create a new person, who put moral and non-profit motives before materialistic ones. The workforce was mobilized according to military principles to be inserted into the sugar crop. A nationwide campaign was launched, aiming to harvest ten million tonnes of raw sugar in 1970, but only eight succeeded. The setback was the end of Maoist influence in Cuba.

Instead, dependence on the Soviet Union increased. Favorable conditions for trade with the countries of Eastern Europe were introduced and the repayment of the enormous debts to the Soviet Union postponed in the future. The country's first socialist constitution of the Soviet model came into force in 1976 after a referendum.

Castro wanted to play a leading role and promote socialist development in the Third World. With Soviet assistance, he engaged Cuba militarily in Africa, primarily in Angola and Ethiopia. Castro was chairman of the alliance-free movement 1979-1982. When the so-called Cold War between the West and the East came to an end in the late 1980s, Cuba lost its strategic importance in international politics and the Cuban troops began to be taken home from Africa.

At home, the problems accumulated. Attempts to create new industries to avoid the dependence on unilateral goods exports were slow, while production targets in the existing industries could not be achieved. The government responded with austerity. Food and consumer goods were rationed, and savings also affected public transport, healthcare and schools. Corruption increased as citizens tried to find new ways to cope with their daily lives. Pessimism spread and many chose to flee to the United States.

The economic problems were exacerbated by the fall of communism in Eastern Europe 1989-1991. During the Soviet era, trade between Cuba and the eastern countries had been through barter. Now the system collapsed and the Cubans had to start paying in real money and at world market prices for the oil imported from the Soviet Union. At the same time, Cuba was paid less for its sugar exports. The support from the eastern countries that Cuba received through barter basically disappeared overnight.

The subsequent economic crisis, the so-called Special Period, affected virtually all economic sectors. Between 1989 and 1993, the country's GDP fell by 35 percent. When the situation became urgent, Castro launched a new austerity program that required enormous sacrifices by the Cubans. From 1989 to 1992, food imports more than halved and the food queues grew longer. The standard of living fell. Many lived on just rice and beans and the dissatisfaction among the Cubans increased.

More turning space

In order to counter the crisis, in 1993 certain deviations from the previous economic policy were made. Cubans were allowed to own and trade in US dollars and more exile Cubans were allowed to visit their old homeland. The aim was to get foreign currency, not least from exile Cubans who sent money to their relatives in Cuba.

Some individual entrepreneurship was also allowed, though only on a small scale. The Cubans, for example, were allowed to open restaurants at home, so-called paladares. At the same time, foreign interests were given the right to own up to one hundred percent of the companies in certain sectors. However, Fidel Castro made clear that there were no political changes that could threaten the "achievements of socialism".

The deteriorating economic conditions led to riots in Havana's streets in August 1994. Clashes took place between police and protesters trying to force a ferry to steer toward the United States. The incident became the starting point for a refugee wave to the United States, when more than 35,000 Cubans left the country on ranged fleets and boats. Many of them were captured by the US Coast Guard and detained at the US Naval Base Guantánamo in Cuba.

The mass exodus from Cuba caused the US to abolish the automatic right to asylum and refugee status enjoyed by Cubans since 1966 (see Population and Languages).

Economic recovery

By the mid-1990s, the Cuban economy began to slowly recover from the crisis. Soviet support was replaced by aid from other countries. China, for example, provided Cuba with favorable loans and other assistance.

The country's old main industry, the sugar industry, gradually lost importance due to outdated production methods while the tourism industry developed strongly with investments from the West. Subsidies for some unprofitable companies were withdrawn and various taxes were introduced which increased the income to the Treasury.

The US blockade against Cuba was sharpened in 1996 after two US civilian aircraft were shot down by Cuban fighter aircraft and four crew members were killed. The purpose of the US plan was to spread flyers with Castro hostile propaganda. The incident prompted the US Congress to adopt the so-called Helms-Burton Act, which, among other things, penalized the United States through corporations or states that traded or invested in Cuba. The law aroused strong international protests and was later relieved, but the US trade blockade against Cuba persisted.

In the early 2000s, there was a slight softening in US-Cuban relations when the United States decided to slightly mitigate the sanctions by allowing certain exports of food and medicines to Cuba. When Hurricane Michelle devastated large parts of the harvest in Cuba in 2001, the United States exported food to the country for the first time since 1962.

The economic situation improved in the early 2000s when Venezuela, which received a left-wing government, promised to supply Cuba with favorable terms in exchange for Cuba sending doctors and teachers to Venezuela. At the same time, Cuba found its own oil off the coast. Between 2001 and 2007, growth averaged just over seven percent. The driving force was the rapid development of the tourism industry. High world market prices of nickel helped keep growth up. For the Cubans in common, however, the growth did not significantly improve the standard of living.

Varela Project

In 2002, Cuban opposition man Oswaldo Paya organized a name gathering to bring about a referendum on political reforms, the so-called Varela project. Paya relied on a section of the Constitution that states that such a referendum can come about if more than 10,000 of the country's citizens demand it. More than 11,000 names were collected, but there was no referendum. Castro responded by organizing his own collection of names, where 8.2 million Cubans had to confirm that the socialist system was "inviolable". Subsequently, Parliament adopted a supplement to the Constitution which stated that socialism was impossible to abolish in Cuba.

The Varela project definitely went to the grave in 2003 when Castro imprisoned 75 dissenters who were sentenced to long prison terms. Several of those convicted had been active in the Varela project. In the same year, three Cubans who had hijacked a passenger ferry during an escape attempt were executed. The mass arrests and executions brought strong criticism in the outside world. Those detained in 2003 were released in installments from the end of 2004 to 2010, but at the same time the repression and other oppositional detention continued (see also Political system).

Power change and reforms

Due to poor health, just before his 80th birthday in August 2006, Fidel Castro was forced to surrender his powers to the few years younger brother Raúl Castro, who was the first vice president of the powerful government and defense minister. The idea was that it would be a temporary arrangement, but Fidel Castro never recovered, and in 2008 the National Assembly elected Raúl Castro as new head of state and government. Three years later, Raúl Castro also assumed the post of leader of the Communist Party.

After the change of power, Fidel Castro exerted some influence behind the scenes and, until his death in 2016, expressed his views via articles in the party organization Granma. However, his appearances became increasingly rare as his health deteriorated.

With Raúl Castro at the helm, a new policy was initiated. Raúl Castro openly acknowledged the country's financial problems and announced that both "structural and conceptual" changes would be required to remedy the situation.

Read more in the chapter Current politics.

IMPORTANT YEARS IN CUBA'S HISTORY

1492 Columbus "discovers" Cuba
1511 Spain colonizes the country
1898 Spanish-American war
1899 American occupation
1902 Cuba becomes independent
1951 Fulgencio Batista takes power in a coup
1959 Batista flies and Fidel Castro becomes prime minister
1962 US before trade block; Cuba crisis
2006 Fidel Castro hands over power to his brother Raúl
2008 Raúl Castro introduces economic reform
2018 The era of Castro is over; Miguel Díaz-Canel becomes new president

 
 

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