1980s dissatisfaction and flight

By the 1980s, the heavy dependence on sugar and the USSR, coupled with the trade embargo, meant that the expected improvements in living standards, 20 years after the Revolution, were not being delivered as fast as hoped and the people were tiring of being asked for ever more sacrifices for the good of the nation. In 1980, the compound of the Peruvian embassy was overrun by 11,000 people seeking political asylum. Castro's answer to the dissidents was to let them go and he opened the port of
for a mass departure by sea. He also opened the prisons to allow prisoners, both political and criminal, to head for the USA in anything they could find that would float. It was estimated that some 125,000 embarked for Miami, amid publicity that it was the criminals, delinquents, homosexuals and mental patients who were fleeing Cuba. At the same time huge demonstrations were organized in Havana in support of the Revolution. Some relaxation in controls was allowed, however, with 'free markets' opening alongside the official ration system.

This was the decade of the Latin American debt crisis and Cuba was unable to escape the pressures brought to bear on its neighbours. Development projects in the 1970s had been financed with loans from western banks, in addition to the aid it was already receiving from the USSR. When interest rates went up in 1982, Cuba was forced to renegotiate its US$3.5 billion debt to commercial banks and, in 1986, its debt to the USSR. The need to restrain budget spending and keep a tight control over public finances brought more austerity. The private markets were stopped in 1986 and the people were once more asked for voluntary labour to raise productivity and achieve economic growth. Excess manpower, or unemployment, was eased by sending thousands of Cubans abroad as internationalists to help other developing countries, whether as combat troops or technicians.

collapse of the Communist system
in the Eastern European countries in the late 1980s, followed by the demise of the USSR, very nearly brought the end of Castro's Cuba as well. Emigrés in Miami started counting the days until they would re-enter the homeland and Castro's position looked extremely precarious. There were signs that a power struggle was taking place at the top of the Communist Party. In 1989, General Arnaldo Ochoa, a hero of the Angolan campaign, was charged with drug trafficking and corruption. He was publicly tried and executed along with several other military officers allegedly involved. Castro took the opportunity to pledge to fight against corruption and privilege and deepen the process of rectification begun in 1986.

The Soviet connection

Before the collapse of the Soviet system, aid to Cuba from the USSR was traditionally estimated at about 25% of GNP. Cuba's debt with the USSR was a secret: estimates ranged from US$8.5 billion to US$34 billion. Apart from military aid, economic assistance took two forms: balance of payments support (about 85%), under which sugar and nickel exports were priced in excess of world levels and oil imports were indexed against world prices for the previous five years, and assistance for development projects. About 13 million tonnes of oil were supplied a year by the USSR, allowing three million to be re-exported, providing a valuable source of foreign earnings. By the late 1980s up to 90% of Cuba's foreign trade was with centrally planned economies.

US relations

Before the Revolution of 1959, the USA had investments in Cuba worth about US$1 billion, covering nearly every activity from agriculture and mining to oil installations. Today all American businesses in Cuba, including banks, have been nationalized; the USA has cut off all imports from Cuba, placed an embargo on exports to Cuba, and broken off diplomatic relations. Promising moves to improve relations with the USA were given impetus in 1988 by the termination of Cuban military activities in Angola under agreement with the USA and South Africa. However, developments in Eastern Europe and the former USSR in 1989-1990 revealed the vulnerability of the economy and provoked Castro to defend the Cuban system of government; the lack of political change delayed any further rapprochement with the USA. Prior to the 1992 US presidential elections, President Bush approved the Cuban Democracy Act (Torricelli Bill), which strengthened the trade embargo by forbidding US subsidiaries from trading with Cuba. Many countries, including EC members and Canada, said they would not allow the US bill to affect their trade with Cuba and the UN General Assembly voted in November in favour of a resolution calling for an end to the embargo. The defeat of George Bush by Bill Clinton did not, however, signal a change in US attitudes, in large part because of the support given to the Democrat's campaign by Cuban émigrés in Miami.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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