This post summarizes information that would have been good to know before we visited Cuba. Perhaps a future visitor will find it useful.
We wanted to visit Cuba for a long time. With the warming of relations between the US and Cuba, the visit became possible. In brief, what we knew about Cuba was that (1) it is a communist country (2) ruled by Fidel Castro (3) located 90 miles from Key West (4) where cigars are made and (5) where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote books. Our recent (post Revolution) history with Cuba includes (6) the Cuban Missile Crisis (Bay of Pigs), and (7) Guantanamo Bay (“Gitmo”). We now understand Cuba a little better.
To be clear, most of what is written in this post comes from sources found after our visit to Cuba, not from our guides in Cuba, although they answered any questions we put to them to the best of their ability (and knowledge). Also, to the best of our ability, only facts are presented, not beliefs or opinions, although, as US citizens, a dispassionate discussion of Cuba isn’t always easy.
An extremely brief history of Cuba up to 1961
Cuba was independently ruled by indigenous peoples, more or less, until colonized by Spain in the early 1500s. Cuba was conquered by the British in 1762, traded back to Spain (for Florida) in 1763, governed by the US (under the 1898 Treaty of Paris) from 1899 until handed over to a Cuban government in 1902, occupied again by the US from 1906 to 1909, and self-governed as a democracy until January, 1959, when Fidel Castro took control.
The Cuban Constitution was amended in late 1901 to include the Platt Amendment as a condition for withdrawal of US troops at the end of the Spanish-American War; among other conditions, this amendment gave the US the right to intervene militarily in Cuba. As a result, the 45 square mile Guantanamo Bay Naval Station (commonly called “Gitmo”) was leased to the US beginning in 1903 for $4,085 per year, although Cuba has not accepted this payment since 1959. The Cuban-American Treaty of Relations of 1903 contained the same provisions as the Platt Amendment and was used as justification for the Second Occupation of Cuba from 1906 to 1909. Most of the conditions of the 1903 Treaty were removed by the Cuban-American Treaty of Relations of 1934, although the long-term lease of Gitmo remains.
Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis
After the Cuban Revolution resulting in the Castro government, Cuba turned its allegiance from the US to the USSR, becoming an ally with the USSR in its Cold War with the US. Newly-elected US President Kennedy, approving the plans developed by outgoing US President Eisenhower, launched the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961 to remove Castro from power. The invasion failed and reinforced Castro’s negative views of the US. The USSR began to install silos in Cuba for (potentially) launching nuclear missiles at the US, to deter or to retaliate for any future US attacks against Cuba. The US observed these preparations from U2 aircraft overflights and blockaded the island. A US U2 aircraft was shot down from Cuban soil, most likely by USSR forces. The US did not retaliate but instead negotiated with the USSR to remove their weapons in exchange for a US agreement never to invade Cuba.
When the older generation in the US is asked for memories of the Cold War in general, and of the Cuban Missile Crisis in particular, what they remember is the film “Duck and Cover” and associated procedures taught them in elementary school to “survive” a nuclear attack.
Communism in Cuba
The Cuban Constitution, ratified in 1976, established the Communist Party as the ruling party in Cuba. (The Cuban Constitution, translated into English, can be found at Cuban Constitution.) The Cuban people are to be “GUIDED by the ideology of José Martí, and the sociopolitical ideas of Marx, Engels, and Lenin” (quoted from the Constitution).
Our guide explained to us that communism is the ideal toward which the socialist Cuba is heading. Periodically, adjustments must be made to continue progress toward this goal.
Two important changes under Fidel Castro, brought about by the economic crisis in 1993 following the collapse of the USSR, were tourism and the legalization of paladares (privately-owned small restaurants), that pay fees to the government.
In October, 1997, Fidel Castro officially named his younger brother Raúl Castro as his successor. After the Revolution, Raúl held many government posts, including head of the armed services, defense minister, and first deputy prime minister. In February 2008, Fidel Castro officially resigned, and Raúl was chosen as Cuba’s new president. As President, Raúl Castro has implemented many social, economic, and political reforms ( known as the “actualization of the Cuban social and economic model”) that seem inconsistent with Fidel’s communist policies of the Revolution.
In late May, 2016, the Communist Party stated that a category of around 200 types of small, mid-sized and “micro” private businesses has been approved for their master plan for social and economic development. This approval could make it possible for non-state businesses to legally import supplies and export products, thus growing private business in a communist state. The projected impact includes half a million jobs in Cuba’s private sector.
Raúl Castro plans to leave politics in 2018, at the end of his second term as President.
How Communism Affects Cuban Families
During our visit to Cuba, we became aware of several ways that communism impacts the individual and family. These are discussed below in reference to the relevant clauses in the Constitution:
ARTICLE 15: The following are the socialist State property of all the people:a) the land that does not belong to small farmers or cooperatives comprised of them, the subsoil, mines, natural resources, both living and nonliving, within the maritime economic zone of the Republic, and the forests, waters, and routes of communication;b) the sugar mills, factories, fundamental means of transportation, and all enterprises, banks, and installations that have been nationalized and expropriated from imperialists, large estate owners, and the bourgeoisie; as well as factories, economic installations, and scientific, social, cultural and sports centers constructed, promoted, or acquired by the State, including those that it may construct, promote, or acquire in the future.
Except for small farms and cooperatives, there is no privately-owned property in Cuba. The State owns all the fundamental means of production: factories, transportation, banks, natural resources, land, water, etc. The Communist party controls these state-owned means of production.
ARTICLE 45:…Work is remunerated according to its quality and quantity; when it is provided, the needs of the economy and of society, the decision of the worker and his skill and ability are taken into account; this is guaranteed by the socialist economic system, that facilitates social and economic development, without crises, and has thus eliminated unemployment and the “dead season.”
In 2012, Cuba’s National Statistics and Information Bureau (ONEI) reported that the average salary of Cubans was 466 National Cuban Peso (CUP) a month. At 24 CUP per Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), and assuming that the CUC is “on par” with the US dollar (USD), a monthly salary of 466 CUP is roughly $19.42 USD. We understood that the maids in our hotel were paid about 225 CUP per month, or less than $9.40 USD, while doctors might make the equivalent of $200 to $300 USD per month. Cubans who work in tourism do much better than average. Another job we saw in every hotel and restaurant was restroom attendant, almost always female. These ladies do not receive salaries, but “contract” for their jobs, providing all supplies from the tips they receive. A typical tip is 0.25 CUC per restroom visit.
ARTICLE 36: Marriage is the voluntary established union between a man and a woman, who are legally fit to marry, in order to live together. It is based on full equality of rights and duties for the partners, who must see to the support of the home and the integral education of their children through a joint effort compatible with the social activities of both.…ARTICLE 37: All children have the same rights, regardless of being born in or out of wedlock.
The equal duties of marriage are taught to all Cubans, but women carry the burden of housework and childcare in addition to their paid jobs. For this reason, the childbirth rate in Cuba is just above 1 child per family, since women understand that the work required for each child will fall on their shoulders. Abortion is a right and a common form of birth control in Cuba.
Marriage is not required in order to create a family, and illegitimacy is not really a recognized concept in Cuba.
ARTICLE 43: The State establishes the right, won by the Revolution, of its citizens, without distinction based on race, color, sex, religious creeds, national origin, or any other type offending human dignity to:…have a right to education at all national educational institutions, ranging from elementary schools to the universities, which are the same for all;…be given medical care in all medical institutions
As school children explained to our group, education and health care are free. The state also provides free dental care (Article 50).
The Cuban Food Basket (Rationing)
Under the new Communist state, incomes increased and expenses decreased (e.g., the state provided housing and electricity), while food production decreased with changes in the ownership and organization of farming. The result was an increased demand for a decreased supply.
Compulsory rationing of some items (e.g., meat and animal fats) began in July, 1961, expanding to official food rationing established by Law No.1015 on March 12, 1962 under Che Guevara, then Minister of Economy. Each household received one 28-page rationing booklet (libreta) to cover the multiple individuals or families residing there. Initially, almost all food items were included in the booklet. Over time, items (e.g., eggs) move in and out of the booklet as their supply changes. During the worst times, the booklet rations provide only about 1/5 of the amounts (calories) needed; during the best times, the booklet provides about two weeks of what is needed for a month. Supplementing these food quotas are subsidized lunches in the workplace, free school lunches, buying food on the black market, and other alternatives. Paladares are too expensive for the typical Cuban citizen.
During the 1990s (called the “skinny period” because of the lack of food), the average Cuban lost 20 pounds in weight.
In late 2000, US firms were allowed to sell food and agricultural products to Cuba, but Cuba did not buy any products until the next year, following the devastation caused by Hurricane Michelle. Cuban purchases of US products, which must be paid for by cash, not credit, have increased since then.
Cubans with low incomes spend about 75% of their salary on food. The rationing booklet, now at 20 pages, is known as the “food basket.” For less than $2 USD a month, about 12% of the real value of the food basket, each Cuban (man, woman, and child) acquires 7 pounds of rice, one pound of beans, one cup of cooking oil, a bread roll each day, five eggs, 4 pounds of meat (usually chicken), sugar, salt, and spaghetti. (Note: these amounts are difficult to verify; different sources of information list different amounts.) Only pregnant women and children under seven years old can buy milk. Extra rations are available for special occasions and special needs. Cubans must shop at several outlets over several days to find all the products in the ration booklet. Eggs are especially hard to find.
Tourists eat much better than Cubans, and pay the equivalent of US prices for the privilege.
Cuba’s International Trade
Urban agriculture is essential to Cuba’s economy. Cuba’s main agricultural products for export are sugar, tobacco, coffee, and citrus (mainly oranges and grapefruit). Sugarcane by-products are the main ingredients in Cuban rum; some popular brands are Havana Club, Santiago de Cuba, and Ron Cubay. The two main varieties of tobacco grown in Cuba are Corojo and Criollo; most Cuban cigars are exported. Coffee varieties include arabica and robusta. Domestic Cuban citizens are rationed to two ounces of coffee every 15 days; the rest is exported.
Other crops grown in Cuba for domestic consumption are cassava (a root vegetable), potatoes, rice, and tropical fruits such as plantains, bananas, mango, papaya, pineapple, avocado, guava, coconut, and apples. Cuba also imports potatoes and rice. Under Spanish rule, the cultivation of cotton, wheat, and rice had been forbidden, which could help explain their lesser importance in Cuban agriculture now.
Economic Impacts of Cuba’s Revolution and the Collapse of the USSR
Before the Revolution, Cuba was the world’s largest sugar exporter, with the US as its largest consumer, accounting for 60% of the US sugar imports. After the Embargo, the USSR paid inflated prices (more than five time the market price) for Cuban sugar, amounting to a generous subsidy even while worldwide sugar prices collapsed. With the fall of the USSR in late 1991 came the end of the USSR sugar subsidy, and two thirds of Cuban sugar factories closed. Sugar production continues to fall, although exports to China alone almost equal the amount saved for domestic consumption.
Before the Revolution, Cuba imported all the products it needed from the US. After Cuba’s Revolution, the USSR delivered fertilizers, 63% of Cuba’s food imports, and 90% of its petroleum; this support also disappeared after the USSR collapse. Without fertilizers (an essential need for tobacco production), Cuban agriculture suffered , with production falling by one half, until (1) Cuban farmers developed sustainable organic farming methods and (2) the government allowed farmers to sell surplus crops directly to the public. (Until 1994, the government controlled all food distribution.)
Before the collapse of the USSR, coffee production in Cuba reached 13,200 tons. The all-time low afterward was 210 tons, but production has increased to between 3000 and 3900 tons per year.
Meanwhile, Venezuela …
Venezuela and Cuba have had a rocky relationship, beginning when Venezuela attempted to move Cuba from Spanish rule to US rule. Failing that, the two countries established diplomatic relations following Cuba’s independence in 1902. However, Venezuela broke ties with Cuba in 1961 following the Cuban Revolution. During the mid 1960s, Fidel Castro’s Cuba began to support rebel groups in Venezuela seeking to establish a Marxist government in Venezuela, and, not incidentally, to appropriate Venezuela’s oil wealth for Cuba’s revolution. Failing this, but with a new government in Venezuela, the two countries resumed diplomatic relations in 1974 and Venezuela resumed oil deliveries to Cuba.
Hugo Chavez then attempted a coup d’état of the Venezuelan government in 1992. While Fidel Castro initially denounced Chavez, Castro was influenced by the 1991 collapse of the USSR (and the 1994 pardon of Chávez) to approach President Chávez for international assistance. In return, Chávez became dependent on Cuba for military support and intelligence following the Venezuelan coup d’état attempt against his own government in 2002. For this assistance, Chávez’s government sent Cuba tens of thousands of (subsidized) barrels of oil, as well as provided huge assistance through loans, investments and grants. Cuba, in return, provided technical personnel to Venezuela and health care (in Cuba) to Venezuelans .
In 2007, Venezuela and Cuba agreed to renovate the Cienfuegos oil refinery in Cuba, that was built by the USSR in 1990 and shut down in 1995. (Between 2008 and 2009, Chávez nationalized international assets in Venezuela, including oil and oil services, and diverted Venezuela’s oil exports from the US to China, in order to end Venezuela’s dependence on the US market, but placing Venezuela at a huge disadvantage with China.)
Hugo Chávez, then finishing his third term as President of Venezuela, died in 2013. With oil prices plunging worldwide, the crude oil shipments from communist Venezuela to Cuba were cut in half. Venezuela does not have enough food for itself, let alone Cuba.
And China …
After Venezuela, communist China is Cuba’s second-most important trading partner. China has agreements with Cuba to invest in the processing of nickel and in the discovery and processing of oil. China also exports durable goods, including train engines, buses, and appliances, to Cuba. There is talk that China will finance an expansion of the Cienfuegos oil refinery.
Relationship between Cuba and the United States
Following the 1961 Cuban nationalization of oil refineries and other US-owned properties, as well as the redistribution of foreign-owned land to Cuban citizens, the US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba and imposed a trade embargo.
Until recently, most US citizens have considered Cuba only in terms of the Cuban Missile Crisis (see above), the treatment of boatloads of refugees arriving on Florida’s shores (the most well-known probably being 5-year-old Elián González, whose mother drowned while trying to bring him to the US in 1999), and the infamous inhabitants of Gitmo.
Travel restrictions were relaxed by US President Barack Obama in 2011, although the commercial embargo is still in effect with some limited exceptions for humanitarian reasons.
In December 2014, President Raúl Castro and President Obama announced work toward normalize diplomatic relations. In July, 2015 ,the Cuban embassy reopened in Washington, D.C., followed by the re-opening of the US embassy in Havana in August.
Needless to say, these short paragraphs cannot do justice to the complex history of Cuba. Those interested in the powerful negative influences on the evolution of Cuba’s culture and economy should look into the role played by slavery first introduced in the 1790s under Spanish rule, the more recent rise and fall of Fulgencio Batista in 1940 through 1959, and the severe shortages of the Special Period in Time of Peace (roughly 1989 to 2000).
An interesting on-going look into current-day Cuba is provided by the on-line Havana Times at http://www.havanatimes.org/. A future visitor to Cuba might check it out to get into the mindset of a Cuban citizen.
We hope you have enjoyed this series of posts about Cuba. If you want to catch up on previous posts, read: