By Greg Adamson
Thirty-two years after its revolution, Cuba is training 100,000 oxen for plowing, President Fidel Castro reported earlier this year. This underlines the extreme problems faced by the small Caribbean island.
Cuba's natural trading partner is the United States, just a few kilometres to its north. Yet since the early 1960s, US governments have maintained a systematic economic blockade against the island.
This has forced Cuba to rely for the bulk of its trade on the Soviet Union. Cuban sugar and Soviet oil, along with thousands of other products, have been transported nearly across the world under this arrangement.
Now the US is increasing its pressure on Cuba. Any ship engaged in trade between Cuba and another country will be seized if its enters a US port within six months of leaving Cuba.
Hoping for an Eastern European-style collapse of Cuba, last year the Bush administration conducted extensive military exercises in the waters surrounding the island.
Bush has two new reasons for threatening Cuba. Firstly, as a member of the United Nations Security Council, Cuba was the firmest voice raised against the US war on Iraq. Secondly, the economic crisis facing the Soviet Union has increased the US ability to damage Cuba. Boris Yeltsin's enthusiastic echo of US criticisms of Cuba during his recent visit to the United States reflects a willingness within the Soviet Union to take a lead in foreign policy from the US.
Recent visitors to Cuba report that the country is feeling the pressure. Shortages of food and other essentials, the suspension of book publishing because of a lack of paper, the inability to run much machinery because of a lack of oil, the cancellation of one quarter of all public transport trips in Havana, where there is little private transport, are all indications of these problems.
Cuba's determination to defend its sovereignty in the face of such pressures goes back to the 19th century, when an anti-slavery revolt combined with a movement for independence from Spain. Slavery was abolished but independence was defeated by the arrival of US troops, who installed a pro-US government.
Independence from the United States is therefore an issue which flows through Cuban politics. The victory of the July 26 Movement led by Fidel Castro in January 1959 was the victory which had been
sought for a century.
The new government was able to make some startling advances in the following years.
From a country with 25% adult illiteracy, Cuba is now one of the most literate countries in the world.
Infant mortality has dropped from 60 per thousand to fewer than 13 per thousand — a figure considerably better than that of Washington, capital of the United States.
The destruction of the country's forests has been reversed, and the country makes extensive use of ecologically sustainable farming techniques.
Universal education has been part of a process which has advanced women in all areas of society.
Racism, an important aspect of US domination of Cuba, has been banned, and black culture and history have a major place in the country.
These past successes make the current situation particularly difficult. A generation of young people who have known a relatively good standard of living, and been educated with the expectation of a career, now face the reality of harsh times.
To frustrate Cuba's attempts to broaden its production, the United States invests huge amounts of energy in closing off markets. For example, Cuba has some of the largest nickel reserves in the world, and exports some nickel to Japan. If Japanese steel producers use that nickel in steel production, anything made from that steel is banned from import into the United States. US citizens are also forbidden to visit Cuba as tourists.
With the reduction in Soviet oil supplies, and reduced prices for its sugar, Cuba has had to undertake a "special period", which has included cuts to production and public transport. This has been accompanied by the introduction of bicycles, which have not been a feature of most of Cuba in the past.
In addition, a number of Cuban political institutions are being reorganised, most importantly the Cuban Communist Party, which is heading into its fourth congress. The country's ability to overcome the present difficulties will depend both on the creativity and diversity within Cuba itself, and on the degree of international solidarity it can win.