By Norm Dixon
Cuba is facing its most serious threat since the revolution. The effects of the United States' 30-year economic embargo are being compounded by the disruption of Cuba's vital trade with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Congress is soon to vote to tighten the economic noose by outlawing trade with Cuba by foreign subsidiaries of US companies.
"President Bush and his advisors are content to wait for economic hardship to make Cuba drop like a ripe fruit into the zone of American strategic and commercial influence", reported Martin Walker in the Washington Post.
Republican whip Newt Ginrich signalled that the US would apply maximum pressure on the Soviet Union to completely abandon Cuba when he told the Washington Post, "We are not going to pass any kind of significant aid that helps the Russians while that aid is still being sent to Cuba".
At the same time, the US disinformation machine is putting the blame for the island's economic problems on Cuba's socialist system. This is exemplified by an editorial that appeared in the New York Times. "Slogans can no longer conceal Cuba's poverty, isolation and humbling dependence", the editors smugly wrote, ignoring the central role US efforts to strangle the Cuban economy have played in creating the crisis.
Before 1959, Cuba was a virtual colony of the US. Sugar made up at least 80% of Cuba's exports. The biggest mills, producing more than half of Cuba's sugar, were owned by US big business. Despite conditions perfect for agriculture, Cuba imported most of its staple foods from the US. Those crops that Cuba produced were exported to the US to be processed and then sold back at exorbitant prices.
A nation whose most famous products are tobacco and sugar, Cuba even imported cigarettes and sweets from the US! In 1958, the US was the source of 70% of Cuba's imports (including almost 90% of industrial machinery) and the destination of 67% of its exports.
The US protected this profitable situation by propping up the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. In January 1959, Batista was swept away in a popular uprising led by Fidel Castro's July 26 Movement. The new government began to implement programs to return control of the economy to the Cuban people, reduce dependence on the US by seeking other trading partners and drastically improve living standards.
What most upset the US was the agrarian reform, distributing land from large landowners to small farmers. This involved the US-owned sugar plantations.
Washington directed US-owned oil refineries in Cuba to refuse to il that had been purchased from the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of Cubans demonstrated against this, and the revolutionary government nationalised the refineries.
The Eisenhower administration retaliated by cancelling Cuba's 1960 quota of sugar exports to the US. The cancellation soon became permanent. In 1960, all US exports to Cuba, except for some food and medicinal items, were banned.
In 1961, the US broke diplomatic relations and imposed a ban on travel. On February 2, 1962, President Kennedy proclaimed a total economic embargo, including "the importation into the United States of all goods of Cuban origin and all goods imported from or through Cuba".
Overnight, Cuba had to sever all contact with its traditional markets. Cuban industry threatened to grind to a halt for lack of spare parts. Novelist Gabriel García Márquez illustrated the impact of the embargo: "That night, the first of the blockade, there were in Cuba some 482,550 cars, 343,300 refrigerators, 549,700 radios, 303,500 TV sets, 352,900 electric irons, 288,400 fans, 41,800 washing machines, 3,510,000 wrist watches, 63 locomotives and 12 merchant ships. All these, except the watches which were Swiss, were made in the United States."
Congress refused to grant US aid "to any country which furnishes assistance to the present government of Cuba". This resulted in the Organisation of American States voting in 1964 to expel Cuba and directing its members to cut trade relations. All but Mexico complied.
Refused access to its most natural trading partners, Cuba had little choice but to build economic relationships with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Cuba signed agreements with the socialist countries to exchange sugar, nickel, citrus fruits, fish and tobacco for oil, machinery, rice, beans and wheat. By 1989, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe accounted for 85% of Cuba's trade.
The enforced reliance on the socialist countries produced inevitable distortions in Cuba's economy. Cuba concentrated on developing and modernising its sugar and sugar by-products industry, nickel production, biotechnology and parts for East German computers. In return, Cuba received guaranteed supplies of oil (some of which was sold on the world market for hard currency) and foodstuffs at fair prices.
This trade relationship, despite its problems, allowed Cuba to plan its economic development and provide its 11 million people with living standards and social services unparalleled in any other Third World country. In 1959, the average Cuban's life expectancy was 53 years. Today it is around 75 years. Infant mortality has fallen from an estimated 60 per thousand births to less than 12.
By the mid-1960s, 3000 doctors remained with the revolution out of an original 6000. Today there are tens of thousands of fully qualified health workers abroad than the World Health Organisation, and is the only Third World country to have achieved the WHO's health goals for the year 2000.
Its huge investment in health has provided Cuba with highly sophisticated biotechnology and biochemical industries. Exports of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology now exceed exports of tobacco.
Education has taken huge strides since 1959, when illiteracy stood at nearly 25%. The average educational level is now mid-secondary. There are 380,000 university graduates in the country, with some 270,000 currently enrolled at university.
Before the revolution, women who worked outside the home were mainly in the areas of domestic work and prostitution. Today 40% of the national parliament and 13% of the Council of Ministers are women; 39% of the workforce is female. They comprise 52% of middle level professionals and more than half of skilled technicians in the computer sciences. Women account for 31% of doctors and 52% of current medical students. Cuba's top brain surgeon is a woman.
Socialism, far from being a failure, enabled Cuba to overcome many of the privations caused by the US economic blockade. The progress made in Cuba contrasts with the rest of Latin America, where illiteracy is on the rise, more than 30 million children live on the streets, 30% of the workforce is unemployed, and 270 million of the region's 447 million people live in extreme poverty.
But now the rapid deterioration of trade with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has created an economic crisis as severe as that which the revolution faced in its first years.
During the past nine months, deliveries of Soviet goods have become erratic. Oil has arrived in amounts smaller than agreed and falling 20% short of the economy's needs. Key raw materials and chemicals have failed to arrive. Shipments of wheat and other grains have been delayed and smaller than contracted.
In response, the Cuban people have had to severely reduce their consumption of energy. Staple foods, clothes, shoes, cigarettes and beer are rationed. After March 31, all trade between Cuba and the Soviet Union will be conducted in hard currency, including oil. The Soviet Union is also insisting that Cuba's foreign debt be repaid. Cuba will have to find the equivalent of 15 billion roubles in hard currency next year.
The Cuban people are readying themselves for the worst — a complete cut in trade with the Soviet Union. Cuba believes the gains of its revolution can be protected only if it can increase trade with Latin America, Europe and Asia while reorienting its economy to become more self-sufficient. To do this it needs time.
Cuba desperately needs international solidarity demanding an end the US economic embargo. Supporters of the gains of the Cuban revolution in every country are being asked to join an urgent campaign, urging their governments to trade with Cuba and to oppose the US temptation to launch a military adventure.