New Internationalist

Country Profile

Issue 277

Country profile: Cuba

Where is Cuba? Cuba used to seem like a land where people lived without food. A few years ago, you could wander the streets of Havana or any provincial town and never see anything to eat. Ration shops were empty, restaurants were closed, nobody carried so much as a loaf of bread.

Today all that has changed. In old Havana restaurants are clamouring for business. In the cramped front rooms of private homes, tourists and anyone else with dollars can sit down to the Cuban specialities of fried pork and moros y cristianos (rice and red beans). Gaudy neon 24-hour bars light up the capital’s otherwise dark streets. Once the preserve of foreigners and the political élite, dollar shops sell a wide range of groceries to Cubans with ‘convertible pesos’. Farmers’ markets have brought fruit and vegetables into the cities.

The reappearance of food is one of the most striking signs of Cuba’s dramatic economic about-turn. Once the model of a centralized, state-planned economy, Cuba is turning to foreign investment and free-market reform with enthusiasm. New investment laws have encouraged companies from Europe, Canada and Mexico into joint ventures in mining, sugar and tourism. There is talk of building holiday homes for foreigners.

The recent influx of dollars has pulled Cuba out of an economic nosedive which began in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. When direct and indirect subsidies worth five billion dollars a year dried up overnight, Cuba’s economy contracted by about a third in four years. Export markets in the Eastern bloc disappeared, and imports had to be paid for with hard currency. But Cuban-style capitalism seems to have reversed the decline. Buoyant nickel exports and a tourism boom have led to modest 2.5 per cent growth in 1995.

If Cuba’s changing fortunes have postponed speculation about communism’s imminent demise, this is no economic miracle. The cost of free-market transition is growing inequality and a threat to the Revolution’s most cherished values. Those without access to dollars from their work or relatives overseas resent the nouveaux riches. Closing or streamlining loss-making state companies will create unemployment that the informal sector cannot mop up.

Presiding over the island’s new economic thrust is the unlikely figure of Fidel Castro, the world’s longest-ruling head of government. Castro, who led the 1959 Revolution against a corrupt US-backed dictatorship, has reluctantly accepted that Cuba must embrace free-market policies. Reportedly impressed by China’s blend of economic liberalization and one-party rule, he shows no signs of leaving power. Few Cubans, whether they love or loathe him, could imagine life without Castro, and most fear the return of Miami’s right-wing emigrés more. Cuba is still proud of some of the best health and education provision in the Americas. The challenge for Castro and his team of younger technocrats is to protect this while opening up to foreign investment and trimming budgets.

The US is still as hostile to Castro’s Cuba as it was during the Cold War. Despite losing a series of UN votes, Washington insists on maintaining its stranglehold. The Florida business community must watch in frustration as investors from elsewhere move into the new open-for-business Cuba.

James Ferguson

AT A GLANCE

LEADER: President Fidel Castro Ruz

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $1,170 (US $24,740). This World Bank estimate has been cited every year since 1988. In reality most pesos are not yet convertible – 1,180 pesos was the GDP per capita in 1994.
Monetary unit: Peso
Main exports: Sugar, nickel, tobacco, seafood, tourism
Main imports: Machinery, foodstuffs, chemicals

PEOPLE: 11.0 million

HEALTH: Infant mortality 9 per 1,000 live births (US 9 per 1,000). The stress on equality and healthcare has produced rich-world standards of child survival.

CULTURE: A Hispanic Caribbean mix descended from European settlers, African slaves and other immigrant groups: a fusion of Spanish, African and North American influences, with a long tradition of nationalism.
Religion: Catholicism is now more tolerated by authorities. There is also an important Afro-Cuban religious influence.
Language: Spanish

Sources: South America, Central America and the Caribbean, Europa 1995; Caribbean Insight; Latin America Monitor; Human Development Report 1995; World Bank, World Development Report 1995; State of the World’s Children 1996.

Previously profiled August 1983


STAR RATINGS

[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The egalitarian welfare system is now under threat from the reform programme.
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[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
94 per cent: one of the Revolution’s greatest achievements.
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[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The abrupt end of Soviet aid has forced Cuba to diversify.
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[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Strict censorship and harsh treatment of dissidents, justified by US military threat.
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[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
A good education and employment record, but there are few women in the top echelons of the Communist Party.
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[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
75 years, again a remarkable achievement for a low-income country (US 76 years).
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POLITICS

[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The Cuban Communist Party is now trying to steer a precarious Chinese-style course between economic liberalization and continuing one-party rule. It still has much popular support but must come to terms with a younger generation which takes health and education for granted and is impatient for change.


NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
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Contents page
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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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