Cuba: Contemporary Cuba

Contemporary Cuba

In the late 1980s Cuban-Soviet relations became distanced as the Soviets moved toward more liberal policy positions. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba lost its primary source of aid, and with the collapse of the whole Soviet bloc, Cuba largely lost its main sources of hard currency and oil and its principal markets for sugar. Castro apparently remained in firm control of the country. Most of those who had initially opposed him had fled the island (between Dec., 1965, and Apr., 1973, a Cuban government–controlled airlift carried more than 250,000 people between Havana and Miami, Fla.). Despite Cuba's severe economic problems, Castro enjoyed some popularity for his social programs. However, Cuba's decision to allow further emigration in 1980 resulted in an exodus of over 125,000 people from Mariel, Cuba, to Florida before it was halted, indicating a significant level of popular discontent.

The economic problems caused by the collapse of Soviet aid, the continuing dependence on sugar, and a long-lasting U.S. embargo led the regime to reverse some of its socialist policies. In 1992 and 1993, the government allowed the use of U.S. dollars (until 2004), authorized the transformation of many state farms into semiautonomous cooperatives, and legalized individual private enterprise on a limited basis. In 1994 all farmers were allowed to sell some produce on the open market, and a convertible peso with a stronger exchange rate was introduced alongside the national currency. During the same year, there was a new flood of boat refugees; it stopped only after a U.S.-Cuban agreement was reached. The accord called for Cuba to halt the exodus and for the United States to legally admit at least 20,000 Cubans per year.

U.S.-Cuba tensions increased in 1996 after Cuba shot down two civilian planes operated by Miami-based Cuban exiles. The U.S. economic embargo, which previously had to be renewed yearly, was made permanent, and Americans were allowed to sue foreign companies that profited from confiscated property in Cuba. These measures angered many of America's major trading partners, including Canada, Mexico, and the European Union (the UN General Assembly has voted annually for the embargo's end since 1992).

Following a visit by Pope John Paul II to Cuba in 1998, the United States eased restrictions on food and medicine sales to Cuba, and on the sending of money to relatives by Cuban-Americans. U.S. legislation in 2000 exempted food and medicine from the embargo but prohibited U.S. financing of any Cuban purchases. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter visited the country in 2002. During his visit he criticized both the Cuban government and U.S. policy toward the island. President George W. Bush tightened certain aspects of the embargo, mainly affecting Cuban Americans; the regulations took effect in 2004. The same year the government began reasserting control over areas of the economy that had been liberalized in the 1990s; among the changes was a ban on transactions involving the dollar and other foreign currencies, which were required to be converted to special Cuban pesos. In 2005 two hurricanes, Dennis in July and Wilma in October, caused extensive damage in Cuba.

Fidel Castro temporarily stepped aside as Cuban president beginning in Aug., 2006, due to illness; Raúl Castro, his brother and the vice president, became interim president. Fidel retired as president in Feb., 2008, and his brother was elected to succeed him. Fidel remained head of the Communist party, however, until 2011, and continued to be influential until his death in 2016. Under Raúl Castro, the government eased its control over the economy somewhat; among the most significant moves were those designed to decentralize decision-making in agriculture and facilitate the increased production of food by private cooperatives and family farms and those intended to increase worker productivity by removing wage limits.

In Aug.–Sept., 2008, many parts of Cuba suffered devastating damage to housing and crops when Hurricanes Gustav and Ike battered the island. A third hurricane, Paloma, caused additional significant damage in November. In Mar., 2009, there was a major government shakeup that led to the removal of the foreign minister and cabinet secretary, who subsequently resigned all their party and government posts. The restructuring also increased the role of current and former military officers in the government. Also in March and April, U.S. embargo restrictions imposed by Presidents Bush and Clinton were reversed by the U.S. Congress and President Obama. In June, after all American nations except the United States had restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, the OAS ended its 47-year suspension of Cuba, but the Cuban government said it would not rejoin the OAS.

By late 2009, the Cuban economy was suffering significantly as a result of the costs of the 2008 hurricanes, the 2008–9 world financial crisis and recession, and a drop in export and tourism revenues combined with an increase in import prices. In Sept., 2010, the government announced plans to reduce the number of persons on its payroll by up to 1 million (roughly one fifth of the official workforce), with 500,000 to be laid off by Apr., 2011. In order to enable those workers to find jobs in the small private sector, it reduced restrictions on private enterprises (and legalized small businesses in 2016), but it ultimately moved more slowly to reduce its payroll. The government also it said it would significantly reduce economic subsidies, and subsequently announced other reform plans, including authorizing (2012) the establishment of nonagricultural cooperatives and a plan (2013) for sweeping changes in food production and distribution by 2015. By 2012, more than 1 million were employed privately, and by 2013 nearly 600,000 jobs had been cut from the state payroll. Nonetheless, the pace of reform generally was slow and centralized planning and state monopolies continued to dominate the economy due to hard-line resistance and bureaucratic inertia; difficulties associated with agricultural reforms contributed to slow growth or losses in food production and increases in food prices (though the latter also was the result of reduced subsidies). In Aug., 2016, Cuba reaffirmed its modest reform plans in new guidelines but no longer called for reducing the role of the state in food distribution and pricing. In mid-2018 the country placed restrictions on the ownership of private businesses, but those restrictions were later eased.

In Dec., 2014, in conjunction with a prisoner swap, the United States and Cuba agreed to restore diplomatic relations, which was accomplished in July, 2015. U.S. President Obama also eased some travel and trade restrictions over subsequent months, called for Congress to end the U.S. embargo, and visited the island in Mar., 2016. E Guantánamo prov. suffered significant damage from a hurricane in Oct, 2016, and another hurricane caused extensive flooding and damage along the N central coast in Sept., 2017. Hurricane damage, a months-long cutoff of subsidized oil from Venezuela, and low commodity prices hurt the economy in 2016–17. Some but not all of the eased U.S. travel restrictions put in place under U.S. President Obama were reversed by President Trump in 2017, and he subsequently imposed additional restrictions.

In Apr., 2018, Raül Castro retired as president and was succeeded by Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel. A new constitution approved in Feb., 2019, separated the post of president from the Council of State, and created the post of prime minister to head the separate Council of Ministers. It also recognized some private and cooperative ownership while preserving the dominance of the Communist party. In 2019 a loss of aid from Venezuela (as a result of the crisis there) and the effects of various measures imposed by the Trump administration as well as a continuing reliance on food imports forced the government to ration staples and impose price controls. In December, Manuel Marrero Cruz, the tourism minister, was named prime minister. The government abolished the convertible peso at the end of 2020, ending the dual currency system, and introduced a number of other economic reforms.

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