Many Americans refuse to recognize the nature of Cuba, not as a romantic dream of the 1950's but as a totalitarian police state which dealt with its opponents fully as ruthlessly as any other regime in Latin America, and probably even more so. The Cuban government remains one of the world’s worst human rights violators. The Soviets built upon the persisting romantic notion of Cuba as the land of happy, bearded revolutionaries who chop sugarcane and smoke cigars and drink rum.
Today, with nickel, tourism, remittances and Venezuelan subsidies its main sources of income, Cuba is a social/ economic anomaly with European-level literacy, universal (but worsening) health care, free schooling, free housing, and a ration system for basic foodstuffs. Wages, which typically go largely for clothes and sources of protein, are a dollar a day or less. The artificial, distorted economy produces little of value for the international marketplace despite mincing steps towards developing biotechnological industries. In short: a tropical Soviet Union.
Cuba is an island archipelago, battered by hurricanes, natural and political. There is absolute certainty that real as well as metaphorical hurricanes will strike it in the years to come. The only doubt is when and with what force. Repeat visitors to Cuba, whether they have been gone for a matter of months or years, always are struck by the impression that everything seems exactly the way it was when they left. The Government of Cuba (GOC) seems endlessly capable of returning to a condition of stasis. The hurricane of democracy has yet to crash across the shores of Cuba, and seems unlikely to do so within the foreseeable future. Over the decades a seemingly infinite number of authors and politicians have announced the inexorable passage of Castro from power. Yet the regime he built seems firmly in place, and likely to survive his death.
Despite the almost subsistence-level wages of most Cubans, they are generally much better off than citizens of many other developing countries because their meager salaries are supplemented with free education, subsidized medical care, housing, and some subsidized food. In terms of the Human Development Report’s human poverty index (HPI), which focuses on the proportion of people below a threshold level in basic dimensions of human development — living a long and healthy life, having access to education, and a decent standard of living — Cuba ranked an impressive fifth in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2003.
Since the early 1980's the Cuban military has prepared for an invasion by the US. Miles of tunnels have been built to counter an anticipated invasion. The primary threat is seen as a direct attack from the Guantanamo Naval Base and bases nearby in the United States.
Under Castro, Cuba became a highly militarized society. From 1975 until the late 1980s, massive Soviet military assistance enabled Cuba to upgrade its military capabilities and project power abroad. The tonnage of Soviet military deliveries to Cuba throughout most of the 1980s exceeded deliveries in any year since the military build-up during the 1962 missile crisis. In 1990, Cuba's air force, with about 150 Soviet-supplied fighters, including advanced MiG-23 Floggers and MiG-29 Fulcrums, was probably the best equipped in Latin America. In 1994, Cuba's armed forces were estimated to have 235,000 active duty personnel.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Cuba expanded its military presence abroad, spending millions of dollars in exporting revolutions; deployments reached 50,000 troops in Angola, 24,000 in Ethiopia, 1,500 in Nicaragua, and hundreds more elsewhere. In Angola, Cuban troops, supported logistically by the U.S.S.R., backed the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in its effort to take power after Portugal granted Angola its independence. Cuban forces played a key role in Ethiopia's war against Somalia and remained there in substantial numbers as a garrison force for a decade. Cubans served in a noncombat advisory role in Mozambique and the Congo. Cuba also used the Congo as a logistical support center for Cuba's Angola mission.
In the late 1980s, Cuba began to pull back militarily. Cuba unilaterally removed its forces from Ethiopia, met the timetable of the 1988 Angola-Namibia accords by completing the withdrawal of its forces from Angola before July 1991, and ended military assistance to Nicaragua following the Sandinistas' 1990 electoral defeat. In January 1992, following the peace agreement in El Salvador, Castro stated that Cuban support for insurgents was a thing of the past.
The Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores [Foreign Ministry - MINREX] replaced the remains of Cuba's activist foreign policy with a deliberate effort to avoid challenging the United States on issues the US considers vital to its interests. In defence policy, cuts in strength and capabilities led the armed forces to restrict their role to deterring potential invasion, and providing internal controls in areas such as illegal emigration, drug trafficking, and aircraft surveillance. The armed forces also became heavily involved in the tourist trade and agricultural activities in order to obtain dollars and reduce their dependence on austere government budgets.
Cuban military power has been sharply reduced by the loss of Soviet subsidies. Today, the Revolutionary Armed Forces number about 60,000 regular troops. The country's two paramilitary organizations, the Territorial Militia Troops and the Youth Labor Army, have a reduced training capability. Cuba also adopted a "war of the people" strategy that highlights the defensive nature of its capabilities.
Cuba's once-ambitious foreign policy has been scaled back and redirected as a result of economic hardship and the end of the Cold War. Cuba aims to find new sources of trade, aid, and foreign investment, and to promote opposition to U.S. policy, especially the trade embargo and the 1996 Libertad Act. Cuba has relations with over 160 countries and has civilian assistance workers--principally medical--in more than 20 nations.
Since the end of Soviet backing, Cuba appears to have largely abandoned monetary support for guerrilla movements that typified its involvement in regional politics in Latin America and Africa, though it maintains relations with several guerrilla and terrorist groups and provides refuge for some of their members in Cuba . Cuba's support for Latin guerrilla movements, its Marxist-Leninist government, and its alignment with the U.S.S.R., led to its isolation in the hemisphere. In January 1962, the Organization of American States (OAS) suspended Cuba's membership. Cuba now has diplomatic or commercial relations with most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuba had levels of education and literacy among the top tier of Latin American countries in the 1950s. The Castro regime's literacy campaign claimed to have raised the rate, but did so with a heavy ideological component. Cubans are largely literate, although younger ones nowadays are struggling with basic reading and math skills. Additionally, all through the grade levels they are force-fed propaganda and given grades and opportunities in accordance with their political loyalties (and their parents' political loyalties). Because the Cuban regime restricts access to free information, including the internet, Cubans grow up with limited options for reading and use of computers. They are among the most computer illiterate societies in Latin America.
The Cuban health system was the best in Latin America before Castro took over. The regime invests heavily in the health system but in ways that are inefficient: Cuba has more doctors per capita than Denmark, yet hospitals lack bedsheets and simple medications like aspirins. Health care is politicized, forcing thousands of doctors overseas on "international missions" while Cubans back home are uncared for. Doctors in Cuba spend half their time at political meetings, drawing them away from patient care. Medicine is administered via an apartheid system: The best facilities and doctors are reserved for foreigners, tourists and regime nomenklatura; facilities for ordinary Cubans are no better than in most other third world countries. Ordinary Cubans, even if they have hard currency, are not allowed to buy medications at the best pharmacies, which are reserved for foreigners and nomenklatura.
Cuba has a world-class low level of infant mortality. But Cuban obstetricians regularly insist on and administer abortions for most pregnancies where there is any suggestion of health risk for the newborns. The high rate of abortions has the effect of skewing the numbers in a way that produces better statistics for infant mortality, as well as life expectancy.
The Revolution claims to have vanquished racism, and many Cubans say it doesn't exist. They tend to avoid serious discussions about race, though the topic comes up regularly via jokes, stereotypes, hand gestures and derogatory comments. An issue so long repressed could erupt violently and unpredictably. The absence of blacks in leadership positions is only one part of a much bigger problem: Pervasive racism. Cuba is a society fundamentally divided between poor blacks and privileged whites. Elderly whites are fierce patriots who fought in Angola and love Fidel. Despite their so-called revolutionary credentials, they are openly racist, blaming the country's ills on "lazy, thieving blacks." Tensions run so deep they could preclude a peaceful transition after the Castros' departure. Castro's strong hand kept a lid on the situation, but without him, it could explode. Racial divisions are more marked outside Havana. Racism runs deeper, and there is less racial mixing as a result.
The most dramatic failure of the Cuban Revolution has been the inability to create the "new man", as Che Guevara termed him, who would work for the benefit of society without regard to self interest. Cuban youth are overwhelmingly bitter and disillusioned and see no future except the possibility of leaving Cuba. This bitterness is acute among the professional classes who, after years of training, cannot pursue employment in their fields at low salaries, and instead find themselves hustling after jobs in the tourist sector.
The Castros demonstrated a remarkable ability to preserve a workable degree of unity among the disparate groups involved in the regime, and to make the great bulk of the population accept — however grudgingly or resignedly — the socialization and regimentation measures of the revolution.
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