The Unchanging Revolution, 1980-89
In the early 1980s, the Cuban Revolution reached a critical stage in its development. Persistent structural and managerial problems in the economy, low prices for Cuba's export products, and an inability to break away from economic dependence on the Soviet bloc forced a reexamination of basic goals. Because production in most key sectors had fallen short of expected targets, emphasis was placed on increased planning with more modest goals. The regime adopted Soviet economic methods, decreased emphasis on moral incentives, and attempted to create more efficient economic organizations. In the process, the Cubans suffered more austerity, with greater rationing of food and consumer goods, and, therefore, harder times. Life became increasingly more difficult: people faced long lines to obtain the most basic goods, the public transportation system was collapsing, and the education and health systems were deteriorating rapidly. In desperation, many Cubans fled the country, preferring to risk dying in the Straits of Florida on flimsy rafts rather than live in Castro's Cuba.
The establishment of a Soviet-type, centrally planned economy burdened Cuba with a vast and cumbersome bureaucracy that stifled innovation, productivity, and efficiency. The island continued its heavy reliance on sugar for development of the domestic economy and for foreign trade, and made little attempt to achieve agricultural diversification or industrialization. At the same time, Cuba relied on the Soviets for massive infusions of aid to meet minimal investment and consumption needs and depended almost entirely on Soviet oil exports for energy requirements.
Popular expectations of rapid economic improvement were replaced by pessimism. There were signs of decreasing enthusiasm among Cuba's labor force and increasing signs of weariness with constant revolutionary exhortations. Underemployment was rampant, and labor productivity was at a low point. Absenteeism from the job place became common. Cubans stole from state enterprises and fed an already growing black market for food and goods. Graft and corruption became widespread as Cuban citizens rejected socialist morality and laws and struggled to survive on a daily basis.
Yet this is only one side of the picture. It is in the nature of totalitarian regimes that the key question relates not to economics per se, but rather to the effects of economic factors upon the levers of political and social control. In an effort to increase productivity and forestall any further decline in revolutionary momentum, the regime increased the militarization and regimentation of society and institutionalized its rule by expanding the role and influence of the party throughout society. This progressive institutionalization contributed to the further stabilization of the system, while reducing its vulnerability to threats of external subversion and internal revolt.
The five-year period 1980-1985 was a period of significant developments and achievements both economic and social. However, from 1985 on, certain deficiencies and negative trends become evident, because of the "incorrect implementation" of the managing and planning system. In April 1986, the President of the Councils of State and Ministers stated the need to start a process of correction of all the mistakes and negative trends aimed at solving the problems that were restraining and deforming vital and unique principles of the Cuban Revolution. Among these principles were the constant participation of the people in tasks and decisions of the revolution, the close relationship between the economic development and the social development, the creation of the new man about whom Che talked, the renovation of historic values, mainly Martí's thought and a more creative application of Marxism-Leninism.
From an institutional standpoint, the regime appeared equipped to withstand the difficult years ahead. Fidel Castro was still dominant. He remained "the Revolution" and "the maximum leader." The evidence seemed to indicate that significant segments of the Cuban people continued to be attracted by his personalized style of government. Some regarded him as a protection against the state structures, resembling a traveling ombudsman ready to change or challenge policies of which he was the author. His lengthy speeches before huge throngs served both as a pedagogical device and as an instantaneous plebiscite. Despite some friction within the military after the United States invasion of Grenada in 1983 embarrassed the Cubans, Castro maintained absolute control of his government, with no other public figure in a position to challenge his undisputed authority.
The political elite's values, policy goals, and organizational interests were driven to reinforce Fidel Castro's political inclinations and policy preferences. The hard foreign policy objectives of this group were maintaining Cuba's independence from, and opposition to, the United States; actively supporting revolutionary movements in Latin America; promoting national liberation and socialism in the developing world; acquiring influence and supportive allies among the developing world states; and securing maximum military, economic, and political commitments from the Soviet Union.
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