Throughout President Castro's mandate people have been seeking asylum in the United States. In fact, this problem didn't start when Fidel first stepped of the boat Granma in 1957 to begin his march towards Havana. It has been a constant tug on the citizenry of the island even when it was under Spanish rule.
Before the revolution there were around 125,000 Cuban immigrants living in the US. But just after the revolution, between 1959 and 1962, more than 270,000 Cubans joined them. Most of these people were highly skilled professionals, such as doctors, engineers, professors, teachers, and other technical personnel.
There had been early emigration crises in the early 60s, such as Operation Peter Pan, a coordinated lie between the US State Department, the CIA, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, which scared Cuban families so much that they sent 14,000 children to the United States for fear that they were going to be deported to the Soviet Union and chopped up. The Camarioca exodus in November, 1965, which was coordinated between both countries saw as many as 300,000 of the most skilled laborers leaving the country. Not one person died during the entire event.
But it was the Mariel crisis in 1980 that became the best known of these mass migrations. The crisis began when a gunman broke into the Peruvian embassy in Havana and killed the night watchman. He claimed political asylum once inside and the Peruvian officials refused to hand over the murderer to the Cuban authorities for prosecution.
Fearing for the lives of the other watchmen, President Castro gave the order to remove all security from around the Peruvian embassy. The resultant occurrence was the influx of 10,000 people into the embassy seeking refuge in the US. At this point, President Fidel Castro removed all restrictions for leaving the island and opened the small port of Mariel to all boat traffic from the US that wished to pick up those wanting to leave. Around 125,000 in total left during that period.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's main trading partner, life on the island became very difficult for everyone. Relations between President Castro and the leaders of the Soviet Union had always been turbulent to say the least. The negotiations between President Nikita Khrushchev and President John Kennedy over the Cuban Missile Crisis left a dark stain on Soviet-Cuban relations. President Castro did not figure into the final equation at all, even though it was his country that was being haggled over.
President Castro had often sent letters of criticism to them about being chaperoned everywhere he went while visiting the Soviet Union. His complaints went further as well, discussing petty egos and jealousies that interfered with the official conduct between both nations. There were also many disputes over the method and operation of the Cuban government, something that President Castro insisted was Cuba's alone and the Soviet Union had no right to interfere.
But when the Soviet Union finally broke apart, the environmental malaise of a system that had been more covert than overt shocked the world. The ecological disasters that were uncovered shocked both Western and Eastern bloc countries. Perhaps the vastness of the Soviet territory helped hide these anomalies, but either way, they were little known or understood prior to 1991 [and here I must disagree with Fidel. I could see the disasters when I was living in Europe in the late 1970s. Even Western countries like Germany and Spain had disgusting looking harbors and obvious ecological damage. The few TV reports coming from the Eastern bloc countries showed things much worse. There was little new news after 1991, just greater visibility of reality].
While the Soviet Union showed its temerity and ingenuity during WWII by taking entire factories and uprooting them, then placing them elsewhere right in the snow, often with no roof over their heads, and starting back up, their general knowledge and expertise lagged behind the West by quite a bit. The Soviets didn't lack for natural resources and raw material, but they didn't know how best to utilize that which they had in abundance.
The collapse of the Soviet Union accelerated in the 1980s and was helped, either purposefully or not, by the Spanish head of state, President Felipe Gonza'lez, who was also head of the Socialist Party of Spain. When President Castro received a letter from President Gorbachev concerning the advice he was following from President Gonza'lez, he knew that Soviet Socialism had been set back 100 years.
Though Cuba always knew they couldn't count on the Soviet Union to defend them in case of attack, their demise abruptly halted the one major trading partner Cuba had been able to rely on until then. Overnight, Cubans sugar crop lost its main customer, and nearly all oil, gas, diesel and other raw materials, soap, food and nearly everything else disappeared from the island.
At the same time the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the United States intensified its immoral blockade. The Torricelli Act of 1992 made the economic embargo on Cuba more severe than it had previously been. It prevented food and medicine from being shipped to Cuba. The only exception was humanitarian aid. The Helms-Burton Act extended the territorial application of the initial embargo to apply to foreign companies trading with Cuba, and penalized foreign companies allegedly "trafficking" in property formerly owned by U.S. citizens but expropriated by Cuba after the Cuban revolution. The act also covers property formerly owned by Cubans who have since become U.S. citizens.
But even with the immense pressure supplied by the US and the immoral economic embargo in place since 1960, as well as the complete collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of all foreign aid and commerce that represented, the Cuban revolution found a way to overcome the calamity and move on. The enhancements pushed through the US Congress in the days, weeks, and months following the Soviet demise weren't enough to erase over 30 years of revolutionary improvements to the quality of life for its citizens.
In that time the educational level of all citizens was guaranteed through the ninth grade and completely free. Health care was also guaranteed for all from cradle to grave, no questions asked, and completely free as well. The infant mortality rate was dramatically reduced while the average life span improved to world class levels. People across the island were guaranteed a satisfactory life for the first time in the history of the country, homelessness was entirely eradicated, major diseases were brought under control, and the poor and destitute of the island were brought back into the fold of regular society for the first time.
There is a sign just outside of Havana that epitomizes the state of mind and the feeling of the society of all Cubans today. It is in reference to the lack of health care, malnutrition and homelessness that is so rampant in the world. It says, "There are 200 million children in the world who will sleep today in the streets. NONE OF THEM ARE CUBAN."
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