For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.
PEOPLE AND RELIGION
The Catholic church is the largest independent institution in Cuba today, but continues to operate under significant pressure. The Cuban government continues to refuse to allow the church to have independent printing press capabilities, to have full access to the media, or to establish institutions, such as local schools.
In November of 1996, President Castro invited Pope John Paul II to visit Cuba after an agreement was reached on some of the issues important for the church to carry out its religious activities in Cuba and prepare for the visit. During the Pope's visit, the Cuban government permitted four open-air masses, provided media coverage, and assisted with transportation of the public to the masses. In 1997 Christmas was officially recognized as a holiday for the first time since 1969 and the following year was permanently reinstated as a national holiday. Visas were issued for additional priests and religious figures to enter Cuba. While on the island, Pope John Paul II spoke of broadening the space and freedom of action of the Catholic church and asked Fidel Castro to grant a prisoner amnesty. The Cuban Government responded by freeing at least 300 prisoners, some 70 of which were being held on political charges. His visit is seen as an important, positive event for bringing a message of hope and the need for respect of human rights.
Other Cuban religious groups--including evangelicals who are the most rapidly growing of all religious organizations--have also benefited from the increased openness toward religion. In the summer of 1999 the government permitted them to hold a series of large open-air ceremonies as part of an island-wide "evangelical celebration." Although particularly hard hit by emigration, Cuba's small Jewish community continues to hold services in Havana and has pockets of faithful in Santiago, Camaguey, and other parts of the island. Assistance from Jewish communities abroad, including arranging for visiting rabbis and rabbinical students, helps to keep the Hebrew faith alive in Cuba.
Cuba was the last major Spanish colony to gain independence, following a 50-year struggle begun in 1850. Jose Marti, Cuba's national hero, began the final push for independence in 1895. In 1898, after the USS Maine sunk in Havana Harbor on February 15 due to an explosion of undetermined origin, the United States entered the conflict. In December of that year Spain relinquished control of Cuba to the United States with the Treaty of Paris. On May 20, 1902, the United States granted Cuba its independence, but retained the right to intervene to preserve Cuban independence and stability under the Platt Amendment. In 1934, the amendment was repealed and the United States and Cuba reaffirmed the 1903 agreement which leased the Guantanamo Bay naval base to the United States.
Cuba was often ruled by military figures, who either obtained or remained in power by force. Fulgencio Batista, an army sergeant, organized a non-commissioned officer revolt in September 1933 and wielded significant power behind the scenes until he was elected president in 1940. Batista was voted out of office in 1944. Running for president again in 1952, Batista seized power in a bloodless coup three months before the election was to take place, suspended the balloting, and began ruling by decree.
Fidel Castro, who was running for a seat in the Chamber of Representatives, circulated a petition to depose Batista's government on the grounds that it had illegitimately suspended the electoral process. On July 26, 1953 Castro led a failed attack on the Moncada army barracks near Santiago de Cuba and was jailed and subsequently went into exile in Mexico. While in Mexico, Castro organized the 26th of July Movement with the goal of overthrowing Batista, and the group sailed to Cuba on board the yatch Granma landing in the eastern part of the island in December 1956.
Batista's dictatorial rule fueled increasing popular discontent and the rise of active urban resistance groups, a fertile political environment for Castro's 26th of July Movement. Faced with a corrupt and ineffective military itself dispirited by a U.S. Government embargo on weapons sales to Cuba and public indignation and revulsion at his brutality toward opponents, Batista fled on January 1, 1959. Within months of taking control, Castro moved to consolidate power by marginalizing other resistance figures and imprisoning or executing opponents. As the revolution became more radical, hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled the island.
Castro declared Cuba a socialist state on April 16, 1961. For the next 30 years, Castro pursued close relations with the Soviet Union until the demise of the U.S.S.R. in 1991. Relations between the U.S. and Cuba deteriorated rapidly as the Cuban regime expropriated U.S. properties and moved towards adoption of a one-party Communist system. In response, the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba in October 1960, and broke diplomatic relations on January 3, 1961. Tensions between the two governments peaked during the October 1962 missile crisis.
According to the Cuban Constitution, the National Assembly of People's Power, and its Council of State when the body is not in session, has supreme authority in the Cuban system. Since the National Assembly meets only twice a year for a few days each time, the 31-member Council of State wields power. The Council of Ministers, through its nine-member executive committee, handles the administration of the of the state-controlled economy. Fidel Castro is President of the Council of State and Council of Ministers and his brother Raul serves as First Vice President of both bodies in addition to being Minister of Defense.
Although the constitution theoretically provides for independent courts, it explicitly subordinates them to the National Assembly and to the Council of State. The People's Supreme Court is the highest judicial body. Due process is routinely denied to Cuban citizens, particularly in cases involving political offenses. The constitution states that all legally recognized civil liberties can be denied to anyone who opposes the "decision of the Cuban people to build socialism."
The Communist Party is constitutionally recognized as Cuba's only legal political party. The party monopolizes all government positions, including judicial offices. Though not a formal requirement, party membership is virtually a de facto prerequisite for high-level official positions and professional advancement in most areas, although non-party members are sometimes allowed to serve in the National Assembly.
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. The government has, however, maintained a large state security apparatus, under the Ministry of Interior, to repress dissent within Cuba.
The Cuban economy is still recovering from a decline in gross domestic product of at least 35 percent between 1989 and 1993 due to the loss of Soviet subsidies. To alleviate the economic crisis, the government introduced a few market-oriented reforms including opening to tourism, allowing foreign investment, legalizing the dollar, and authorizing self-employment for some 150 occupations. These measures resulted in modest economic growth; the official statistics, however, are deficient and as a result provide an incomplete measure of Cuba's real economic situation. Living conditions in 1999 remain well below the 1989 level.
In the mid 1990s tourism surpassed sugar, long the mainstay of the Cuban economy, as the primary source of foreign exchange. Tourism figures prominently in the Cuban Government's plans for development, and a top official cast is as the "heart of the economy." Havana devotes significant resources to building new tourist facilities and renovating historic structures for use in the tourism sector. Cuban officials estimate roughly 1.6 million tourists visited Cuba in 1999 with about $1.9 billion in gross revenues. The official projections for 2000 are only slightly higher than in 1999. Independent analysts and journalists partially attributed low numbers in January to Y2K concerns.
Sugar remains an important part of the Cuban economy with large amounts of land, labor, and other resources dedicated to the industry. Sugar production in 1989 was over 8 million tons, but fell to about 3.5 million tons in the 1994-95 harvest, one of the worst on record. With increased fertilizers and management attention, subsequent harvests have improved but remain well below the 1989 level. Prospects for regaining that level of output are poor unless the Cuban Government undertakes substantial reform of the sugar industry, something it has been reluctant to do.
To help keep the economy afloat, Havana actively courts foreign investment, which often takes the form of joint ventures with the Cuban Government holding half of the equity, management contracts for tourism facilities, or financing for the sugar harvest. Cuban officials said in early 1998 that there were a total of 332 joint ventures. Many of these are loans or contracts for management, supplies, or services normally not considered equity investment in Western economies. Investors are constrained by the U.S.-Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act which provides sanctions for those who "traffic" in property expropriated from U.S. citizens. As of March 1998, 15 executives of three foreign companies have been excluded from entry into the United States. Over a dozen companies have pulled out of Cuba or altered their plans to invest there due to the threat of action under the Libertad Act.
In 1993 the Cuban Government made it legal for its people to possess and use the U.S. dollar. Since then, the dollar has become the major currency in use. To capture the hard currency flowing into the island through tourism and remittances--estimated at $500-800 million annually--the government has set up state-run dollar stores throughout Cuba that sell food, household, and clothing items. The gap in the standard of living has widened between those with access to dollars and those without. Jobs that can earn dollar salaries or tips from foreign businesses and tourists have become highly desirable. It is common to meet doctors, engineers, scientists, and other professionals working in restaurants or as taxi drivers.
To provide jobs for workers laid off due to the economic crisis, furnish services the government was having difficulty providing, and to try to bring some forms of black market activity into legal--and therefore controllable--channels, Havana in 1993 legalized self-employment for some 150 occupations. The government tightly controls the small private sector, which has fluctuated in size from 150,000 to 209,000, by regulating and taxing it. For example, owners of small private restaurant can seat no more than 12 people and can only employ family members to help with the work. Set monthly fees must be paid regardless of income earned and frequent inspections yield stiff fines when any of the many self-employment regulations are violated. Rather than expanding private sector opportunities, in recent years, the government has been attempting to squeeze more of these private sector entrepreneurs out of business and back to the public sector. Many have opted to enter the informal economy or black market.
Prolonged austerity and the state-controlled economy's inefficiency in providing adequate goods and services have created conditions for a flourishing informal economy in Cuba. As the variety and amount of goods available in state-run peso stores has declined, Cubans have turned increasingly to the black market to obtain needed food, clothing, and household items. Pilferage of items from the workplace to sell on the black market or illegally offering services on the sidelines of official employment is common. Recognizing that Cubans must engage in such activity to make ends meet and that attempts to shut the informal economy down would be futile, the government concentrates its control efforts on ideological appeals against theft and shutting down large organized operations. Acknowledging the importance of informal economy in the daily lives of Cubans, the government took black market prices into account when calculating the 1998 consumer price index. Although the government claimed zero inflation in the peso markets in 1999, many goods are simply no longer available in this market and must be purchased in the more expensive dollar stores.
Cuba's precarious economic position is complicated by the high price it must pay for foreign financing. The Cuban Government defaulted on most of its international debt in 1986 and does not have access to credit from international financial institutions like the World Bank, which means Havana must rely heavily on short-term loans to finance imports, chiefly food and fuel. Because of its poor credit rating, an $11 billion hard currency debt, and the risks associated with Cuban investment, interest rates have reportedly been as high as 22 percent.
Cuba appears to have largely abandoned the support for guerrilla movements that typified its involvement in regional politics in Latin America and Africa. In the past, Cuba's support for Latin guerrilla movements, its Marxist-Leninist government, and its alignment with the U.S.S.R., had contributed to its isolation in the hemisphere. In January 1962, the Organization of American States (OAS) suspended Cuba. Cuba now has diplomatic or commercial relations with most countries in Latin American and the Caribbean.
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 non-combat 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.
Support for the Cuban people is the central theme of our policy. Measures announced on January 5, 1999, strengthed this support while continuing to deny the regime the means to maintain its repressive system. These measures -- broadening remittances, expanding people-to-people contacts, increasing direct flights, authorizing food sales to independent entities, and establishing direct mail service -- respond to Pope John Paul II's call to open up to Cuba.
U.S. policy also pursues a multilateral effort to press for democratic change by urging our friends and allies to actively promote a democratic transition and respect for human rights. The U.S. opposes consideration of Cuba's return to the OAS or inclusion in the Summit of the America's process until there is a democratic Cuban Government. The U.S. has repeatedly made clear however, that it is prepared to respond reciprocally if the Cuban Government initiates fundamental, systematic democratic change and respect for human rights.
Principal U.S. Interests Section Officials
The U.S. Interests Section is located at Calzada between L & M Streets, Vedado, Havana, switchboard: (53-7) 33-3551-3559, fax/general: 33-3700. U.S. Information Service: 33-3967 fax: 33-3869, hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Emergencies/after hours: 33-3026.