While the United States has seen wave after wave of immigrants seeking a better life, the occasional bursts of immigrants from Cuba was unique.
In the early 1960s, more than 14,000 children were sent by their Cuban parents to host families in the United States. In 1980, Fidel Castro allowed people to leave the island in the Mariel boatlift, resulting in more than 100,000 Cubans leaving the island.
The most stunning exodus occurred in the early 1990s, when tens of thousands of Cubans took to the high seas to avoid the economic conditions that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. Cubans who learned to get by with little during the hardest economic times used their ingenuity to fashion rafts and boats out to make the dangerous trek across the Florida Straits.
Lawn-mower engines were refashioned into boat engines. Individuals hopped on inner tubes to paddle more than 100 miles of open ocean. In 2010, a Cuban made the journey on a 7-foot boat made almost entirely of plastic foam.
Cuba observers said one of the consistent themes behind each wave was the repressive nature of Cuba’s regime.
Carlos Mesa-Lago, a Cuban-born economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, sums up Cuba’s economy under Castro simply: “He is an excellent politician, but he’s a terrible economist.”
Like most other aspects of Castro’s revolution, the economy was a centralized, state-run endeavor where few jobs were ever in the private sector. From factories to hotels to barbershops, the state operated nearly every enterprise and employed nearly every Cuban worker.
While that led to impressive employment numbers that hovered near 100% many years, Mesa-Lago said those figures meant little since most jobs were unnecessary and wages have historically remained low. Businesses that required 100 workers were assigned 200 workers, Mesa-Lago said, in order to give the appearance of a functioning economy.
“The saying was, ‘I pretend that I am working, and you pretend that you are paying me,’” Mesa-Lago said.
In the early years, Cuba’s vast sugar plantations sustained the economy. Cuba was the world’s largest sugar exporter for decades and the economy was further bolstered by the extraction of minerals, the tourism industry and the sale of Cuban cigars and rum.
The Soviets also played a central role, providing subsidies to the island through the height of the Cold War. According to the Institute for Cuba and Cuban-American Studies, Cuba was $20 billion in debt to the Soviet Union when it fell apart.
Cuba’s economic flaws were exposed following that collapse in 1991. What followed was an era dubbed the “Special Period” by the Cuban government, when the economy plummeted, food was scarce and even the state’s prized health and education sectors saw major cutbacks.
Mesa-Lago said Castro reluctantly instituted a series of reforms to fend off a collapse similar to that of the Soviet Union. The government allowed some people to open private businesses, farmers were able to sell some products on the open market, rules barring foreign investment were loosened and Cubans were allowed to use the U.S. dollar to purchase items.
“The reason that Fidel went along with this package of reforms was because he probably worried that the regime might be threatened,” Mesa-Lago said.
Once the economic situation stabilized, Castro pulled back many of those reforms. In later years, he formed a close bond with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who saw Castro as the elder statesmen of Latin America. Cuba would send tens of thousands of doctors and teachers to Venezuela in exchange for as many as 90,000 barrels of oil per day in 2008.
In his later years, Castro sat on the sidelines as he watched his brother Raúl institute a similar round of reforms. Fallow farmland was opened up for farmers to cultivate, more private business licenses were granted, the country opened up to more foreign investment and in late 2010, Raúl Castro’s government announced that up to 1 million Cubans — or about 20% of the workforce — would be removed from the state payroll and allowed to further expand the private business sector.
One of Castro’s first pronouncements upon taking control of Cuba was that all citizens would have free access to education and health care. And even though both sectors suffered because of the country’s economic troubles, those institutions endured.
Before Castro, access to education and proper health care were focused in the capital of Havana and other well-to-do areas. Castro made it a priority to ensure that every Cuban — poor people in cities, farmers in isolated provinces — had full access to schools and hospitals.
By many measures, he succeeded. Cubans’ life expectancy is over 77 years old, ranking it higher than more developed Latin American countries like Mexico, Argentina and Chile. And Cuba has the highest literacy rate in Latin America (99.8%), according to the CIA World Factbook.
“When you go to Cuba, you’re constantly meeting all these people with professional training, with scientific training,” said Dick Cluster, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston who lived in Havana in the early 1990s. “Those successes are real.”
As other sectors of the country suffered, so did health care and education.
Cluster said people have unfettered access to doctors and hospitals, but a trip to the hospital usually meant bringing your own linens for the bed, food and clothing. In Castro’s later years, the government reduced class sizes in junior high schools and relied more on classes on TV.
“They are being held together by rubber band and tape, but they are being held together,” said Cluster, author of History of Havana.
Given the country’s stagnant economy, there is also little for successful students to do once they graduate. Many doctors and nurses are sent abroad to China, Venezuela and other countries to provide care in impoverished areas. Cubans battle for the few spots available at foreign companies working in Cuba, and some are allowed to leave the country to work for companies that do business with Cuba.
But that also leaves many college graduates driving taxis, serving drinks at tourist restaurants and working in other service-sector fields.
“The educational system keeps cranking out really qualified people, but it also loses them because the economy is not able to offer (acceptable) positions,” Cluster said. “There’s definitely frustration.”