Cuba in 1959 was comparatively advanced in socioeconomic terms. It had a huge middle class. And the island’s per capita rankings for automobiles, telephones, televisions, literacy, and infant mortality (32 per 1,000 live births) were among the highest in the Western hemisphere. But hundreds of thousands of Cubans also lived without light, water, or sewage. Poverty was endemic, and thousands of citizens lived by begging and prostitution.
Castro’s government poured its heart and soul into improving the lot of the poor. Castro, for example, dubbed 1961 the Year of Education. “Literacy brigades” were formed of university students and high school seniors, who fanned out over the countryside with the goal of teaching every single Cuban to read and write. Within two years, the regime had added 10,000 classrooms. By the end of its first decade, the number of elementary schools had nearly doubled and the number of teachers had more than tripled. Castro also set up special schools for the indigent, the blind, deaf, and mute, and ex-prostitutes. Electricity, gas, and public transport fees were dramatically lowered, as were rents and other fees. The government poured money into health care. And the Revolution brought unparalleled gains in terms of racism and social relations.
However, Castro’s reforms came at the cost of politicizing all private choices and the totalitarian precedence over individual liberties. Havana  and other cities were neglected and left to deteriorate. And the free-thinking entrepreneurial middle class was effaced. Cuba’s far-reaching social programs also had a price tag that the national economy could not support.
The young revolutionaries badly mismanaged the Cuban economy, swinging this way and that as Castro capriciously tacked between Soviet dictate and personal whim. In confusedly searching for “truly original socialism,” Castro committed economic errors that were worsened by bureaucratic mismanagement and abrupt reversals in direction. Sound economic decisions were sacrificed to revolutionary principles intended to advance the power of the state over private initiative. Meanwhile, Che Guevara, president of the National Bank of Cuba and Minister of Finance and Industry, replaced trained managers with Communist cadres.
Gradually, inventories of imported goods and cash at hand were exhausted. As machinery broke down, no replacements could be ordered from the United States because of the trade ban enacted in 1961. Raw materials could not be bought. Soon the economy was in appalling shape. In 1962 rationing was introduced. The black market began to blossom.
Sugar monoculture was held to blame. Castro decided to abandon a sugar-based economy and industrialize. When that attempt failed, Castro switched tack and mobilized the entire workforce to achieve a record sugar harvest: 10 million tons a year by 1970 (the all-time previous record was only 6.7 million tons). Tens of thousands of inexperienced “voluntary” workers left their jobs in the cities and headed to the countryside. Holidays were abolished. Every inch of arable land was turned over to sugar. Nonetheless, only 8.5 million tons were harvested and the severely disrupted economy was left in chaos.)
To make matters worse, in 1968 Castro nationalized the entire retail trade still in private hands. More than 58,000 businesses—from corner cafés to auto mechanics—were eliminated in the “Great Revolutionary Offensive.” As a result, even the most basic items disappeared from the shelves.
The Soviets saved the day. Bit by bit, Castro was forced to follow Soviet dictates. Castro’s zealous experimentations gave way to a period of enforced pragmatism. In 1976, Cuba joined COMECON, the Soviet bloc’s economic community. Cuba would henceforth supply sugar to the European socialist nations in exchange for whatever the island needed; sugar was even rationed in Cuba to meet obligations. Meanwhile, that year the First Communist Party Congress initialed a new constitution that recognized Marxist-Leninism as the state’s official ideology and the party as the sole representative of the people.
Castro was committed to exporting his Revolution (he had been complicit in armed plots against several neighboring countries from the moment the Revolution succeeded, including support for a failed invasion of the Dominican Republic in June 1959). In 1962 Guevara launched a wave of Cuban-backed guerrilla activity throughout Latin America that was endorsed by Castro in his “Second Declaration of Havana”—a tacit declaration of war on Latin American governments. At the Organization of Latin American Solidarity conference in Havana  in August 1967, Castro launched his Fifth International, to “create as many Vietnams as possible” in defiance of the Soviet Union’s policy of coexistence with the United States. Said Castro: “The duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution.”
Cuban troops had already been sent to countries as far afield as Algeria and Zaire. Soon revolutionary fighters from Angola, Mozambique, and elsewhere were being trained at secret camps on Isla de la Juventud. In Ethiopia and Angola, Cuban troops fought alongside Marxist troops in the civil wars against “racist imperialism,” while in Ethiopia they shored up a ruthless regime. In Nicaragua, Cubans trained, armed, and supported the Sandinista guerrillas that toppled the Somoza regime. More than 377,000 Cuban troops were rotated through Angola during the 15-year war (the last troops came home in May 1991), proportionally far greater than the U.S. troop commitment in Vietnam. Tens of thousands of Cuban doctors and technical specialists were also sent to more than two dozen developing nations to assist in development.
(El Jefe launched his international initiatives at a time when Washington was looking at rapprochement with Cuba, beginning with the Ford administration, which worked out several agreements with the Castro government—a gradual lifting of the embargo was approved. Castro’s adventurism cooled Uncle Sam’s enthusiasm.)
In 1980, 12 Cubans walked through the gates of the Peruvian embassy in Havana  and asked for asylum. The Peruvians agreed. Carter announced that the United States would welcome Cuban political refugees with “open arms.” In a fit of pique, Castro removed the embassy guards, and 11,000 Cubans rushed into the embassy. Castro decided to allow them to leave, along with dissidents and other disaffected Cubans. Many were coerced to leave, while Castro added to the numbers by emptying his prisons of criminals and homosexuals and other “antisocial elements.” Thus Castro disposed of more than 120,000 critics and disaffected. The Carter administration was forced to accept the Marielitos.
In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan took a much harder line. In 1983, U.S. Marines stormed the Caribbean island of Grenada to topple Maurice Bishop’s Cuban-backed socialist regime. The Reagan administration also spawned the Cuban-American National Foundation to give clout to the right-wing Cuban-American voice. In 1985 it established Radio Martí to broadcast anti-Castro propaganda into Cuba.