Meanwhile, Mikhail Gorbachev had become leader of the Soviet Union and was initiating fateful reforms—just as Castro turned more sharply toward Communist orthodoxy. (In 1986, for example, Castro closed free farmers markets, a brief fling that had led to an increase in the food supply. He was alarmed at the success of the free-market experiment and railed against “millionaire garlic growers.”) The basic structure of Soviet-style planning and management would not be altered. Glasnost and perestroika, Gorbachev’s “heresies,” would not be tolerated in Cuba.
In 1989 the Berlin Wall collapsed and the Communist dominoes came tumbling down. However, the news in Cuba was dominated by a political show trial that made it clear that reform was not in the cards. General Arnaldo Sánchez Ochoa, a powerful and charismatic national hero with impeccable credentials going back to the Sierra Maestra, was accused (on false charges) of colluding with the Colombian drug cartel to smuggle drugs to the United States via Cuba. After a closed trial, Ochoa and 13 other high-ranking officers were convicted of treason and corruption. Ochoa and three others were executed. A purge followed, notably of the Ministry of the Interior  (MININT), but also of dissidents and private entrepreneurs. Rumors swept the island that Ochoa, who had been espousing reformist discontent, had been conspiring to oust Castro.
With the Eastern bloc umbilical cord severed, Cuba’s economy collapsed. In January 1990, Castro declared that Cuba had entered a Special Period in a Time of Peace. He also announced a draconian, warlike austerity plan. A new slogan appeared throughout Cuba: ¡Socialismo o muerte! (Socialism or death!). Inevitably, rising political discontent boiled over on April 21, 1991, when clashes erupted against the police—the first act of spontaneous rebellion since 1959. Then on August 18, 1991, on the last day of the highly successful Pan-American Games in Havana  (which Cuba won with 140 gold medals), the Soviet Union began its dizzying unraveling. Reformer Boris Yeltsin took power. Subsidies and supplies to Cuba virtually ceased.
After the last Soviet tanker departed in June 1992, the government began electricity blackouts that soon lasted all day. There were no fans, no air-conditioning, no refrigeration, no lights. Nor fuel for transportation. Buses and taxis gave way to horse-drawn carts. Without oil or electricity to run machines, or raw materials to process, or spare parts to repair machinery, factories closed down and state bureaucracies began transferring laid-off workers to jobs in the countryside. Gaiety on the streets was replaced with a forlorn melancholy.
Harvests simply rotted in the fields for want of distribution. People accustomed to a government-subsidized food basket guaranteeing every person at least two high-protein, high-calorie meals a day were stunned to suddenly be confronting shortages of almost every staple. When East German powdered milk ceased to arrive, Cuba eliminated butter; when Czechoslovakian malt no longer arrived, Cuban beer disappeared. Soaps, detergents, deodorants, toilet paper, clothing, everything vanished. Cubans had to resort to making hamburger meat from banana peels and steaks from grapefruit rinds. Many Cubans began rearing jutías, ratlike native rodents. The most desperate resorted to rats. Cuba, the only country in Latin America to have eliminated hunger, began to suffer malnutrition and debilitating diseases. Thousands of people starved to death, while many more committed suicide.
Meanwhile, believing that Cuba was on the verge of collapse, Uncle Sam tightened the screws by passing the Cuban Democracy Act, which reduced economic assistance to countries trading with Cuba and prohibited U.S. subsidiary companies abroad from trading with Cuba.
The reformist movement found an unexpected ally in Raúl Castro, who argued for deregulating key sectors of the economy. Market-savvy reformers were elevated to positions of power and cobbled together a recovery plan led by tourism. The Revolution’s ideological principles were turned on their head. Possession of the dollar was legalized and private enterprise was permitted.
By 1994 a cautious sense of optimism began to emerge. The awful apagones (blackouts) were trimmed. Food crops no longer rotted in the fields. And the legal availability of dollars eased life for those Cubans who had access to greenbacks, while farmers markets eased life for those without.
On August 5, 1994, crowds gathered along the Malecón  in response to a rumor that a major exodus was to be permitted and that a flotilla of boats was en route from Florida. When police attempted to clear the boulevard, a riot ensued, and two police officers were killed. Castro saw a chance to defuse a dangerous situation and benefit. He declared that Cuba would no longer police the U.S. borders: If the United States would not honor its agreement to allow people to migrate legally, then Cuba would no longer try to prevent anyone from going illegally. (Leaving Cuba without an exit permit is illegal; Cubans are rarely granted such visas.
Meanwhile, the United States’ 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act guarantees residency to Cubans who step foot on U.S. soil. The United States had agreed to accept an annual quota of 20,000-plus Cuban immigrants, but most Cubans who petitioned the United States for a visa were rejected. The more difficult the economic circumstances became in Cuba, the fewer legal immigrants were accepted, while the greater the number of illegals who were taken in.)
The United States was hoisted on its own petard as thousands of balseros (rafters) fled Cuba on makeshift rafts. By September 9, when the two countries agreed to measures “to ensure that migration between the two countries is safe, legal, and orderly,” more than 30,000 Cubans had been rescued at sea and shipped to Guantánamo naval base , which was expanded to eventually house up to 65,000 refugees.
Meanwhile, a Miami-based volunteer group called Brothers to the Rescue had been operating rescue missions. When the flood of balseros stopped, pilots of the organization began buzzing Havana  and dropping “leaflets of a subversive nature.” On February 24, 1996, Cuban jet fighters shot two Brothers to the Rescue Cessnas down, killing both pilots. (The Cuban government claimed that the aircraft came down in Cuban territorial waters, but an investigation by the independent International Civil Aviation Organization confirmed that the two Cessnas were downed 10.3 and 11.5 miles north of Cuban airspace.) Cuban-American exiles and Republican presidential candidates campaigning for the mid-March Florida primary erupted in fury. The incident scuttled the Clinton administration’s carefully calibrated policy on Cuba of promoting democratic change as a prelude to easing the embargo.
Following the Brothers to the Rescue incident, arch-right-wingers Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Dan Burton Helms rode the wave of anti-Castro sentiment in Miami and Washington and steered the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act through Congress. Clinton signed the bill, which (among other things) requires that U.S. presidents now seek congressional approval if they seek to modify or lift the embargo; stipulates that the embargo can only be lifted when a “transition government” is in place in Cuba that meets U.S. criteria; denies entry into the U.S. territory to anyone who has done business with Cuban nationals or the Cuban government; and bars U.S. banks from lending to these companies; and will allow any U.S. citizen whose property was confiscated after the Revolution to sue any foreign corporation that has “benefited” from the property or from its use. (The law really represents the interests of very wealthy Cuban-Americans, such as the Bacardi Corporation, the National Association of Sugar Mill Owners of Cuba, and the Cuban Association for the Tobacco Industry, who clearly benefit while Cuban products are banned.)
The law, which violates international law, has earned the wrath of the United States’ leading allies; Canada even enacted retaliatory legislation. It also united Cubans behind the Castro government as nothing had done in years.
In January 1998, Pope John Paul II made a highly publicized four-day visit to Cuba. For the occasion, Castro made Christmas an official holiday and festive lights went up in the streets for the first time in decades. Castro had invited the pope in the hope that a papal embrace magnified by television exposure might defuse internal opposition and give the regime new legitimacy. Castro had been counting on air-play from the 4,000 journalists who descended on Havana  to cover the event, including the major U.S. media, who promptly turned heel when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke as the pope touched Cuban soil.
Meanwhile, in 1997, Miami-based Cuban-American exiles launched a bombing campaign against the Cuban tourist industry, killing an Italian tourist. But the real enemy lay within. Serious crime had returned to the streets of Cuba. Cocaine was being sold on the street and at discos. Thousands of young Cuban women had turned to quasi-prostitution. And corruption was becoming entrenched.
On January 1, 1999, Cubans celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. The economy was bouncing back, driven by dollars from tourism, and was given a boost in January when President Clinton eased the trade embargo, permitting U.S. citizens to send up to US$1,200 annually to Cuban individuals and non-government organizations. Castro called the move a “fraud.” Meanwhile, Castro announced draconian legislation—the Law for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy. Thousands of Special Brigade police were deployed on street corners throughout major cities.
The policy was officially “a battle against disorder, crime, disrespect for authority, illegal business, and lack of social control.” Outlawed, too, were the “supply, search or gathering of information” for and “collaboration” with foreign media. To get the point across, in March 1999 four prominent dissidents received harsh sentences, resulting in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights condemning Cuba. In June 1999 dozens of high officials within the tourism and business sectors were fired and arrested for corruption. The state was also reasserting control throughout the private economy.