Havana, located only ninety miles off the Florida coast, had long served as an American outpost in the Caribbean.
Following the country’s revolution in 1959 , the Soviets became the first major extrahemispheric power in the 20th century to establish a political and military foothold in such close proximity to the United States.
In July 1960, as American reaction to the revolution became increasingly alarmist, Cuba’s sugar quota was cut from the US market, leading Havana to appeal to the Soviet Union for economic assistance, military support, technology, and expertise.
Scholars are still more or less evenly split on the timing of Castro’s commitment to communism. Some believe that he was strongly pledged to communist philosophy at the time of the Cuban revolution in 1959; others believe in a later conversion, arguing that the US and its actions left Castro little choice but to turn to the Soviets for assistance.
Whichever is accurate, an American embargo was imposed which has lasted from 1960 to the present day.
Consequently, the city’s industry was quickly reorganized around Soviet exports, facilitating the integration of Cuban trade with the Socialist bloc. Expanded port facilities were constructed to meet additional requirements.
Emigration — in conjunction with the flight of North American businessmen and professionals — created a vacuum of skills and knowledge which increased the capital’s dependence on communist expertise, leading to an influx of over 8,000 Soviet advisers.
Moreover, after 1976, large-scale Soviet subsidies were required just to keep the economy afloat.
By 1981 the country was receiving $4 billion in Soviet aid and oil subsidies each year.
As consumer goods grew less and less available in the capital, construction workers, technicians, and other skilled laborers were exported to more affluent Third World nations — Angola, Iraq, Algeria — in an exchange of human capital for hard currency.
In response to the Reagan administration’s focus on the threat of Cuban communism, the Soviets delivered five years’ worth of weapons free of charge in 1981-1982, virtually doubling Cuba’s military capabilities.
By 1985 a Soviet combat brigade of 2,500 troops and a total of 7,000 military personnel were in the country, and Havana was the largest intelligence gathering installation outside of Soviet territory, employing approximately 3,000 Soviet military and civilian technicians.
Meanwhile, the military and other state institutions had earlier been modified to satisfy Soviet requirements.
Finally, as the urban layout of Havana began to be influenced by Soviet industrial city design, the need for capital investment in Havana’s housing and infrastructure became critical.
Deterioration and indiscriminate demolition in the area known as Old Havana led to an international response when UNESCO declared the area to be of “world cultural heritage” status.
NOTE: Those of you interested in the history and politics of Havana before the Cuban Revolution and after the Cold War will want to visit our sister blog, Havana Project. Havana as a cold war city (1959 – 1990) will be discussed in depth on the Cold War Studies blog, but other periods in Cuban history will not be addressed here.
Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe.