By the beginning of the 1970s, Soviet advisors were a common sight on the streets of Havana.
Carmelo Mesa-Lago estimates the in the summer of 1971 there were approximately 3,000 Soviet technicians and military advisors in Cuba. They were particularly visible in the Vedado section of the city around the University of Havana.
By 1973, 1500 Cubans — 85% of them engineers and technicians — were being trained in the USSR. This number was about equal to all Cubans studying there from 1961-71.
Cuba’s total debt to the Soviet Union in 1972 was approximately $4 billion and Cuba’s merchant marine carried only 7-8% of the island’s trade — most of the rest was carried by Soviet vessels.
The Soviet presence reflected, in part, the establishment in December 1970 of a Cuban-Soviet Commission on Economic, Scientific, and Technical Collaboration. The Commission was based at the University of Havana and its task was to help in restructuring inefficient Cuban institutions based on a Soviet prototype.
Jorge Dominguez spells out “how vast and decisive Soviet influence would become” as a result of the establishment of this commission.
The group was to coordinate the efforts of the Cuban Ministries of Foreign Trade, Merchant Marine and Ports, Basic Industries, and Mining and Metallurgy and of the Central Planning Board, the Agency for Agricultural Development (DAP), the Agricultural Mechanization Agency, the Institutes of Fishing and of Civil Aeronautics, and the Electric Power Enterprise. The commission itself would become a new agency and prod Cuba toward further bureaucratization and centralization of power. All the agencies it coordinated would have to establish systematic, formal bureaucratic procedures under the guidance of Soviet technicians (whose numbers in Cuba consequently increased vastly in the early 1970s) in order to make effective use of Soviet assistance. Moreover, the agencies and their individual leaders would not deal with issues on an ad hoc basis, as in the past, but through the intermediary of the new superagency.
Around the same time, Soviet economic models were also becoming more pervasive.
Technical assistance was provided to a new state planning board by about 3,000 Soviet advisers.
In 1972, Cuba joined the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA or COMECON — the Soviet common market.
In 1975, Cuba began implementing the Soviet directed System for Economic Management and Planning (SDPE).
Membership in the CMEA, according to Dominguez, “both permitted and required international coordination of Cuba’s economy and therefore very extensive planning.”
Frank T. Fitzgerald said the action was particularly important because it meant that
beginning with Cuba’s first five-year plan of 1976-1980. Cuba’s plans were coordinated with those of other CMEA countries, and the price of Cuban sugar exports to the Soviet Union was indexed to the prices of Cuban imports, especially petroleum, from that country.
The new system required adherence to strict Soviet guidelines which dictated that sugar would remain the principal sector of the economy.
Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe.