Cuba Culture

August 5, 1994: The Day the ‘Hottest Summer’ Exploded in Cuba

Posted August 11, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Culture.

Dalia Acosta | [url=][/url]

The Caribbean Sea is calm, the temperatures perhaps slightly higher, lengthy power outages are back again and tensions with Washington still mark the beat of life in Cuba. But though much is unchanged, things are far calmer on the migration front than they were a decade ago today.

For some sectors of the population in this socialist Caribbean island nation, “leaving” is the only possible option, but, paradoxically, “staying” is just as firm a choice, regardless of whether they are passionate followers, critics or even open opponents of the government of Fidel Castro.

Although some things still bring back memories of August 1994, the atmosphere is far less stormy and there is nothing in the offing to compare with what analysts classed as the “hottest summer” in Cuban history.

The disturbances of Aug. 5, 1994—the first since the revolution triumphed on Jan. 1, 1959—were followed by days of commotion in the Cuban capital with boats hijacked by people wishing to emigrate to the United States at any cost.

That summer morning, hundreds of people crowded the entrance to Havana Bay expecting a flotilla of yachts to arrive from Miami, Florida, to collect them, as had been broadcast from radio transmitters in the United States

Close to mid-day, the rumour was found to be untrue, and the crowd which had formed peacefully was joined by other people moved on by the police from the port area, where boats were being seized. And that is when the protests began.

“I was sitting calmly in my house, listening to the radio, when I found out people were protesting in the streets and throwing stones at shop windows. It seemed incredible,” recalled one resident of Old Havana, in the city centre.

The woman, an engineer by profession, remembered that she was on vacation at the time, and that she went out of her front door to see what was going on.

“A policeman came up to me and said I had better stay indoors,” she recalled.

In the end, more than 300 people were arrested, Castro appeared at the scene of the disturbances, the United States was accused of inciting illegal emigration and the Cuban government decided to temporarily stop patrolling the coasts, to allow anyone who wanted to emigrate to leave.

Around 30,000 people, mostly men, left Cuba during the “rafters’ crisis” in August 1994, which ended with the signing of a migration agreement between Havana and Washington, on Sep. 9, 1994.

Ten years later, around 20,000 people are granted a visa to emigrate to the United States each year and U.S. sources say immigration by undocumented Cubans is stable, with no signs of a crisis.

In 1994, the Cuban government opened the doors to self-employment and private initiative, only to close them again a few years later, increasing controls and restricting the number of new permits granted for these activities.

Since then, the government has also promoted foreign investment, the national biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries began to give their first fruits, more than 10 new social programmes got underway and Cuba began to buy millions of dollars worth of food from the United States.

“Every so often, when summer arrives and the heat starts getting to people, it seems as though there will be another migration crisis, but the dams never quite burst,” said one 42-year-old physics teacher, remembering incidents that occurred last year.

A wave of boat hijackings in the spring of 2003, which could have triggered a migration crisis, ended when three men who commandeered a passenger ferry were given the death penalty and executed.

Now, in the hottest part of the year, following months of intense drought, the sea and the late arrival of the traditional May rains have become the main lures to emigrate.

“We are having black-outs that last seven to eight hours. The reason for this could lie in the break-down of a generating plant which provides nearly 20 percent of the country’s electricity, but also in the lack of cash to buy oil,” said an economist.

The impact of the disappearance of the east European socialist bloc and the Soviet Union in the early 1990s on the economic and social life of Cuba has evidently been overcome in the past few years, but this country of 11.2 million has not managed to return to the standards of living enjoyed prior to the collapse.

Experts say that to make up for the 34.8 percent fall in Gross Domestic Product between 1990 and 1993, Cuba would have needed to post steady annual GDP growth of five percent, which has not been achieved.

A study published by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in July said Cuba shows that social policy can still be implemented where there is political will, even in conditions of great limitations.

In 1994, the Castro government pinned its hopes on tourism and biotechnology. Now it is looking toward oil exploration by the Spanish transnational Repsol-YPF under Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Back then, the nation was trying to recover its sugar-producing capacity of some seven million tons per year. Now the industry is undergoing severe restructuring with the closure or reconversion of more than half of its factories.

U.S. President George W. Bush presented a programme last May to “hasten the democratic transition” in Cuba, aimed at strangling cash flows toward the island by reducing visits by Cuban-Americans and restricting the parcels they can send to family here, among other measures.

Havana responded by hiking up prices in the network of government shops that sell only in dollars. Now, given the new energy crisis, measures to increase electricity savings are being discussed, such as “obligatory holidays” for some sectors.

As has occurred in the past, the U.S. proposal has thus merely served to unite broad sectors against the threat of “external aggression.”

And the refrain repeatedly heard from the opposition, the Catholic Church and even the Cuban exile community in the United States is that the problems of Cubans must be resolved by Cubans alone.

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