Between 1989 and 1993, Cuba’s gross domestic product fell 35%, while the island’s foreign trade slumped by 75%, says Carmelo Mesa-Lago, professor emeritus of economy at University of Pittsburgh.
As living standards plummeted, Havana residents ate many of the city’s cats. An epidemic of optic neuropathy, caused by deficiencies in nutrition and resulting in temporary blindness, struck down some 35,000 Cubans. For RaÃºl, economic security became a critical part of national security. “Beans are more important than cannon,” he told troops in 1994.
Although Mr. Castro has steadfastly opposed economic reforms during his 47-year communist regime, his younger brother and anointed successor, RaÃºl, has shown a deep interest in free-market experiments in the past. As defense minister since the 1959 revolution, he has frequently looked to the military as his laboratory.
But the seeds of economic reform in Cuba may be planted more firmly than many suspect. One piece of evidence: RaÃºl has traveled to China a number of times to study Beijing’s economic policies and in 2003 he invited the leading economic adviser to then Chinese premier Zhu Rongji, who played a leading role in opening up China to foreign trade and investment, to give a series of lectures in Cuba. Fidel Castro, who deeply opposes reforms, was a notable no-show, says Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence officer who now lives in the U.S. and keeps close tabs on political developments on the island.[Cuba's Military Puts Business On Front Lines (subscription reqd)]
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