Nations affected by Cold War tensions: Cuba

Cuba works well as an example of a country whose economic, political, social and foreign policies were impacted by Cold War superpower rivalry.

Castro's rise to power and rule is covered in more detail on these pages: Case Study: Cuban Civil War (ATL) and Case Study Topic 10: Castro (ATL).

On this page we have covered the aspects of his rule which highlight the impact that the Cold War had on his policies.

Guiding questions:

What was the initial economic impact of Cold War superpower rivalries on Cuba?

What was the longer term economic impact of Cold War tensions on Cuba?

What was the impact of Cold War superpower rivalries on Cuban foreign policy?

What was the social and cultural impact of Cold War tensions on Cuba?

1. What was the initial economic impact of Cold War superpower rivalries on Cuba?

Castro gave a clear idea of his plans for Cuba when, after a failed attempt to overthrow General Batista in July 1952, he made a now famous speech in which he claimed ‘history would absolve’ him.  This set out ‘five revolutionary laws’ that would be the basis for his manifesto:         

  1. return power to the people 

  2. give land rights for those holding or squatting on smaller plots 

  3. allow workers to have a 30 per cent share of profits 

  4. allow sugar plantation workers to have a 55 per cent share of profits 

  5. bring an end to corruption. 

He also promised pensions, hospitals, public education, nationalization of utilities, and rent controls. (See Case Study: Cuban Civil War (ATL) )

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

In pairs review the Cuban civil war and the manifesto promoted by Castro’s 26th July Movement.  Discuss the nature of Castro’s ‘social justice’ agenda and what elements of this agenda might cause concern within the US in the broader Cold War context.

When he finally entered Havana in 1959, following the defeat of Batista after a guerrilla war, Castro was ready to implement the five revolutionary laws.  Nevertheless he did not have a clear plan, and he visited the US to appeal for assistance in implementing his broad reform package for Cuba.

However, in the context of the Cold War, these policies, which Castro believed would bring social and economic justice to Cuba, were viewed by the US as communist-style measures.  The Agrarian Reform Act of July 1959 broke up large land holdings and redistributed land to the peasants while measures to remove US monopolies seemed to confirm US fears. Eisenhower may have assisted Castro’s victory as the President suspended arms shipments to Batista.  But the US clearly wanted the new revolutionary government to fail and refused aid to Cuba.

Eisenhower suspended the import of Cuban sugar in 1960 and extended economic sanctions to a trade embargo on sugar, oil and weapons.  In 1961 Kennedy extended the terms of sanctions, and tension further escalated when Castro nationalised US oil refineries.

In addition:

  • Cuba was excluded from the OAS [it had been a founding member]
  • All OAS members bar Mexico cut trade and diplomatic ties with Cuba
  • Kennedy worked to stop NATO members trading with Cuba
  • Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress – a program to aid Latin American development
  • Operation Mongoose involved the CIA carrying out acts of sabotage against the Cuban economy. 

These actions encouraged Castro to turn to the USSR to ensure Cuba’s economic survival.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

In pairs make a copy of this chart and add details from the material above to explain how economic factors may have pushed Castro’s Cuba into closer ties with the USSR.

Also see Task Two under Cold War Crises: Cuba on this page: 3. Theme 3 - Cold War Crises (ATL) for another task on this theme.

2. What was the longer term economic impact of Cold War tensions on Cuba?

In February 1960 the deputy premier of the USSR, Anastas Mikoyan, opened a trade exhibition in Cuba. In addition, the USSR began to supply oil to Cuba at cheaper prices than the country had paid the US.  The Soviets ‘saved’ the Cuban economy.

The Soviets agreed to buy Cuba’s surplus sugar and offered guaranteed prices for 10 years.   The Peoples Republic of China also signed a five-year contract to buy sugar.

The Cuban economy thus benefitted through the support of the USSR and PRC:

  • Economic impact was cushioned by immediate offer of support from USSR to buy sugar quota and supply Cuba with oil.  Cuban goods were given access to Eastern European markets.  Transportation costs for Cuban goods increased.
  • Castro attempted to inspire higher productivity by initiating a ‘battle for sugar’, and this campaign did increase yields. In addition, in the 1970s Cuba’s economy was greatly helped by the increase in global sugar prices.
  • In July 1972 Cuba joined COMECON
  • Castro then went to Moscow to finalize a 15-year economic agreement with Brezhnev that gave Cuba even more subsidies, including an increase in price for sugar, deferment of debt, and $350 million of investment.
  • Soviet advisers recommended the setting up of the System of Direction and Planning of the Economy, and the adoption of Cuba’s first ‘five-year plan’.

Task One

ATL: Thinking Skills

In groups discuss the long term impact of Cold War tensions on the Cuban economy.

3. What was the political and ideological impact of Cold War superpower rivalries on Cuba?

The US embargo did not undermine the popularity of Castro and no counter-revolution began.  US policies actually enabled Castro to rally nationalist support from his population which only strengthened further after the Bay Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Castro only began to call the revolution ‘socialist’ following US air raids on Cuba on 16 April 1961, in the prelude to the Bay of Pigs invasion.  It could be argued that in order to get Soviet military support and commitment to the Cuban revolution, Castro aligned himself ideologically to the USSR.  Indeed, from the time of the Bay of Pigs he openly claimed that he had always been a Marxist. The tangible US threat meant Castro could utilize the ‘siege’ conditions to consolidate his political control. 

Castro was able to use the threat posed by ‘imperialist forces’ to rally support for new laws and directives.  Castro’s survival of various US plots to assassinate him, allowed him to continue to appeal to a nationalist sentiment.

Task One

ATL: Research skills

1. Explore the political speeches and propaganda for Castro’s regime between 1959 and 1991.  Identify  both change and continuity in the political themes that you find.

2. Explore the extent to which Human Rights were limited in Cuba between 1959 and 1991.

3. What was the impact of Cold War superpower rivalries on Cuban foreign policy?

Go to Cold War Crises for ATL and information on the Cuban Missile Crisis: 3. Theme 3 - Cold War Crises (ATL) 

In January 1961 US diplomatic relations with Cuba were cut. Kennedy had subsequently led the OAS to cut diplomatic links with Cuba [all bar Mexico did so].  Following the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Castro deemed an outrage and humiliation, he attempted to follow a more independent path and looked to the Non-Aligned Movement as a possible path for an independent Cuba. However, ultimately, he was forced to align with Soviet foreign policy, due to Cuba’s economic dependency on the Soviet Union by the late 1960s.  Nevertheless, Castro’s foreign policy aims remained focused on giving Cuban support to groups ‘struggling against imperialism around the globe’.

Cuban policy in Latin America

  • Latin American countries saw the Cuban revolution as a victory over US imperialism.
  • Castro wanted to export his revolution across Latin America –smaller nations could successfully use guerrilla warfare against oppressive regimes and US influence
  • Castro wanted to create ‘many Vietnams’.
  • Revolution in the region could end Cuba’s US-imposed isolation.
  • Cuba trained and helped to arm revolutionary groups in Latin America
  • Che Guevara helped to organize these movements.
  • These revolutions did not succeed, but Cuban ‘provocation’ in its sphere of influence did alarm the US

Task One

ATL: Research skills

In pairs research the impact of the Cuban involvement in Nicaragua in 1979

Cuban policy in Africa

  • Cuba wanted to encourage decolonization movements in Africa.
  • In Angola a civil war broke out in 1974
  • The FNLA, was supported by the US, and the MPLA, was backed by the USSR.
  • Castro sent 17 000 troops to Angola.
  • Cuban forces were transported to Africa by the Soviet Union, and, therefore, the Cubans could not claim to be acting totally independently.
  • Ultimately, the MPLA won the civil war in 1976 and the new government signed a Treaty of Friendship with the USSR.
  • Angola launched Castro onto the world stage.
  • Castro supported leftist forces in Mozambique, who took control in 1977
  • Castro sent 17 000 troops to fight in Ethiopia against Somalia in the Ogaden War. Ethiopia won and became a pro-Soviet socialist republic.
  • Cubans had thus played an important role in the victory of the pro-Soviet forces in Africa during this period.

Task Two

ATL: Research skills

Watch the videos 'Cuba in Africa' which can be found here: Case Study Topic 10: Castro (ATL) 

Make notes of Cuba's actions in Africa and the influence of the Cold War on its actions.

In September 1979, Castro was elected leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. That October he traveled to New York to address the UN General Assembly and demanded international redistribution of wealth and income in favor of the poor countries of the world.

4. What was the social and cultural impact of Cold War tensions on Cuba?


Due to the economic sanctions imposed by the US, Castro implemented legislation that defended the position of women at work.  Legislation reinforced equal rights of men and women in the workplace.  In addition, women were given technical and professional training.  Castro also expected women to leave their families for long periods of time to work in ‘Agricultural legions’ harvesting sugar and coffee. In the 1970s a ‘family code’ was put in place that stipulated equality of the sexes at home and at work.  Federacion do Mujeres Cubanas [FMC] set up by Raul Castro’s wife trained women in new jobs such as farming and construction. Nevertheless, Cuba remained a patriarchal society. 


Castro: ‘the task of schools is the ideological formation of revolutionaries’

Pre-revolutionary Cuba had one of highest illiteracy rates in Latin America and Castro had always wanted to redress illiteracy in Cuba once in power. However, his education policies were also influenced by the Cold War confrontation.  The literacy campaign was launched in 1961 – which became the ‘year of education’ and this brought the entire Cuban population into a joint patriotic effort.  By 1962 illiteracy had dropped to 4%.  The shift towards an alignment with the USSR also affected education.  All private schools were nationalized, boarding schools opened and a large scholarship program introduced.  The government chose the participants and what was studied.  In their free time all students were expected to be involved in ‘volunteer work’.  Teachers who did not support the direction of the revolution were sacked; teachers who were loyal to the regime were sent for training in the USSR and Eastern Europe.  

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Read the source below and discuss with a partner what it reveals about the impact of the Cold War on education.

 ‘Learning about Fidel, rifles and why we should hate the Americans can sometimes take up a fair amount of the school day even in primary school.’

Account of Luis M Garcia, Child of the Revolution, growing up in Castro’s Cuba.  2006

The Arts

Castro believed that Cuban society before the revolution had been too heavily influenced by US culture.  As hostility with the US grew, translations of English terms into Spanish were implemented.  In the visual arts, men and women were to be represented as revolutionary heroes.   The National Ballet and Cuban Institute of Arts and Cinema were created in 1959.  Then, in 1961 the Union of Artists and writers of Cuba was created which stated that ‘the writer must contribute to the revolution.’

In 1961, PM, a short documentary film which featured Afro-Cubans dancing and enjoying themselves was condemned as decadent and censored.  This led to criticism by artists, but after the Bay of Pigs, Castro organized a congress of Cuban writers and artists and he gave a speech defending the censorship.  The ‘Words to the intellectuals’ speech outlined the responsibility of artists in times when Cuba was threatened by the enemy.  Artists were no longer free to create what they wanted but rather had to serve the revolution and strengthen its values.

Task Two

ATL – Research and communication skills

In 1968 the arts in Cuba came under more scrutiny as the economy was under pressure and there was an outpouring of mourning for Che Guerava who had been killed in Bolivia.

In pairs research the Padilla Affair 1971 and the period known as the ‘grey years’.

Use your research to write a newspaper report on the affair, one student from the perspective of a Castro supporter at the time, the other student from the perspective of a critic of the treatment of Padilla.

Task Three

ATL: Thinking skills

Use all of the information above to complete the grid below.

Use the grid to write the following essay:

Discuss the economic, social and cultural impact of Cold War tension on one nation.


Situation pre-impact of Cold War tension

Impact of Cold War tension




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