How sport revived Cuba from an economic crisis

The collapse of the USSR could have financially bankrupted Cuba, but the intelligence and the creativity of their sporting institute had other ideas.

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Liam Moore

The collapse of the USSR could have financially bankrupted Cuba, but the intelligence and the creativity of their sporting institute had other ideas.

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Fidel Castro boxing great, Teofilo Stevenson in 1984 ©The Olympians

For the first two-years following the 1959 Revolution, professional sport in Cuba suffered. The country that prided itself on its sporting achievements was in decline. Yes, the Americans were removed – thus allowing the small island independence – but morale was low. The revolutionary politicians knew this issue had to be addressed, and swiftly.

They had two specific areas that they targeted and the establishment of their new sport institution would oversee the development. ‘The National Institute of Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation’ (INDER) was created in 1961 and the organisation was designed with two specific goals. Firstly, they wanted to increase participation in sport as they fully believed that access to exercise was a basic human right. Secondly, they wanted to continue to produce elite athletes that could compete for their country on the global stage. It’s important to note that there were no time constraints regarding these objectives or no annual goals that had to be achieved. Cuba believed that it was important to put no pressure on those who were responsible of producing these changes.

Within ten years, INDER was succeeding at an incredibly fast rate. As aforementioned in the previous article, Cuba have won 195 medals since the 1972 Olympic Games, including 67 golds. They are the most successful team at the International Baseball World Cup, achieving 30 medals (25 golds) compared to America’s 15 medals (4 golds). Okay, so the elite performance goal was certainly progressing, but how was mass participation in sport doing? Fantastic, is the answer. Not only were the numerical figures above and beyond of previous years, but the idea of the ‘community’ had returned. Citizens were socialising with one another and the health of the individuals had improved; the divide between social classes that money had brought along was diminishing.

In August of 1991, Cuba hosted the Pan America games. The Games were a success and 26 countries came to Havana to compete in the newly built facilities. There was additional success for the hosts, as they topped the medal table with 140 medals compared to America’s 130. Despite the success, criticism soon followed as one journalist from the New York Times was critical that the country decided to host the games with the collapse of the USSR looming. Thus, questioning the use of Cuba’s limited resources. Cuba’s economy relied heavily on the Soviet-Union as their sugar export profits were largely through the USSR. Worryingly for Cuba, the state collapsed on the 26th of December 1991 and an economic crisis rapidly followed. This period of time was labelled the ‘Time of Peace’ by Cuban nationals. Ironically, what followed could not have been more of the opposite.

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Cuba hosted the competition in 1991 ©Sportcommunicator

Cuba’s trading preferences were severely damaged, and as a result, Cuban trade crumbled by 87% as their preferred sugar trade with the USSR could not be replicated by any country. Their GDP plummeted by 35% in the following 12 months and the financial security of the state was being questioned. However, amidst the chaos that was ensuing, Cuba’s sporting power continued to grow. Their decision to prioritise the development of sport could be argued as risky – or downright absurd – but it paid off, enormously.

Sadly, funds had to be generated from somewhere and the country had to endure multiple cuts to public expenditures such as libraries or community buildings. However, alongside the success of producing sporting athletes, participation in sport did not suffer. The state viewed participation at a local level just as important as creating athletes.

Morale was high again as participation continued to be successful. Although the mass partaking was excellent and will always be regarded as a great way to keep the inhabitants healthy and active, it was INDER’s intelligence that truly helped the country depart from its ‘Time of Peace’. Baseball players were loaned out to America and Japan where the majority of their wages would go back into the Cuban state system. The Indian National Army asked Cuba if they could send over boxing coaches to help its soldiers prepare for battle, which subsequently produced further income for Cuba.

INDER guided Cuba away from a turbulent time, helping to increase their economic value and general wellbeing of their population. One aspect of INDER that has not be mentioned yet is their work in other countries. They conduct courses – and even send out coaches – to help the establishment and growth of sport development programmes. Although some countries can financially contribute to Cuba for their resources, other countries – such as Paraguay – cannot afford to offer such wealth. Despite this, Cuba still remain in those countries to help the development. The third and final article will go into more depth about INDER’s involvement outside of Cuba as well as discussing the role of ‘The Escuela Internacional de Educacio´n Fı´sica y Deporte’ (EIEFD). A university that offers free physical education tuition to foreign students.

Liam Moore

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