Skip to main content

Chapter 7 - The Revolution in Perspective

The Economic Background

To arrive at an objective assessment of the character of the Cuban Revolution, and the validity of the claims made both for and against it, it is first necessary to examine the economic background. The information here assembled is meant to dispel widespread misconceptions and establish the facts.

Cuba, the largest of the Caribbean islands, with an area of 44,218 square miles, is greater in area than Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Israel, Israel, Iceland, or Ireland. Its population in 1961 was 6,900,000 with an annual birth rate of 2.3% as against the U.S. rate of 1.7%. By the 1970's Cuba's population reached 8,400,000. About 73% of the population is white; 12% black and 15% mestizo. Density of population was 153 inhabitants per square mile in the 1960s. The island was densely populated, but because of the high proportion of arable land, was not overcrowded.

To better understand the social-economic background of the Cuban Revolution it is necessary to take into account class differences in rural Cuba. In this connection the views of Ramiro Guerra are well worth quoting:

. . . Cuba was precisely NOT a peasant country. . . to talk of Cuba's "peasantry" as if the population were an undifferentiated mass of impoverished peasant landowners is to miss entirely the complexity of rural Latin America. Peasants who by a swift process of sugar plantation developments have been transformed into rural proletarians are no longer PEASANTS...there were, in 1953, 489,000 agricultural wage workers in Cuba and only 67,000 unpaid family laborers who were the wives and children of the small-scale land owners, the highland peasantry, Los Guajiros of Cuba. . . the big sugar plantations are an urbanizing force within which the rural population must concentrate itself densely. . . by standardizing work practices, the plantations create a factory situation--albeit a rural one. And factories in the field are urban in many ways, even though they are not in cities. A rural proletariat working on modern plantations inevitably become culturally and behaviorally distinct from the peasantry...its members have no land. Their special economic and social circumstances lead in another direction. They prefer standardized wage minimums, adequate medical and educational services, increased buying power, etc...when it is noted that there were more than 489,000 agricultural laborers in Cuba in 1953...a gross indication of the difference between peasantry and rural proletariat is provided us. . . (quoted by Sidney W. Mintz in the anthology Background to Revolution; New York, 1966, p. 182-183)

These views are confirmed by the fact that the agricultural laborers, primarily in the sugar plantations, constituted one of the strongest and most numberous federations affiliated to the Cuban Confederation of Labor (CTC).

Cuba, the "Pearl of the Antilles," though by no means a paradise, was not, as many believe, an economically backward country. Castro himself admitted that while there was poverty, there was no economic crisis and no hunger in Cuba before the Revolution. (See Maurice Halperin: The Rise and Fall of Fidel Castro, University of California, 1972, pgs. 24, 25, 37)

Armando Hart, a member of Castro's innermost ruling group, made the extremely significant observation that:

. . . it is certain that capitalism had attained high levels of organization, efficiency and production that declined after the Revolution. . . (Juventud Rebelde, November 2, 1969; quoted by Rene Dumont, Is Cuba Socialist?, p. 85)

Paul A. Baran, an ardent pro-Castroite in the equally ardent Monthly Review pamphlet, Reflections on the Cuban Revolution (1961) substantiates what every economist, as well as amateurs like Castro, has been saying:

...the Cuban Revolution was born with a silver spoon in its mouth. . .the world renowned French agronomist, Rene Dumont, has estimated that if properly cultivated as intensively as South China, Cuba could feed fifty million people. . . the Cuban Revolution is spared the painful, but ineluctable compulsion that has beset preceding socialist revolutions: the necessity to force tightening of people's belts in order to lay the foundations for a better tomorrow. . .(p. 23)

Theodore Draper quotes Anial Escalante, (before he was purged by Castro) one of the leading communists, who admitted that: reality, Cuba was not one of the countries with the lowest standard of living of the masses in America, but on the contrary, one of the highest standards of living, and it was here where the first great . . . democratic social revolution of the continent burst forth. . . If the historical development had been dictated by the false axiom [revolutions come first in poorest countries] the revolution should have been first produced in Haiti, Colombia or even Chile, countries of greater poverty for the masses than the Cuba of 1958. . . (quoted in Draper's Castro's Revolution: Myths and Realities; New York, 1962, p. 22)

The following statistics indicate the rate of production before the Revolution (Jan. 1,1959). (Sources are two United Nations publications: Economic Study of Latin America, 1957, and the Statistical Annual, 1961. The third source is The University of Miami Cuban Studies, reported in the journal Este y Oeste, Caracas, Jan. 1969)

Agricultural Production

1949-1951        % of increase
raw sugar ............ 11
plantains ............ 30
rice ................ 120
leaf tobacco ......... 50
potatoes  ............ 28
flour ............... 114

Industrial Production--non-Sugar

                    % of increase
cement ................ 55.5 
fertilizer ............ 48.8 
cotton ................ 33.6 
sulfuric acid ......... 32.3 
artificial silk ....... 18.1 
rubber goods .......... 65.5 
construction ......... 120.8 
gas and electric ..... 157.5 
manufactures ......... 118.7

(source, University of Miami Cuban Studies reported in Este y Oeste)

...according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, total agricultural production in 1969, 10 years after the Revolution, was 7% below that of 1958...(Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Cuba in the 1970s; University of New Mexico Press, 1974, p. 56)

As for sugar production, Halperin writes that while it is true that:

. . . in 1961, by harvesting uncut sugar cane left over from previous years, Cuba produced close to seven million metric tons of sugar, the largest crop in history. Production, however, fell sharply in the following eight years, averaging well below the yields in the decade preceding the Revolution [1949-1959]. . .per capita production of sugar in 1945 was about 30% higher than in 1963. . . In the 1950s, on the average, a labor force of 500,000 working three months produced 500,000,000 tons of sugar, forty tons per man year. In the 1970 harvest, 500,000 persons working twelve months producd 8.5 million tons of sugar, or only seventeen tons per man year. . . (ibid. p. 62, 241, our emphasis)

Cuba was NOT a one crop country. In 1957, sugar represented only 27% of total agricultural income. Growing crops were only PARTIALLY listed above. Cattle raising, (per 100 head) increased from 3884 to 6000 in 1958 (University of Miami Studies)

...before Castro, Cuba was one of the richest underdeveloped countries in the world, with Gross National Product, per-capita income in the mid 1950s of $360, Cuba was well ahead of Japan ($254 per-capita) and Spain ($254 per-capita)... (Robert Blackburn, quoted in the anthology Fidel Castro's Personal Revolution: 1953-1973; New York, 1975, p. 134)
  • Cuba had one automobile for every 39 inhabitants, compared with Argentina's one for every 60 and Mexico's one for every 91 people.
  • Cuba had one radio for every 5 people, second in Latin America only to Argentina with one for every 3 inhabitants.
  • the wage rate for industrial workers in Cuba was the highest in Latin America (as of 1957) and 9th highest in the world.
  • agricultural wages were the highest in Latin America
  • Cuba's mortality rate of 7 per thousand was the lowest in Latin America. Its infant mortality rate was by far the lowest.
  • Cuba had one doctor for every 1,000 inhabitants, exceeded only by Uruguay with one for every 800, and Argentina for every 760 people.
  • Cuba ranked fifth in Latin American manufacturing.
  • Though living standards were much lower than in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe, Cuba's was the third highest in Latin America, and almost as high as Italy's.
  • Cuba had more railroads per square mile than any other country in the world.
  • Its one telephone for 38 persons was exceeded only by the U.S. with one for every 3 and Argentina with one for every 13; way ahead of Russia's with one for every 580 people.

It must be borne in mind; however, that statistics can be misleading and conditions were by no means as rosy as implied. Favorable comparison with the already low living standards of Latin America does not mean that the Cuban unskilled workers (and far less the peasants) enjoyed a SATISFACTORY standard of living. To be a little better off than the WORST does not signify that it is the BEST. There is another, darker side to this picture. Compared to American standards, Cuba's per-capita income was 1/5 of the average U.S. income: far lower than in any of the Southern states.

The big minus sign of the Cuban economy is that it is not self-sustaining in the indispensable paraphernalia of modern life. Cuba is totally dependent for the uninterrupted flow of vital supplies; oil, coal, iron and steel, trucks and buses, cars, chemicals, sophisticated machinery etc. And it was precisely this hopeless and impossible attempt to make Cuba a highly industrialized country without these vital resources, that just about wrecked the Cuban economy. Cuba has not yet recovered from this catastrophic, totally unpardonable miscalculation, taken against the advice of qualified economic experts. Castro and his staff of fumbling amateurs, were forced to abandon this suicidal policy, but they still persist in meddling with things the know absolutely nothing about.

These serious drawbacks notwithstanding, Cuba is far from being a totally undeveloped country with a primitive economy. Given intelligent use of its natural wealth of resources, the potential for raising the living standards of its population is almost limitless. On this point there is no doubt. That the Castro "revolutionary" regime, far from developing these potentials, has not even equalled the admittedly inadequate standards attained before the revolution, is unfortunately also true.

Distribution of the national income was not balanced. The lower standard of living of the agricultural laborers was particularly atrocious, especially during the "dead season" between sugar harvests:

. . . the standard of living of the privileged classes of the cities [writes Dumont] was in violent contrast with the misery of the peasants . . . who were unemployed an average of 138 days a year . . . the unemployed numbered 250,000 even in the middle of the harvest season on the sugar plantations. . .(Cuba: Socialism and Development, p. 14)

And C. Wright Mills informs us . . . "that only 3% of peasant 'Bohios' [huts] had indoor toilets. Two thirds of the children were not in any elementary school and most of those that were, dropped out . . . in 1950, 180,000 children began first grade, less than 5000 reached eighth grade. . ." (Listen Yankee!; New York, 1960, p. 44-45)

It is well worth noting, as one observer remarked, " . . . that a substantial fraction of the town population were [like the rural proletarians] also very poor. . . squatters were living in shacks, and there were slum tenements. In 1953, no less than one fifth of families lived in single rooms and the average size of these families was five. . . taking the urban and rural population together, 62% of the economically active population had incomes of less than $75 a month. . . " (Dudley Sears in Background to Revolution, ibid. p. 213)

The Castro government is directly responsible for the awful economic situation of the Cuban people. The rising standard of living is a myth. Rene Dumont, the distinguished agronomist and economist, marshalls overwhelming evidence that Castro and his bumbling amateurs wrecked the economy of Cuba. There is no serious disagreement on this point:

. . .Cuba's shortages of food and other necessities are to a large extent due to the dogmatism of its leaders. . . in 1963, the harvests were 25% lower than in 1960 although the number of days worked had been rising rapidly. . . The standard of living in Cuba remained stationary in 1961, and with strict rationing, went down perhaps 15% to 20% in 1962. . . There are still, as I had seen in Santa Clara in 1960, no recognition of the difficulties involved in managing an economy . . . they were not trained and badly prepared. . . professors at the Institute of Technology did not even know the names of the most common plants or their requirements...the government is increasingly calling for more effort and sacrifices as well as the acceptance of increased authority...despite constant reorganization, it is unable to put its house in order...(Is Cuba Socialist? pp. 100, 20, 92, 149, 29, 206.)

The economic consequences of transforming reasonably productive cattle and dairy farms and other agricultural enteprises into notoriously inefficient "people's" farms was predictably the thousands of law-abiding families evicted without warning, it appeared to be an arbitrary act of brutality. . .

[The peasants retaliated; Halperin writes that:] the impression obtained in usually well-informed government circles that over a period of several years, some 50,000 troops were engaged in liquidating peasant disaffection...a sizeable military effort had been under way to put down the uprising, which was not finally liquidated until well into 1964...Castro reminisced about "the uprisings that occurred mainly, but not exclusively, in the Escambray Mountains. . . organized groups existed all over the island...there were 1,000 bandits in the Escambray Mountains alone." (Halperin, ibid. p. 283, 284. Halperin credits the Castro quote to Granma, June 13, 1971)

Maurice Halperin also reports that:

" riots occurred in a number of towns in the western provinces, including Cardenas, a sizeable urban center and seaport about 100 miles east of Havana. Here at a mass meeting, June 17, 1962, President of Cuba Dorticos had to be protected by tanks during a speech he made to calm the inhabitants..." (The Rise and Decline of Fidel Castro; Univ. of California, 1974, p. 162)

In addition to the Cardenas riots, the Bulletin of the Cuban Libertarian Movement in Exile (Miami, June 1962) reports that:

. . . in El Cano, a little town in Havana Province, violence was so great that the authorities did not even try to suppress it. But afterwards, the authorities took revenge by expropriating furniture and personal belongings . . . Food riots also occurred in Cienfuegos...[in view of the fact that these]...sacrifices have been going on since 1961 and have been unbearable for the Cubans [Dumont asks:] To what extent has a ruling class the right to impose its singleminded conceptions of the future--and to impose it in so disorganized a manner--that the results are further aggravated? (ibid. p. 70-71)

Dumont, we are sure, will agree, in view of his own analysis, that economic disaster is not the cause, but only a symptom of the inner degeneration of the Cuban Revolution.

Next page: Chapter 8 - Anonymous Heroes of the Revolution