What did the Cuban Revolution accomplish and where can it go from here?

by Samuel Farber

When in the 1950s, along with many of my high school classmates, I became involved in the struggle against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, one of our teachers remarked that we had no real reason to criticize the state of our country because so many other nations in the region — such as Bolivia and Haiti — were much worse off than us.

His description of Cuba’s comparative position was accurate, but incomplete. On the eve of the 1959 Revolution, Cuba had the fourth highest per capita income in Latin America, after Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina.

And although average per capita income is an insufficient, and sometimes misleading, indicator of general economic development, other indicators support his picture of the pre-revolutionary Cuban economy: in 1953, Cuba also ranked fourth in Latin America according to an average of twelve indexes covering such items as percentage of labor force employed in mining, manufacturing, and construction, percentage of literate persons, per capita electric power, newsprint, and caloric food consumption.

Yet, at that time the country’s economy was also suffering from stagnation and the pernicious effects of sugar monoculture, including substantial unemployment (partly caused by the short sugar cane season of three or four months). Most importantly, the national indexes of living standards hid dramatic differences between the urban (57 percent of the population in 1953) and rural areas (43 percent), especially between Havana (21 percent of Cuba’s total population) and the rest of the country. The Cuban countryside was plagued by malnutrition, widespread poverty, poor health, and lack of education.

For my teacher, it seems, the fact that other people were worse off made him more accepting of his own life circumstances. But he was the exception. To the extent that Cubans compared themselves with the people of other countries, they preferred to look up to the much higher standard of living of the United States rather than console themselves by looking down at the greater misery of their Latin American brethren.

As a 1956 report of the United States Bureau of Foreign Commerce put it: “the worker in Cuba . . . has wider horizons than most Latin American workers and expects more out of life in material amenities than many European workers . . . His goal is to reach a standard of living comparable with that of the American worker.”

This underlines the fundamental mistake of assuming instead of ascertaining that comparisons of economic performance have any meaning to the people who live in those economies. Taken to an extreme, this mistake leads to an “objectivist” analysis that stands outside history as it is actually lived by its actors and is likely, as in the case of my high school teacher, to result in a conservative commitment to the existing social order, as opposed to a questioning of, or opposition to, the existing social order and its ruling group.

For those who are affected by it, economic development has a meaning that goes beyond economic data and requires an understanding of popular aspirations and expectations, which are based in part on the existing material reality and in part on past history.

In terms of its material reality, the Cuba of the fifties was on the one hand characterized by uneven modernity, fairly advanced means of communication and transportation — especially the high circulation, by Latin American standards, of newspapers and magazines — and the rapid development of television and radio. On the other hand, there were abysmal living conditions in the Cuban countryside.

As far as its history, the Cuba of the 1950s was still living the effects of the frustrated revolution of 1933, a nationalist revolution against dictatorship with an important anti-imperialist component and the participation of an incipient labor movement, then under Communist leadership.

Although this revolution had achieved some significant reforms equivalent in the Cuban context to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, it failed to achieve major structural changes in Cuban society, such as real national political and economic independence from US imperialism (beyond the abolition of the Platt Amendment in 1934) or any meaningful agrarian reform and diversification away from the one-crop sugar economy with all it implied in terms of economic instability, large-scale unemployment, and poverty.

These were the economic issues brandished by the Cuban opposition at that time to struggle for more or less radical reforms to the existing order, instead of pondering and celebrating Cuba’s comparative high rank among Latin American economies. Thus Eduardo Chibás, the leader of the reform Ortodoxo Party, of which Fidel Castro was a secondary leader, proposed in 1948 a series of modest reforms to improve the life of the Cuban rural population.

Five years later, after Batista’s coup against the constitutional government, Castro — in his “History Will Absolve Me” speech at his trial for his failed attack against one of Batista’s military installations — proposed a more radical series of measures, including giving property titles to peasants holding up to 165 acres of land, with compensation granted to landlords on the basis of the average income they would have received over a ten-year period. He also added new elements to his reform agenda, such as his radical plan for the employees of all large industrial, mercantile, or mining concerns, including sugar mills, to receive 30 percent of profits.