From the April 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard
It is just over a quarter of a century since the July 26 Movement, led by Fidel Castro, toppled the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and took over the government of the country. From a policy of mild agricultural reformism, the new regime gradually shifted to one of full-scale state capitalism and close trading and other ties with Russia. In view of Cuba's geographical position—less than a hundred miles off the American coast— this has resulted in major reverberations in the international power struggle.
Pre-1959 Cuba was dependent to an extraordinary degree on a single crop, sugar, and a single trading partner, the United States. Sugar comprised about a quarter of the gross national product, and amounted to four-fifths of all exports. Not only was most trade with the United States, but American companies also had massive investments in Cuba (around 850 million dollars in 1959). One consequence of all this was a high degree of sensitivity to the international sugar market; another was heavy unemployment and underemployment, with the half million sugar workers working for only the four months harvest period in the year.
Politically, too, Cuba was under the American thumb. In 1898, as Cuban nationalists fought for “independence” from Spain, American troops had invaded and remained for four years. Even after their departure, the US retained the right to station troops on the island and intervene in Cuban politics. A succession of sordid and corrupt dictatorships followed. Many fortunes were made, some by unusual means— in the late fifties, for instance, the income from Havana’s parking meters went to the family of the city's mayor.
The Cuban peasants and workers, most of them utterly destitute, were subject to torture and repression of the kind that deterred any significant resistance. Nor was the Cuban “Communist" Party able to offer any effective opposition: in 1938, after all, it had openly supported Batista! It was essentially as a nationalist anti-Batista movement that Castro was able to organise his guerrillas in the late fifties and eventually take Havana. Support for Batista was minimal and confined to a tiny section of society, so that there was nothing to stop the only other organised political force in Cuba from taking over the government.
In the light of later developments, it is important to appreciate that in 1959 Castro did not pretend to be a socialist and neither did he carry out wholesale nationalisation. It was American hostility, plus Cuba’s dependence on sugar exports, that led to Cuba’s taking a state-capitalist road and becoming an ally of Russia. The American government demanded compensation for land seized in the 1959 land reform, and refused financial aid. The following year, Cuba arranged to exchange sugar for Russian crude oil. but the multinational oil companies (Texaco, Shell, Esso) refused to process it in their Cuban refineries. Castro seized the oil refineries. Eisenhower stopped all sugar imports from Cuba, all American property was nationalised, a total American embargo on trade with Cuba began. Thus Cuba became totally isolated from its largest trading and investment partner. Forced to rely heavily on its own resources, there was no choice but to turn to state capitalism as a means of development.
Initially, emphasis was placed on agricultural diversification, that is, giving greater importance to crops other than sugar, especially beans, rice and corn. Industrialisation was not at first a priority: by 1962, only ten new factories had been constructed. But this policy did not break the dependence on imports, and failure of the sugar harvest in 1962 and 1963 led to an enormous balance of payments deficit. So the decision was made by Cuba's new rulers to opt for agricultural specialisation, with an expansion in sugar exports. The ambitious target of a ten-million ton sugar harvest was set for 1970: in the event, this was not reached and the emphasis on sugar led to a fall in industrial output that year. Cuba remains essentially a one-crop economy.
As we have seen, Cuba was once closely tied to the economic apron strings of the United States. Though the links may not be quite so close, there are now similar relations with Russia. Cuba is almost entirely reliant on imports for energy, especially oil and coal. Russian economic policies to Cuba are certainly not based on charity, but on economic benefit. For climatic reasons, Russia cannot be a low-cost producer of sugar, which Cuba certainly is. But Russia can produce fairly cheaply many of the things needed by Cuba, especially oil, machinery and means of transport. So Russian-Cuban trade and aid is based on simple profit considerations.
The continuing reliance on sugar exports means that Cuba is still subject to the ups and downs in the international sugar market. Between 1975 and 1976, for instance, the price of sugar fell from 60 to 14 cents a pound. Another major hard currency earner has been nickel; but a slump in the international steel industry in the early seventies meant a reduced demand for nickel and hence less of it was exported from Cuba. Thus Cuba is not, and cannot be, isolated from the economy of the rest of the capitalist world.
And how have the ordinary people of Cuba fared under Castro’s rule? There is no denying some of the achievements; infant mortality, for example, has fallen by about a half since 1959, and the 1961 literacy campaign reduced the rate of illiteracy from a quarter of the population to under four per cent (the average rate in Latin America is about a third). But combatting illiteracy is part and parcel of producing a modern working class, equipped to handle advanced methods of production. State capitalism is clearly an efficient (from the capitalist point of view) way of developing the means of production and creating a workforce to operate them.
Workers’ living conditions have no doubt improved since 1959, but major problems remain. In 1965, Castro admitted that the regime had not even begun to deal seriously with the housing problem. In 1971, a system was inaugurated whereby workers effectively built their own houses, in labour additional to their ordinary work. Even so, Castro in 1975 had still to concede that in housing, “we have not been able to do very much". Unpaid “voluntary” labour has been widely used as the rulers try to obtain as much surplus labour as possible from the workers. Women may have a working week of up to ninety hours: such “advantages” as extended shopping hours mean that they can do both a paid job and domestic labour.
Every so often, Cuba’s gaols are emptied and potential “trouble-makers” shipped off to Miami. In 1971, a law against “vagrancy” was passed, but even before it came into effect 100,000 unemployed had been induced to register for productive work. Reports in the late seventies estimated 50,000 unemployed in Cuba. Agricultural workers remain underemployed, and absenteeism is rife. The trade unions have been deployed as a means of disciplining workers, with identity cards and demerit points: valuable labour power cannot be allowed to go to waste.
Nor is Cuba by any means an egalitarian society. Some workers are singled out as “Advanced Workers”, which gives them access to special bonuses which can enable them to earn twice the average wage. But above the working class is the Cuban ruling class—managers, bureaucrats and the like, who enjoy bloated “salaries" and privileged access to goods which they do not need to own individually. At the top of the pyramid, supreme power lies with the Politburo and the Council of State, a self-perpetuating elite. The system of worker assemblies is not democracy in action: what the workers choose is not who is to represent them but who is to transmit government policies and directives to them.
Cuba, then, is no socialist paradise. It is a state-capitalist country subject to the anarchy of the world market, where a tiny minority of rulers live off the surplus value produced by the working class. The “left" once found Cuba mystifying—was 1959 a revolution without a Leninist party, they asked. But there is no mystery about Cuba: state capitalism may enable a backward country to speed its development, but it retains the brutality and oppression characteristic of all shades of capitalism.