Cuba: The End of a Road?

(November 1970)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.45, November/December 1970, pp.4-8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The importance of Cuba’s failure to achieve a 10 million ton sugar harvest can hardly be over estimated. For it reveals in full light the impasse that the Cuban revolution confronts now, 11 years after. In order to see the extent of this impasse it is necessary to review some of the main features of the past 11 years.

The Cuban Revolution

Prior to December 1958 Cuba was the non-developing country par excellence. Although the per capita national income was relatively high for the third world, it had not risen for fifty years. The economy was dominated by a small number of large concerns, predominantly American owned (thirteen US companies between them owned 40 per cent of sugar production, us concerns owned the electricity and telephone systems, nickel production, oil refineries etc). Such concerns ensured that the production of sugar for the us market (where the American owners of Cuban sugar received preferential treatment and above world market prices) dominated the economy. Thus between 1946 and 1954 sugar and its by-product accounted for 81 per cent of Cuban exports, while 60 per cent of total exports were to and 77 per cent of total imports from the US or Canada (1951-7). [1] The price paid by the Cuban people for being a raw materials adjunct of the us economy was enormous. In the countryside a huge section of the population was deliberately left unemployed much of the year so as to be available for the sugar harvest. At the same time a considerable proportion of the 60 per cent of the land owned by the sugar producers was left fallow – not used for sugar so as to keep world prices up, not used for other purposes so as to enable expansion of sugar production in those odd years when world prices rose anyway. Those who benefited from this situation, the large us concerns and the minute local oligarchy, invested their profits either in real estate or abroad, rarely in developing local industry (to have done so might have broken the hold of the sugar interests over the country).

Economic stagnation was paralleled by a corruption of political life. From the unsuccessful revolution of 1933 on a succession of middle class cliques, unable to challenge the power of the oligarchy and develop the country, fought to control the state as a means of providing their supporters with jobs in its bureaucracy. [2] The Batista regime after 1952 was the most vicious of these. Unable to satisfy the real needs of any section of the population, it resorted instead to mass repression while feathering its own nest.

The rapidity with which the Batista regime fell at the end of 1958 was not so much due to military defeat (even a few days before, the Rebel Army only contained 8,000 members) as to the collapse of its forces. No significant class in Cuba was willing to fight on behalf of the parasitic clique. The programme that the new Castro government initially set itself was one of economic development – in the interests of all sections of the revolution. Castro declared that ‘his aim was tc make Cuba a country without rich or poor, only middle-class’ [3], that he was ‘neither for socialism nor for capitalism but for humanism’. Even committed capitalist commentators in the west could sympathise with such a programme.

Cuba’s ‘revolution’ is not a revolution in the traditional sense of a shift in power from one economic group to another ... rather the transfer of power from the hands of an exceptionally oppressive and corrupt regime ... to a dynamic group that is uniting the nation on a programme of economic development ... The political complexion of the cabinet and leading officials can be judged from the high reputation in business circles of many of the men appointed. [4]

But ‘development’ was impossible in Cuba without breaking the hold both of the us companies and of the domination of the economy by sugar production. Castro began probing for a path towards development cautiously. He visited the us in the hope of receiving help in such a programme. When he cut rents in the towns, his aim was to encourage private capital to divert its resources from real estate to industrial investment. His Minister of Labour stated that labour’s hostility to management during the Batista era would be replaced by a ‘reasonable approach’. Income-tax changes in the middle of 1959 raised rates on higher incomes, but exempted single persons earning less than the not inconsiderable sum of $2,400 from any tax payments at all. The first land reform measures permitted holdings of up to 1,000 acres – and rather more in the crucial sugar lands. At the same time, although Batista’s army and police, which had disintegrated with his regime, had to be replaced, much of the rest of the old state structure was left intact once the most compromised supporters of the former dictator had been purged. Yet even these first cautious measures were enough to worry the representatives of the Cuban bourgeois and the us interests. In mid-1959 the president and five ministers left the government.

A clear choice was presented to Castro: either, follow the path of countless previous politicians in Latin America, come to terms with established interests, bury the programme for reform and development, maintain a regime which would not be able to fulfil the aspirations of any of ‘the major indigenous classes, least of all the intellectual middle-class from which he and most of his movement came, and therefore end up by degenerating into the sort of repressive parasitism epitomised by Batista; or use control of the state to break the established interests and put economic power into the hands of those with his own background and interests. By a series of ad hoc measures Castro began to move towards the latter solution. But each such intervention led to more friction with the us and the old oligarchy, and therefore to the need for more intervention.

The us owned electricity monopoly was compelled to lower its charges; a 25 per cent tax was imposed on mineral exports; Guevara ordered firms to train Rebel Army officers in the management of industries; the land reform began to bite more deeply. The us government made its first formal protest when us owned property on ranches was seized. Castro began, cautiously, again to look for support in the growing economic war – at the beginning of 1960 he made a trade deal with Mikoyan and accepted $100m of Russian aid. The us in turn prepared for a showdown it thought would bring Cuba to heel. When Castro turned to Soviet oil supplies as a cheaper alternative to those of the us monopolies, the latter ordered their Cuban refineries not to touch it. Upon ‘intervention’ in the refineries by the Cuban government, the us closed its market to Cuban sugar. Castro retaliated in the only way possible – by seizing more US-owned enterprises.

Suddenly, traumatically, all Cuba’s economic relations were transformed, as Guevara was to put it a little later.

With the exception of the agrarian reform, which was desired and put into effect by the Cuban people themselves, all our revolutionary measures were a direct reaction to the aggressions of the monopolies ... The pressure of the US on Cuba necessitated the radicalisation of the revolution.

There can be little doubt of the popularity of the measures that had prompted the us actions. The general standard of living of the mass of the population rose. The chronic underemployment in the country-side began to be dealt with. Non-sugar agricultural production rose 30 per cent between 1959 and 1963. While luxury goods were heavily taxed, and their production cut, the general level of consumer goods output rose. Wages outside of the sugar industry were 51 per cent higher in February 1960 than a year before.

At the same time, it would be completely wrong to accept, as some people seem able to, that the radical measures taken by Castro at this time made his regime into a ‘workers’ or a ‘socialist’ one. Although there was mass support for the regime’s actions, the interventions that led to the taking-over of industry were from the top down. The state was in the hands of the leaders of the Rebel Army, not of any organs of workers democracy or even in the hands of a revolutionary workers party. [5] Indeed it was because there were no organs of mass selectivity that Castro turned elsewhere for support: to the bureaucrats of the discredited Cuban Communist Party. These increasingly provided a bureaucratic infrastructure for control over the nationalised concerns and over society generally.

At the same time, in order to survive after the breach with us imperialism, Castro was forced to turn more and more to the Russians for aid. The logical outcome of both these moves was his self-proclamation as a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ (the end of 1961). Yet neither move did away with the backwardness of the Cuban economy. Breaking with the US abolished the old constraints on development. But it also meant that the country faced enormous burdens, just in order to survive. Suddenly new markets for a massive quantity of sugar had to be found, new sources for all sorts of essential imports obtained.

At first, as they set out to industrialise in 1961 the Cuban leaders down played these realities. They felt convinced not only that they could accumulate, but further, that they could do so on a grand scale. They announced plans that implied following the path of industrialisation of the USSR and Eastern Europe – $l,000m were to be spent on industrialisation over a five-year period, with 28 per cent of the GNP going in investment. [6] According to Castro the aim was a ‘growth rate of 13 per cent per annum and to ... double living standards in a few years’. [7] This was to be accomplished by Russian aid and by expanding sugar production, while not abandoning the crop diversification measures.

Unfortunately reality was to be harsh on the dreams of the Cuban leaders. In order to raise the high levels of planned investment the rising living standards of the Cuban masses had to be curtailed by rationing of fats (August 1961), then foodstuffs generally (June 1962) and then clothing (March 1963). In the countryside the new measures were often resisted by the peasants, as Castro admitted in a speech of May 1962. A large sugar crop in 1961 could not do away with the reality of a world glut and low prices for it. The programme for industrialisation faltered; plants were late in coming into operation ; shortages of funds to buy raw materials meant that often they could not function anyway; at other times they were immobilised by shortages of spare parts. Cuba became increasingly dependent on Soviet aid for its physical survival. Yet the Cuba crisis of late 1962 showed that the Russians regarded Cuba essentially as a pawn, not even to be consulted when major decisions concerning her future were taken.

The Cuban leaders were rapidly to lose the illusion that they had found an easy path to development.

‘We made an absurd plan, disconnected with reality, with absurd goals and with supplies that were totally a dream ...’ (Guevara, March 1962)

The Russian leaders began to indicate that although they saw aid to Cuba as strategically useful to themselves, this aid was to serve their interests, not that of the Cuban people. In 1963 and 1964 they seemed to have expressed anxiety both at the growing amount of credits they were giving to Cuba [8], and the purposes to which these were being put. The opinion was expressed that if Cuba was to go on being subsidised then it should concentrate on the efficient production of things the Russian economy needed – chiefly raw materials and foodstuffs – not on inefficient production in heavy industry.

A change in the orientation of the Cuban economy soon followed. ‘Government officials said they had been mistaken in believing that major industrialisation could be undertaken at this time, and now realise that agricultural development must have precedence, both for export earnings and for domestic consumption.’ [9] This policy was however resisted by some of Cuba’s leaders in particular Guevara, who saw it as perpetuating Cuba’s position as an underdeveloped supplier of raw materials to others. In a scarcely veiled allusion to the Russians, he denounced,

‘talk of mutually beneficial trade based on the prices imposed on underdeveloped countries by the law of value and its by-products, the international relations of unequal exchange. How can ‘mutual benefit’ mean the sale at world market prices of raw materials which cost the backward countries sweat and boundless suffering and the purchase at those market prices of machinery made in modern automated factories?’ [10]

But for the rulers of Cuba, isolated in a world dominated by rival imperialisms, dependence on Russian aid was stronger than the aspirations of one of the most heroic leaders of the revolution. On October 3rd, 1965 Guevara left the government and Cuba. Soon after another symbol of the revolution was also removed: the government called in and centralised under its own control all the combat weapons previously in the hands of the population. [11]

‘Realism’ was now to be the dominant theme behind Cuban economic policy. The grandiose talk of the past, whether of the rapid development of heavy industry or of the diversification of agriculture and the abolition of monoculture was ended. Instead the emphasis was on producing as much sugar as possible and selling this on the world market. The revolutionaries in the early years had argued that monoculture was a prime cause of Cuban underdevelopment; now it was seen as the only remaining way out of underdevelopment. The centre of Cuba’s plan became to produce 10 million tons a year by 1970. The aim had been to rise over the years towards this target – seemingly not an impossible one, given that in 1952 a harvest of more than seven million tons had been obtained. But the very reforms of the previous years – aimed at doing away with monoculture as the cause of poverty in Cuba – made the task difficult. Above all there were no longer massive numbers of unemployed in the country-side at the beck and call of the sugar harvest. At the same time deliveries of agricultural machinery (from the Russian bloc) to take their place were unreliable. So the sugar crop, six million tons in 1966, remained around this figure in 1967, and then fell – to 5.2m in 1968, and 4.8m in 1969.

Instead of breaking out of its difficulties, the condition of the Cuban economy remained perilous. The indications are that far from development taking place, the national product remained more or less constant. In order to obtain hard currencies for essential imports, the Cubans had to default on promised sugar deliveries to the Russians, selling instead on the world market. For the same reason, sugar rationing had to be introduced in Cuba itself.

But the pressures on the Cuban regime could not be ignored for ever. The heightened sugar target became more and more seen as necessary if there were to be funds to buy urgently needed western imports. At the same time there was the need to placate the Russians, by at least meeting promised sugar deliveries. Finally, there were past loans from the Eastern Bloc to be paid back.

Sr. Rafael Rodriguez (a leader of the Cuban CP) told the EIU ... that the interest rate on Soviet loan was 2-2½ per cent, that payments on the principles of the loans had already begun but that amortorisations would peak towards 1975. [12]

So the ten million ton target became the dominant force behind the actions of the Cuban rulers over the last year.

Yet even if this target had been achieved, it would not have solved the problem of Cuban underdevelopment. The sugar would still have had to be sold on a fluctuating world market. Successes in so selling it would have been at the expense of Cuba’s competitors – in the main countries as impoverished as Cuba. The beneficiaries of the huge exertions poured into producing the crop would have still remained those who bought it – the ruling classes of the advanced industrial countries. At the same time, much of Cuba’s earnings would have disappeared straight away as repayments on Russian loans. As Castro put it, the sugar produced would enable Cuba to begin to tackle the serious balance of payments problem in foreign trade, ... particularly with the Soviet Union. [13]

In fact however, it is now clear the target has not been reached. Only 8,500 million tons of sugar have been produced. And this by no means tells the whole story. In order to get such a harvest in, much of the rest of the economy has been sacrificed. Personnel and transport have been removed from other key sectors in order to cut the crop. Industry has suffered seriously. ‘Cement supplies ... were 25 per cent less than in 1968’ and ‘supplies of constructional steel 38 per cent less’. [14]

In agriculture, many of the improvements in non-sugar production made since the revolution have been undermined. Meat production fell from 154,000 tons in 1968 to 143,000 tons last year, and is expected to be about the same this year.

Milk production, previously one of the key areas of achievement of the revolutionary regime (it had risen about 50 per cent since 1959) fell by 25 per cent. [15] Eleven years after the revolution some of the first and most significant material steps on the road of the Cuban people towards greater well-being have been undermined by the pressures to produce for the world market. The only future that seems open to them now is one of continuing rationing, continual shortages and continual slaving to produce still more sugar.

International Policy

Just as the economic goals of the revolution have been eradicated so have the international revolutionary aspects. Recently Castro has tended to shift his focus from the guerrilla movements and the peasants to the army chieftains as the agency of change in South America and of ending the isolation of his revolution. Already the Peruvian regime is called ‘revolutionary’. The leader of the Venezuelan guerrillas, Douglas Bravo has been one of those expressing his concern:

It is the facts that pre-occupy us: the estrangement of Cuba in relation to China; her support for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia; her differences with and the freezing of her relations with our movement, the MIR included, and others in Latin America; the fact that she is no longer the great beacon, the meeting place for all the movements in Latin America ... [16]

Yet this latest twist in Cuban policy merely reflects a feature of much longer standing. Like Castro’s turn towards ‘Marxist-Leninism’ in 1961, his turn towards continental-wide revolution was a pragmatic response to a difficult situation. Particularly when plans for Cuban industrialisation hit an impasse in 1964-5, encouragement of guerrilla movements became the keynote of Cuban policy. Even as late as the Tricontinental Conference of 1966, much of Castro’s stance was in a pro-Soviet direction, with many of his attacks directed at the left rather than at the reformist Latin American CPs. [17]

For a year or two afterwards Castro did seem to move decisively to the ‘left’. Resentment at the treatment being dealt out to Cuba by the Russians, at the domestic impasse their aid policies were producing, and the hope that somehow, somewhere in Latin America something would happen to end Cuba’s isolation and the impasse, produced bitter attacks on the various CPs and their non-revolutionary policies at the OLAS conference of 1967. Yet the revolutionary enthusiasm of this period also betrayed its origins in unbearable frustration at Cuba’s isolation.

The slogan ‘If you are a revolutionary, make a revolution’ certainly broke with the old CPs. But its substituted for their non-revolutionary mass activity courageous, but futile revolutionary actions by small, socially isolated groups in each country – as if all regimes were as rootless, parasitic and weak as Batista’s had been. This misconception – proven false by the heroic death of Che if nothing else – corresponded to how the rulers of Cuba saw the Latin American revolution: as a quick way out of Cuba’s own difficulties. [18] But as these difficulties grew worse and the revolution failed to materialise, Castro turned back to more reliable sources of sustenance – the Kremlin and the new military dictatorships.

The Tragedy of the Cuban Revolution

In many ways the experience of the Cubans is like that of the Yugoslavs. Tito too broke with dominant imperialism (Russian) because it blocked the programme of national economic development that was the motive force of his ruling class. He too responded to the pressures of the dominant powers by a seemingly revolutionary stance (complete with talk of a new international in 1949-50). [19] He too followed seemingly radical domestic measures. And he too soon came to pay for the aid he needed to survive (by a coincidence about the same level that Castro received from Russia, $2,000m) by adjusting himself to those who paid the piper. [20] In his case also this meant abandoning revolutionary pretence (in the East as well as the West – note Tito’s grudging support for the second Russian attack on Budapest in 1956) and fitting the internal economy to the needs of others. [21]

For there are sound objective reasons why the aim of ‘economic development’ of isolated backward countries cannot be achieved in the modern world. For hundreds of years the wealth of the ‘third world’ has been pillaged and accumulated in the advanced capitalist countries. This has been used, together with the exploitation of the metropolitan working-class to build up industry (and its by-product, armed power) in these countries. The isolated parts of the third world cannot somehow overcome the effects of centuries of such pillaging and in a few years accumulate wealth out of their own resources to me level reached over a whole historical period in the West.

But there is an alternative path open. This is to see that real economic development is not possible without the help of resources accumulated over the years in the advanced countries. While these remain in the hands of the rulers of these countries powerful economic or military forces can always be mobilised against any localised revolution. The only way to resist these forces is to see the local revolution as merely one part of a world process, the first citadel captured by an international army. The citadel has to be defended by orthodox means and the population’s needs adequately catered for – but not through the now unrealisable dream of ‘development’ through state capitalism in one country. But this means a realistic long-term policy of spreading revolution, based not on middle-class intellectuals, however heroic, going ‘to the peasants’ in the country-side, but on building up mass revolutionary workers’ movements at the centres of ruling class power, in the cities of all three worlds. This perspective has dismissed as ‘unrealistic’, as ‘antiquated’, as ‘utopian’ by Castroists and Guevarists. Certainly there has never been any cast-iron guarantee of its success – for this depends on all sorts of imponderables. Yet the impact of Castroisms’ own ‘left’ period in 1966-8 and of the Vietnamese struggle shows what effect such a policy could have had. For these both undermined one of the most potent factors preventing revolutionary working-class struggle for a generation – the conservative, counter-revolutionary Stalinist parties. One can only imagine what the impact of the consistent pursuit of working-class revolutionary goals by say the Cubans, would have been.

Of course, the reason such a policy was not followed by Cuba is no accident. The dynamic force in the Cuban revolution was not the mass struggles of a working-class led by a conscious revolutionary party, but the desires of a section of the local middle-class to carry through economic development. Cuba’s current impasse points not just to the failure of particular policies but is also practical proof of the inability of precisely such a class to solve the problems ‘of the ‘third world’.

Revolutionaries in the west face the danger of two sorts of complacency when looking at the record of Cuba. The first is to ignore harsh realities, to pretend that workers do rule in Cuba, that Cuba’s regime is consistently revolutionary, that somehow, trying to produce sugar in ever larger quantities is to break with the world market on which this is sold. The other is to sit back, content that the Cuban revolution has failed, commenting about its ‘Stalinist degeneration’. However opposed they may seem, both attitudes flow from the same irresponsibility, the same refusal to understand that the pressures responsible for the impasse of Cuba, and of the third world generally, originate in Washington and Moscow, London and Paris. There is no way out for the Cubans until the rival imperialisms that have crushed that revolution between them themselves begin to fall. What revolutions in the third world can do, and it is no trivial task, is to hasten that fall.



1. All figures in this paragraph from Economist Intelligence Unit, Quarterly Review, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Porto Rica, Annual Supplement, 1959.

2. Goldenberg, The Cuban Revolution and Latin America, London 1965, p. 130.

‘To create government jobs became an important occupation for politicians. More or less parasitical officials lived in a state of fear because they were afraid of losing their jobs if there were a change of government’.

3. EIU, June 1959.

4. EIU, February 1959.

5. For a similar assessment of the role of the workers from a writer, however, who believes Cuba is a workers state, see O’Connor in Studies on the Left.

6. EIU, op. cit., May 1961 and February 1962.

7. Quoted in ibid., December 1961.

8. Kaiser, Comecon, London 1967, p.105-6:

‘... It (Cuba) had a favourable trade balance (with the USSR in 1961 of $10m; but this turned to a deficit of $190m in 1962 and rose to $295m in 1963. The deficit was met by current Soviet credits ...’ In 1964 ‘the Cuban trade deficit was rapidly reduced ... Aid offers from Comecon slowed in 1963-4.’

9. EIU, op. cit., November 1963.

10. Hoy, February 26th, 1965, quoted in Kaiser, op. cit., p.218.

11. EIU, op. cit., November 1965.

12. ibid., November 1969.

13. Sam Russell in the Morning Star, August 7th, 1970.

14. ibid.

15. ibid.

16. In Temps Modernes, July 1970

17. He was particularly vehement in his attacks on the Chinese. The origin of these attacks again displays the pragmatic motivations behind Cuban policy. At the end of 1965 the Chinese broke an agreement to deliver large quantities of rice, Cuba’s staple food – because of difficulties in her own.economy but also because she was able to obtain Cuban sugar indirectly from the Russians. Castro retaliated first with a mild speech, (January 2nd, 1966) and then, apparently after the Chinese had started distributing propaganda from their Havana embassy, with a far more violent one, speaking of ‘perfidy, hypocrisy, malevolent insinuations, and disdain for our small country’, warning that ‘our country has liberated itself from that imperialism 90 miles from our shores and it is not willing to permit another powerful state to come 20,000 kilometres to impose similar practices on us ...’

18. In many ways one is reminded of the Cominterns ‘Third Period’, when another bureaucracy, faced with enormous economic problem, conceived of revolution as possible through instant recipes.

19. At this time he too received uncritical support of the same sort later given to Castro – and often from the same people (for instance, Ernest Mandel and Pierre Frank).

20. The turning point for Tito was in June 1950 when Yugoslavia failed to use its vote at the Security Council against the attempt of the us to cover defence of imperialist interests in Korea with a cloak of legitimacy. On this (and on the failure of many of Tito’s ‘Trotskyist’ admirers to condemn him) see the issues of Socialist Review for 1950.

21. For example, following a policy that effectively subordinates domestic industry to foreign capital, maintaining a high level of unemployment and so on.

There is an important difference between the two cases – Tito has been more successful in his endeavours to develop his country.

Last updated on 17 November 2009