The Cuba In Our Mind

The Cuba In Our Mind

Mini Teaser: Castro has never seemed more firmly ensconced in power. Those who have been bold enough over the years to declare themselves his enemies are now dead, in exile, in jail, or cowering in fear of arrest.

by Author(s): Mark Falcoff

For example, he dusts off the hoary myth that by 1898 the Cuban
insurgents had virtually defeated the Spanish army, and would indeed
have obtained independence on their own, had not the United States
intervened at the last minute to assure itself control of the new
state. This is simply untrue. (We should be grateful, however, that
he forebears from claiming--as many Spanish and Cuban historians
still maintain--that the United States purposely exploded its own
battleship Maine to provide an excuse for intervention.)

He dredges up the old arguments against trade reciprocity with the
United States (as if there was really much of an alternative for a
small country which was shattered by nearly a decade of civil war,
and whose colonial elites fled after the collapse of the metropolitan
power with what capital they could take with them). "Within a decade
of the war of independence," Pérez writes, "the United States had
become a pervasive presence in Cuba, totally dominating the economy,
thoroughly penetrating the social fabric, and fully controlling the
political process." (Of the three assertions only the first is at all
defensible; the second is true only for the urban elites, and not
always them; the third would come as an acute surprise to a
succession of hapless American ambassadors who struggled for more
than two decades to get a handle on Cuban politics.)

It is certainly true that Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s could hardly be
called an independent country in the same sense as was Argentina,
Colombia, or even Mexico. American investment and American markets
occupied too central a role, and the failure of Cubans to generate a
political class with its own sense of self meant that the U.S.
embassy in Havana was expected to play a proconsular role, whether it
actually did so or not. The situation was anomalous and left the door
open for many misunderstandings. Pérez, however, has no feel for
ambiguity. Instead, he writes that

"Cuba participated in and depended entirely on the United States
economic system in much the same way as U.S. citizens, but without
access to U.S. social service programs and at employment and wage
levels substantially lower than their North American counterparts."

This amounts to saying that Cuba was a slave-labor colony for
American capital, and that the relationship with the United States
was entirely one sided. Now, evidently, wage and employment levels in
pre-Castro Cuba were substantially lower than in the U.S., but so
were living costs. More to the point, thanks to a privileged position
in the U.S. sugar market, Cuban living standards were significantly
higher than most other countries in the region, (and taken as a
whole) indeed higher than any Latin American country except for
Argentina and Uruguay. True, the gap between urban and rural Cuba was
abysmal, as was the lack of adequate social services outside Havana
and a few other cities (which by the 1950s nonetheless accounted for
nearly half the island's population).

But there was nothing about the relationship with the United States
that necessarily dictated that the economic benefits of reciprocity
had to be distributed in this particular fashion; how successive
Cuban governments utilized the island's earnings from sugar, tobacco
and rum was a matter of near-total indifference to the U.S.
government or private business. What is true is that, like all other
primary producing countries, Cuba was highly dependent economically
on forces beyond its control--the world price of sugar, the cost of
borrowing money, the ups and downs of the U.S. economic cycle. The
wonder of it all is that Cuba benefited so hugely from its
"dependency." If Castro and his followers missed this point (as Pérez
seems to miss it now), it was not lost on the dozens of other
countries that lobbied the Senate Agriculture Committee to take
Cuba's place when the Eisenhower administration suspended the
island's sugar quota in 1960.

Not that all Cuban governments before 1958 were completely
insensitive to landlessness, illiteracy, and social injustice. As a
matter of fact, at the time of Castro's seizure of power it was one
of the more advanced Latin American countries in both social services
and labor rights. However, it also suffered from a succession of
governments (mostly civilian) who outdid themselves in cynicism,
nepotism, and corruption. Pérez is aware of this problem, but
apparently regards it as vestigial; instead, he defines the central
issue as alleged U.S. pressure to keep Cuba from diversifying its
production and trade.

No doubt many Cubans believed that this was the dominant purpose of
American policy; it is even possible to find dispatches from American
diplomats who thought so as well. On the evidence, American
reciprocity did not promote a satisfactory level of Cuban
diversification and development. But let the record show as well that
its absence has not done so either: the island today is far more
dependent on sugar exports than it was at the time the United States
suspended the quota in 1960.

Relative to What?

What happened after Castro came to power is summarized in fifty-some
brisk pages by Jorge Domínguez. A professor of government at Harvard
and author of numerous books and articles on Cuba, Domínguez manages
to remain faithful to the spirit of revisionism without falling into
some of its obvious factual pitfalls. For example, he freely admits
that Castro did not request U.S. aid during his first visit to this
country as Cuban supremo in 1959, but manages to load the blame onto
American shoulders nonetheless. "Had such aid been requested and
granted, it would have tied Cuba's future closely to the world
capitalist economy and to the United States." The revolutionary
leaders, he adds, understood this, and also grasped that "it was
impossible to conduct a revolution in Cuba without a major
confrontation with the United States." Thus Castro and his associates
are exonerated in advance from failing to even try to reach an
understanding with Washington, while the United States (in its
incarnation as a "world capitalist economy") stands condemned for
existing at all!

Domínguez's evaluation of the performance of the Castro regime is
even more casuistic. He freely admits that there has been a signal
inability to increase production or diversify exports and
markets--which is to say, Cuban living standards overall have dropped
these last thirty-some years. He even concedes that this situation
has been greatly aggravated by Castro's penchant for military
adventures abroad, which consistently diverted managerial talents and
enormous resources into nonproductive outlets. Nonetheless, since the
country's economic burdens have been more equitably distributed than
before, we can regard the revolution as a "relative success."
Relative to what? If the socialization of poverty is a "relative
success," one has to wonder whether "relative failure" is even
conceptually possible.

Marifeli Pérez-Stable's book seems to promise a good deal more. In
the first place, she is sensitive to the full complexities of Cuban
politics in the 1950s, and does not fall into the trap of assuming
that all roads necessarily lead to Fidel Castro's accession to power.
Quite the contrary, she begins by insisting that "social revolution
and the ensuing radical transformation of Cuban society were neither
inevitable nor aberrational." The old Cuba, she writes, "sheltered
these options as well as others that were never or only partially

In two brilliant opening chapters she identifies a persistent
structural problem: by the 1950s, sugar had ceased to be the motor of
economic growth in Cuba, yet it still outweighed all the other
alternatives. Moreover, Cuban politics being what they were,
advocates of import-substitution industrialization were isolated and
ineffective. (Paradoxically, part of the problem was the relative
strength of the labor movement, itself a product of Cuba's unusually
advanced version of agro-industry.) Thus, Pérez-Stable writes, Cuba
was prevented from generating its own version of "dependent
capitalist development," such as occurred in other Latin American
countries in the 1950s and 1960s.

These observations are provocative and interesting, inasmuch as they
allow us to imagine what might have happened in Cuban history. But
they do nothing at all to help us understand the events that actually
occurred. Castro's victory over Fulgencio Batista was the product of
the dictator's unpopularity, not the need (real or imagined) for some
sort of social transformation. Castro understood this better at the
time than Pérez-Stable seems to understand it now, since his program
before taking power was confined to the restoration of the
Constitution of 1940, which was a perfectly bourgeois document to
which no one on the island (or for that matter, in the United States)
could have taken exception.

Unfortunately, once Castro achieves power, Pérez-Stable's
considerable powers of analysis sharply decline. The dividing line
between the official version of Cuban events and the author's own
account becomes confused and uncertain. The role of the United States
is often distorted, sometimes downright wrong. Also, she seems not to
fully grasp the difference between Leninist and pluralist approaches
to labor history. Clichés like "sovereignty, equality, inclusive
development" act as self-justifying props, even though they often
describe phenomena quite the opposite of their normally accepted
meanings. Cuban society in all of its complexity is suddenly
compressed into a one dimension, subsumed under the incantation

Essay Types: Essay