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Cuban Revolution

In response to:

Castro's Revolution from the September 30, 1965 issue

To the Editors:

There are many things that have been and still are being said against the Cuban Revolution, but it is rare indeed to come across the statement, made by Ernst Halperin in his review of Theodore Draper’s Castroism: Theory and Practice, that the standard of living of the Cuban people has seriously declined since Castro came into power on January 1, 1959. He writes (and here he is paraphrasing Draper) that “per capita income [of Cuba]…before the revolution had been one of the highest in Latin America, has suffered a precipitous decline…one may safely assert that the bulk of the Cuban population is considerably worse off economically than before the revolution.”

To say that Cuba before the revolution had one of the highest per capita incomes in Latin America is to say very little indeed, if one is familiar with per capita incomes in Latin America. But what are the facts so far as Cuba is concerned? The “bulk of the Cuban population” were the peasants. Before the revolution, they led a miserable life; were employed for no more than four months out of the year as cutters during the harvest; they and their families endured the rest of the time on the edge of starvation. If there is any doubt on this score, I would recommend a reading of Lowry Nelson’s Rural Cuba, a study by a sociologist who spent several years in pre-revolutionary Cuba on a United States State Department assignment. Indeed, in 1956, the very time Fidel Castro and his little band were scrambling up hidden pathways into the forests of the Sierra Maestre, the United States Department of Commerce was reporting: “The specter of unemployment affects all thinking on labor and manpower problems in Cuba…Some affirm that unemployment normally reaches a total of one million; others that it reaches a total of 1.5 million; and even conservative estimates range between 500,000 and 800-000.” (U.S. Department of Commerce, Investment in Cuba, p. 23.) This out of a population scarcely seven million! And there was no relief program of any kind. There was no unemployment insurance.

Here are some additional pertinent facts, according to the anti-Castro Agrupacion Católica Universitaria de Habana, of the standard of living in Cuba before the revolution:

  1. 4% of the people had meat in their diet.

  2. 2.12% had eggs.

  3. 1% had fish.

  4. 11.22% of all ages had milk.

  5. 3.6% had bread.

  6. 64% had neither indoor toilets nor privies.

  7. 2.08% had indoor toilets, and 3.24% running water.

The average per capita income in all of Cuba—including upper-class Havana and Santiago de Cuba—was six dollars a week. (Published in The Progressive, May, 1963.)

No one reading Mr. Halperin’s review would even suspect that there was such a thing as a brutal economic blockade imposed upon Cuba since the revolution by the United States, formerly the island’s chief supplier of food stuffs, to say nothing of all other material. How brutal was illustrated in a New York Times report on January 8, 1964, that the U.S. Commerce Department had refused to grant an export license to a Cuban hurricane relief group “to send 3,500 pounds of powdered milk to Cuba.” Yet, despite the blockade and despite many errors committed by the leaders of the revolution—conceded by Cuban leaders and most often rectified—reporters who have visited the island more frequently and recently than Draper, agree that the standard of living is an improvement over what existed before the revolution. Space limitations enable me to cite only a few such reports. A reporter wrote in the New York World-Telegram and Sun, no friend of the revolution, on October 8, 1963: “The government has the full support of thousands of cane-cutters who before the revolution worked only four months a year, that is, during the cutting season. The rest of the year they just loafed or worked at odd jobs in the cities. Now they are assured of year-round employment in the state farms.” (All reporters agree that mass unemployment, characteristic of pre-revolutionary Cuba, has disappeared.) The New York Times reported in January, 1964: “All children are getting some education; the great bulk are being well fed and taken care of, however, poor their parents. The Negro and the mulatto population—a third to a quarter—is getting genuine equality. The government leaders are untainted by any fiscal scandals. These features are new in the history of Cuba…”. Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times, who knew Cuba before the revolution better than most Americans, wrote in Return to Cuba (January, 1964) that Cuba five years after the revolution had completely transformed the life of the people for the better! And he predicted that many of these improvements “are irreversible.” In Cuba: The Economic and Social Revolution, published in 1964, Dudley Sears and his associates point out that since the revolution primary school enrollment has doubled; secondary school enrollment tripled, and 700,00 illiterates taught to read and write!

In the spring of 1965, Leopoldo Aragon, by no means uncritical of the revolution, wrote in the New Republic (“Cuba—Guns and Sugar”) that…”Judged by Latin American standards in comparison to 1961. Cuba has unquestionably improved.” And judged by Cuba under Batista, it has also improved.

It would improve still further if the United States would concede that its policy of absolute hostility to Castro has failed, and restore normal relations. It is interesting, in this connection, that Mr. Halperin does not mention Draper’s attack on Senator Fulbright for having cautiously dared to call for a reappraisal of our policies towards Cuba. Perhaps he feels that Draper’s appeal for us to continue our present policies of embargo and sabotage would be hard for the readers of The New York Review to swallow.

Philip S. Foner

Croton-on-Hudson, New York

Ernst Halperin replies:

Mr. Friedman is much disappointed that I wrote a review of Theodore Draper’s book Castroism, Theory and Practice instead of a savage personal attack on Draper, and that I refrained from McCarthyist tricks such as pointing to Draper’s “communist background.”

Inter alia, Mr. Friedman holds it against Draper that he created the “myth” of the middle-class origin of the Cuban revolution. At the time of the great Cuban debate which took place in the years 1960-1962, the prevalent theory was that the guerrilla war which had ended in the fall of the Batista dictatorship had been a peasant rising against the big landowners. Mr. Draper disputed this, and his view has now been spectacularly confirmed by an authority whose competence Mr. Friedman will find it difficult to contest: Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, longtime member of the Cuban communist party leadership, liaison man between the communists and Castro during the guerrilla war, and today a minister in Castro’s cabinet. Writing in the October 1965 issue of Problemas de la Paz y del Socialismo, the international communist review published in Prague, Mr. Rodriguez explains the great moderation of Castro’s agrarian reform program during the guerrilla way by the simple reason that at that time Castro was receiving money from the sugar-mill owners and big landowners and thus did not care to antagonize them. “In vast regions of Oriente Province,” writes Mr. Rodriguez, “as well as in Las Villas, the proprietors of sugar-mills had agreed to pay tribute to the Rebel Army as a new revolutionary power. The owners of the big sugar and cattle estates were also approaching the revolutionary forces and proposing to contribute in various ways to their subsistence. In these circumstances it would not have been appropriate to promote an agricultural law aimed directly against the big foreign and domestic landowners. This would only have resulted in regrouping these forces around Batista and in revealing the immediate aim of the revolution to imperialism before power had been actually conquered.” (My own translation from the Spanish, since I have not at hand the official English translation of the World Marxist Review.)

Mr. Draper rightly maintained that the revolution against Batista had not been a peasant revolt against the land-owners nor any other kind of social revolution, but a purely political revolution with the stated aim of restoring the democratic constitution of 1940. He pointed out that the struggle against Batista had been financed by upperclass and middle-class contributions, and that the youth of the middle class had staffed the urban resistance movement whose campaign of terrorism had brought about the disintegration of state authority and thus decisively contributed to the downfall of Batista. Any scrutiny of contemporary sources will reveal the correctness of this assessment, and I fail to comprehend how Mr. Friedman can call it a “myth.” Indeed, he himself confirms it by admitting that even after the advent to power, it took Che Guevara many months to wean Castro away from his “reliance on large sectors of the middle class.” And although I have read and re-read Mr. Draper’s new book, I have been unable to find any basis whatsoever for Mr. Friedman’s strange claim that in it Draper has abandoned his “theory” of the middle-class origin of the revolution.

The other great issue in the Cuban debate was whether the revolutionary regime was taking a decisive turn towards communism, as maintained by Mr. Draper, and hotly disputed by his opponents. At the time, Draper assumed that the old stalwarts of the Communist Party would be able to wrest control over the regime from Castro. In this, he overestimated their skill and power, as he himself admits in the Foreward to his new book (see p. xi). What actually happened was that Castro himself led the country into the communist camp, using the oldguard communists as his instruments and then pushing them aside. But this development, though very interesting, surely has not the decisive importance attributed to it by Mr. Friedman. The central issue of the debate was not whether communization would be carried out by the “old communists” or by Castro’s “new communists,” but simply whether Cuba was going communist at all. And on this, Mr. Draper again proved to be right, and the best guide to the nature of the Cuban revolution. Today, Cuba has an economy largely patterned on the Soviet model; Marxism-Leninism is the regime’s official philosophy, Castro is the secretary general of a ruling party which has adopted the official name of Communist Party of Cuba, and what is more, both Moscow and Peking recognize this party and this state as members of the communist fraternity.

Mr. Friedman blames the U.S. for this development. That is an old, familiar tune. There is in the United States a school of though which refuses to recognize that the anti-American policies of a foreign ruler might be motivated by anything so crude as a desire to increase his own power at the expense of the United States. They fail to understand that even in the unlikely event of Washington never making a foreign policy mistake, the sheer wealth and power of the United States would still inevitably arouse the antagonism and cupidity of some. Their invariable explanation for the hostility of a foreign ruler is that the U.S. must have made a mistake—and in their view, it is always the same mistake: lack of trust in that ruler’s good intentions, misinterpretation of his legitimate measures of self-defense, and unwillingness to assist him in the promotion of his social reforms. In each individual case, the argument appears convincing to many people. One has to hear it repeated over and over again on different occasions to realize the utter innocence of the underlying assumption—namely that the Stalins, Maos, Khrushchevs, Castros of this world are benevolent, peaceloving social reformers who would be happy to concentrate on raising the living standard of their peoples if only wicked Uncle Sam and his gang of reactionary allies would permit them to do so.

First, Stalin’s subjugation of all Eastern Europe was explained to us as stemming from his intense desire for peace and security. Then, Mao was passed off on us as a mere agrarian reformer. Later, when Castro turned against the United States, the same cry was again heard, although perhaps the voices that raised it were not always the same ones. Castro was depicted as a benevolent though perhaps somewhat muddle-headed, reformer who would gladly live at peace with the U.S. which was pushing him into the enemy camp much against his will. Mr. Draper dissented, pointing out that this thesis simply did not square with the facts. By doing so, he incurred the furious anger of all those intent on spreading the great American Guilt Complex by which they themselves are obsessed.

By this I do not mean to present Mr. Draper as a helpless victim of intellectual terrorism. He is a formidable polemicist, and in the heat of debate may well have been unduly harsh to some who did not share his opinions. But I find no instance of what I would regard as undue harshness in his new book. If I had chosen the occasion of my review to avenge the wounds of his opponents by belittling the merits of the book, I would have been guilty of deliberately misinforming the readers of The New York Review about a work which I consider to be the best one yet published on the subject.

As for Mr. Foner, he has the completely uninformed stock notion that pre-revolutionary Cuba was a typical Latin American country, and that the social structure of these countries is one of huge masses of starving peasants facing a tiny minority of land-owners. Actually, pre-revolutionary Cuba belonged to a group of Latin American countries whose population was predominantly urban (Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Venezuela being the other ones). According to the FAO Yearbook, 1958, vol. 12, the percentage of the Cuban population engaged in agriculture was 43.8. Mr. Foner’s facile assumption that peasants constituted the bulk of Cuba’s population is thus completely wrong. Mr. Foner’s notion that all Cuban peasants were seasonal workers on sugar plantations is also preposterous. Pre-revolutionary Cuba had 6 million head of cattle, and grew considerable quantities of tobacco, coffee, bananas, etc.

It will also interest Mr. Foner to learn that in 1953, not a particularly good year for the Cuban economy, Cuba’s per-capita income of $325 was higher than that of Italy ($307), Austria ($290), Spain ($242), Portugal ($220), Turkey ($221), Mexico ($200), Yugoslavia ($200), and Japan ($197). (See Charles P. Kindleberger, Economic Development, McGraw-Hill, 1958, p. 6).

If Mr. Foner should desire to improve his knowledge of Cuban economic affairs, I would advise him to study Theodore Draper’s well-documented book.

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