• Email
  • Print

Notes on a Visit to Cuba

Friday, May 2nd: A Russian-built four-motor plane landed us at the Havana airport early in the afternoon. Havana is barely eighty miles away from the southern tip of Florida. But for a US citizen it is now nearly as difficult to reach as the moon; and to return home by the same legitimate route via Mexico is as difficult as the return from the moon to earth. Early in January, my wife and I applied to the proper office in the State Department for permission to spend two weeks in Cuba. In mid-April we were still waiting. Only direct intervention by the Undersecretary of State and Senator Brooke induced the zealous guardians of our liberties to validate our passports with a permit for one round trip to the forbidden island. But this was only the beginning.

First we had to go to Mexico City where the Mexican government—no doubt to please its good neighbor to the North—examined and reexamined the reasons for our strange wish to spend twelve days in Cuba. Finally, after having spent endless hours in the waiting room of the Ministry of Interior, we received a page-long document authorizing a passage to, and, more important, a return from, Cuba. It was as if we were planning to visit a region raging with infectious diseases. Not one or two, but eight copies of this permit were retained by the Ministry. In contrast to the Mexican officials, when taxi drivers, waiters, porters, and other ordinary Mexicans learned about our destination they invariably seemed to be pleasantly surprised.

We felt the transition from the capitalist to the socialist world the moment we entered the Cubana de Aviacion plane: sturdy, unsmiling personnel; creaky and somewhat shabby furnishings, and reading material consisting of two newspapers, the French and the Spanish editions of the organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba. Most of the two dozen passengers were lower middle-class Cubans returning, for better or worse, to their native land. A couple of junior diplomatic types, a blond curly-haired, bearded Canadian free-lance journalist in blue jeans, his wife, and a young Italian businessman from Ferrara venturing to sell spray equipment to the Cuban government. When asked about the volume of his transactions he lifted his right arm and held thumb and index fingers a quarter of an inch apart: that large!

In the Havana airport we were greeted at the barrier by a group of five or six men including Nestor Garcia, the foreign relations agent of the University of Cuba and the Director of the University’s Economics Institute. Passport checking and formalities took little time, except that my one pair of shoes and Estelle’s six pairs were extracted from our valises, with apologies, carried away, and returned five minutes later, wet, limp, but germ-free: they had been fumigated to protect the budding Cuban cattle herd against hoof-and-mouth disease.

A twenty-minute drive through the suburbs, past governmental buildings and the stately columns of the old buildings of the University of Cuba, brought us to a modern hotel in which we were to stay. The towering, luxurious building was completed in time to be taken over by the Revolution and opened as Habana Libre instead of Habana Hilton. Our apartment was a magnificent four-room, air-conditioned suite with curtained plate glass walls and broad wrap-around balconies facing in three directions. Looking seaward on a clear day, we could make out on the horizon the silhouette of a US radar ship observing movements in and out of Havana harbor.

I handed over to the welcoming party the two official documents I had brought with me: a letter addressed by the President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to his counterpart in Cuba proposing that the two organizations establish official relations and exchange publications; and a message from a Dean of the Harvard Medical School to the Cuban Minister of Health asking for cooperation in organizing a study trip to the island by a group of Faculty members and medical students. Mr. Garcia asked for a sheet of paper (paper shortage!) and wrote out the day-by-day schedule of our ten-day visit: informal conferences, lectures by me, visits to scientific institutions, discussions with heads of governmental departments, trips to various parts of the island. The experience of the following days seemed to indicate that in this as in many other instances of socialist planning, considerable discrepancies can be expected to develop between an original program and its actual fulfillment.

I shall not describe my miscellaneous conversations and the usual or unusual events of everyday life, but I cannot abstain from mentioning the friendly, cheerful informality, the openness and helpfulness that characterized all our relations with the men, women, and children we met or saw, regardless of their station in this remarkable egalitarian society.

Saturday, May 3rd: We spent the entire morning in the Instituto de Economia with its director, Dr. Hermes Herrera, and eight or ten of his colleagues. The Institute performs the dual role of serving as an Economics’ Faculty of the University and a Center for Economic Research. Its members, research associates, assistant and full professors—most of them very young men and women—divide their time between teaching and research. Sixty-three of them take care of more than a thousand students. Depending on the field of concentration, the course of study takes four or five years. Students from backward areas spend an extra year in preparatory study. The whole enterprise, particularly the research part of it, is still in preparation, or at least at a very early stage.

Our three hours of discussion left me with the impression that the Institute members are pretty well acquainted with the basic outlines of modern economics as they are taught in the US. They all know some mathematics, study and teach modern methods of statistical analysis, linear and even non-linear programming. For my taste, here as in the US there is all too much preoccupation with Cobb-Douglas, elasticity constant production functions, and other conventional constructs of modern mathematical economics. Everyone seems interested in Input Output analysis and many of the direct questions addressed to me concerned different theoretical and practical aspects of that subject, such as: dynamic interregional models and the application of Input Output analysis to the price system.

In the afternoon, on a drive through the Old Town and the harbor area, we passed a towering ship rudder and some weirdly twisted steel plates installed on a pedestal, a memorial to a French freighter blown up allegedly by anti-Castro saboteurs. Passing a group of guards, we entered a loading pier with large vessels berthed along one side of it. All bore Russian names. These were the mother ships of the Soviet fishing fleet operating from Havana. I stopped our car and surprised some crewmen on the docks by addressing them in their native tongue. The Soviet ships are stationed there permanently: their crews rotate by being periodically flown from and to Russia. Later I was told that Cuba’s own fishing fleet is expanding rapidly. Seventy-five large boats have recently been purchased in Spain and a few are being built in Cuban shipyards. Some loss of Cuban boats is caused by defection to the United States. (All formal, and even not so formal, dinners begin with shrimp cocktail.) A friendly conversation ensued, and Estelle was asked to take a group photograph.

Sunday, May 4th: After a late breakfast, George, our guide, took us along the North shore to one of the newly constructed rural settlements. On the way we drove through suburban Miramar along a tree-shadowed boulevard, whose luxurious private villas, lined up mile after mile on both sides, have been transformed into dormitories for university and high school students from the provinces. There one sees dozens, maybe hundreds, of boys and girls reading in their rooms, playing on the broad lawns, or marching in formation to or from school.

The village consists of 120 small pre-fabricated cottages, each containing a living room, two or three bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen. All buildings have gas, electricity, running water. One of the two complexes of public buildings contains a school with dining area and kitchen, the other, near the highway and the bus station, consists of a supermarket, i.e., a food store (practically empty), a cafeteria (quite busy), barber shop, hair salon, and a children’s clothing store. We were being offered refreshments in the school’s dining room, while a traveling circus company, having lunch after a morning performance, were watching a circus performance on a TV set, attached to the wall under the ceiling, bar-room fashion.

On our way back to Havana we paid a brief visit to a similar settlement assigned to Soviet technicians. Doubly surprised by a US citizen addressing them in Russian, they proved to be as friendly as the fishermen the day before. Estelle and the Soviet “communication technician” were soon engaged in a friendly discussion about Russian poetry. A week later, on the eve of our departure, our Russian acquaintance drove the thirty miles to Havana to introduce his wife and to present Estelle with a newly published volume of Russian poetry and me with a bottle of brandy.

Monday, May 5th: The entire forenoon was spent again at the Institute of Economic Investigations, this time with a larger number of staff members. At the outset, I was presented with an English version of a detailed outline of the sixty-hour course on Input Output analysis,1 which covered the basic concepts of that particular approach thoroughly and systematically, as well as the principal statistical procedures and some of the standard applications. So far as I am able to discern in this introductory course, the dual price system, interregional models, and dynamic input output analysis are omitted. Together with the outline there are two textbooks translated into Spanish: Chenery and Clark’s Inter-industry Economics and David Simpson’s Input Output Handbook, originally commissioned and published by the Statistical Division of the United Nations. Both volumes were published by the Edicion Revolutionaria of Havana. In the course of the discussion I used the blackboard to sketch the outline of the most recent version of my Dynamic Input Output system. Everyone present seemed to be taking simple linear algebra in his stride.

At 3 P.M. I gave my first lecture, Dynamic Input Output Analysis. The large lecture hall of the University was filled to overflowing. Sequential translation by one of the staff members of the Central Planning Board was clear and precise. The lecture was followed by an hour-long period of questions and answers. Before the lecture, I was introduced to the Spanish Ambassador, who sat in the front row, and at the end stepped up on the podium, shook my hand, and said that he knew of the Input Output work sponsored by the Spanish government, and that articles on that subject published in the Journal of the Ministry of Commerce were familiar to him.

Tuesday, May 6th: This morning I spent four hours with the Input Output team of the secretariat of Carlos Rafael Rodriguez. The group consists of eleven statisticians and economists, headed by Dr. Raoul Sandoval. They have just completed the compilation of an input output table of the Cuban economy for the year 1965. The worksheets deal with some 600 industries combined into a balanced table consisting of 171 sectors in addition to several columns of final demand. For certain working purposes this table was aggregated further into a smaller table containing ninety-seven sectors.

Several neatly mimeographed industry reports gave me the impression that the work was carefully, systematically done, with great attention to detail. The classifications and definitions reflected good fundamental understanding of the entire subject.

The coefficient matrix derived from that table was inverted with the help of an English Electric computer, and used to determine the direct and indirect input requirements corresponding to different levels of sugar production. One of the principal weaknesses of the present matrix is the absence of adequate labor input data: as in its US counterpart the household row shows only the total wage bills of all the sectors.

A considerable amount of field work was apparently involved in collecting the original data. The table covers only the industrial, manufacturing sectors. Agriculture and other service industries are relegated in it to the final bill of goods. I was told, however, that, in the near future, the compilation will be extended to cover sugar cultivation and all other agricultural products.

We later discussed the problem of price relationships, the use of physical units in measuring input and output, the treatments of joint products and the methodology to be used in projecting changes in technical coefficients. I was told that a senior Russian economist who came to Cuba as an adviser limited his advice to quotations from Marx, Engels, and Lenin, and thus was of very little use.

In the afternoon I spent one more hour in the Institute of Economic Research. The special subject of discussion was the use of Input Output method in planning the overall economic development of the Isle of Pines, a large agricultural youth commune. Here the emphasis would not have to be on describing the existing situation, but establishing new Input Output coefficients and constructing an Input Output table to describe the future state of that regional economy under conditions of balanced or unbalanced growth, as the case may be. The compilation and use of incremental capital coefficients was naturally also discussed in greater detail. I was sorry to discover in the course of this discussion that Cuba does not yet possess a well-articulated budgeting system. When I mentioned overall investment and credit planning, I was told that such a thing does not exist: “the state of our economy today is similar to that of the Russian economy in the year 1921.”

Wednesday, May 7th: In the morning I was taken by the Director of the Agronomic Institute on a tour of the so-called Greenbelt of Havana. First, we drove out to an experimental dairy farm. Such farms are usually displayed as favored showplaces to foreign visitors in all developing agricultural countries. This one was obviously considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world, or at least of new Cuba. Covering an area of several square miles with paved roads, well-irrigated fields, and innumerable tractors, it now houses three or four hundred cows. Next year their number will exceed a thousand. The experimentation consists primarily in cross-breeding imported Jerseys, Guernseys, and Holsteins with the well-acclimatized Cebu and in varying the conditions of their housing and feeding in order to study the effect of these variations on the yield of milk. Sixty of the luxuriously housed red and black spotted ladies were being treated as though they were prominent foreign guests in the Habana Libre hotel. One large white-washed concrete barn is fully air-conditioned. The floors are spotlessly clean, and soft music emanating from evenly distributed loud speakers gently soothes the flapping ears.

All jokes aside, the technical perfection and attention to details of the operation is indeed impressive, particularly when compared to the cattle farm in Rumania we visited a year ago, where the poor animals were standing side by side without partitions, three inches deep in manure, their heads and backs covered with flies. The resident farm economist indicated by his questions to me that the costing and accounting aspects of that experiment are much more primitive than its technical, agronomic side.

We next inspected an experimental pineapple plantation and a coffee growing farm. The tour appropriately terminated in a pleasant suburban restaurant placed in the middle of a luxurious tropical garden with well-groomed lawns, gigantic palm trees and bamboo clumps half-encircled by a picturesque stream with a waterfall. Before the Revolution, so I was told, only the upper classes could enjoy it. Now “well-dressed” guests could be seen only at a few tables; the rest were occupied by men and women in work clothes eating shrimp and drinking beer, and having a good time.

On my return, I was met at the door of my hotel by the Head Planning Officer of the Cuban Electricity Board and several members of his staff. While waiting for me they had set up a conference room on the mezzanine floor with blackboard and recording equipment. I spent an hour and a half with them discussing methods to be used in projecting the demand for electric power, and determining an optimal mix of alternative sources of supply. With Soviet oil, the principal source of energy, coming from many thousands of miles away, sugar cane “straw,” used up to now to fuel the sugar mills, is increasingly absorbed in manufacturing building materials. There is some hope that the Rumanians’ exploratory drilling on the north shore might provide a domestic oil supply.

By now I was able to form a preliminary notion of the general economic situation of the country and the more important problems confronting it. One’s first question about the present state of the Cuban economy, after one has seen the innumerable public posters, read the long articles in the daily press, and heard the interminable exhortations on the radio urging every inhabitant of the city—whether waiter in the restaurant or an important official in the Ministry or an SDS “escapee” living in the Habana Libre—to grasp a machete, and to go to the country to cut sugar cane, is: Why all this fuss? Why ten years after the glorious revolution? Why does Cuba have great and increasing difficulties in cutting six million tons of sugar now, when before it was able to harvest more than seven million apparently without much trouble and without extracurricular assistance from people living in the cities?

The answer seems to be that the principal cause of the present labor shortage is the improvement in the standard of living of the campesinos, the rural population. Before the revolution, the land was in the hands of large owners and the peasants had to eke out their meager existence either as hired hands or badly exploited sharecroppers. To keep body and soul together they had to work very hard, particularly at harvest time. In two successive land reforms following the revolution most of them came into possession of substantial, if not large, plots of land, although the large sugar plantations were taken over by the state.2 These provide them with secure and satisfactory livelihoods. The pressure is off and so is the necessity and willingness to engage in the backbreaking work of cutting cane sixteen hours a day without let up. The supply of experienced, agricultural labor decreased and the government had no other choice than to try to replace it by sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes grumbling, but always relatively unskilled urban “volunteers.”

In the long run full or at least partial mechanization of harvesting operations should ease the pressure; in the short run, however, not only the sugar crop, but many other crops, such as potatoes and citrus fruit, cannot and will not be brought in in time. In Russia a similar impasse was met by forced collectivization; in Cuba such use of force is out of the question. Harvesting not only of sugar cane but of all other crops as well can be expected to be for some time the principal bottleneck limiting the rate of agricultural expansion and consequently of general economic growth.

According to official figures, the rate of saving and investment has now reached the unprecedented, and, in comparison with other countries, unequaled figure of 30 or possibly even 35 percent. Most of it is allocated to agriculture and the supporting industries: Irrigation, road building, fertilizer plant construction, and importing tractors and other agricultural machinery. Soviet Russia and other socialist countries absorb the bulk of Cuban sugar output, Japan takes a substantial and gradually increasing amount. While oil and certain other staples are supplied by Soviet Russia, much of the mechanical equipment and supplies come from other countries. English buses, Italian and Canadian tractors arrive by ship, not to speak of Canadian livestock imported for breeding purposes as well as corn and other specialized poultry feed absorbed by the fast growing, large-scale Cuban poultry industry.

The US government attempts, from time to time, to discourage European and Canadian firms from trading with Cuba, by threatening what might be called a secondary boycott of their products. Such moves do not contribute to our popularity in Latin America or even in Western European countries, while their effect on Cuban trade is marginal at best. The economic impact of the direct US boycott is very great indeed. There can be hardly any doubt that it cuts down the standard of living of the Cuban population and slows down to some degree the rate of economic growth.

Thursday, May 8th: This morning again a visit to the Institute of Economic Research; this time the subject of discussion was the program of the Institute’s own work. To judge by the annual report which was handed to me at the end of the previous meeting, that program is characterized by the lack of any central core. Without exception each of the 150 subjects listed represents essentially a brief report written in reponse to an official request from this or that Ministry—be it the outlook for next year on the English citrus fruit market or cost comparison between two agricultural machines. In view of the shortage of professionally trained economists, this is not surprising. Nevertheless, I tried to impress on my hosts the importance of devoting at least a fraction of their efforts to long-run projects suggested by the Senior Research staff itself.

I was invited to lunch by Oscar Garcia Fernandez, the Vice-Rector of the University, at the luxurious “1830” restaurant—a converted seashore mansion of an obviously very opulent revolutionary hero. In his middle thirties, the Vice-Rector is by profession a surgeon; lively, intelligent, speaking perfect English, he has been to the United States many times and now travels frequently to Europe. In addition to the University of Havana, Cuba has two or three other universities. The University of Havana has some 35,000 students; their number increases, of course, very quickly. In 1972 thousands of youngsters who enrolled in primary schools after the revolution will be completing high school; the University authorities are already preparing for that wave of new students. High school kids from the backward rural regions spend a year in a special preparatory department.

In contrast to Soviet Russia and other European socialist countries, no sharp institutional separation exists in Cuba between scientific research institutes and teaching departments. On the contrary, as in the United States, the two activities are systematically combined.

There is, of course, a great shortage of scientific books and college textbooks. The State Publishing House publishes a large number of translations, and I was surprised to see a Cuban edition of two of my own books as well as several other monographs on Input Output analysis. As to the present state of medical education, the Vice-Rector said that although many doctors had left for the US, their loss was more than compensated by new graduates. At the present time more than 7,000 doctors are in practice, which is pretty good for a population of about 7,000,000 people. In contrast to the pre-revolutionary times when most doctors were living in Havana, doctors are distributed now evenly all over the country; as are the hospital facilities.

A large number of Cubans are studying in Soviet Russia and in other East and West European countries, while at the same time a substantial number of foreign scholars are invited to teach for periods of as long as two or three years in various departments of the University. Dr. Garcia asked me about the methods used by our universities to handle badly educated freshmen coming from lower, under-privileged groups. Little does the Vice-Rector of the University of Cuba know about the trouble that President Pusey had the very week I came to Cuba.

The early afternoon was taken up by an official visit to Dr. Julio Le Riverend, the Vice-President of the Cuban Academy of Sciences. A stately gentleman was waiting for me in a book-lined room on the second floor of a handsome mansion located in the so-called Old City of Havana. During the next hour and a half I was constantly reminded of my visit in 1965 to the Collège de France, where I was a guest lecturer and paid my respects to the Secretary General of that 400-year-old institution, in its venerable building in the old Quartier Latin. My host, politically leftist, and well-known for active and enthusiastic support of the Revolution, mentioned in passing that his grandfather was one of the cofounders of the Cuban Academy. Both he and his distinguished ancestor had studied at the Sorbonne. I was reminded again of the sometimes forgotten fact that the older intellectual tradition of Latin America is derived not from the Anglo-Saxon world but from France.

I gave Dr. Riverend a message from the President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences containing a proposal to establish systematic contact and exchange with the Cuban Academy. He received the message enthusiastically and assured me that a formal letter of acceptance would be dispatched to Boston in a few weeks by diplomatic pouch.

Later in the afternoon I went to see Carlos Raphael Rodriguez, Fidel’s close associate and the one man brain-trust of the Revolutionary movement. The Vice-Rector of the University accompanied me. We drove up to the Communist party headquarters, a low, broad building, and were met by the Director of the Economic Institute at the foot of the marble steps. We were then led to a gigantic empty lobby, past military guards lined up along the marble corridors, and to a stainless steel elevator, up one floor to an equally empty hall—forty feet to the right, forty feet to the left, not a soul, just marble, overhead, underfoot, and on both sides. Through one reception room to another, obviously the office of the secretary, and finally we arrived at the amply furnished study of the great man.

Rodriguez impresses me as being the Trotsky of the Cuban revolution. The similarity extends beyond the lively face and the jetblack beard. He is an intellectual through and through, prepared to discuss not only politics and economics, but literature and art as well. He talks easily and can be expected to be equally effective in addressing a crowd of a hundred thousand Cubans on the Plaza de la Constitution in Havana, a session of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America in Lima or New York, or, say, a class of Harvard students in Cambridge.

I began by inquiring about the vanishing supply of agricultural labor. Rodriguez agreed that the agricultural reform that brought about a definite improvement in the standard of living of the campesino curbed markedly his enthusiasm for the backbreaking work of cutting sugar cane. To this Rodriguez added three other factors: the increase in the size of the armed forces, the rise in the age one finishes school, and, finally, the enhanced attractiveness of city life. The latter he ascribed to the mistaken policy of one of his ministerial colleagues (who has by now left the country) of developing gigantic year around programs of public works coupled with a substantial and, in Rodriguez’s opinion, unjustified increase in city wages over rural wages.

Of the other important economic problems confronting the country, Rodriguez spoke of the struggle to expand exports and of the importance of introducing new technology as a means of raising the still extremely low level of the productivity of labor. Without any prodding on my part, he mentioned the poor organization of labor in general, and in sugar cutting and processing in particular.

He then asked what impression I had of the technical work performed by the Cuban economists and told me of the decision to transfer the Input Output team (whom I had met the day before) to the Planning Office. The inevitable subject of the relations, or rather absence of relations, with the US came up. I wanted to know how the Cuban government would react if some moves were made on our side toward relaxing the present economic boycott, if these moves were not preceded or even accompanied by the reestablishment of normal diplomatic relations. Rodriguez reacted by saying that Cuba would like to trade with everybody including the US without regard to political conditions, but later seemed to shift somewhat from that position, emphasizing the importance of diplomatic recognition. For a while the discussion centered on the US economic policies toward Cuba in the pre-revolutionary period. Rodriguez’s staff has obviously studied thoroughly this past history, and he cited case after case in which private interests directly or through the US government actions stalled the development of Cuban enterprise which might conceivably compete with American industry. The name of one southern Senator came up again and again in this connection.

The long day was still not over. A group of eight or ten young economists, some working in the Input Output group of Rodriguez’s organization and others in the Central Planning Board, invited me to dine with them at the elegant roof-top restaurant in which a few days later our official farewell party was held. The three hours I spent with these young people were the most pleasant of the entire visit. All of my hosts, one of them a girl, were trained in modern economics, and were familiar not only with the refinements of economic theory but also with the joys and headaches of its practical applications. Each of them spoke or at least understood English. The discussion was quite technical. They popped one question after another at me, but understood most of the answers before I had a chance to complete my replies. I hope that the time will come when I am able to invite some of them to spend a year or two at the Harvard Economic Research Project in Cambridge.

The discussion of several practical economic problems confirmed the impression that managerial inexperience and inefficiency is one of the major causes of the low productivity of labor. The lack of formal overall coordination is another; Fidel apparently has for some time emphasized what he calls “mini-planning,” that is, separate planning of the operations of each individual sugar mill, textile plant, or electric station. No wonder bottle-necks develop everywhere, inventories run down, and unforeseen shortages occur resulting in frequent extremely costly shutdowns.

Saturday, May 10th: Early in the afternoon we started on a sightseeing tour of the country from which we returned the next day, i.e., Sunday afternoon. The province of Pinar Del Rio which we visited occupies the northwestern end of the island. Proceeding toward the famous scenic Viñales valley, we first made a detour to San Andrés, a model communist community developed by the Revolution in what previously was one of the most inaccessible and backward parts of the province: new roads, new bridges, newly irrigated fields, and most of all four large new schools to which more are being added.

In their general plan the schools remind me of the consolidated Union Highschools that are being constructed in some of our rural districts. Only in San Andrés these are boarding schools; the pupils live in common dormitories during the week, go home on Saturday afternoon, and return on Sunday evening or Monday morning. I will not attempt to describe the remarkable educational system developed since the Revolution, but will mention only that of the books arranged on the library shelves or on the students’ desks, an unusually large number are translated from the Russian: elementary textbooks of history, geography, biology, and mathematics, and novels by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and other classic writers, as well as by Soviet novelists and short story writers.

While picking up the young party boss in the village office—he acted as our local guide—I looked over the bookshelf near his desk: 40 percent technical agricultural literature, 40 percent Marx, Lenin, and Cuban Communist Party literature, 20 percent novels, short stories, and poetry. Many of the books in all three categories are translations, half of them from the Russian (again Tolstoy and Dostoevsky), but also some German, French, English, and, of course, North Vietnamese writers; only one American: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which I also saw in the school library. With the universal drive toward the use of modern agricultural technology, there is an obvious apprehension of an over-enthusiastic use of D.D.T.

The resort hotel in Viñales was beautiful and well-stocked with food and drink. However, there was no room in it for us. The view of the verdant valley with its unusually shaped “mesas” rising here and there, with thatch-roofed huts hidden behind tall palm trees and the green slopes of the surrounding mountains fully lived up to our expectations. After lunch, at which for the first time since our arrival in Cuba we saw butter, we piled into our ancient Cadillac and drove for one hour and a half to a recently constructed resort hotel located on the shore of a small mountain stream, about a third of the way back to Havana. The large swimming pool was delightful, the bed in our cabin was comfortable, although the shower and the faucets went dry for a while in the morning. For lunch there was beef, chicken, or roast pork, but no bread of any kind, just crackers. Later we found out that this was Mothers’ Day and the bakery industry had devoted its entire capacity—and presumably the entire daily ration of flour—to the production of special Mothers’ Day cakes.

I remembered our visit to the last of the three schools that were shown us in San Andrés. It was late Saturday afternoon and all the children should have been driving in school buses or trucks toward their home villages to spend the week-end with their parents. Instead, they were still there running through the arcades, playing in the field, or sitting idly on benches. The supervising teacher explained that since the next day was Mothers’ Day, each boy and girl was expected to bring a small present to his mother. It was the responsibility of the school administration to supply the appropriate present. The truck carrying the presents unfortunately had not arrived. Obviously the presents were Mothers’ Day cakes, and the bakeries freed from the necessity of supplying bread to the rest of the population still were unable to fulfill the special assignment on time.

Sunday night the Vice-Rector—the Rector was still in Oriente province—gave us a farewell dinner. It was attended by five senior University administrators and their wives. Held in the same roof-top restaurant where I was entertained two days before by the young economists, the meal was served with two wines and lighted at the end by a flaming baked Alaska.

We discussed problems of higher education, from the curriculum of the Department of Economics to more general questions such as training badly prepared freshmen and the advantages and disadvantages of alternating periods of classroom study with long stretches of practical work experience. One could not help being impressed by the purposeful and critically inquiring attitude of these university administrators. Their task is certainly not easy. Next year it will probably become impossible, since in 1970—the year of the “ten million ton harvest”—the students will likely spend more time swinging machetes in the sugarfields, digging potatoes, or picking oranges than in classrooms or laboratories.

A foreign expert invited to survey the organization of instruction in Natural Sciences told me later that the two or three really well-functioning departments have been organized and to a great extent staffed with experts imported from Germany. The morale of Cuban scholars teaching side by side with these foreigners was hardly bolstered by the fact that the salaries of the Cubans were three or four times lower.

Monday, May 12th: The day of our departure. We arrived at the airport at six o’clock in the morning. The Vice-Rector and many of our other hosts were there to see us off. All was ready for departure except one exceedingly important detail: our passports, identity cards, as well as the all-important Mexican re-entry visas, which were taken from us by one of the agents of the Cuban travel organization as soon as we arrived and should have been returned to us at the gate at our departure, were nowhere to be seen. All the other passengers and the crew were in the plane, but the agent of the tourist office who was supposed to bring our documents had not arrived. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, half an hour, still not there.

Various hypotheses were advanced by our Cuban friends: the messenger might have had an asthma attack, or possibly it was heart failure, or maybe his car had broken down or had had a crash. Some thirty minutes later the young man finally stepped out of a car, the precious papers in his hand. The explanation of the breakdown in the well-laid plan was simple: the messengers had overslept, but that was actually not his fault. The night before he had asked the telephone girl to wake him up in the morning (a special service offered by the socialized telephone company), but she forgot to do so or possibly she did not ring long or loudly enough. Our bags were quickly loaded and we left the first socialist state in the western hemisphere, the “first liberated territory of the Americas,” and were on the way to our capitalist homeland.

Concluding note: This is intended to be a descriptive, not an analytical report; however, I cannot refrain from concluding with a few words of somewhat more general observations. In the last twenty years I have had the opportunity of visiting Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and also the Soviet Union, Poland, and Rumania. This experience provides a favorable vantage point from—which to assess the Latin American and socialist strands in present day Cuba.

So far as the overall productivity is concerned the performance of the socialized economy is not inferior and possibly even somewhat superior to that of the communist states in Eastern Europe in the early stages of their development. Some individual operations are shockingly inefficient and the bureaucracy is often very clumsy. Continued reliance on “moral” as contrasted to material incentives no doubt adversely affects the productivity of labor and its growth. Subject to these constraints, the overall direction of economic policies is intelligent and aggressively imaginative. The decisions taken several years ago to give up the early plans toward overall industrialization in favor of concentrated efforts to develop as rapidly as possible the great agricultural potential of the island testifies to this. The size of the island and the homogeneity of its population of seven million favors bold experiment. The area is large enough to provide sufficient elbow room and space for tactical maneuvering, but not so large as to expose the clumsy planning operations to the danger of utter collapse under their own weight.

The material conditions of life are hard, but not intolerably so, and unlike the other Latin American countries, Cuba is able to export many of the disgruntled and malcontent to Miami with the assistance of the US government. How many Brazilians and Argentinians, not to speak of Guatemalans and Colombians, would come here if they were admitted and offered free transportation? On the other hand, the campesinos seem to be better off—and they know it—than they were under the old regime. The active governing minority is well-organized and works enthusiastically, subject to effective party discipline. The majority of the intellectuals who choose to stay—some enthusiastically, some grudgingly—support the regime, and the expanding educational system increases their number rapidly from year to year.

The most potent force working in favor of the new order in Cuba is the very existence of the US, its economic role and interest and its past and present policy, public and private, toward the Latin American countries. The reference to Cuba as “the liberated territory of the Americas” emblazoned on Havana billboards is much more than a potent political catch-word. All evidence seems to indicate that in spite of the economic difficulties confronting the new regime this slogan expresses the attitude and feeling shared not only by the majority of seven million Cubans, but also more or less consciously in a more or less outspoken manner by most Latin Americans.

Not only Soviet Russia and the other Eastern European countries but also Western Europe, Canada, and increasingly Japan, contribute to the Cuban experiment with goods and technical skill.

The policies of non-recognition and economic boycott isolate not Cuba but the United States. Does the continuation of these policies strengthen or weaken our position on the continent? Do these policies serve truly our national interest?


Travel to Cuba September 11, 1969

Travel to Cuba September 11, 1969

  1. 1

    This is a special mathematical technique of economic analysis developed first in the United States but now used both in centrally planned socialist as well as in western private-enterprise economies. The “input-output tables” and “coefficient matrices” referred to in my May 6 entry are based on largè-scale statistical computations required for practical application of this technique.

  2. 2

    Somewhere around 30 percent of all land and 40 percent of arable land are now held by individual campesinos; the rest is controlled and cultivated by the government.

  • Email
  • Print