• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

20 Years of Castro’s Revolution

Domínguez continues Franqui’s story of Castro’s takeover of the Twenty-sixth of July Movement. He shows that Castro’s showdown in 1960 with the moderate adherents of “bourgeois democracy” actually began in the early winter of 1959. In 1960 Fidel merely enforced a plan that had been previously decided on. Apparently Castro’s visit to the US in 1959 provoked a crisis inside the Central Committee, and in the struggle that followed between the two main political factions the more radical won out. Fidel canceled his repeated promises to call a general election, and contrary to the Sierra Maestra manifesto signed by Felipe Pazos and Raúl Chibás—as well as Castro—he announced that no aid from capitalist North America would be tolerated.

Eisenhower’s harsh and heavy-handed reaction to Cuba’s first attempts to nationalize industry accelerated the process of socializing the economy, particularly the parts of it that had been under United States or Canadian control. The revolutionary government needed loyal employees for its survival no matter how incompetent—inefficiency and full employment were preferable to dangers of sabotage by pro-North American managers. The regime’s ideological direction and the reaction of the United States thus dynamically complemented each other. But Domínguez’s analysis suggests that the economic decisions of the Cuban leaders were essentially autonomous and political. They weren’t forced to socialize industry so abruptly, Domínguez argues; nor did the socialist character of the revolution require such vast economic transformations.

Domínguez stresses the charismatic nature of Castro’s authority during the early 1960s when he enjoyed remarkable popularity among the Cuban people. In a poll conducted in 1960 by Lloyd Free he had 86 percent support: most of these Cubans said that they were drawn to the revolutionary government because of Fidel’s personal qualities, including his unshakable faith in himself. Such charismatic power, Domínguez comments,

…depends on the leader’s conviction that he is not dependent on election by his followers but has been “elected” by a supernatural authority, either God or some “historical force,” and on the citizenry’s sharing that conviction.

Castro’s extraordinary series of impossible achievements—the landing of Granma, the victory against Batista, the defeat of the United States in the Bay of Pigs, a veritable triumph of David against Goliath—all these strengthened the personalism of the revolution and reinforced Castro’s conviction that programs could be dictated from the summit and carried out by the inspired voluntary efforts of those loyal to the revolution. It was, Domínguez argues, all too easy for Fidel and his fellow leaders to adopt a pattern of thinking by which

only the maximum possible effort toward the optimal goal is worth pursuing; only the (apparently) unattainable goal is an acceptable one. The revolution was an unreachable goal, and yet it was achieved. Why not, then, 10 million tons of sugar in 1970? Why not, then, transforming the people of Cuba into revolutionary citizens? The persistent belief that an activist, determined vanguard should reach for nothing short of the impossible in the service of the revolution has been expounded by the leadership for many years.

Charismatic authority and voluntarism were the two distinguishing characteristics of the revolution during the 1960s. But the deterioration of the Cuban economy forced Castro to accept more modest objectives. The radical politics he had espoused were becoming increasingly unpopular and his personal following which had been the backbone of the revolution was steadily weakening. Castro needed a new approach, and here the USSR was indispensable. “The Soviet Union’s successful reassertion of hegemony over Cuba,” Domínguez writes, “contributed powerfully to the setting aside of the experiments of the late 1960s and to the building up of the central bureaucracies.”

Under steady pressure from the USSR Castro—who had tried to avoid a strong party organization ever since the Sierra Maestra period—went ahead and developed a Communist Party on the Soviet model. From the early 1970s Fidel’s personal appeal was no longer the main source of revolutionary legitimacy. The principles of “democratic centralism” were openly proclaimed and the rising members of the bureaucratic class saw their powers and privileges legally validated. Although this helped to improve the economic situation, the more original aspects of the revolution were slowly being buried. Domíguez describes the new political line:

As it retreated from the radicalism of the late 1960s, [the regime] became more pragmatic but also less attractive to those who had hoped the revolutionary elite would shoot for the stars in the late 1970s, just as they had done in the late 1950s. Authoritarian rule by an aging elite of white males was being institutionalized through the Communist Party. The party decided; the bureaucracy implemented.

According to Domínguez’s statistics the overall growth of the Cuban economy during the first ten years was almost nil, while “the capacity of the state to redistribute the proceeds from a stagnant and, at times, even deteriorating economy was impressive.” Under Batista the Cuban economy had expanded, but his regime had aggravated the economic differences between the countryside and Havana, between rich and poor. The unemployment rate after the revolution dropped from 8.8 percent in 1962 to 1.3 percent in 1970. The old pattern by which unemployment rose and fell according to the sugar harvest, leaving many thousands stranded in off seasons, was broken. Throughout the 1960s salaries steadily increased and now nearly everyone could find work, even though at times the work was unproductive. Many of the more beneficial changes for the poorer Cubans, such as the reallocation to them of homes abandoned by the middle class and rich, were made during the revolution’s transition period between 1959 and 1961.

Castro’s failure to improve agricultural production and to produce necessary consumer goods largely canceled out the beneficial effects of higher wages—neither manual nor white collar workers could find the goods to buy with their newly accumulated income. Domínguez points out that the introduction of rationing in 1962 demonstrates the failure of the Cuban economy to expand. But rationing was also used by the government to bring about the social equality it promised. “Natural” rationing had existed before the revolution for those Cubans who had been hard pressed to obtain basic necessities. The state did little more than make this natural rationing official, revealing, as Domínguez writes, “the twin aspect of Castro’s revolutionary performance: success in redistribution, failure in growth.”

One of the most interesting chapters of Domínguez’s book is his analysis of the conflicts over both agricultural policy and industrialization during the 1960s. Castro’s ambitious program of agrarian reform mistakenly attributed to the entire Cuban countryside the special character of the Sierra Maestra, where the revolutionary leaders had been based. Domínguez writes:

When Fidel Castro’s insurrection came, it had settled in the only part of Cuba where latifundia and land-tenure insecurity were still issues, and where prerevolutionary agrarian legislation had had little protective effect. Its survival in the Sierra Maestra would have been unlikely without peasant support; providentially for Castro, this was the only area of Cuba where he could have found insecure peasants facing hostile landowners and government.

Although the guajiros of the Sierra Maestra welcomed redistribution of land they showed a notable lack of enthusiasm for the cooperative system the regime tried to install there. The situation of the rural farmers varied enormously from region to region. When the peasants of Matanzas, for example, realized that the nationalization of their land was imminent, there were mass demonstrations and the number of counterrevolutionaries increased. The government readjusted its policies, but the damage was done. Huge numbers of the agrarian workers passively resisted the state’s economic plans. Even though the medical care and public education provided by the revolution gave innumerable benefits to the guajiros many of the rural farmers still opposed other aspects of state policy.

Industrial planning was in even greater confusion. Che Guevara persuaded Cuba’s leading economists to adopt his Leninist theories; he wanted the island to become agriculturally self-sufficient and an industrial power, thus ending Cuba’s economic dependency on the fluctuations of the international sugar market. In October 1962 Castro launched a four-year plan of rapid industrial growth to produce the vital machinery for the expansion of the Cuban economy. The decision reflects the obvious defects of a regime founded on a monolithic ideology and on the prerogatives of Fidel’s caudillismo. Domínguez points out:

Once the decision was made to proceed with a policy of accelerated industrialization, other policies incompatible with this goal were not listened to…. The effects of the highly centralizing economic policy favoring industrialization were to discourage agriculture without helping industry. Production declined from 1960 to 1962 as the attempt was made to industrialize rapidly and the second land-reform act went into effect.

Then a further disaster was inflicted by the government. It ordered the destruction of 134,200 hectares of sugar cane for the sake of agricultural diversification—but the diversification did not materialize. Too many cattle were mistakenly slaughtered and their meat wasted, so that eventually the per capita beef consumption declined from between 65 and 70 pounds in 1959 to 39 pounds in 1962.

By 1964 the disastrous results of government policy caused a sharp reversal of economic direction. Che Guevara’s numerous enemies seized the opportunity to force him out of his official positions, and he left Cuba to join the guerrillas fighting in Africa and Latin America. But the failure of industrialization didn’t serve as a lesson:

The policy was changed; the method of arriving at decisions was not. The result was again a fatal overemphasis, this time favoring agriculture, particularly sugar, over industry. By the late 1960s, no policy incompatible with earlier decisions favoring sugar and agriculture was considered. Castro’s commitment to it has been unwavering.

In 1970 the disastrous miscalculation of the sugar crop revealed for a second time the inherent defects of a system that had become too dependent on the personal whims of the leader and that lacked any democratic process. Castro now felt obliged to rely more heavily on Soviet help in economic planning. And if the bureaucratic class was formally to share power, on the Soviet pattern, a constitution was needed to help secure their position.

The rough draft of the first Socialist Constitution of Cuba was finally approved in 1975. This constitution, inspired by Stalin’s 1936 Soviet constitution, guarantees, as did Stalin’s, liberty of speech, press, religion, etc. But none of these rights can be used against the interests of the state or the party or against the growth of communism. In brief, state and party decide in each case what freedom can be exercised. As Domínguez points out, this is a serious regression from the liberties protected by the bourgeois constitution of 1940. The 1976 Constitution gives the state and party vast powers over the people. In judicial matters the powers of the government were not only made explicit but extended to control labor unions. Preventive detention has also been legalized, subjecting the lazy or rebellious worker to the threat of a possible criminal punishment. Domínguez writes:

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print