Cuba Before the Revolution: The Little Gold Cup

By Yadira Escobar (Progreso Weekly)

Illustration by Yadira Escobar.
Illustration by Yadira Escobar.

HAVANA TIMES – Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, said in Madrid that Cuba before the Revolution – that is, dictator Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba – was “a golden jewel.”

To hear this from someone who proclaims everywhere that her group is interested in human rights, seems to me aberrant, considering all the pain that that blood-thirsty regime caused our motherland.

Because Soler does not refer to the ethic aspect of that dictatorship but rather to the materialistic nature of the regime, I believe that the topic deserves a more economic analysis.

In 1957, Cuba ranked fifth in Latin America, behind Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Chile. Annual industrial production was about $1 billion. So, were we the little golden cup that some nostalgic émigrés recall in their Calle Ocho cafeterias?

Well, to begin with, I think that “were” is a collectivist term, and what moved Cuba’s economy in those days was not collectivism but capitalist individualism. So, to mistake the production of wealth for the distribution of wealth seems to be a trick performed by the apologists of that “paradise lost.”

They want to draw ALL OF US into a reactionary nostalgia that clears the road for the same political forces that caused so much harm in the past.

Speaking of gold and jewels, I don’t think that in colonial times any house slave was happy to wear in public emeralds and fine silver, as happened when coach attendants and housemaids were dressed in elegant finery by their vain masters.

I say this about others’ jewels because often the symbols of power and wealth don’t match the title or dignity of those who appear to own them, and in a burst of emancipation the slave might be glad to leave the borrowed jewels behind, just to earn his freedom and real dignity.

Despite enormous inequalities, Cuba managed to create wealth. We might say that the capitalist machinery worked, because the Cuban workers (who almost always came from the rural areas) moved out of the fields as the sugar industry moved in. They moved to the cities, adding to the cheap manual labor needed by the industry.

Let’s not forget that Havana was proportionally (after Vienna) the most densely populated city in relation to the country’s total population, and that a huge unemployment rate guaranteed employers a cheap human capital.

The petit bourgeoisie took advantage of that fact, especially under the rule of the Autenticos (a Cuban political party whose administrations led to Batista’s rise to power), so the little street shops and humble grocery stores flourished. The grande bourgeoisie, in alliance with American companies, wanted to monopolize everything, making Cuba a servant of the foreign interests.

The honest efforts of small businessmen could not – not even with the support of the Farm and Industrial Development Bank of the Autenticos – prevent the island from drifting from popular sovereignty and real democracy and falling into the hands of a militaristic, right-wing minority that finally staged the 1952 coup d’état that assassinated the idealistic 1940 Constitution.

Despite the benefit of the high tariffs since 1927 (high worldwide, after World War I) and facing a shortage of cheap fuel, the nation’s industry depended on the Cuban Power Company, which was a subsidiary of American and Foreign Power Co., Inc.

We depended hugely on U.S. capitalism. At the end of the chain of production stood an over-exploited worker who was not as interested in the “equality of opportunities” offered by a free market and a National Lottery as he was in social justice.

Cuba did not enjoy economic sovereignty so it might choose its political destiny. Beyond the exaggerated propaganda disseminated by the reactionaries, we find data that make us think.

Between 1946 and 1955, 60 percent of the lard consumed in Cuba had to be purchased in the United States. Due to structural flaws in the rural economy, Cubans had to buy abroad 80 percent of the garlic and onions they consumed.

The leader of the “Ladies in White,” who has openly asked that the blockade be maintained against her own people, may not know that, behind sugar and tobacco, Cuba’s third source of economic income came from tourism – almost exclusively from the United States.

Therefore, it is not very coherent to speak of a “golden jewel” that was funded in part (one third) by U.S. tourism, while comparing it with today’s Cuba under the blockade. That was an era of casinos, prostitution, mafias and obvious feasting.

Maybe the sparkle of neon signs is a nostalgic remembrance to some in Miami, an image of a cruise ship filled with lights and music. But that ship was moored with thick chains to the docks of a nearby empire that had little respect for the dignity of Cubans.
—–
Yadira Escobar lives in Hialeah Gardens, Miami and writes for Progreso Semanal/Weekly. Her blog is Yadiraescobar.com.


9 thoughts on “Cuba Before the Revolution: The Little Gold Cup

  • May 7, 2013 at 4:10 pm
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    “there is a large middle group of people who neither support the
    stifling and oppressive Castro regime nor wish to go back to Cuba’s
    colonial past.”

    Well, doesn’t seem to be the case with the Ladies in White.

  • May 7, 2013 at 8:05 am
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    Your bi-polar view of Cuba is your blind spot. It appears that you struggle to accept that there is a large middle group of people who neither support the stifling and oppressive Castro regime nor wish to go back to Cuba’s colonial past. I count myself among this group who believe that Cuba, once free to choose for themselves, will likely choose some form of government that affords open and transparent multi-party elections AND a social conscious that continues to provide government support of education and public health care. Just think of the money Cuba could save if they did not have to maintain the huge internal State (in)security infrastructure in place today to watch fellow Cubans?

  • May 6, 2013 at 1:49 pm
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    A ‘pro-democracy’ Cuban would never, EVER call the Batista’s days ‘golden’ in any way. It’s like a ‘democrat’ here saying praises for the military gorillas of ’64. Those ‘jewels’ of pre-revolutionary Cuba were only but money-laundry facades for the mafia. Recurring to Yusimi’s last post, there is her answer: she speaks for Uncle Sam. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Your calls for ‘freedom’ or whatever in Cuba are becoming more and more cynical and demagogic.

  • May 5, 2013 at 9:24 am
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    Thanks for your very enlightening history lesson, Yadira! Don’t worry about the responses of the usual chorus of neah-sayers. One gets used to–and doesn’t take seriously–their chronic dirges. As one of my favorite fictional heroes, Eric Cartman, would say, “mistakes have been made” (perhaps an understatement) during the first 54 years of the Revolution; still, those taking power were motivated by an authentic wish for economic democracy. Their error in following the Soviet model reflects a certain pragmatism, since not only were the Soviets willing to bankroll the Revolution, but also defend it against the predadtions of the Yankees. The “Class of ’59,” on coming down from the Sierra Maestra, was well aware of what happened to previous revolutions without outside help (e.g. Aginaldo in the Phillipines, Sandino in Nicaragua, Mosadek in Persia, Arbenz in Guatemala, Boch in Santo Domingo, Allende in Chile, to name a few. Fortuntely, now there is a whole new generation of revolutions–Venezuela, Brazil, Agrentina, Ecuador, who offer more participatory, less “top down,” models from which the new generations of Cuba’s revolutionaries can pick-and-choose in creating a new structures into which the people of Cuba can channel their creativity and energy.

  • May 3, 2013 at 7:29 am
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    You make an important point about accuracy of comparisons. Batista was a thug and a criminal, but he saw no reason to micro-manage every little detail of human life in Cuba. Castro’s dictatorship forced its way into every aspect of Cuban life, dictating where one could live, work & worship. An important detail is that while Batista’s dictatorship lasted under 8 years, Castro’s has afflicted Cuba for over 54 years.

    It is also false to blame every problem of pre-Revolutionary Cuba on Batista. He did not invent corruption, he merely climbed to the top of the heap and added to it.

    It is also an exaggeration to say that US corporations owned everything in Cuba before the revolution. At most, 25% of the sugar crop was grown on land owned by US businesses. That means 75% was still owned by Cubans. The purchasing power of the US market certainly dominated the Cuban economy, and the US corporations were influential and growing. Because US firms had access to much larger sources of capital for investments, Cuban businesses were at an increasing disadvantage.

    Pre-revolutonary Cuba was a “golden jewel” for the wealthy, and to some extent for the growing urban middle class. But the urban working class and rural poor life was very hard.

  • May 3, 2013 at 2:28 am
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    Cuba under Batista was no “golden jewel”. Batista was a dictator just like Castro and had to be removed.

    What is true is that before Fidel Castro – as he admitted himself – there was no hunger in Cuba (1).
    Top communists – like Armando Hart, a member of Castro’s innermost ruling group – made the extremely significant observation that: . . . it is certain that capitalism had attained high levels of organization, efficiency and production that declined after the Revolution. (2).

    Theodore Draper quotes Anial Escalante, (before he was purged by Castro) one of the leading communists, who admitted that:
    …in reality, Cuba was not one of the countries with the lowest standard of
    living of the masses in America, but on the contrary, one of the highest
    standards of living, and it was here where the first great . . . democratic
    social revolution of the continent burst forth. . . If the historical
    development had been dictated by the false axiom [revolutions come first in
    poorest countries] the revolution should have been first produced in Haiti,
    Colombia or even Chile, countries of greater poverty for the masses than the
    Cuba of 1958. . .(3)

    UN statistics confirm that before Castro Cuba was the third developed nation of the Americas with a higher living standard than most European countries and parts of the USA. Cuba also was a net exporter of food. Today it has to import 80% of the food it consumes.

    It was the middle class (petit bourgeois) that fought the revolution against Batista. the communists – previously closely allied to Batista – only joined the revolution after the “Pacto de Caracas “in late 1958 (4).

    Fidel Castro later seized power with the help of the communist from a movement that – as Che confirmed – was nationalistic but not communist at all.

    (1) “Cuba, the “Pearl of the Antilles,” though by no means a paradise,
    was not, as many believe, an economically backward country. Castro
    himself admitted that while there was poverty, there was no economic
    crisisand no hunger in Cuba before the Revolution”. (See Maurice
    Halperin: The Rise and Fall of Fidel Castro, University of California,
    1972, pgs. 24, 25, 37)
    (2) . Juventud Rebelde, November 2, 1969; quoted by Rene Dumont, Is Cuba Socialist?
    (3) quoted in Draper’s Castro’s Revolution: Myths and Realities; New York, 1962, p. 22
    (4) see the text at: http://www.cubaverdad.net/pacto_de_caracas.htm
    (5) “The Cuban revolution
    is not a class revolution, but a liberation movement that has overthrown a
    dictatorial, tyrannical government.”
    Che Guevara Speaks: Selected Speeches and Writings, G. Lavan ed. (New York:
    Pathfinder, 1967), p. 13.

    Source of quotes and highly recommended to read up on the background of the Cuban revolution:
    See: http://www.cubaverdad.net/revolution.htm

  • May 2, 2013 at 11:39 pm
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    And you have talent fro drawing, I noticed 🙂 Could you make for me a drawing of a repudiation act? Since four I’m watching them, but never have seen an art piece depicting them.

  • May 2, 2013 at 11:35 pm
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    One thing we have in common: probably Berta Soler doesn’t know what she is talking about, and the Batista regime was really bloody (and I said probably, because after the indoctrination I suffered as “child of revolution”, I doubt everything what they say.

    Saying that, I would like to point out: Bloody was the reaction of a government after what we call today “acts of terrorism”. Please don’t forget that either. In 1957 the country was in civil war -you seem to forget that little detail, and who started the war. Despite that, 5th! Where we are now after 54 years of glorious revolution? Haiti only beat us in poverty index, and probably North Korea is the other one who beat us in human rights violations. If you criticize Berta Soler for her support of the embargo (because is against her own people), please read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -and you will see that your nonsensical defense of the “revolution” is against the whole Cuban people, including you. And I prefer to include you, believing you naive, that cynical and you don’t care about the common Cuban people.

    If what happened 54 years ago still is excuse for the tyranny that we Cuban People suffer, well, something is just plain wrong. And I hope you will understand that.

  • May 2, 2013 at 9:54 pm
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    Yadira seems to make the same mistake so many others make when comparisons between Republican-era and Revolutionary Cuba are made. She compares the worst aspects under Batista to the ‘best’ under the Castros. Likewise, pro-democracy Cubans, like Soler, compare the worst outcomes under Castro to the best aspects of the pre-Castro Cuba. These comparisons are disingenuous at best and outright manipulative at worst. Here is the truth: Batista’s dictatorship was cruel and brutal. The Castros dictatorship is also cruel and brutal. Cuba deserves a free and democratic future.

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