Much has been written about Cuba, even more has been said. Its beaches are among the most beautiful in the Caribbean. Its capital Havana was once praised as the Paris of the Antilles. No visitor fails to notice this, even though decades of deprivation and neglect have taken their toll.
I could add more touristic narratives to this. But since this page is for its best part a political blog, I have to ask question that go beyond the scenery. Why are 11 million Cubans seemingly lost in time, stuck on an island that cannot feed them (Cuba is reliant on food imports, mainly from the US)? Why is the housing stock crumbling to pieces before our eyes? Why is Cuban medical research among the most advanced in the world (we think of cancer treatment) when industrial enterprises are virtually non-existent? Is socialism solely to blame for appalling living conditions? Or is the government simply too busy oppressing the populace when it should improve the lives of ordinary Cubans instead?
Let’s go back in time. The suffering did not start with the victory of the revolution and the seizing of power by Fidel Castro (1959). It started with the introduction of the sugar cane by the Spanish and its cultivation on vast plantations. It meant back-breaking work for the people who laboured on the fields (first enslaved Indians, then West-African slaves and eventually landless day labourers). The sugar cane consumed millions of lives. It is a deadly crop indeed. For planters (first Spanish gentlemen, then after 1898 predominant US corporations) it meant huge profits.
The war of independence from Spain in 1895-98 under the leadership of José Martí failed to achieve its goal. The last three months escalated into the Spanish-American War, after the US battleship Maine sank in the harbour of Havana (the circumstances are still disputed). The conflict ended with the Treaty of Paris (1898). Spain ceded Sovereignty over Cuba to the USA. Cuba was formally granted ‘independence’ in 1901. The USA retained however the right for future intervention in Cuban affairs. They also supervised its finances and foreign relations. In fact it wasn’t until 1959 that Cuba became an independent entity at last.
By that time a big chunk of Cuban agricultural land (mainly sugar plantations) and processing plants (mainly sugar mills) were owned by US concerns. The most notorious was the United Fruit Company. Cuba had also become the playground for the American Mafia (see article about Mafia Boss Meyer Lansky). Put together, there were huge amounts of US cash invested on that small island.
When Fidel Castro set sail for Cuba on 25 November 1956, boarding the yacht Granma in the port of Tuxpan (Veracruz) together with 81 fighters (among them Raúl Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos), he had two main objectives, to win real independence for Cuba and to reinstate the constitution of 1940. He knew that he had to secure popular support to succeed, specially among the landless day labourers. Sugar plantations therefore had to be nationalised and redistributed after victory was achieved.
Castro stuck to his promises. The expropriation of US property took place. The US responded with the imposition of a near-total embargo on 7 February 1962. The legislation which enacted the embargo has seen some minor amendments over the last 50 years. Nonetheless it has remained in place to this day.
There is no doubt that the inadequateness of a centrally planned economy lay at the core of Cuba’s catastrophic situation. The revolutionary government attempted to reverse the dependency of the economy from the sugar cane. Its monoculture exhausted soil and people (Cuba went from being one of the largest sugar producers/exporters to become a net-importer of it). But it failed to replace it with other industries. It failed on this score because talented people were leaving the island to seek their future elsewhere. Many went to Florida. But it also failed because the US embargo prevented any industrial development. Existing machinery couldn’t be maintained because of lack of spare parts, which used to be imported from US suppliers. New technology was not available for the same reason. Supplies of energy and fuel declined to zero. No financing of any sort was to come by. The former Soviet Union together with other communist countries tried to step in. This too ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Resources have been tied for decades. The government spends mainly on food imports (from the US on cash basis only; one of the few exceptions of the embargo), education and health. Cuba’s achievements here are impressive indeed, given the prevailing circumstances.
Failure and success are relative measures, in Cuba like elsewhere.
In a future article I will try to explain why the US embargo is still in place and what that tells us about democracy (or the lack of it).