Commentary Magazine


Social Revolution in Cuba:
The Future of the New Regime

When Fidel Castro was in the Sierra Maestra, he spent most of his time talking. What little fighting there was, was done by his firebrand younger brother Raul, and by Major Ernesto Guevara, his pro-Communist aide. Castro himself simply harangued the men about him—his officers, his barbudos, and the U. S. correspondents who came calling on him once Herbert L. Matthews of the New York Times had shown the way. It would, of course, be too much to say that Fidel Castro talked the Batista dictatorship to death; it was already so rotten that it was doomed to fall apart. Still, there can be little doubt but that the revolutionary leader’s constant attacks on the dictatorship greatly hastened its collapse: what he kept saying about Fulgencio Batista was so obviously true that the latter’s own troops came eventually to believe it.

Ten months after having taken power in Cuba, Fidel Castro is still talking, as he moves about the country from Havana to Pinar del Rio and back to Havana again, stopping off always in the Sierra Maestra. He harangues the workers and the campesinos, holds innumerable press conferences, delivers long, rambling discourses over the government radio and television—he needs no special occasion to stand before the TV cameras and talk for three, or four, or even five hours. It would be a mistake, however, to deduce that Castro is merely a compulsive talker: if he says anything that comes into his mind, he also believes everything that he says.

The result is government by television—a phenomenon certainly unique in history. The Cubans, watching and listening in front of their TV sets, have come to accept whatever words drop from their leader’s lips as the law of the land—sometimes with preposterous consequences. Discussing on television the curbs he had put on gambling, Castro one night declared that Cuba had an abundance of other tourist attractions and could have still more—bullfighting, for instance, he suggested. At once, architects started drawing up blueprints for bull rings, and companies were organized to build them; newspapers hired experts from Madrid and Mexico City to write articles for the Cubans explaining the spectacle, and the air crackled with resolutions in favor of bullfighting—and against it. But sometimes the results can be tragic. Before Castro came to power, Cuba’s Negroes were as much discriminated against economically, socially, and politically as Negroes anywhere in our own South, despite the fact that Jim Crow laws do not exist there. Suddenly Castro announced one night that he was going to end this discrimination. Almost instantly, without plan or preparation, crowds of Negroes started to invade restricted suburban developments and beach clubs. Trouble developed and it became necessary to call out the police.

Fidel Castro is a romantic, bubbling over with fine ideas about economic, social, and political justice; it must also be added that the level of his ideas are those of a “campus radical”—and that, of course, is what he once was. He is incredibly disorganized: the complexities of government are not only beyond him, they bore him to distraction. He would rather talk grandiloquently about eliminating poverty, and issue pronunciamentos about land or rent reform, than grapple with the concrete problems involved in such reforms—he lets his ministers worry about all that. Many of these ministers are extremely competent, responsible men who are doing their best; but it goes without saying that no government official can really operate when his plans may be disrupted in a twinkling by some vagrant idea that wanders into the Prime Minister’s head at one thirty in the morning while he is talking on TV.

There are those who, looking hard at Cuba, insist that Castro’s government by TV will lead, inevitably, to chaos. And there are others who think it will end in Communism. The signs of approaching chaos are not hard to find: the construction industry, once the second biggest employer in Cuba, has ground almost to a halt; unemployment has risen alarmingly; the price of sugar, a product on which Cuba depends for most of its national income, is the lowest in nineteen years; the peso, though still worth a dollar in Cuba itself, has fallen to between sixty and seventy cents in the rest of the world. As for the Communists, they now seem to be everywhere—in the government, the army, the labor movement; in the schools, in radio and TV, and in the newspaper business.

Yet the alternative that faces Cuba is not, necessarily, chaos or Communism. There is a third possibility: Cuba could simply develop into a highly regimented leftist state, with dictatorial aspects, to be sure, but nevertheless not an absolute dictatorship. What makes this possible is, paradoxically, the very fact that the revolutionary leader appears incapable of ever sitting down to work and getting his government organized.

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Revolutions have a logic of their own, and what happened in Cuba when Fulgencio Batista fled and Fidel Castro came down from the Sierra Maestra was not merely a change in government, but a revolution, which is well on its way now to tearing apart the whole social, economic, and political fabric of the country. If Castro were a man with a coherent body of ideas and the discipline to put them into practice, he might have guided the revolution in any direction he chose. Since he is not, the law of cause and effect has taken over, and the revolution has created forces which may soon become inexorable. Already, it is a revolution in the classic pattern. Already, it has begun to devour the very people who created it.

The Cuban revolution started as a revolt of the upper middle class and the professional class. Fidel Castro is himself the son of a well-to-do sugar planter in Mayari, near Santiago. He was educated at a Roman Catholic boarding school in Santiago, where most of his classmates also were the sons of well-to-do sugar planters. From there he went to Belén, a Jesuit college in Havana, and from Belén to Havana University.

When he launched the revolution on July 26, 1953, by attacking Moncada barracks in Santiago, nearly all his one hundred and fifty-odd followers were classmates and friends, boys from families very much like his own. It was this, in fact, that saved Castro after the Moncada garrison smashed the attack and captured the survivors. The families had enough influence to persuade the Batista government to imprison, rather than shoot, their captives. Castro and his followers served only seven months in prison before Batista amnestied them.

When Castro went into the Sierra Maestra, it was again with boys from well-to-do families like his own. And, for a long time, almost the only support they had came from the upper middle class and the professional class. The campesinos were suspicious of Castro and his followers: after all, they were from another world, almost from another race. Nor did the Fidelistas have any support among the workers: the labor unions were, at that time, part and parcel of the Batista regime. Finally, Communists simply derided Castro as a bourgeois romantic—Which he was.

The doctors, the lawyers, the businessmen with connections in the United States, the Bacardi family—these were the people who supported Castro. They bought arms for him in Miami and smuggled them into the Sierra Maestra; they raised money for him; they arranged for U. S. correspondents to visit him and write his story. Appalled by the corruption of the Batista government, its brutality and lawlessness, these same people wanted, basically, a liberal, democratic government, like that of the United States. Many of them had themselves been educated in the States, and now had their children in school there; many had spent years in exile in the U. S. during the Machado dictatorship in Cuba. These people spoke English and read English; they vacationed regularly in Miami and New York.

It was only after Batista’s troops started torturing campesinos to find out where Castro and his barbudos were hiding that Castro began to draw support from the countryside. And it was only after the Batista government began, visibly, to disintegrate that Castro won the support of the Communists. The labor unions rallied to him last of all—when their leaders fled Cuba, along with Batista.

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There are those who argue that Batista had made a liberal, democratic government impossible. He had robbed, tortured, and killed too many people, they say; when he fled, there were too many Cubans crying for revenge against his gunmen, Cubans who had suffered much too long to wait for a liberal, democratic government to work its reforms. The point is arguable, but the fact is that Castro never had any intention of establishing a liberal, democratic government. A campus radical at Belén and a campus radical at Havana University, Fidel Castro had remained a campus radical in the Sierra Maestra.

It will be recalled that one of his first acts was to suspend habeas corpus, round up those suspected of having served as gunmen for Batista, and put them on public trial. These trials turned out to be not much more than government-sponsored lynching bees: the audiences consisted of howling, weeping mobs; there were no rules of evidence. Although the Cuban constitution forbids capital punishment, everyone convicted was executed—and everyone accused was convicted.

Fidelistas now maintain that Castro prevented a blood-bath when he staged the public trials: if he had not done so, they say, the people would simply have run wild, killing every suspected Batista gunman in sight. Again, this is arguable—but to many of those who supported Castro because they believed in a liberal, democratic government, the sight of men being tried while mobs screamed, “Kill them, Kill them,” was a shattering experience.

There was an outcry against Castro’s drumhead courts throughout Latin America, even in countries like Costa Rica which had backed his revolution, and, as will be remembered, in the United States, as well. The leader’s reaction was to set a pattern: “We have given orders to shoot every last one of these murderers, and if we have to oppose world opinion to carry out justice, we will do it. . . . If the Americans do not like what is happening, they can send in the Marines. Then there will be 200,000 gringos dead. We will make trenches in the streets.”

It was Batista’s cancellation of the Cuban elections of 1952 that had turned Castro to revolution, and Castro had repeatedly promised to hold elections when he came to power. Now, he abruptly changed his mind. Elections would be a travesty, he argued, until the followers of Batista were purged. The argument seemed weak: when Batista fled, it was because almost everyone in Cuba had turned against him; his few remaining followers were in hiding. What Castro really feared, evidently, was that an election would bring into power a liberal, democratic government. He preferred his revolutionary government—by TV.

Meanwhile, Castro began purging the armed forces and the civil service. Out went almost every professional soldier; out went every civil service worker who owed his job to a Batista henchman. And since it had been all but impossible to get a job in the Batista government, even as a clerk or typist, without a letter from such a henchman, in the end, about 40,000 of the 60,000 civil service workers were fired. But while the professional soldiers were easily replaced—by barbudos—the purge of the civil service created turmoil. Moreover, it opened the way for Communist infiltration of the government bureaucracy; every ministry was desperate for manpower, and the Communists came flocking.

The great majority of Castro’s supporters among the upper middle class and the professional class accepted (at least, they excused) his failure to establish a government of law. And most of them defended vehemently his refusal to prevent the Communists from infiltrating the government—at first, anyway. In part, the attitude they adopted was that of American New Dealers in the 1930’s: the Communists, they said, were a political party; to discriminate against them was undemocratic. They also reacted in the same way some New Dealers did during the Alger Hiss case: just as these New Dealers viewed any suggestion that Hiss might have been a Communist as an underhand attack on the New Deal itself, so did they view any discussion of the Communist problem in Cuba as an underhand attack on the Castro government.

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Castro’s economic program was another question entirely. This hit many of ibis original supporters Where it really hurt: right in the pocketbook. One of his first actions was arbitrarily to out rents; all rents under $100 a month were cut by 50 per cent; between $100 and $200 a month, by 40 per cent; over $200 a month, by 30 per cent. Castro (thought, with justice, that rents were much too high. But there was a reason for high rents. Under Batista, seeing it as the only comparatively safe investment, Cubans all put their savings into real estate, with the result that property values went sky high. Cutting rents, Castro cut the value of the property, and killed the real estate market. Construction halted, tens of thousands of workers became unemployed, the sale of such products as steel and cement fell by more than 50 per cent.

Whether Castro anticipated these grave consequences is a question. The Fidelistas say he did: that, in fact, he wanted to force the upper middle class to put its savings into light industry, which Cuba sorely needs. Maybe so—but the fact is that few people have been putting their savings into light industry. Most people are fearful of investing their savings in anything, since they know that a word from El Maximo Lidar de la Revolution, as Castro calls himself, could very well cut the investment in half. All Castro has succeeded in doing is rip to shreds the pocketbooks of those who financed him—and worsen Cuba’s unemployment problem.

The land reform program has also been a cause of consternation. Even the most violent critics of Castro will admit that Cuba has long needed land reform. The trouble is that Castro’s land reform program amounts to confiscation. The government plans to buy the big estates at their assessed valuation, which in Cuba (as almost everywhere else, including the U. S.) is far below the market price. And the government plans to pay for the estates with twenty-year, 4½ per cent bonds, of which the interest and proceeds must be reinvested in Cuba. Americans own about $300 million worth of land in Cuba, and the U. S. government has officially protested against the Castro land reform program. This has incensed the Fidelistas, but, argue as they will, the landowners still consider the program confiscation. The result has been the inevitable one: foreign capital investment has almost disappeared.

Quite aside from this, another criticism may be made of the land reform program: it limits individual landholdings to 995 acres and promises every guajiro at least 66 acres. One of Cuba’s problems is that it cannot today grow sugar as efficiently as many other countries, including Cuba’s hated neighbor, the Dominican Republic. Chopping up the big estates into 66-acre landholdings will hardly make Cuba’s sugar production more efficient. The Fidelistas adroit this, but they argue that Cuba has long been too dependent on sugar, and should have a more diversified agriculture. True, but the simple fact remains that Cuba right now is dependent on sugar for its foreign exchange. Under Castro’s land reform program, Cuba will either continue to grow sugar, less efficiently, or else become a nation of subsistence farmers. In the latter case, where will Cuba’s foreign exchange come from?

In simple fact, the land reform program has caused even the Fidelistas to boggle a bit, and it created the first major split in their movement. When it was first promulgated, several members of Castro’s own Cabinet denounced it; Castro retaliated by firing five of his twenty ministers, including the Minister of Agriculture, Humberto Sori Marin.

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Whether or not Castro anticipated the problems his program would create, he can now hardly fail to realize that he does have problems—he sees that at least a third of the Cuban labor force of 2.3 million are unemployed. He is now planning to pick up part of the slack in employment with a public works program, which, inevitably, must create new problems, for where can the government find the money for such a program except through inflation? The whole trend in Cuba today is toward inflation. When the land reform program gets fully under way, it will cost tens of millions of pesos more—the government will have to supply the guajiros with tools, with machinery, with seed, even with food; but Castro doesn’t have the money.

When all this is said, it must be added that the situation is not entirely dark. Castro has done a remarkable job of collecting taxes. By converting the lottery into a bond program, Castro has not only eliminated a major source of corruption in Cuba, he also has raised millions for housing. At the same time imports have dropped, which, fortunately, has kept the foreign exchange problem from becoming completely hopeless.

Thus, in spite of the scare stories, Cuba does not yet face a financial crisis—but eventually Cuba must. Castro must give his people work, and he must also go through with his land reform program, whether it makes sense or not, for the guajiros, who have been promised land, cannot be denied land for long.

When the financial crisis does come, it may lead to chaos—and the Communists may then attempt to seize power. What is equally likely, however, is that Castro will impose stringent controls on the economy. Disillusionment with the revolution will grow; the opposition will become more active; and, in a country where there are no democratic channels through which to express opposition, it may take violent forms.

In that event, Castro may be tempted to adopt repressive measures. He will have the police behind him, and the army, and the guajiros. Given his temperament, there is little likelihood that he will hesitate to use them.

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