Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 30, 2015

Samuel Farber’s dodgy reference to Cuban per capita income under Batista

Filed under: cuba — louisproyect @ 3:20 pm

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A study in mendacity

On June 10th an article titled “Cuba’s Challenge” by Samuel Farber appeared in Jacobin that was sufficiently wrongheaded to provoke me into writing a response. Not long after his book “Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959” was published by Haymarket in 2011 (the ISO publishing wing), I had plans to write a systematic critique but terminated the project after the first installment that dealt with his claim that the government had imposed a Stalinist straightjacket on culture.

Although I find Farber’s scholarship on Cuba always in need of a rebuttal, I had simply lost the motivation for the time being back in 2012 to answer him because of the Cuban government’s wretched support for the dictatorships in Libya and Syria. I was especially upset with articles that were appearing in Prensa Latina that were indistinguishable from the garbage on Global Research et al. I suppose that the naked brutality of the Baathist dictatorship plus Cuba’s rapprochement with the USA might have had the effect of toning down Cuban media. It is too bad that it had not followed an independent and radical editorial position from the start.

Turning to Farber’s article, it makes the case that despite the misery in the countryside, things were pretty good for the urban working class:

On the eve of the 1959 Revolution, Cuba had the fourth highest per capita income in Latin America, after Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina.

In terms of its material reality, the Cuba of the fifties was on the one hand characterized by uneven modernity, fairly advanced means of communication and transportation — especially the high circulation, by Latin American standards, of newspapers and magazines — and the rapid development of television and radio. On the other hand, there were abysmal living conditions in the Cuban countryside.

For those who follow Cubanology, Farber’s article will ring a bell. The notion of Castro’s guerrillas coming in and disrupting an economy that was doing pretty good is widespread. For example, Marianne Ward and John Devereux wrote this abstract for their article “The Road Not Taken: Pre-Revolutionary Cuban Living Standards in Comparative Perspective” that appeared in March 2012 The Journal of Economic History:

We examine Cuban GDP over time and across space. We find that Cuba was once a prosperous middle-income economy. On the eve of the revolution, incomes were 50 to 60 percent of European levels. They were among the highest in Latin America at about 30 percent of the United States. In relative terms, Cuba was richer earlier on. Income per capita during the 1920s was in striking distance of Western Europe and the Southern United States. After the revolution, Cuba slipped down the world income distribution. Current levels of income per capita appear below their pre-revolutionary peaks.

You can find the same sort of thing in Manuel Marquez-Sterling’s  “Cuba 1952-1959: The True Story of Castro’s Rise to Power”:

The image of a country sunk in abject poverty and illiteracy, its people exploited by raw and rapacious American capitalism, together with a bloodthirsty and reactionary tyrant who guaranteed the exploiters the permanency of the status quo is just a grotesque myth. In 1958 Cuba was a rapidly developing country with an enterprising progressive, and well-educated middle class. And no mean part of this development and progress had been achieved during Batista’s years from 1952 to 1959.

There’s not much to distinguish Farber from these accounts except for his customary invocations for the need for democratic socialism and all the rest. It is too bad that he does not understand that in order to build a democratic socialist society, there is a need for honesty and transparency including from intellectuals who are expected to be scrupulously devoted to the truth.

When Farber writes “On the eve of the 1959 Revolution, Cuba had the fourth highest per capita income in Latin America, after Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina”, he sweeps one important detail under the rug, namely the cost of living. It doesn’t matter if the working-class in Havana was earning nearly the equivalent of an Argentine worker if the cost of living was many times greater than it was in Buenos Aires. For someone writing about the Cuban standard of living in such a decontextualized manner this is worse than being sloppy. It is a violation of the kind of intellectual honesty we expect from someone representing himself as a socialist. It rather reeks of Time Magazine or the Miami Herald.

If you want to get the real story on the urban working class in Cuba during the 1950s, I recommend Louis A. Perez Jr.’s “Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution”, a welcome antidote to Samuel Farber’s dishonest, self-serving and ideologically toxic assault on the revolution in Cuba that has largely succeeded despite repeated attempts to strangle it.

From chapter 10 of Perez (The Eclipse of Old Cuba):

Despite this appearance of well-being, the Cuban middle class was in crisis. The decade of the 1950s was a period of mounting instability and growing uncertainty. Middle-class expectations that the return of Batista in 1952 would end political turmoil proved short-lived and illusory. By the mid-1950s, Cuba was again in the grip of political violence and personal insecurity. The malaise went deeper, however, than unsettled political conditions. To be sure, by prevailing measurements of economic development Cuba boasted of one of the highest standards of living in Latin America. In 1957, Cuba enjoyed among the highest per capita income in Latin America, ranked second at $374 after Venezuela ($857). Only Mexico and Brazil exceeded Cuba in the number of radios owned by individuals (1 for every 6.5 inhabitants). The island ranked first in television sets (1 per 25 inhabitants). Daily average food consumption was surpassed only by Argentina and Uruguay. Cuba was first in telephones (1 to 38), newspapers (1 copy per 8 inhabitants), private motor vehicles (1 to 40), and rail mileage per square mile (1 to 4). An estimated 58 percent of all housing units had electricity. By 1953, 76 percent of the population was literate, the fourth highest literacy rate in Latin America after Argentina (86 per-cent), Chile (79.5 percent), and Costa Rica (79.4 percent).

The apparent affluence enjoyed by Cuba, however, concealed tensions and frustrations that extended both vertically and horizontally through Cuban society. The fluctuations of the export economy continued to create conditions of apprehension that affected all classes. The deepening political crisis of the 1950s exacerbated this uncertainty and, together with an uncertain economy, contributed to eroding the security of middle-class Cubans. They found little cornfort in statistical tallies that touted their high level of material consumption and placed the island near the top of the scale of per capita income in Latin America. The social reality was quite different. Cuba was integrated directly into the larger U.S. economic system and the concomitant consumption patterns. While Cubans enjoyed a remarkably high per capita income in Latin American terms, they lived within a North American cost of living index. Cuba enjoyed a material culture underwritten principally by imports from the United States. While Cuban currency and wages remained comparatively stable through the 1950s, consumption of foreign imports, in the main North American products, increased dramatically from $515 million in 1950 to $649 million in 1956 to $777 million in 1958. Cubans paid North American prices at a time when the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar was declining and the U.S. consumer price index was rising. The United States, not Latin America, served as the frame of reference for Cubans. And against this measure, the Cuban per capita income of $374 paled against the U.S. per capita of $2,000, or even that of Mississippi, the poorest state, at $1,000. Life in Havana, further, was considerably more expensive than in any North American city. Havana ranked among the world’s most expensive cities—fourth after Caracas, Ankara, and Manila. In 1954, Havana had the largest number of Cadillacs per capita of any city in the world.

Cubans participated directly in and depended entirely on the North American economic system in very much the same fashion as U.S. citizens, but without access to U.S. social service programs and at employment and wage levels substantially lower than their North American counterparts. It was a disparity keenly felt in Cuba, a source of much frustration and anxiety. Middle-class Cubans in the 1950s perceived their standard of living in decline as they fell behind the income advances in the United States. These perceptions were not without substance, for even the much-acclaimed Cuban per capita income represented a standard of living in stagnation. Between 1952 and 1954, the decline in the international sugar market precipitated the first in a series of recessions in the Cuban economy during the decade. Per capita income declined by 18 percent, neutralizing the slow gains made during the postwar period. In 1958, the Cuban per capita income was at about the same level as it had been in 1947. Increasingly, middle-class Cubans were losing ground, losing the ability to sustain the consumption patterns to which they had become accustomed.

No amount of favorable comparisons with per capita income in Latin America could reduce Cuban resentment over their predicament. Economist Levi Marrero expressed dismay in 1954 that while Cuba’s per capita income was twice as high as Latin America, it was five times lower than U.S. levels, and he asked rhetorically: “Why this Cuban poverty?” Three years later, writer Antonio Llanes Montes expressed a similar complaint: “Although one hears daily of the prosperity that Cuba is now experiencing, the fact is that the workers and the middle class find it more difficult each day to subsist owing to the scarcity of articles of basic necessity?’


  1. L’important c’est la défense de la démocratie prolétarienne à Cuba est la plus haut forme de démocratie jamais atteinte depuis la révolution Russe de 1917 c’est à dire la dictature du prolétariat. Il faut être d’une ignorance crasse pour ne pas être capable de comprendre que l’on vit dans un monde dominer par l’impérialisme qui tente d’étouffer toute forme de mesures d’indépendances démocratique des volontés des peuples, et cela pas seulement contre la résistance du gouvernement et du peuple Cubain, il n’y a pas qu’à regarder à Cuba, voyez la Grèce, la Syrie et n’importe où sur la planète! Comment peut-on osé évaluer le produit national à la dignité et à l’indépendance gagner du peuple Cubain! Il n’est pas possible de construire le socialisme dans un seul pays, dans ces conditions Cuba n’aura pas suffisamment de forces productives modernes pour se rapprocher du niveau de vie du plus pauvre des pays occidentaux. C’est la même chose pour une démocratie complète il faut un degré élevé des forces productive, Cuba n’a d’autre choix que d’imposer une distribution inégale de ces faibles ressources économique, mais c’est la distribution la plus juste et la plus égalitaire qui existe au monde et c’est aussi le pays qui offre la plus grande solidarité internationale par rapport à sa grandeur.
    André Doucet

    Comment by André Doucet — June 30, 2015 @ 7:02 pm

  2. Je m’excuse de mon commentaire fait sur le coup de l’émotion et qui n’a fait qu’embrouiller ma réponse. Je voudrais remercier Louis de cette excellente critique de l’article de Samuel Farber “Cuba’s Challenge”. Je voulais maladroitement en ajouter une couche critique supplémentaire qui n’a fait qu’affaiblir la réponse suffisante cité du chapitre 10 (The Eclipse of Old Cuba) de Perez sur le développement économique à Cuba. Je suis aussi outré de lire des marxistes comme Farber prétendre savoir comment mieux développer l’économie et la vraie démocratie ouvrière dans un pays sous développer et isoler comme Cuba. Ils n’expriment que leurs ignorances faces aux immenses difficultés pour les travailleurs de simplement maintenir le pouvoir qu’ils ont conquis. Leurs succès ne peuvent pas être économiques mais ils sont sociaux et démocratiques sans être parfait.
    J’ajouterais que Cuba n’a pas toujours des prises de positions politiques exemplaires, sans doute un indice de l’influence de la bureaucratie qui pèse lourd dans les structures du pays, mais elle n’a pas réussi à imposer sa dictature par une contre-révolution comme dans l’ex URSS. Les institutions relativement démocratiques créées par la révolution permettent aux travailleurs d’exercer leurs influences sur les décisions politiques telles le parti communiste, la centrale des travailleurs, les organisations de jeunesses et des femmes, de même que sur le choix des candidats aux élections locales et à l’assemblée nationale. Et évidemment Cuba est un pays occidental, au lieu de pays occidentaux j’aurais dû écrire pays impérialistes.
    Le but des réformes n’est clairement pas de restaurer le capitalisme comme le prétend Celeste Murillo via Marxism. Le but est de surmonter des difficultés économiques réelles, je pense que la direction Cubaine reconnait que cela renforcera l’influence impérialiste sur l’utilisation de la couche sociale qui profitera de cette ouverture au marché capitaliste. J’ai bon espoir que les cubains sauront surmonter ce défi même s’il n’y a pas de garantie.
    André Doucet

    Comment by André Doucet — July 1, 2015 @ 10:46 am

  3. I’m probably more sceptical about the state of Cuba than Louis (and certainly than Andre) , but he’s certainly right on this one. I don’t know where these people got their stats, but the definitive OECD series of Angus Maddison tells us the following: at best Cuba was in 9th place in Latin America re real GDP per capita in 1950 – a bit below Guatemala; about 40% of Argentina. Internationally it was 30% of Britain; and 21% of the US. Just as important as absolute level is the growth rate – virtually zero in the decade prior to the revolution. And of course there’s the issue of income distribution: which we don’t have any reliable historical figures on but which was without doubt highly skewed towards the rich in pre-revolution Cuba.
    Having witnessed the process of “transition” at fairly close range in Eastern Europe, I don’t hold out much hope for the survival of much of the distinct Cuban model into the future. The influence of foreign investment; the wall of emigre money waiting to enter the country; and the dominance of a bureacratic strata just as prone to capitalist “conversion” as their state socialist counterparts elsewhere, all foretell the worst. The most I think we can hope for is that Cuba’s relatively egalitarian starting point, the influence of socialist values in the popular classes, and some residue of the revolutionary spirit in sections of the middle class, will produce something like a social-democratic variant of capitalism.

    Comment by magpie68 — July 2, 2015 @ 7:45 pm

  4. Is it not true that today Fidel Castro has called the Chinese govt “socialist”?
    And that as Farber claims with anger the contemporary Cuban government can and does order mass layoffs of a few hundred thousand and then have this part of a new “reform” package announced by the official trade unions?

    Noting, I am a member of the ISO, how did such a regime develop for the 2000s

    Because I buy Farbers story about a political monopoly founded on a military struggle of thousands with no direct connection between the working class and the guerrilla leadership and the post 59 Party

    Comment by daniel — July 13, 2016 @ 10:02 pm

  5. Daniel, have you ever read any left analysis of Cuba outside your comfort zone?

    Comment by louisproyect — July 13, 2016 @ 10:13 pm

  6. […] criticism of these figures–Ward and Devereux do seem to account for price levels, contrary to Louis Proyect’s claims–they seem valid. Cuba on the eve of the revolution was a high-income Latin American society, […]

    Pingback by [BRIEF NOTE] On the immiseration of Cuba under Communism | A Bit More Detail — November 29, 2016 @ 3:30 am

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