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?’