[Marxism] Cuba's capitalists before Fidel

Joaquín Bustelo jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Sun Jan 8 22:12:51 MST 2006

The discussion around Permanent Revolution and Bolivia has brought out
to starkly different visions of what the local capitalist classes in
Latin America are like. One vision has them as wily and vicious ruling
classes, constrained by neocolonialism, yes, but coherent combatants for
their own class interests in the political arena. 

I have a very different vision.

>From 1898 on, at the most basic level, the ruling class OF Cuba was not
IN Cuba, it was the U.S. ruling class. The government decisions that
mattered were not those of the Cuban government, but those of the U.S.

At the core of the local capitalist class were the sugar barons. "Sin
azúcar no hay país" they would say, which means, without sugar there was
no country. But apart from one very brief moment right after WWI, known
in Cuban history as "the dance of the millions," when a world wide
shortage allowed Cuba to get substantial income for its sugar, the
reality was that without the American quota, there was no sugar

Thus that many of the largest mills belonged to American corporations
was both a curse and a blessing for the local sugar barons. A curse
because it was hard to compete against these well-financed giants. A
blessing because it helped guarantee Cuba's access to the U.S. market at
preferential prices.

But even apart from sugar, it was the decisions of the U.S. ruling class
and government that mattered the most.

For example, my father was in the business of food importation and
distribution. His was a fairly important company, it was the first one
listed when that entire category of enterprises were expropriated in
October of 1960. The way it got that way is that during WWII, my father
organized a cartel that gamed the import-export quota system. The
*American* quota system. Because of the war, you could not export as
much rice or beans or cooking oil or anything else from the U.S. as you
wanted to. There were quotas assigned to countries and to individual
enterprises. The way the cartel worked was, I gave you my beans quota,
you gave me your rice quota; I give someone else my oil quota; he gives
me his rice quota; and so on. After the war, when the system ended, the
dominant market position of each one continued.

This was all done in the U.S. with the connivance of the U.S.
authorities, and with the embassy in Cuba, where my Dad always had
friends. He was a very young man when he did this, early 20's. 

What role did the Cuban government play in the import operations of my
father and his friends? It was just a cost of doing business, whether
what was being done was technically legal or illegal didn't matter, it
cost just the same in "bribes" to get the paperwork done to import

Josh writing about Cuba in the 1950's says Cuba had a particularly
vicious ruling class, meaning local ruling class, but nothing could be
further from the truth. Viewed as a class, it had a largely impotent,
incoherent, emasculated local capitalist class which did not call the
shots in its own country. It did have a very vicious government but that
is a different matter. 

That incoherence and lack of consolidation as a *ruling* class is why
there is so much political instability in so many Latin American
countries, and why you have such an outsized role being played by what
are really petty-bourgeois forces and not fully bourgeois parties, the
officer corps and so on. 

Fulgencio Batista influenced (at least) or dominated (usually) Cuban
politics and governments pretty much uninterruptedly until 1958 from the
time of the revolution that brought down the Machado dictatorship in
1933 (he was the army sergeant at the head of the so-called "sergeants'
revolt" that along with mass protests brought down the Machado
dictatorship). The initial governments were quite radical but unstable;
among other things, they legalized unions, legislated the 8-hour day,
and abrogated the Platt amendment, which was a provision of the Cuban
constitution imposed by a U.S. law authored by Sen. Orville Platt that
gave the U.S. the right to intervene in Cuba at any time and take over
its government, gave it the Guantanamo naval base, disallowed Cuba from
entering into military compacts or alliances without U.S. approval and
so on.

When New Dealer Sumner Wells showed up in Havana in 1934 and said this
wouldn't do, Batista had the president changed in about a week. 

*Batista* was vicious, but he wasn't any sort of direct expression of
the "local" ruling class, but rather a figure that initially arose in a
Bonapartist role but soon made himself the vehicle of imperialist
domination, which is the key to his longevity, He was president (with
the support of, and cabinet members from, the pro-Soviet Communist
Party, called the People's Socialist Party, as a supposed
"anti-fascist") in the early 1940's.

It is unclear to me how far back Batista's association with the seamier
wing of the U.S. ruling class, the mafia, went, perhaps even to the
pre-sergeant revolt days of rum-running during prohibition. But after
the war he was best pals with Meyer Lansky, and even as a Senator and
not president in the late 1940's he was the key person in Cuba, because
of his ties to U.S. ruling class circles. Through the alliance with the
CP he came in contact with the union officialdom and was able to
dominate much of it after the beginning of the cold war and the
witch-hunt. In the early 40's he projected an image of a progressive New

The March 10, 1952, coup appears to have been his own initiative, not
that of the embassy, and for that reason it took Washington more than
two weeks before recognizing the new regime. He did it because he was a
candidate for President in elections in a couple of months and was going
to lose. 

Already in the 1930s, Batista and his henchmen were brutal leaders.
Antonio Guiteras, founder of Joven Cuba and the outstanding leader of
the revolution of 1933, was assassinated in 1935. Trade unionists and
political activists disappeared. This repression intensified in the
1950's, especially after the 1953 July 26 attack on the Moncada
barracks, which was an attempt to spark a popular insurrection against

Contrary to popular myth, Fidel and his current was never a primarily
peasant based movement except in a very narrow and limited sense. They
were a revolutionary nationalist group that emerged within the Orthodox
Party, who were the descendants, so to speak, of Joven Cuba, just as
Joven Cuba had been of José Martí's Cuban Revolutionary Party, which
defeated the Spanish in the War of Independence from 1895 to 1898 only
to have the victory snatched from  them by the American intervention.

The group that organized the attack on the Moncada barracks was a
substantial organization of 1500-2000 young people, and only a minority,
around 200, were involved in the attack. This is the group that
organized the amnesty campaign that led to Batista releasing the
(relatively few) survivors of the Moncada attack in mid-1955, and then
renamed itself the July 26 Movement. (There were few survivors because
Batista ordered that for every soldier killed 10 rebels be assassinated.
Most of the Moncada attackers who died were killed after being

The political agitation and underground propaganda of the J-26-M led to
an intensification in repression, So Fidel and others went into exile to
organize what became the Granma expedition of Dec., 1956. I've not seem
figures for the size of the July 26 Movement in those days or later, and
it may not have been structured in such a way as to make "membership" a
knowable or useful metric. But its influence was huge, and it penetrated
into all layers of Cuban society, including the bourgeoisie.

There were more than a few big bourgeois donors to July 26, as well as
to other armed formations, set up by traditional petty-bourgeois
democrat politicians, who also now took on a "revolutionary" coloration
both because Batista left them little choice and because they were being
outflanked by Fidel.

The Batista regime of the 1950's were boom times in Cuba, years of rapid
capitalist progress. Hotels and casinos were built, new roads were
constructed and with them began, for example, the development of
Varadero as a tourist destination,  the Rancho Boyeros international
airport was built, there was a huge influx of tourist dollars that
"trickled down" from the U.S. prosperity. 

At the same time, they were years of massive resistance to Batista and
savage repression. While most accounts of the last years of the Batista
dictatorship focus on the Sierra Maestra guerrilla campaign, you can't
really understand the nature of the struggle waged by the July 26
Movement without a larger framework.

The main importance of the guerrilla campaign wasn't strictly military,
neither in terms of enemy forces put of our action nor in territories
conquered, but political, the embodiment of a challenge to the
dictatorship's right to rule, which drew its tremendous political
significance simply because it was real, on the ground, even if the
"liberated territory" for most of the war was very small.

In early 1957, after the breakup of the Granma landing, the actual
guerrilla force that began offensive operations was tiny, a couple of
dozen people.

By mid-1958, it was around 500-600 people. That was the force that
defeated an encirclement by 10,000 Batista troops, and then went on to
launch the offensive, the "invasion" carried out by the columns
commanded by Camilo and Che. 

By the time the dictatorship fell, the "rebel army" numbered perhaps
3,000. Of those, 1,000 were totally raw and unarmed recruits, another
1,000 were partly trained, and the core of the force was 1,000 with at
least some combat experience. This is the force that was peasant-based,
but it must have represented only a small percentage of those who might
have been viewed as July 26 Movement militants. 

This force was majority peasant, although it included no small number of
people in urban areas who were sent by the underground to join the
guerrilla army at various stages.

All told, 20,000 Cubans died in the struggle against Batista. The
*overwhelming majority* of those were victims of repression in urban
areas. The University of Havana was a hotbed of anti-Batista organizing
and the Revolutionary Student Directorate had a large following and many
martyrs. The University was closed by Batista at the end of 1956 and did
not reopen  until after the victory of the revolution.

The savagery and to a certain degree randomness of Batista's repression,
combined as it was with generalized corruption and ties to the mafia,
led many people in bourgeois circles to support Fidel's or other rebel
movements. The dictatorship was immensely unpopular even within the
local capitalist class.

In addition, there was a significant layer of the Cuban capitalist class
that was actively hostile to local politics. Denied control over their
own state by U.S. hegemony, they viewed politics as a "dirty business."
I remember very well, for example, my aunt, my father's sister and
daughter of the founder of the family business, showing us kids in my
parent's house July 26 "bonds" and other propaganda before the victory
of the revolution, and my mom throwing a fit saying she didn't want her
children exposed to that sort of thing, as if it were pornography. 

And my mother's attitude was extensive not just to national politics,
but pretty much to national life and the nation as such. She says to
this day --she is still alive, and was repeating this when I talked to
her on New Years'-- that she has absolutely no use for Cuba or Cubans,
the overwhelming majority of Cubans are "chusma" -- rabble, not "gente
decente," decent people. 

There is a marked phenomenon that I call yanquiphilism among capitalist
class layers in these sorts of countries, the internalization of the
colonial relationship. Those who consider themselves the better people
aspire to become even better by becoming Americanized. Thus one my mom's
closest friends was "Olga la Americana," Olga the American, who was
Cuban but was so devoted to all things American and so disdainful of all
things Cuban that she earned that nickname. 

In my Mom's circle of bourgeois and upper-petty-bourgeois women, several
went to give birth to their children in the United States and said quite
openly that was to give them more advantages and opportunities in life.
Children of such families are often sent to the U.S. to study, as in the
case of my father, who went to high school at a military academy in
Jacksonville, Florida. And throughout Latin Americas, you find these
"American" schools and "French" schools and so on, where these sorts of
people send their children. 

There is an additional phenomenon that I think is true, which is that
enterprises that originate in these countries and succeed in becoming
large empires tend to become *imperialist* companies that *originated*
in a semi colonial country but are now based outside of it.

Thus, for example, the Bacardí family has one of the largest liquor
companies in the world but it is largely U.S. based. (How that happened
is also instructive: After the March 13, 1957, attempt on Batista's
life, big businessmen in Havana were required to "congratulate" Batista
and express their solidarity with him. The head of the Bacardi company
at the time refused, and decided to move the registration of trademarks
and other important company assets to the Bahamas. People nowadays
assume that Bacardi went abroad in response to the threat of the
revolution, but that's not what started the process, it was in response
to threats from Batista).

The same is currently true of the Cisneros group of companies from
Venezuela, which are headquartered now in Miami. Televisa, the Mexican
media group, is traded on the NY Stock Exchange, and I believe the head
of it already has or is maneuvering to become a U.S. citizen so he can
take over Univision (which has close to a monopoly position in U.S.
Spanish-language TV) completely.

The attitude of the Bacardí family, which in some ways due to its
economic position should have been the *national* patriotic bourgeois
family par excellence (and indeed, had been a *patriotic* bourgeois
family *before* imperialism, being strong backers of José Martí and the
Cuban Revolutionary Party at the end of the 1800's) wasn't atypical. 

I remember the night Batista fell, because it was New Year's and my
parents held a big party that I was allowed to stay up for, if for no
other reason that the boy's bedroom in my house looked out on the
outside patio where it was held and the noise and lights would have kept
us up anyways.

The head of the Cuban air force was there, his wife was my godmother,
and he got a call from Batista saying he was leaving. The head of the
air force got up an announced it to the crowd of revelers, and I don't
remember any particular reaction, although maybe I was too young to
notice, but the party went on, there was no panic, the attitude, as I
remember it and was handed down in family lore, was good riddance to bad

The attitude was government come and go but at bottom, they're all the

My mother recounts talking to the head of the air force about whether he
shouldn't leave the country, and he said no, his hands were clean. He
wasn't like these torturers and assassins that worked for Batista. Which
was true, in a sense, so he only got 20 years for the war crimes
committed by those under his command in bombing peasant villages and so
on. In Cuba, as in many other countries, there's no such thing as a life
sentence, it is considered barbaric and medieval. 

But hundreds of others who were directly involved in assassinations,
disappearances and torture were shot, about 600 all told. After trials
before revolutionary courts headed by rebel army officers. 

>From very early on in the revolutionary process, the capitalists pretty
much all turned against the revolution, even if initially they had put
those posters saying "Gracias Fidel" -- "Thank you, Fidel" in the
windows of their houses. And certainly by the summer of 1959 they had
all figured out what the score was.

But this doesn't mean they organized collectively, massively and
politically against the government. The Americans would take care of it,
just as they had done in 1934. Many, like my father, even  refused to
convert their peso holdings into dollars on the black market. Cuba's
currency had long been at parity with the dollar, and the two circulated
interchangeably until the revolution. But on the black market You had to
pay two pesos, then three to the dollar, and getting the money out was
quite difficult, and why should they do that -- the Americans would fix

When they were expropriated in October of 1960 they went quietly to
Miami, fully expecting to have their properties restored as a byproduct
of some U.S. action. One of the top people in the embassy even let it be
known to the ladies of society that they could leave their jewels and
other valuables with him, which it was illegal to take out of the
country except for a few items like marriage or engagement rings, as
part of the currency controls. So trusting were the Cuban bourgeois of
the Americans that the even did that, handing him thousands of dollars
--1959 dollars-- worth of gold and diamond trinkets at a time.

Worse, in the fall of 1960 the CIA cooked up a "Law on the
Nationalization of Children" supposedly stolen from Fidel's office, and
between then and the October missile crisis, nearly 15,000 children were
sent out of the country by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parents so they
wouldn't be "nationalized" and "indoctrinated" by the Communists. The
"Visa Waivers" with which these children entered the United States were
only available to children, not to parents. 

That's what the Cuban capitalist class was like, pathetic, and the
victims most of all of its own illusions in the might of a master that
it never had the courage to confront. It was only with the Bay of Pigs
invasion, when Kennedy left the 2506 Brigade out twisting in the wind
and it collapsed in a matter of hours, and then the Cuban Missile Crisis
that the Cuban capitalists finally began to suspect that what they used
to have was gone forever. 

*  *  *

The lack of coherence and cohesion of these local capitalists as a
class, how they are shot through and penetrated by alien, imperialist
interests, and the forms the internalization of this semicolonial status
takes, is what leads to what seem in some ways to be quasi-Bonapartist
regimes like Batistas, that sit "on top of" all the local classes rather
then being an expression of, and subordinate to, a local ruling class.
This is in some ways an illusion because such regimes really are
subordinate to the class in whose fundamental interests the country is
actually run, which is the foreign imperialist class. But if one is
looking to see in what ways it can be said that capitalists of a
semi-colonial country suffer national oppression *as a class* then I
think that is the answer. They can never become the *real* ruling class
even though that is what their status WITHIN the nation should have
entitled them to.

It may seem Cuba was an extreme example of the type, but actually that's
not the case. The truth is Cuba's was probably one of the stronger of
the local capitalist classes in the Central American and Caribbean
region at the time, and Cuba had a vibrant intellectual and cultural
national life. It also had a very belated struggle for independence (the
first war started in 1868) which gave its independence struggle a
profound social dimension that the extraordinary personality of Martí
was able to capture and stamp on the nation as part of its identity at
birth even though they could only be ideals then, not realizable goals. 

I was actually very struck when I lived in Nicaragua for several years
in the 1980's by how much the Nicaraguan capitalists and their attitudes
reminded me of the Cuba and Miami I grew up in. 

I hope this helps people to understand more concretely the character of
the local capitalist classes and why revolutionary movements in Latin
America tend to present as *national* movements. It should also help
understand why the Cuban national movement in the 1950's took the forms
it did and presented in the sort of way it did, with so much stress on
honesty, the dignity and honor of the nation, the need for all its
people to have a decorous if modest standard of living, and similar
concepts you will find in Martí and then in Fidel's History Will Absolve

This should also help people like Josh understand why there aren't two
national movements, and why people like myself and Nestor have been
insisting on the need to fight for hegemony *within the national
movement* rather than counterpose class demands to the organic unfolding
of this movement.


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