Fidel Castro's Achievements and Failures, 1959-1990

To what extent was Castro able to achieve his aims between 1959 and 1990, and what prevented him from achieving more?185_SA_n.jpg

Castro’s Goals

Fidel Castro, leader of the Cuban Revolution, rose to power after his 26th of July Movement overthrew the Batista regime. After entrenching himself in the executive branch of the new government, he laid out three main goals that were to guide his lawmaking throughout his years in power: agrarian reform, economic reform, and the implementation of a functional and efficient education and health care system. Although Castro faced many challenges and obstructions to his plans that often prevented their thorough implementation, his persistence towards agricultural diversification and land redistribution, an independent, self-sufficient economy, and an education and health care system that could support the basic needs of the people, shaped Cuba's socialist framework that, despite any shortcomings, pulled Cuba through national crisis.

1. Economic Reform
2. Agrarian Reform
3. Education
4. Health Care
5. Relations with the United States and the Soviet Union
6. Works Cited

Economic Reform

1959 and 1960 were harsh years for the people of Cuba. The main problem facing Castro and his goal of economic reform was the United States and its trade embargo. About 50% of sugar exports at the time went to the US, therefore when the embargo was put in place, food shortages occurred throughout Cuba (Keen, 440). But Castro faced this problem head on, creating trade with other socialist nations. His effort to establish a collectivization process entailing the redistribution of land was only his first act of economic reform. He also went on to expropriate all companies owned by foreign interests such as oil refineries and sugar mills (Balfour, 64). Most of the expropriated corporations were US-owned, therefore the internalization of such industries led to the expulsion of the capitalist system from Cuba, furthering its establishment as a Communist state. This action by Castro helped propel his economic reform into a second phase where trade with the US was greatly reduced and the USSR and China became the new receivers of sugar exports (Brenner, 70).

In 1961, Castro created JUCEPLAN, an organization whose main purpose was to create a plan of action for the fledgling economy, but the already poor infrastructure of the monoculture, export-oriented economy created little or no basis to build upon (Brenner, 71). Castro implemented a socialist plan of industrialization adopted from that of the USSR, hoping that it would produce an economy that could stand by itself. The plan was simple: centralize the economy and use budgetary control to keep it on track. But Castro had not counted on the fact that the predictions for this plan were incredibly flawed. The Stalinist plan was based off of the successful industrialization process of the USSR. But the underdeveloped economy of Cuba at the time nearly collapsed due to production goals that were impossible to meet. This is when Castro truly began to feel the main problem standing in front of his plan: the lack of skilled workers (Keen, 442). Cuba’s workforce at the time consisted mainly of revolutionaries who had little or no experience, and it was this factor that impeded Castro’s progress towards economic reform. Castro realized that as much as he wanted economic independence, it could not be attained when the economy was in such a state of disrepair. Thus, the USSR became the new United States, and Cuba was once again entirely dependent on another country for economic support.

Later on in the 1960s, Castro implemented a new plan of action by establishing the Mao-Guevarist economic model (Brenner, 74). This model furthered the centralization of the economy and made most private corporations into state-owned ones that were regulated directly by the government. Its main goal was to skip directly from capitalism to socialism, without having to go through a transformation period. This system managed to succeed temporarily due to good sugar harvests, but in reality Castro knew that it was not a long-term solution because economic dependence was still a problem. This is why, in 1971 after the failure of the ten-million ton sugar harvest, Castro adopted a new economic model that was once again based off of the Soviet Union, only this time measures were taken to ensure that its implementation was slow and progressive. Thus, Castro’s goal of economic reform took a step for the better in the 1970s, with economic growth being the main focus of the government and the naïve Mau-Guevarist and idealistic mindset of the 1960s forgotten. But, as one can expect, this new economic policy brought along with it problems of its own. It created an even higher unemployment rate, which crippled the new plan of attack. It seemed to have some serious potential, but in the end, Castro's efforts were overcome and foreign dependency and sugar monoculture continued to strangle the economy.

The 1980s brought about economic growth, but in reality Cuba’s economic vicissitudes continued to create chaos within the country, resulting in another step backwards after world market decline in 1988 (Keen, 444). Castro tried to focus all of his efforts on economic reform and growth, but in the end, due to an unskilled labor force, disorganized government, and civil unrest, they resulted in failure. Castro was able to lead the economy to booms, but they were never sustainable. Thus Castro never truly achieved economic success for Cuba, only times of prosperity and times despair. Dependency on the USSR only hindered Castro’s progression towards a revolutionized economy, but there was seemingly no alternative. Castro created a circular economy, one where success led to failure and failure led to success, but in the end, Castro was not able to achieve his goal of a revolutionized economy due to the persistent instability throughout Cuba.

Agrarian Reform

Agrarian reform was one of the central issues that came to propel the revolutionary campaign. Before Castro’s rise to power, the sugar monoculture and the concentration of cultivable land in few hands were condemning Cuba’s peasant farmers to a fate of unemployment and underemployment. These two issues are closely intertwined in the successes and failures of the agrarian reform movement in Cuba. Castro saw and utilized these issues to mobilize the Cuban people against Batista, and attempted to solve them by pursuing economic independence.

Castro addressed the need for land reform during the anti-Batista campaign, speaking to the “one hundred thousand small farmers who live and die working land that is not theirs,” in his famous History Will Absolve Me speech (Brenner, 32). There was much truth to his words – prior to his two agrarian reform laws, under 10 percent of landowners owned about 73 percent of the land in Cuba (Tanaka). This realization brought to the forefront the problems of the working classes. The masses were in need of work, and had an overwhelming desire for individual landownership. Those not benefiting from the elitist monopoly of land saw “land reform [as] guaranteed cheap credit; easy access to machinery, seeds, and other inputs; an assured market; and prices affording a livable income” (Koppel and Walters).

From these needs came the first Agrarian Reform Law, instituted on June 2, 1959. According to José Alvarez, a professor at the University of Florida, “the main objectives of the law can be summarized as follows:
- to ensure progress through growth and diversification (eliminating dependence on monoculture).
- to make full use of natural and human resources. […]
- to stimulate industrial development through state and private means.
-to augment and diversify agricultural production to expand exports, supply raw materials for the national industry, and satisfy domestic consumption.
- to modify the agrarian structure by proscribing latifundia, eliminating certain forms of exploitation (e.g., sharecropping), and granting land ownership to those who worked it to ensure a greater use of land resources. […]
- to establish an agricultural organization capable of implementing the law and to create objectives of economic and social development that conform to the law.
- to prevent future control by foreigners of the national rural patrimony” (Alvarez).

This law created the National Institue of Agrarian Reform (INRA), as well as limited the practice of latifundia (“single owners could own up to 402 hectares; large farms with intensive production could own up to 1,340 hectares”), and foreign ownership of rural property. The law distributed the “land to those who till it” and instituted conservation measures for soil and forests. The Agrarian Reform Law of 1963 further limited the amount of land a single person could own to 67 hectares (Alvarez).

These two laws achieved Castro’s goal of eliminating the latifundia system and giving the masses a piece of land to call their own.

The sugar monoculture limited Cuba not only with the issue of seasonal work, but also by demanding a huge economic dependence on its trade partners. With the price of sugar in constant flux, Cuba was left with few opportunities for economic stability and consequently economic independence. In early years of Castro’s reforms, there were many measures attempting to diversify the economy and take a step away from the sugar monoculture. Sugar fields were burnt and replanted with other raw materials Cuba needed to replace imported goods. However with the US embargo, the Cuban economy suffered greatly despite its switch in dependency to the USSR. Castro endeavored to reverse this trend with his ’10 million ton sugar harvest’ in 1963. This campaign was an attempt to mobilize the Cuban people and boost the economy by reaching never before seen yields in the sugar crop. It failed largely due to the lack of organization by counteracting the original diversification actions with the new desired increase in sugar harvest. Overall it resulted in utter failure as the disorganized, disheartened nation fell short of its projected goal (Balfour, 78)

The failures of the measures to diversify the economy were greatly due to the lack of industrialization in the affected rural areas as well as the lack of organization from a government group spread thin with other projects. The dependency on the world market and foreign economy also financially blocked a steady growth in the diversification. The ideas were also largely based on ‘Che’ Guevara’s unrealistic ideal of the ‘New Man,’ a morally motivated Cuban people and Castro’s confidence in his ability to mobilize the nation (Brenner, 86)


Cuban Schoolchildren

When Fidel Castro became leader of Cuba in 1959, one of the biggest problems was the country’s lack of educated professionals to guide the Revolutionary government. Trained workers and professionals in necessary fields emigrated from the island in the aftermath of Batista’s usurpation. Castro was left with illiterate and undereducated party members to fill virtually all positions and run most facets of the economy not held by American businessmen. Therefore, one of his primary goals in the early years of the emerging government was education reform and expansion throughout Cuba.

One of Castro’s first steps towards his goal of a drastically improved literacy rate involved the formation of the Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC) in 1960, which became a vessel to spread education. Through the crusades of Cuban women to rural communities, and their foundation of countless schools, literacy rose from 76 to 94 percent within the first decade of his leadership. The FMC especially focused on helping women and poor farmers gain an education equal to that of upper-middle class boys in Havana. It encouraged women to pursue higher education, increasing their percentage in college attendance from 45 percent to 57 percent of attendees between 1956 and 1990. In this time, the number of universities grew ten-fold (Keen, 446).

Education of adults was in some ways more vital than that of children, for the immediate problems of Castro’s forming government. People with stable jobs under Batista generally lacked major complaints towards his government. As such, lawyers, engineers, and mechanics realized that upheaval and reformation were likely to cause collateral damage to those who appeared aligned with the old regime. In the beginning years of the Revolution, this group of trained professionals emigrated en masse. Those who remained faced land expropriation and a distrusting set of new government officials. Therefore, the installation of newly trained workers was central to continued production and international relations (Brenner, 71).

In the time between the government take-over and the spread of education, problems arose for Castro. Motivation was high, but organization was nonexistent. Even as JUCEPLAN and INRA were formed to combat the other issues of the state, it became clear that the expansion of higher level education needed to be a priority. Castro seemed unable to take the established organizations and elected leaders seriously; he often overruled their jurisdiction in favor of short-sighted personal solutions. After a tumultuous beginning, fueled largely by the efforts of a newly empowered group of women, the results produced in the education department were impressive. By 2002, Cuba had the largest number of engineers and other scientists per capita of any Latin American nation (Keen, 451).

Health Care

A widely-used measurement of a country's level of development is its infant mortality rate. In 1960, 37 babies out of every 1,000 born in Cuba died before their first birthday. By making health care reform a national goal, this number dropped to 5 babies by the year 2006, lower than the 7 per 1,000 in the United States that same year (MEDICC).
In order to expand health care’s horizons, Cuba needed to implement a method of training doctors. In universities across the country, the medical profession was touted as a valuable asset to the Revolution. Youth supporters, wanting to do their part to help their emerging government flocked to these schools. In a 2002 survey, Cuba was found to have the second-best doctor to patient ratio in the world (Keen, 451). This swift expansion of physicians, nurses and dentists catalyzed an even greater outward growth of health care as young Cubans traveled to foreign nations to bring medical aid and training. Their efforts centered on Latin American countries and Third World nations that Castro hoped to win the favor of.

Though the effects of the gifts of teaching and service were positive for the people they helped, Cuba remained relatively unaltered in the perception of the United States. His motivation for establishing the goal of health care reform in the first place was concern for the welfare of Cuba’s people. But as the influence of this reform expanded, Castro closely watched its direction, and pushed the changes towards handpicked countries with the implicit purpose of expanding influence and forming allies.

Relations with the United States and the Soviet Union

Dependence on and conflict with powerful foreign nations, namely the Soviet Union and the United States, had great effects upon the ability of Fidel Castro to achieve his goals for the nation of Cuba. Interference and economic pressure by the United States posed significant obstacles to Castro’s success. Cuba was significantly affected by the Soviet Union, from Castro’s rise to power until the disintegration of the superpower in 1991.

The 26th of July Movement’s Doctrine of the Revolution clearly states Castro’s beliefs, with respect to the state of foreign influence over Cuba, in its first point, National Sovereignty:

[…] Cuba still suffers from a situation which, although not direct political intervention, constitutes essential violations of its sovereignty. The presence of foreign bases and missions in the national territory, the different economic pressures, and the interference of diplomats who publicly take sides and issue declarations about our internal affairs are clear and eloquent examples (Brenner, 37).

In light of this issue, Castro sought to decrease Cuba’s reliance on foreign nations. When Castro came to power, the United States exerted powerful economic influence on Cuba. The island’s most important resource, sugar, was heavily, if indirectly, regulated in production and price by the two nations’ Reciprocal Trade Agreement. The United States Congress maintained a yearly purchase of up to fifty percent of the Cuban sugar crop while Cuba received preferential treatment, meaning reduced tariffs, on goods imported from the US (Balfour, 7). This tied the lifeblood of Cuban agriculture to the economic whims of their often-antagonistic neighbor. Castro saw this situation as greatly detrimental to Cuba, its farmers, and its people, and as such, it was one of the first problems he addressed.

Castro’s aim was to rid Cuba of foreign influence, a goal that he never fully met. For instance, the United States to this day maintains an active military base at Guantánamo Bay. But many of his first steps toward increased state control of production were direct challenges to US business interests. The socialist process of collectivization included confiscation and state take-over of businesses and land, especially those tied to foreign interests (Brenner, 67). In May 1960, Cuba expropriated the foreign-owned oil refineries, which prompted the US to cease its agreement to buy a large portion of the Cuban sugar crop. This put Castro in a precarious position. While he was moving forward with his program of reform and staying true to his stated aim of securing independence and complete national sovereignty for Cuba, Cuba was by no means self-sufficient and the loss of the US sugar quota threatened to destroy the base of the Cuban economy. Castro’s next move, expropriation of many more US-owned properties, prompted a trade embargo by the US that furthered animosity and ceased trade between the two nations.

Economic dependence on the United States was no more, but Castro soon realigned Cuba with another group – the established socialist and communist nations of Eastern Europe and Asia. The Soviet Union bought Cuban sugar, no longer committed to the US market, and Castro allied himself with the Soviets (Keen, 439). The USSR and Germany signed contracts with Cuba, agreeing to sell equipment and machinery that Cuba desperately needed for the process of rapid industrialization.

During the early 1960s, Cuba quickly lost its economic dependence on the United States, but any progress towards complete commercial freedom was subverted by the developing relationship with the Soviet Union. Cuba never became independent despite Castro’s progress in reforming Cuba’s economy and agricultural sector (Balfour, 68). Under the pressure of the economic embargo, Castro made the decision to take the necessary steps that gained him the support Cuba needed to survive these critical first years. In 1960 Castro declared his adherence to socialism and that the revolution was Marxist-Leninist (Balfour, 65). Castro made progress towards his goal of sovereignty. The Soviet Union, unlike the United States, was not hostile to the thought of an independent Cuba and was willing to defend Cuban interests. But the reality was that Cuba still depended upon the support of the world’s socialist nations for military and economic support (Balfour, 68).

Continued dependency was most evident during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when Castro found himself in the center of a conflict with Soviet-US tensions at their peak. The Soviet government had installed ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons and sent Soviet officers to the island with the ability to launch these missiles. The CIA discovered their presence and the US government quickly responded, threatening an invasion of Cuba. Castro wanted to strengthen Cuba’s position against the United States, but as the Soviet government capitulated to US demands to remove the missiles, he found himself relegated to a secondary role (Balfour, 68). Left out of the negotiations, Castro was upset with the Soviet leadership over what he saw as a betrayal and Cuban-Soviet relations entered a period of relative coolness. Cuba, ever striving for increased independence, remained subordinate to the actions of other nations. Despite these setbacks Castro had secured assurances that the Soviet Union supported Cuba despite the hostility of the United States (Balfour, 68). One of the worlds’ superpowers had nearly gone to war over Cuba’s right to defense, and no matter the outcome, this fact gave Castro some room.

Following the break from the United States and the quickly developing relationship and alliance with the Soviets, Castro encouraged a process that would further antagonize the US and would encourage further support from socialist countries. He aimed to create a socialist/communist party that would institutionalize his socialist doctrine into the very framework of Cuban politics and society. It was typical in fledgling socialist revolutions that the communist party would be a nucleus around which society would organize itself; Cuba’s situation was fairly unique considering a cohesive party came years after the revolutionary government ascended to power (Brenner, 156).

The development of what would become Cuba’s only political party was beset by troubles in its early years. Factionalism among the political groups of the time, primarily the student group Revolutionary Directorate, Castro’s 26th of July Movement, and the Popular Socialist, mired progress towards unification into a central party. Castro’s personal efforts to encourage the process along were absolutely essential, and even so, the party remained on the fringe in terms of development and coordination until the end of the 1960s (Brenner, 162). 1965 saw Cuba’s lone political party undergo the long-awaited name change from the United Party of the Socialist Revolution to the Communist Party of Cuba, yet the same problems continued to plague the party (Brenner, 165). However, beneath the conflict and lack of significant advancements was the laying of a groundwork that would carve out a place in the political framework for the party that by 1975, when it held its First Congress, was entrenched in Cuba’s administration, a permanent, powerful institution (Brenner, 167).

The establishment and institutionalization of the Communist Party was complete by February 1976, when a socialist constitution was ratified and Castro was elected President of Cuba (Keen, 444). Despite the internal adversity Cuba faced in the institutionalization of the party, Castro had succeeded in formalizing the socialist revolution, and this success propelled him to the international stage (Balfour, 113). Among the socialist nations, Cuba’s Communist Party offered legitimacy and Cuba saw itself become more internationally connected throughout the 1970s, largely due to Castro’s diplomatic skill (Balfour, 113). Cuba grew closely linked with the Soviet Union again, healing the rift caused by the Missile Crisis of 1962 (Balfour, 115).

Castro's policies and attitudes with respect to the United States set the tone for relations between Cuba and its powerful neighbor. National sovereignty and freedom from excessive foreign influence was an aim of Castro's towards which he continuously strove. Castro was able to separate the Cuban and United States economies, but the victory was an ideological one; Cuba was in a tenuous position after the start of the trade embargo. The continuous economic pressure from the US created problems for the Cuban economy and threatened Cuba's ability to survive, at times. To alleviate this pressure, Castro allied himself with the Soviet Union and the international socialist and communist community. This allowed Cuba to survive its economic crises, yet Cuba remained dependent upon others, as the Cuban Missile Crisis exposed Castro's relative lack of influence over foreign affairs, even when they related to Cuba, and efforts to become industrially self-sufficient failed. But Castro nevertheless succeeded in securing economic stability for Cuba through partnership with socialist nations.

Works Cited

- Alvarez, José. "Transformations in Cuban Agriculture after 1959." Electronic Data Information Source. July 2004. University of Florida.

-Art Monthly. "Castro." Photo. Friends of Ethiopia. 29 Nov 2006.

- Balfour, Sebastian. Castro. 3rd ed. Harlow: Pearson, 2009. Print.

- Brenner, Philip, et al., eds. The Cuba Reader: The Making of a Revolutionary Society. New York: Grove, 1989. Print.

- “Cuba and the Region, Selected Indicators.” Medical Education Cooperation With Cuba. 2006. MEDICC. 15 September 2009.

- Keen, Benjamin, and Keith Haynes. A History of Latin America. 7th ed. Boston: Houghton, 2004. Print.

- Lowe, Jeffery, Andrew Quirin, and Curtis Sidorski. "1st Agrarian Reform Law." The Cuban Revolution. 12 Feb. 03.

- Tanaka, Maki. "Agricultural Reform in Cuba Since 1959." Center for Latin American Studies. 11 Oct. 2005. University of California, Berkley.

- Walters, Mary Alice, and Martín Koppel. "Cuba's Land Reform: An Agrarian Revolution." The Militant. 07 June 1999.