Neocolonialism and Cuba

The structures of a neocolonial republic

      In my last commentary, I described the characteristics of neocolonialism, which the United States and the European ex-colonial powers attempt to obscure through a liberal democratic ideology and through presentation of themselves as exemplars and defenders of a democratic world order.  In the neocolonial situation, the core power interferes in the domestic affairs of the neocolony, ensuring that it will have an economic dependency on the exportation of cheap raw materials and that its markets will be open to core manufactured goods.  Raw materials exportation and openness to foreign products, combined with a weak domestic market resulting from low wages, result in limited possibilities for the development of industry and for economic and social development in general.  These dynamics create popular resistance and inherent political instability.  Today I would like to discuss the Cuban republic of 1902 to 1959 as an illustration of neocolonialism.

     The U.S. military intervention of 1898 resulted in Spain ceding Cuba to the United States, even though it was the Cuban revolutionary war of 1895-1898 that established the foundation for the Spanish defeat.  The death of the exceptional revolutionary leader and intellectual José Martí in battle in 1895 had the consequence that Cuban revolutionary leaders were ideological unprepared to respond to the challenge posed by U.S. neocolonial intentions.  The confusion and fragmentation among Cuban leaders were exploited by the United States during its military occupation of 1899-1902.  The supposedly independent Republic of Cuba was initiated on May 20, 1902, with the inauguration of an accommodationist pro-USA president. 

     Reflecting the neocolonial relation between Cuba and the United States, the 1902 Treaty of Reciprocal Commerce intensified the core-peripheral relation between Cuba and the USA, which actually had begun during the last two decades of Spanish colonial rule.  The treaty promoted the exportation of crude sugar and tobacco leaf to sugar refineries and tobacco factories in the United States.  And it reduced tariffs on U.S. manufactured goods, thus undermining the development of Cuban manufacturing.  During the first two decades, US commercial penetration of Cuba increased, such that by 1920, U.S. companies directly controlled 54% of Cuban sugar production, and U.S. ownership attained 80% of sugar exportation companies and mining industries. 

     In 1920, sugar prices crashed, leading to a further deterioration of social and economic conditions during the early 1920s.  A popular movement that integrated all sectors of the people emerged.  In the presidential elections of 1924, Gerardo Machado launched an unprecedented electoral campaign full of promises of reform.  Machado had extensive ties with U.S. financial interests and with large Spanish merchants in Cuba.  However, he had a plan to balance the interests of international capital and the national bourgeoisie with the demands of the people.  But his plan did not work.  His efforts to persuade sugar producing countries of their common interest in limiting production, in order to stabilize world prices, did not have results.  His imposition of tariffs to promote Cuban national industry was too limited, inasmuch as it was designed to not adversely affect U.S. industrial interests in Cuba.  As popular opposition grew, Machado turned to repression, with tactics that included assassinations and imprisonment.  In the popular consciousness, the candidate elected on a reformist platform had become a dictator. 

     In spite of the repression, the popular movement attained a renewed intensity in the period 1930-1933, led by the first Cuban Communist Party (which had been founded in 1925) and the National Worker Confederation of Cuba (a nationwide confederation of agricultural and industrial workers).  In August 1933, they organized a general strike (a strike of all workers in all economic sectors), demanding various social and economic reforms and the removal of Machado from power.  On August 12, high-ranking military officers rebelled and compelled Machado to resign.  The officers had been concerned by the possible triumph of a popular revolution, and they also had been fearful that the situation would provoke a U.S. military intervention, which could lead to the dissolution of the Cuban armed forces.

     Chaos ensued.  With the departure of Machado, U.S. ambassador Benjamin Sumner Welles maneuvered to establish a government that could frustrate the popular revolution.  He pressured the Cuban Congress to designate as president Carlos Manual de Céspedes, who had the support of the estate bourgeoisie, the moderate opposition to Machado, and the principal fascist organization (formed in 1931 by followers of Mussolini).  But having been named by the U.S. Ambassador, Céspedes lacked credibility among the people.  His government lasted three weeks.

      On September 4, a group of sergeants, corporals, and enlisted men seized control on the military barracks on the outskirts of Havana.  The action was supported by units of the army, navy, and police throughout the country, so that chiefs and officers were replaced sergeants, corporals, and enlisted men across the nation.  The non-commissioned officers and enlisted men, who came from the lower and working classes, were motivated by the disregard with which they were held by the officers, mostly of the middle and upper classes; and they did not like the repressive role to which they had been assigned during the Machado dictatorship.  With the participation of some students and professors, the revolting sergeants called themselves the Provisional Revolutionary Group of Cuba, and announced a program coinciding with that of the reformist opposition to Machado.  The group was composed of sixteen civilians, two ex-military men, and one military man in active service, namely, Sergeant Fulgencio Batista.  On September 5, the revolutionary group established a collective presidency of five persons, named the Pentateuch by the people.  Rendered dysfunctional by ideological divisions, the Pentateuch lasted five days. 

     On September 10, the Pentateuch dissolved, and Dr. Ramón Grau San Martín, a centrist member of the collective, was name President.  It had three ideological factions: a rightist faction led by Batista, who controlled the armed forces; a nationalist reformist element led by Grau and student leaders; and a revolutionary faction, led by Antonio Guiteras, who had led an armed struggle against Machado in the eastern and central provinces.  The Grau government was the only government in the history of the neocolonial republic that was not approved by the USA.  It enacted a number of progressive reforms, made possible through a tactical alliance between the reformist and revolutionary factions.  These measures included: regulations of the sugar industry that were favorable to small producers; suspension of debt payments contracted by Machado with the Chase National Bank; reduction in electricity rates; recognition of the right of workers to strike and form unions; a minimum wage; a limit to the working day; and rejection of U.S. interference in the affairs of Latin American nations. 

     The Grau government was not recognized by the USA; it lasted 100 days.  Beginning on the day of the sergeant’s revolt, U.S. ambassador Welles had been meeting regularly with Batista.  Welles was immediately impressed, and he quickly came to recognize the mulatto sergeant of humble origins as the best hope for an order consistent with U.S. interests.  As the Grau government fell increasingly under the influence of the revolutionary faction, Welles and his successor Jefferson Caffery lobbied for the replacement of Grau with Coronel Carlos Mendieta.  Under increasing pressure, Grau resigned on January 15, 1934, and Mendieta was installed as president on January 18.  Mendieta was a figurehead president; power was in the hands of Batista, who had control of the armed forces and the backing of the United States.  Cuban scholars would later call it a government that was “delivered by Caffery, directed by Batista, and represented by Mendieta.” 

     As the de facto head of state, Batista fully cooperated with U.S. interest in increasing access to Cuban markets of U.S. industrial and agricultural products.  The 1934 Reciprocal Agreement between the USA and Cuba intensified the core-peripheral relation from which Cuba had suffered beginning in colonial times, but now with the USA having displaced Spain as the core power.  By increasing the Cuban percentage of U.S. imports of sugar, the agreement strengthened the historic Cuban pattern of overdependency on sugar, such that sugar arrived to comprise four-fifths of Cuban exports.  In addition, the agreement deepened overall trade dependency on the USA; by the end of the 1930s, Cuban trade with the USA reached three-fourths of Cuban foreign commerce.

     Furthermore, the 1934 trade agreement, by further reducing tariffs on manufactured products proceeding from the USA to Cuba, failed to protect Cuban industry and to support the development of national industry.  The Cuban scholar Federico Chang notes that, in this respect, Cuba was different from other Latin American countries of the period, which had a “solidly defined policy of import-substitution,” seeking to develop national industry.  He notes that the Cuban oligarchy delivered “without reserve” the Cuban internal market, thus demonstrating its “complete subordination to the United States.”  Its “most abject servility” was revealed in its declarations that “praised the negotiations with the U.S. government as ‘beneficial for the country.’”  Similarly, Cuban scholar Francisco López Segrera maintains that the 1934 commercial agreement frustrated possibilities for industrial development, reinforcing the position of Cuba as a consumer of manufactured products and producer of sugar.  The agreement represented the mutual interests of U.S. imperialism and the Cuban sugar oligarchy.  It deepened the unequal core-peripheral economic relation between the USA and Cuba, thus exemplifying the process of neocolonialism.  

      Batista and his army held de facto political power during 1934 and 1935.  And in 1936 and 1937, Batista initiated reforms that were designed to institutionalize control of the society by the armed forces.  These included structures that empowered military personnel to appoint teachers, health care specialists, social workers, and administrators in rural areas.  The intention was to attain support from the rural population by making modest improvements in the rural standard of living, without empowering the people in the countryside.  With similar demagogy, an agrarian reform program was announced, but it was too limited to make a difference.  It did not benefit landless peasants nor peasants not tied to sugar production; nor did not it touch the large landholdings, which were the principal source of rural impoverishment.  

      Batista’s strategy had certain components often identified with fascism.  A populist rhetoric and alliance with rural folk, combined with economic and social programs in rural areas that provide some benefit, but do not approach economic or political empowerment.  In addition, repression of urban progressive organizations, especially the radical Left; and alliance with the national capitalist class.  And especially important in a neocolonial context, subordination to the interests of foreign capital.

     It goes from the unjust to the bizarre.  In December 1937, Batista took a progressive turn.  This move was orchestrated by, who else?, the USA.  The democratic opening was pushed by the emergence of fascism in Europe, which was giving rise to a global conflict between fascism and democracy.  In this context, the USA was obligated to push Cuba toward an image of full alliance with the democratic camp and as part of the global anti-fascist front.  In addition, in August 1937, Caffery was replaced by J. Butler Wright as U.S. ambassador to Cuba.  The latter paid attention to the interests of various sectors, not merely the games of Batista.  He discerned opposition from the Cuban oligarchy to Batista’s seizing control of institutions and functions that had previously pertained to the civilian sector.  And Wright was concerned about the strength of the popular movement and its implications for political instability.

     With U.S. encouragement, Batista initiated a series of reforms.  Some 3000 political prisoners were released.  Political and civil rights were restored.  The Communist Party was legalized.  And a constitutional assembly was convoked, which had long been a demand of the popular movement.

     Elections for delegates to the Constitutional Assembly were held on November 15, 1939, and they fully illustrated the ideological confusions and divisions of the nation.  Eleven parties nominated delegates, and they were grouped in two electoral blocs: the Democratic Socialist Coalition, headed by Batista; and the opposition bloc, led by the Authentic Revolutionary Party of Ramón Grau, the president during the independent and progressive “government of 100 days” of 1933.

     In this panorama, the Communist Party presented a challenging situation.  The reader should keep in mind that the Communist Party was highly respected among the people, because of its leadership role in the Revolution of 1930 to 1933, and because of the courage of its members in the face of persecution, including torture and assassination.  The Communist Party proposed incorporating itself into the Grau group.  But Grau, an anti-communist, refused.  On the other hand, the Batista coalition proposed the incorporation of the Communist Party and the inclusion of a popular program consistent with its advocacy.  Thus, it came to pass that the voters in the election of delegates to the Constitutional Assembly were presented with a confusing scenario: on the one hand, an opposition bloc headed by the well-known reformer and anti-communist Grau; and on the other hand, the bloc headed by the dictator Batista, who recently had been cultivating a democratic image and who now was allied with the Communist Party.  In the end, seventy-six delegates were elected: forty-one belonging to four parties of the opposition bloc headed by Grau; and thirty-five pertaining to the five parties of the Batista bloc, including six delegates from the Communist Party.

     The Constitutional Convention was convened on February 9, 1940.  With delegates of nine parties participating in the debates, and with all delegates free to voice their personal views, a wide variety of positions were expressed.  Three of the six delegates of the Communist Party provided important defenses of the rights of workers, peasants, and other popular sectors.  The new Constitution was approved by the Constitutional Convention on June 8, 1940, and it was signed in a formal ceremony held on July 1, 1940. 

     The Constitution of 1940 was a product of the advances in theory and in practice of the Cuban popular movement, and it was advanced for its time.  It recognized the full equality of all, regardless of race, color, sex, class, or similar social condition, and it affirmed the rights of women to vote and hold public office.  It included articles on the regulation of work, including the obligation of the Cuban state to provide employment, the establishment of a maximum workday of eight hours and a maximum workweek of forty-four hours, and the recognition of the right of workers to form unions.  It recognized the principle of state intervention in the economy, and it declared natural resources to be state property.  It prohibited large-scale landholdings, and it established restrictions on the possession of land by foreigners.  In short, it proposed taking steps that a neocolony is not permitted to take.  But the impressive historic document was a dead letter; successive governments ignored its statutes.  However, it was not forgotten.  It was recalled in the historic discourse of Fidel Castro on October 16, 1953, and many of its features were implemented after the triumph of the revolution in 1959.

     In accordance with the democratic opening, general elections were convoked in 1940.  Batista and Grau were the contenders for the presidency.  With the support of the alliance of the bourgeois parties and the Communist Party, Batista attained a solid victory, with 800,000 votes, as against 300,000 for Grau, in a total population of four and one-quarter million.  The election was accepted by all as clean and fair.  This turn to democracy occurred at a time in which economic conditions in Cuba were more favorable than they had been since prior to the “crash” of 1920.  World War II halted sugar production in many countries, provoking an increase in sugar prices that, even though still low relative to manufactured goods, was important for the Cuban economy.  At the same time, the war disrupted the flow of US manufactured goods to Cuba, creating possibilities for Cuban national industry.  Accordingly, neocolonialism in Cuba was moving toward its full expression: superexploitation of Cuban labor; core access to sugar at low prices; core access to needed world markets for surplus manufactured goods; a degree of economic space for national industry, without contradicting the interests of international capital; the channeling of popular movements in a reformist direction; the appearance of democracy through elections; and a level of political space for a political class centered around the military leadership, headed by Batista, which had a cooperative relation with the U.S. government.  In the words of the Cuban scholar Jesus Arboleya, Cuba had arrived to be a “perfect neocolonial system.”

     However, economic conditions in the neocolonial situation cannot be good for long.  In the period 1940-1944, unemployment in some sectors and an increase in the cost of living had significant negative repercussions for the people, generating popular discontent with the Batista government.  Grau emerged as the “great hope” of the people, and he won the elections of 1944.  He could not possibly have delivered on his vague and sometimes contradictory promises of reform, without infringing on the interests of the national bourgeoisie and foreign capital, who were the backers of Grau’s Authentic Cuban Revolutionary Party. 

     Although reform found no space in the Grau government, corruption did.  The Grau government created new forms of plundering the public treasury, surpassing what had been previously established by Machado and Batista.  The Italian-American mafia in the USA, which had entered Cuba in the 1920s and had concluded lucrative agreements with Batista, found a new partner in Grau’s Authentic Party.  This arrival of hope to corruption was profoundly disheartening to the people.

     More of the same in 1948.  Carlos Prío Socarrás had impressive reformist credentials dating to his participation in the government of 100 days of 1933.  However, he too promised reform and delivered corruption.

     How long would this go on?  In the 1952 elections, yet another party promising reform, the Orthodox Party of the Cuban People, was denouncing the corruption of the system and promising reform.  But this time there was a difference.  The Orthodox Party sometimes gave the impression that it was serious about changing things.  There appeared to be emerging a new generation with a greater determination to implement the vision of Martí.  One of their candidates for the Congress was a principled young lawyer who defended the poor, Fidel Castro.

      But Batista put a stop to it.  On March 10, 1952, the former dictator carried out a coup d’état, shortly before the presidential elections.  The chiefs of the army and the police were replaced with the military officers who had been involved in the coup.  The Congress was dissolved.  The Constitution of 1940 was abolished.  The presidential elections of 1952 were canceled.  The neocolonial Republic of Cuba was no longer so perfect.

     The story of Cuba from 1902 to 1959 illustrates the neocolonial reality: the persistent interferences of the neocolonial power in the internal affairs of the supposedly independent nation, with the intention of preserving the core-peripheral economic relation that serves its interests.  This core-peripheral relation promotes the impoverishment of the people, thus giving rise to popular resistance and political instability.

      In its persistent interference in the internal affairs of Cuba, the USA is driven by its interests in the context of the capitalist world-economy, by its imperialist interest in access to cheap raw materials and labor and to markets for its surplus manufactured goods. This imperialist drive has negative social and economic consequences for Cuba, whose economic development and political process is distorted, leaving it unable to mobilize resources to promote a more autonomous form of economic development, more responsive to the need of the people.  As is logical, the people cannot accept this situation; the people resist, with the result being a permanent condition of social conflict and political instability.

     The Cuban Revolution that triumphed in 1959 took definitive form in the 1950s.  Emerging in the context of the neocolonial situation, it discerned the contradictions of the neocolonial world-system; and it was able to see the necessary steps toward a more sovereign road and toward emancipation from the economic, political, and ideological limitations established by the neocolonial context.  I will explore this phenomenon in my next commentary.

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Preface - April 6, 2021


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