Authors: Enrique Krauze
The chroniclers of the Cuban Revolution all stress Che's recurrent struggle during his time in the Sierra Maestra with severe attacks of asthma. An old peasant woman describes one of them: “He didn't move, he was breathing deep .Â .Â . it was painful to see a man that way who was so strong, so young, but he didn't like pity.” It was action he wanted, the discharge of adrenaline that would compensate for his condition. Raging Serna on the rugby fields became the comandante in the Sierra Maestra, putting himself boldly in the way of death (or dealing it out): “I have discovered that gunpowder is the only thing that relieves my asthma.” He would always have something of the adolescent about himâas did the ideals of the 1960s. He was always, in the phrase used by Jorge CastaÃ±eda, “escaping toward what lay ahead.” And he was always ill at ease (like the spirit of his age) with doubts and ambiguities, with the essentially uncertain nature of reality.
The Cuban victors believed that their moment of glory would last forever. They would build a just Cuba, autonomous, prosperous, proud, free, egalitarian. And in the abstract formulation of these ideas, Che went beyond his comradesâbeyond Castro himself, who always maintained a far sharper and more harshly pragmatic sense of political reality. Victory transfigured Guevara, indelibly impressing the features of a personal (and incurable) dogmatism immune to any refutation by reality: an absolute conviction of the superiority of the socialist worldâespecially (at first) the Soviet Unionâas opposed to the West; an almost theological hatred of Yankee imperialism, of “bourgeois democracy, houses of parliament”; a belief that the Cuban revolutionary experience could be exported to Latin America and the Third World in general; a total faith in the power of his will; an intolerance for complexity or ambivalence in action and ideas.
Raging Serna would try to create a utopia by implementing, in total purity, the principles in which he believed: immediate and total agrarian reform, nationalization of the economy, bureaucratic centralization, the eventual abolition of monetary transactions, moral rather than material incentives to increased production, and so on. He felt absolutely convinced that Cuba could attract unqualified and unconditional support from the countries of the communist bloc, in order to build a great industrial power in the Caribbean.
From the early days of the revolutionary victory, Guevara began to show a harsher side of the new man forged in war. The Cuban Revolution, freshly in power, officially executed hundreds of people accused of being war criminals during the Batista regime. And in the prison of La CabaÃ±a, Che figured as the “supreme prosecutor.” Reports differ on the degree of his personal ferocity and the fairness of his decisions, not as a trial judge (a role he did not fill) but as a final voice on the verdicts. Anderson notes: “There was little overt public opposition to the workings of revolutionary justice. On the contrary. Batista's thugs had committed some sickening crimes and the Cuban public was in a lynching mood.” But in responding to this tide of opinion, the Revolution disappointed some of its sincere partisans, who felt that the victors should be more magnanimous than the murderous regime that it had overthrown. Guevara soon became involved with unquestionably dark aspects of the Cuban revolutionary state: the efficient apparatus of its security system (which had to face genuine exterior threats but moved steadily in a more and more authoritarian direction) and the repression of freedom of thought in the press and in university life. In Guanahacabibes, he would create Cuba's first labor camp, for the internment of those who, as described in his own words, “have committed transgressions of revolutionary morality to a greater or lesser degree .Â .Â . as a kind of reeducation through work .Â .Â . hard work not bestial work.” But among those sent then and later to the camps were homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses (whose religion forbade them to serve in the army or swear allegiance to the state), beggars, dissidentsâall those who seemed to diminish the image of a healthy, strong, and popular revolution.
Che Guevara liked to tell a joke about himself that, with variations, ran as follows: Fidel has already decided who would be minister of defense. Clearly it should be his brother RaÃºl. But there is the question of the economy. Who should take charge of the economy? He calls the leaders of his movement to a meeting and asks, “Is anybody here an economist?” A hand goes up. It's El Che. He is immediately put at the head of the Cuban economy. Once in office, someone asks him about the specifics of his economic knowledge. “Economist?” Che answers. “I thought Fidel said communist!”
Most of Che's biographers (and reports from some of those who worked with him) agree that he was not prepared for the responsibility he was given over the economy. Che did a stint as the director of the National Bank of Cuba and flamboyantly signed its banknotes with a mere “Che.” He ran the bank in a military style and drove off almost the entire administrative corps (and some kept going all the way out of the country). An anecdote, this one not a joke, comes from the former president of the National Bank of Cuba, Salvador Vilaseca:
When he was named President of the Bank, he called a friend to ask him to work with him on a matter of importance to that institution. The friend, afraid of the responsibility, indicated to him that he did not believe he had the qualifications to take on that responsibility, since he knew nothing of banking, to which Che answered, “I don't know anything about it either and I'm the President.”
The biographers contend that El Cheâthough he was an avid readerâdid not understand what he had gotten himself into, and that his knowledge of economics consisted of only a few (often confused) ideas. Jorge CastaÃ±eda, in
CompaÃ±ero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara,
details the disasters of Cuban economic policy as it was managed (to a considerable degree) by Guevara. He stresses the general economic inexperience of the revolutionaries, the loss of technical expertise as the middle classes fled into exile, the scarcity of resources due to the American embargo, the “administrative chaos” that every revolution brings in its wake.
Later, as minister of industry at the head of 287 enterprises of every sort (sugar, telephones, electricity producers, construction companies, publishing houses, even chocolate factories), Guevara put into practice methods that had proved disastrous during the period of “war communism” in the Soviet Union (1918â21). Of course some of the atmosphere (for Cuba the continuing American military threat) and the objectives (developing the means needed to resist foreign aggression) were similar. But so were the results. Che tried to create heavy industry and to implement methods that would “organize and micromanage everything,” says CastaÃ±eda, “regardless of the damage done by similar efforts in the USSR and socialist countries.” Guevara did not know the basic history of the Soviet Union, the nation that he so ardently admired. His economic policies contributed to driving the Cuban economy into an unsustainable deficit, into chronic scarcities and the rationing of essential supplies. But for years to come, the Russian subsidies would mask at least some of these structural flaws.
The Czechoslovakian economist Valtr KomÃ¡rek (he would later become the first vice president of postcommunist Czechoslovakia) worked directly with Guevara as an economic advisor during intensely active periods of 1964 and 1965. In his memoirs, he says that Guevara's outlook was Marxist but “he knew a great deal about the American economy” and that (at least by then) he could not convince himself that the efforts of the communist bloc could ever compete with the market economy of the capitalist countries: “Look, KomÃ¡rek, the socialist economy is garbage, not an economy.” And KomÃ¡rek goes on from there to report on the conclusion Che drew from his opinion: “Look, the only chance for socialism rests on its moral values, we have to talk about moral incentives, about human life.” The statement is pure Che. In a conversation with French agronomist RenÃ© Dumont, mentioned by Thomas, Che said that his aim was to give workers “a sense of responsibility,” not of property, and he was also already critical of the Soviet Union's new emphasis on material encouragement for hard work. He refused to participate in the creation of a “second North American society.”
The United States was the primary customer for Cuba's sugar, its main agricultural product. “I just hope to Christ the United States doesn't cut the sugar quota .Â .Â . it would make Cuba a gift to the Russians,” said Hemingway shortly before Eisenhower cut Cuba's sugar quota. But the truth is that the Cuban connection with the communist bloc was by then irreversible. When the tensions between Cuba and the United States began to sharpen in the spring of 1960, the revolutionary government had already signed a series of agreements with the Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and other communist countries, at the suggestion of (among others) Che Guevara. And the Cuban state had begun to absorb large businesses and the means of communication, without paying any indemnities. It was in the summer of 1960 that the Eisenhower government sharply reduced the sugar quota, convinced that the Cubans were forming an alliance with Russia, heralded by a trade agreement already reached with the Soviets on the sale of sugar. Fidel Castro then demanded that the Cuban-based American refineries process sugar for delivery to Russia. They naturally refused. In response, on July 6, 1960, the Cuban government issued Law No. 851, authorizing the expropriation of assets and enterprises belonging to American citizens without any payment of indemnities. Anastas Mikoyan, deputy premier of the Soviet Union, brought his country to the rescue of the Cuban sugar industry. The agreement would send 425,000 tons to Russia in 1960, then a million per year until 1965, as well as providing technical assistance for the projected industrial transformation and credit for a billion dollars. The die was cast. The country was now locked into monoculture to sweeten the teacups of another giant patron.
The most surprising thing about this decision was that the revolutionary government, from the beginning, had been aware that Cuba needed to reduce its dependence on the sugar industry, because other sugar-producing countries, like Brazil and Australia, were now in a position to compete for a share of the lucrative American market. And American internal production was also increasing. Che was correct when he said that the American quota was “an instrument of imperialist oppression,” but the solution was not monoculture at the service of another empire. What the country required was a rational diversification responsive to the market. Carlos Franqui was the chief editor of the government newspaper
and would later become one of the most respected Cuban dissidents. In his Family Portrait with Fidel (
Retrato de familia con Fidel
) of 1981, he writes:
The Cuban cattle industry .Â .Â . supplied milk and meat for national consumption. Cuba imports forty million dollars worth of fats, when her soil can produce peanuts, castor, sunflowers. It can produce grains, potatoes, bananas .Â .Â . fruits and vegetables. It can increase its rice and cotton production. Export coffee and tobacco.
It never happened, because the government merely substituted one buyer for another and became utterly dependent on the high prices (above market value) offered by the Russians. The subsidies were very generous but they were artificial, since the world price of sugar had begun to steadily decline. The movement in Cuba toward centralization and Soviet-style measures was obviously furthered by the continually growing economic, protective, and even physical importance of the Russians. Between 1961 and 1962, foreign aid from the communist countries for Cuba was worth $570 million, clear evidence that the Cuban economic project was running poorly on its own. The country would increase its sugar production, to 8 million tons per year, a huge portion of it sent off to the Soviet market. In 1990, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, 90 percent of Cuban exports consisted of sugar. Along with the Soviet Union, the Cuban sugar industry crumbled. And it has never been able to recover.
Under American influence (and the heritage of a slave economy), Cuba had been a racist society. A major source of loyalty for the revolutionary regime was the promise (and substantial achievement) of ethnic liberation, raising the status of the
and Cuba's large black underclass. On May 7, 1959, an economic step was taken, long championed by Guevara, for the benefit of the entire peasantry. Agrarian reform decreed the expropriation of large estates (many of them American owned) to be divided and distributed among the peasants. “Today,” said Che, “the death certificate has been signed for the great estates. Never did I think I would be able to place my name with such pride and satisfaction on the necrological document of a patient I had tried to heal.” Agro-industrial enterprises were exempted from the law and former landowners were to receive payment (including interest). The law was almost universally applauded and not rejected even by the American government. The Eisenhower administration, in a formal response from the State Department on June 11, recognized the Cuban right to expropriate large estates, including those owned by American companies like United Fruit. But it demanded that the indemnities should not merely be promised but paid. The first new deeds of ownership were distributed to peasants, beginning on December 9, in public ceremonies where names were read out and greeted with shouts of joy. But almost immediately, under communist inspiration, pressure mounted for collectivizationâthe creation of cooperative farms. The Second Reform Law and Second Declaration of Havana in 1961 instituted forced collectivization of the land, though in contrast to almost all other aspects of the economy, it was never complete. Anderson notes:
Despite the large-scale expropriations, much of Cuba's cultivated land remained in the hands of small farmers, who continued to till their plots without hindrance from the state. In 1963, a new bill reduced the size of private landholdings still further, but the revolution never completely eradicated its fiercely independent