Backward and in high heels

Fred Astaire was a great dancer, but Ginger Rogers did everything he did backward and in high heels. Did Ginger Rogers say that? Nope – it originated in the funny papers, specifically Frank and Ernest by Bob Thaves.

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about. Backward and in high heels? That’s nothing. I’d insert Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” here, but we’ve been there and done that. We’re here to talk about Cuba. But don’t let me stop you from going and watching it again.

I finally finished Helen Yaffe’s ¨Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution¨ [Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2009] Yaffe is a professor at the London School of Economics and her book, while dense, is fascinating.

We tend to think of Cuba in general, and Che in particular, in one of two ways: as the devil incarnate or as the romantic revolutionary. Everyone knows the iconic image of Che in a beret. It appears on t-shirts and posters the world over. Cuba is such a threat that the US has tried to overthrow its government for more than 60 years. We blockaded and mined harbors, sabotaged, propagandized, bombed, attempted to assassinate, and continue an embargo against the country. We came to the brink of nuclear war – a WW III that truly would have been “the war to end all wars.” We murdered Che and displayed his body to the world as an example. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

In the 1950s the Cuban economy was based on sugar and gambling. The Mafia controlled gambling (and therefore the hotels, casinos, restaurants, bars, and ancillary activities). US corporations controlled the sugar. Unemployment was deliberately kept high to have a ready workforce for the sugar harvest. When US corporations and the Mafia left for greener pastures, there was work to be done.

We romanticize revolution when we don’t demonize it. Che was the dashing figure who aided liberation movements in Cuba, the Congo, and Bolivia…or else he was the Soviet tool who exported revolution. We think about revolution as a war, not about building a new society when the war is over (or in this case becomes a one-sided cold war).

Building a new society

Yaffe paints Guevara as the architect of the Cuban economy. It is one thing to win a revolutionary war. It is another to build a revolutionary society. When Castro marched into Havana on January 1, 1959, Cuba was an illiterate society. Rural electrification had not yet arrived. The Industrial Revolution had passed it by. They grew sugar and entertained the idle rich. There was no other economy. Everything came across that short stretch of sea from Miami – raw materials, spare parts, consumer goods, and dollars. The technical and managerial class that operated the Cuban economy worked for US-owned companies so, after the revolution, most of them followed their jobs to the US.

The US embargo meant that no US company could trade with Cuba. That wasn’t enough for the US. No company that traded with the US could trade with Cuba. That left the Soviet bloc. Eventually that’s where Cuba turned for help.

Cuba was left to build a country with one hand tied behind its back, as well as backward and in high heels. First on the agenda was to find new markets for sugar. Sugar was all they had (except for cigars, which Yaffe never mentions). [I once met a man from Switzerland. On his last evening in the US, the Cuban embargo came up in discussion. He could not believe such a thing existed. I mentioned that Cuban cigars are contraband in the US. A few days later, a small package arrived in the mail from Switzerland. It contained cigars. We burned them to destroy the evidence so, if you bring this up, I will deny it.] All Cuban sugar had been sold to the US and the US was no longer buying. Next up was to diversify the economy. After early attempts at diversification, Che recognized that sugar would be the basis of the economy for the foreseeable future. He developed labs to explore ways to add value to sugar. Sugar contains lots of carbon, the building block of organic chemistry, so they looked to developing chemical and biotech industries based on sugar extractives.

After working in the cane fields himself, Che made it a priority to mechanize the harvest. Workers in the 50s had opposed mechanization, as the harvest was the only reliable work they had. After experiencing that life first-hand, Guevara moved to create new and more meaningful work while developing machinery for the back-breaking labor of cutting cane.

Sugar required machinery for processing. Spare parts came from the US in a day or two until 1959. Now Cuba had to build factories and train engineers and machinists to fabricate spare parts. (You don’t think all of those gorgeous 1950s US cars are still running on original parts, do you?)

Image from Cigar Aficionado

But how to fabricate parts when you don’t have raw materials? So Cuba developed a mining industry, finding that it had a rich lode of nickel. Then it needed to refine minerals and build machines to fabricate parts. Oil comes in handy when you’re trying to develop industry, so they dug wells and built refineries.

Che was already thinking about computerizing industry in the 60s. But where to get computers? By 1970 Cuba had designed and built its first computer, with home-grown software.

Rural electrification was no easy task when the Soviet electrical system worked on different parameters than the Cuban system. That either meant changing the entire Cuban system or adapting everything that came from eastern Europe. They chose to keep their system and adapt machinery.

Factories needed managers. With most of the population illiterate and the managers all in the US, that sometimes required putting teens in charge of factories, as they were the readers. It also entailed a massive educational/literacy program. The engineers who remained had to work well beyond their areas of expertise. Che, as the head of the Ministry of Industries (MININD), had to learn fast. He hired a math professor to tutor him in calculus in his ¨spare time¨.


In the midst of all this, they were working to develop a democratically-controlled economy, and to redefine work. What does it mean to be human? Is our value in our work? In our consumption? Or is intrinsic to us? Che worked to clarify these distinctions; to work toward a society that met all basic needs, that minimized the use of cash, and that valued work as our social commitment to each other, not as the thing that gave us value as humans. He didn’t want to see people work to “get ahead”, to have more than the next person, but to build what we need to live together. And to do that in a country that was falling apart.

Yaffe assembles this story from countless interviews, poring over meeting notes, reviewing the official record. It all sounds overwhelming. But Che was not without a sense of humor. A Cuban engineer relates this Che joke:

A Cuban worker goes to see the Secretary of the Party to say that he wants to become a member. “Well, to be a party militant you have to be an example at work. That means working 12, 18, or 20 hours a day.¨
“So many hours a day?”, asks the worker, alarmed.
“Yes, and that includes Saturdays and Sundays”, informs the secretary.
“As well?”
“Yes, and no vacations”, adds the secretary.
“Neither. What’s more, you have to be faithful in your married life, no going around with women.”
“Not one exception?”
“None. Also, you have to stop having a little drink after work.”
“Not even a little drink to celebrate something?”, begs the worker, going crazy.
“No. And the most important thing: you have to be prepared to give your life for the country.”
“Now that is no problem.”
“Why not?”, asks the secretary curiously.
“Well, after the lousy life I’m going to lead…”

Sàenz, “El Che Ministro: Testimonio de un colaborador” 2006, cited by Yaffe.

Che emphasized the concept of “voluntary work”. After the guerilla war, he returned with his troops to the Sierra Maestra, their base, to build a school. They worked on the cane harvest, built a nursery, and assisted in the literacy campaign. As this rolled out to society, based on their example, new med school graduates spent two years in the rural health service and students on scholarship spent their vacations in the fields.

They developed the CILO (Committees for Local Industry) as a means of collective problem-solving: “Self-management is a measure to prepare the conditions for raising consciousness, creating what is the base for communism: work as a social necessity; not work as an obligation, as a precondition for eating.” (Guevara, 1962, from Bimonthly meetings)

In his quest for workplace safety, he called human beings both the means and the ends of socialism and communism. Production has to serve humanity, not the other way around. He campaigned for improved ventilation and toilet facilities in factories, stating “we must…carry out investments that ensure hygiene and safety at work.”

Che spoke of incentives, and wanting to replace material incentives so people didn’t think about work and money together. He developed the concept of “socialist emulation”, sort of like a friendly wager among friends, as a way to encourage effort with low-stress competition. The rewards were symbolic and non-material. One example given was getting to sit with Fidel at a public event (sort of what the US does with special guests at the State of the Union address).

Yaffe describes two centers – one for “rehabilitation” and one for “recuperation”. The former was for administrators whose on-the-job failings stemmed, at least in part, from their privileged backgrounds. They were offered a choice of a rehab stint doing construction work, or giving up their administrative posts. They had to travel to the camp for their “sentence” on their own, so it was voluntary. They could just not show up.

The recuperation center was to deal with worker burnout. Beach resorts were used for R&R and a team of psychologists and social workers were sent to assess workplaces which had higher than usual burnout or turnover, in order to fix the workplace, not the worker (which was my original aim in becoming an occupational therapist and why I considered a career in human factors engineering).

Che talked about the mindset needed to be an administrator: “To have absolute control of your character, voice, and gestures at every moment and especially during discussions or delicate situations…Always be sincere, be that in praise, reprimand, or recommendations. Remember that all humankind, regardless of educational level, has the innate ability to detect insincerity…”


At the time of his death, Guevara was at work on a critique of the Soviet Union. While it was neither completed nor published, Yaffe gained access to his notes. As Cuba was receiving significant aid from the Soviet Union, publication, if it were ever intended, would likely have been in the distant future. Biting the hand that feeds you, you know.

Guevara critiqued the New Economic Policy of Lenin and indicated that, without a change in policy, the USSR was headed toward capitalism. He predicted the collapse of the USSR about 20 years in advance. He criticized the collective farms of the USSR, asking “what is a co-operative?” His answer: “if it is considered as a grouping of producers, owners of their means of production, it is an advance in contrast to capitalism. But in socialism it is a setback, as it places these groupings in opposition to society’s ownership of the other means of production.”

He regarded the co-operative as “a pre-socialist category, of the first period of transition, [and] not a socialist form.” In the United States, while one in three people belong to co-operatives, they are often derided as a form of socialism. E.R. Bowen of the Co-operative League of the USA (CLUSA), posited three possible paths out of feudalism. [Graphic adapted from Courtney Berner]

In Bowen’s view (echoed by Wendall Kramer in his book “Choose Life: Survival through co-operation” [1984, Third Wave Association]), co-operatives are a third way, neither capitalist nor socialist, and the only road to economic freedom. Bowen indicates that it is within the state’s power to choose one of the three roads.

Bowen is pretty tough in his critique, stating that communism will lead to equality of poverty and capitalism will lead inevitably to monopoly; that we have the choice of state control of the economy or oligopolistic control of the economy unless we choose the third way. While he wrote this 80 years ago, history appears to bear him out so far.

Socialism in one country?

Much has been written about the contradiction of building socialism in the context of a world-wide market economy. Guevara asserts that capitalism will not give up voluntarily and that revolution is the first necessary step, followed by an evolutionary transformation from socialism to communism (when people and work are no longer commodities and society follows the rule “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”). With the world economy dominated by the US, and the US dominated by an oligopoly headed by non-human “persons” (accorded rights like real people) all experiments appear to be doomed to failure. All of Che’s economic accomplishments occurred between 1959 and 1965, when he left his position in the Cuban government. How would Cuba be different today had he stayed (or survived to return) to implement his ideas more fully? Is it even possible for the system he nurtured to survive in an island nation under embargo? Are there economic thinkers in Cuba able to build on Che’s theories and practice? The history since Che’s departure has been one of a back and forth struggle, reminiscent of the “great debate” during his lifetime.

[adapted from Yaffe] Among Guevara’s economic innovations in his Budgetary Finance System, as differentiated from the Soviet Auto-Finance System, were that:

  • “the socialist economy functions as one big factory”. That is, money does not change hands within the economy. While each enterprise functions with a budget, all actual money is centrally controlled.
  • education, training, and salary structures foster a concept of work as social duty, decommodifying labor by gradually cutting the link between work and remuneration
  • advanced technology should be adapted from capitalist corporations without fear of “ideological contamination”
  • flexibility is necessary in decentralizing without losing control and centralizing without curbing initiative [emphasis added]
  • transforming production for exchange value into production for use value [emphasis added]
  • the need to create forums for criticism and open debate, being determined to get at the root of problems in order to solve them. Leaders must be responsible and accountable.

Many have belittled Cuba’s accomplishments as totally dependent on the Soviet Union. [Since Yaffe focused on the economy, the remarkable Cuban health care system is not part of this discussion.] US economist Andrew Zimbalist retorts, “First…the magnitude of this aid is vastly overstated by false methodology. Second, even if the exaggerated figures were accepted, on a per-capita basis Cuba would still be getting less in CMEA [Council for Mutual Economic Assistance] aid than many other Latin American countries receive in Western aid. Third, if one is attempting to disentangle the sources of Cuban growth and to isolate its domestic and foreign components, it is hardly sufficient to consider only the beneficial effects of Soviet aid. One must also consider the monumental and ongoing costs to Cuba of the US blockade.” [The Cuban Economy: Measurement and Analysis of Socialist Performance, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (1989)]